The Secret History Donna Tartt

April 4, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Posted in Award winners, Middle Weight Fiction, Popular Fiction, The Secret History | 1 Comment
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secret_history_penguin1

It is understandable how Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ became a long-term bestseller and conquered a place in so many book lovers hearts. The story centered on a group of young bright affluent students at an exclusive Vermont College in the 1980’s roaming wild and burning through money is exceptionally engaging .and compulsively addictive.

The young group is composed of a variety of apparently sympathetic characters Richard who, unlike his peers, is on a scholarship to the exclusive college and is at great pains to conceal his blue-collar roots, twins Camilla and Charles known for their manners and gentle ways, Henry the emergent leader of the group remarkable for his adaptability to changes in circumstance and ability to mix easily with all sorts of people and also Francis and Bunny who enjoy all life has to offer with great self-assurance. What the characters all have in common is that they are all students of the charismatic erudite Professor  Julian  Morrow who teaches them Classics exclusively to a level of detail and reverence far above the academic norm.

Inspired deeply by their passionate teacher a few members of the group perform a Dionysian rite one night (a rite designed to work the worshiper into a state of ecstasy in order to feel the power of the gods through wine, dancing and often sexual expression) but the rite has truly gross consequences for the group which go on to drive the plot to even wilder and darker places and the death of Bunny Corcoran (whose death is revealed to the reader in the first line of the novel). the-rites-of-dionysus

Do not look for redemption, regret or guilty melancholy from this group, as a reader the novel demands that one must think much bigger when it comes to this motley crew and contemplate openly Donna Tartt’s brilliant subtle suggestions that Henry may himself be the devil incarnate and that in this existential world absolutely anything is possible once you have the nerve and stomach for it.

The plot is set in the familiar routines of college life against the rich dripping backdrop of the classical world of Greek and Latin language, prose and poetry. Donna Tartt’s prose is just so accomplished that at times it feels like God himself has lifted the telephone to call you personally and reveal some select mysteries of the world;

‘…there was never any doubt that he (Henry) did not wish to see us in our entirety, or see us, in fact, in anything other that the magnificent roles he had invented for us: genis gratus, corpore glabellus, arte multiscius, et fortuna opulentus – smooth cheeked, soft-skinned, well-educated, and rich. It was his odd blindness, I think, to all problems of a personal nature which made him able at the end to transmute even Bunny’s highly substantive troubles into spiritual ones.’

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The novel in haiku; murderous thoughts fly, money and nerve conquer all, but it takes just one

‘The Woman Upstairs’ vs. ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’

November 10, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Posted in Great for Book Clubs, Instructions for a Heatwave, Middle Weight Fiction, The Woman Upstairs | 3 Comments
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‘The Woman Upstairs’ vs. ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’

I love both Claire Messud and Maggie O’Farrell. They are both accomplished, polished storytellers and professionals of emotionally awakening prose. In 2006 Claire Messud’s ‘The Emperors Children’ moved me in a way no other piece of literature had. And in 2005 I sacrificed much sleep in reading Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘The Distance Between us’.

‘The Woman Upstairs’                                                             Image

‘The Woman Upstairs’ deals with a very interesting and perhaps under-explored topic that of a woman’s disillusion with her place in the world and the crushing binds of familial duty.

Women are expected to be good and nice and ‘The Woman Upstairs’ shows this to be a perennial and generation busting expectation even in the 21st Century. But most importantly ‘The Woman Upstairs’ deals with the unapologetic and growing anger a woman feels when she finds the time to think broadly about her life in this context.

Messud’s leading heroine Nora Eldridge is mad as hell when we first meet her;

‘How angry am I? You don’t want to know.’

Nora desired to be a fine artist but was counseled by her parents to become a teacher instead and have a stable career. Familial circumstances then caused her to devote much time to taking care of her terminally ill mother and then  her aging father to the detriment of her own life and dreams. These limits in her life caused her to develop feelings of self-doubt and cowardice that prevented her from living fully and without fear.

A new young pupil in Nora’s elementary school brings into her life an exotic and beautiful family of Lebanese origin. True scholars and artists they bring Nora into their glamorous life of culture and freedom. Nora at lasts tastes the life she has always dreamed of but quickly becomes precariously close with each member of the family as they become for her the family she never had.

The prose and plot is not perhaps as captivating as that of ‘The Emperors Children’ but this novel is just as important as it asks in every chapter questions about a woman’s place in the world, it questions the real and unrealistic expectations of a woman and looks at the importance of a woman’s relationship with herself.

    ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’                              Image

Set in London during the heatwave of 1976 ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ is a novel based around a family of five whose patriarch tells his wife he is popping out for a newspaper and never comes back.

This brings the three adult children back together to their family home as the search for the AWOL father gets underway. In close proximity to each other the children’s own problems and life situations leak out and brew all hot summer long. As we learn about the human problems each adult child faces the novel becomes a great depiction of a real family facing down difficult marriages, lost dreams, unplanned pregnancies and the worst parts of their personalities hotting up under the pressure of the heatwave.

The reader never assumes one member of the family could have a known explanation for the fathers leaving or that the intimacy of this secret could bring the family closer together. One of Maggie O’Farrell’s greatest traits as an author is to find intimacy in unusual places; in explosive secrets, in geographical distances or in different life choices and how they can help one to appreciate another. Set against the raging summer heat the secrets of the novel cook to boiling point and perhaps like a full moon the characters are unusually affected by the unrelenting high temperature of the summer of 1976.

Maggie O’Farrell’s novels love to suggest that families and marriages are not always as they seem and that secrets may often be at their best when revealed. This latest novel does just that and is a delicious and rapturous addition to her catalogue.

Haiku; The woman upstairs, finds herself in the heatwave, with no more secrets

No Solace here

October 9, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Posted in Middle Weight Fiction, Solace | Leave a comment
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Belinda McKeon ‘Solace’ Picador 2011

I really like Belinda McKeon, she has written eloquently for the Irish Times for many years, has curated the DLR Poetry Now Festival and I always enjoyed her keen observations and contributions on ‘The View ‘ . I waited in anticipation for the release of her long promised debut novel but am so sorry to report I was so disappointed with  ‘Solace’.

‘Solace’  has a highly unoriginal plot of a thirty year old Irish man cutting ties the family farm to pursue his studies in the capital city where he manges to fall for the daughter of his fathers only enemy from back home with ‘devastating consequences’. The story itself places restraints on the writing, it does not act as a vehicle for any new or innovative message or emotional evocation, family dynamics are well enough documented in McKeon’s prose but are drowned in a narrative that fails its author’s ability  and although the story is tense there is little sense of tension created in the writing.

This is one occasion where I wish I was wrong, this is a light not a literary story with uninspiring narrative progression and slow character development, actually by the novels end I couldn’t see that the main character was changed by any of his experiences at all. If McKeon wanted to evoke life outside the Country’s capital in this story it is a flat attempt whereas Kevin Barry’s short stories ‘There are Little Kingdoms’ evoke  this tenderly.

I am confident of McKeon’s abilities and look forward to future more assured writing. When I expressed my disappointment to family and friends they were very surprised having read luminous reviews in much national media which is correct this debut novel has been in critical reviews very well received however looking deeper into readers reviews online they were in contradiction collectively critical and disappointed with what was poised to be a sparkling debut.

Below are some links to various reviews of Solace to add to this debate.

Good Reads

Independent.ie

Independent.co.uk

Rocksbackpagesblogs.com  

Freedom comes in Time

April 14, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Freedom, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | Leave a comment
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Jonathan Franzen ‘Freedom’ Macmillan, August 2010

The American middle class has been deconstructed and it is fantastic. Believe what you hear about this book Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ is a truly great state-of-the-nation, deconstruction of our times,  polemic epic of a novel.

The story explores the public and private life of a middle class american family ‘the Berglunds’ and is electrified with Franzen’s own interest in socio cultural issues such as the post 9/11 economy, nature conservation and overpopulation. This gives the novel it’s serious literary value and the reason why I believe it is becoming so acclaimed.

When the novel opens the parents in this family saga aren’t doing well. She is drinking, he is working for a corrupt coal company and they have greatly drifted apart.  Each family member has ideas of reality, entitlement, love, morality and general life expectations that mostly are disappointed. A lot of novels look at these ideas too but Franzen couples them with global issues, hot american topics and ethical conflicts (at one stage father and son, Frank and Joey, become embroiled with a Haliburten like company in a very ill-advised financial pursuit) and these coupled ideas are the tools Franzen uses to dig at and explore middle america with. The socio-cultural aspects of this novel work to create a swinging pendulum of doom that moves in time with the family’s own demise gaining weight with every swing it is a fantastic literary technique reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s ‘Solar’.

This family are written in 3D every dimension of them is soaked in detail and their humanity lend’s the story its page turning compulsion. Between them they are vain, self-pitying, passive aggressive, disloyal, unfaithful, uncommunicative, hungry for love, sexually promiscuous, mercenary, angry and vulnerable.  Franzen is a natural writer in showing how they are all these things only in their struggle to find meaning in a cheapened world and the reason that readers like them so much is because they are struggling. They know something is very wrong the world which they don’t accept and all of them are on the quest for transcendence in their own individual ways.

With this novel Franzen is the first author to appear on the cover of Time magazine since Stephen King did ten years ago. This is one of the most hyped novels in a long time. It is a fantastically well crafted story but so is Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘American Wife’ and so is Ian McEwan’s ‘Solar’. It is unfortunate that this novel has become a little overshadowed by the hype and a precocious side to the success of this novel is now showing with the New York Times describing Franzen’s own comparisons of ‘Freedom’ to ‘War and Peace’ as ‘laughably conceited’.

An unbelievably well executed novel in good company with Ian McEwan, Don Delillo, Damon Galgut and Curtis Sittenfeld but I haven’t been carried away with the hype to value it as anything more than this.

Haiku; Will ‘Freedom’ now be the new book club selection for Oprah Winfrey?

Bookclubs look at the characters…

March 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Posted in Book Club Ideas | Leave a comment
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Look at the characters

 

1.       Characterisation- is it done well? The more a reader knows a character the increased chance for success there is for character and plot development.

2.       Many novels now focus on characters rather than plot developments as a literary technique to drive novels – does the novel you’re reading do this?

3.       If a character is underdeveloped the author may lean too heavily on stereotypes and archetypes, this is lazy writing, if a book is not holding your interest there is probably a reason for this, examine the characters.

4.       A rich character can be iconic and by virtue can refer to a different era, location, ideology, way of life, value system etc.

5.       How do you enjoy getting to know a character by being told through the narrative what they are like or seeing how a character behaves and develops in different situations?

Read a bit more into it……..

March 18, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Posted in Book Club Ideas | Leave a comment
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Getting started; five things to look for in a book

1.       An original idea.

2.       Always ask yourself if a story is interesting or saying something new.

3.       ‘Show don’t tell writing’. Great authors sentences won’t tell you anything but will evoke, implicate, imply, hint at, stimulate and suggest.

4.       Look at how the plot being moved along. Is it moved by the characters, by the narrative, by the writing style or something else….and does this work?

5.       Is there a central theme? If there is take a look at it and see if it is strong enough to carry the whole story? Is it sufficiently researched?

Unaffected, funny and very cool

March 14, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Posted in Biography | Leave a comment
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Rhoda Janzen, ‘Mennonite in a Little Black Dress’ , Atlantic Books January 2011

I would love to meet Rhoda Janzen. When I finished ‘Mennonite in a Little Black Dress’ (which is written with fantastic candidness and panache) I felt like I had been into Rhoda’s life, read her diary, looked at her credit card statements, seen the contents of her fridge, listened in to her phone calls, gone through her wardrobe, looked at her photo albums… and whats worse I want to know more! The more an author lets you in the deeper a reader will want to go into a story. What is even better than her honesty in this story is the fact that as a person and in her writing Rhonda is unaffected and charming and the same can be said for the story itself.

With  fluid humour and light self-deprecation ‘Mennonite in a little Black Dress’ is a super page turner of a book. Rhoda Janzen, a former poet laureate in the University of California, English Lecturer and all round academic, writes her life story so far (she is only forty-three) in this memoir of growing up in and returning to the Mennonite Community in which she was raised. Atlantic Books have been great for quirky accessible human interest stories (‘Cockeyed’ Ryan Knighton, ‘Fortune’s Daughter’s’ Elizabeth Keogh & ‘God is Not Great’ Christopher Hitchens) so it was very easy to make the decision to pick this one up.

Rhoda’s husband of fifteen years leaves her for a man named Bob whom he met on Gay.com. In the same week Rhoda is involved in a terrible car crash. Her physical and emotional injuries send her back home to the Mennonite Community from once she fled where she begins a sabbatical from her lecturing post. Nursing her broken bones and heart Rhoda reflects on her life spent with a bipolar husband who makes insane impulse purchases like a $385 pair of gloves on Rhoda’s credit card she also reflects on the heavy traditions of the Mennonite Community in which she grew up where everything from dancing to convenience food was banned but where love was abundant.

Rhoda’s writing had me sniggering and snorting ungracefully with outbursts of laughter. She is the kind of funny that can only be achieved with candid honesty and an appreciation for the unique problems that simply being human bring.  Many stories are worthy of being told but only a select few make it to the New York Times bestseller list and this book did I think because how much the reader is allowed in. There is nothing more fascinating than reading in delicious detail about someone else’s life decisions, finances and love life.

I highly recommend this wonderful story, it is so uplifting and bright I almost want to fashion a petticoat and bonnet….

Click here to borrow this book from DLR libraries

Haiku; Mennonites flourish, aetheist husband flounders, Rhoda’s true home found.

Mr Chartwell is dark and deep….

January 11, 2011 at 8:47 pm | Posted in Award Nominated, Great for Book Clubs, Literary Fiction | 1 Comment
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Rebecca Hunt ‘Mr Chartwell’ Penguin Fig Tree, Oct 2010

‘…Churchill wasn’t alone in his bedroom; something else in the dark, a mute bulk in the corner, a massive thing, was watching him with tortured concentration….”you’ve been waiting for me,” said the heartless voice “I could hear you waiting”‘.

Debutant author Rebecca Hunt has imagined a novel as novels should be imagined on a huge emotional scale and conceived by an idea that truly inspired her.

It is a fictional account of Winston Churchill in 1964 who is on the cusp of retiring from his long political career as a Statesman and having lead Britain through the Second World War as Prime Minister. Churchill suffered all his life with depression which he famously referred to as his ‘black dog’.

In this novel Churchill’s depression becomes an anthropomorphic animal. Rebecca Hunt conceives of this black dog as a living breathing revolting creature who walks on its hind legs and talks with seductive passive aggressive cruelty humanized by the name Mr Chartwell. Mr Chartwell takes up residence with the novels other principal character Esther Hammerhans, a quiet Library Clerk whose life becomes intertwined with Churchill’s on the arrival of her new lodger.

This novel is utterly original and tenderly written. Never has such bleak subject matter been elevated to these tactile and poignant heights through writing style in my opinion. I have struggled to find another literary example where an author has conceptualized such a metaphorical state as well as Rebecca Hunt.

Interestingly Winston Churchill remains the only British Prime Minister who has received the Nobel Prize in Literature. For someone who took refuge in the arts from his depression I’m sure Winston Churchill would have approved of this work of fiction.

Haiku; A dark ugly thing, is often mezmerizing, let the black dog in.

Click here to view this book on Penguin Books

* Mr Chartwell was the longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2010

 

 

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