**some spoilers ahead**
It's a rather flimsy, but thoroughly enjoyable little incursion into the story of William Chester Minor, one of the most important contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary. The relevant arc starts with him as a surgeon in the Union Army and ends with his death back in the States.
I call it flimsy because it's only interesting or important in the sense that we all like to pry into the hidden lives of celebrities, and this touches that exact chord.
It is, nevertheless, fascinating. Minor served during the Civil War and, the theory goes, had a crucial moment when he was forced to brand an Irish deserter. We don't know that this is what caused his sexual obsessions (wouldn't it be weird if it did), but it was almost certainly what caused his belief that Irish men were constantly after him, invading his room at night and performing strange rituals on him. Increasingly erratic, sexually obsessed and paranoid, he was admitted to a lunatic asylum, which - as happened more often than not in those days - did nothing to cure or improve his condition. He left for England, where, one might almost say "in due course", he shot a man and was then incarcerated, in a modern move, at the Broadmoor asylum. And here he was to stay for over 30 years, settling into very comfortable quarters and carrying on with the exact same paranoid delusions about Irish men springing up from the floorboards at night and taking him to various brothels where he was forced to perform shameful sexual acts on girls. Nighttime delusions notwithstanding, he also managed to accumulate an impressive collection of books and contribute a huge number of entries and quotations to the OED, while at some point also cutting off his penis to punish himself for compulsive masturbation.
The book is also interesting in its tangential details about Broadmoor and the making of the OED. All in all, as I said, flimsy but interesting.
Ruth Ozeki is about 20 years late to the postmodernist party.
Sure, you have to go two thirds into the book to realize that's what it is, but once you get there, it can't be undone.
The reader writing the book she's reading, zen Buddhism and quantum philosophy, it's all a bit silly after John Hawkes and Pynchon and Alasdair Gray all that.
She is, however, a good writer - and a very good reader (on Audible). Hence the three stars.
If the reviewers have been so unanimous in comparing The Goldfinch to a Dickens novel, it's because it obviously tries to be one. Either that or Fielding, I'm not sure. (Though she lacks the humor of both.) The segues between stations are sometimes as subtle as if Tartt had actually said "and thus Theo stepped out of the party and into what was to be the next station along his journey". The wide-encompassing view of society is almost too all over the place, from WASP to white trash to art dealer to shady Europeans, drug dealers and mobsters and what not.
My feeling: Donna Tartt does not have a very good grasp of real life and real people. She is also not interested in endowing her main character with agency (or, arguably, intelligence). Theo is amazingly inert throughout his life; the only bit of agency he displays is grabbing the painting - which at same time renders him implausible from the outset, and renders the novel a rather clumsy literary artefact.
Others have pointed out the implausible bits in the novel, and it is painful to even remember them - starting with the pseudo-shakespearian moment of a character discoursing on Everything as he is dying, to the helpful gypsy-like character of Boris, which is like something out of Dickens or like the reindeer gypsy girl in an Andersen fairy tale, only with drugs instead of reindeer.
Also, with the last chapter Donna Tartt displays a very distressing inclination to just gush out a stream of words and sentences with some semblance of depth, but which turn out, upon closer inspection, to be fluff and pseudo-philosophical nonsense (Music is the space between notes? Beauty changes the grain of reality?) that seem to make sense when you're 16 and falling in love with The Important Things In Life, but then you grow up and realize the best literature is not made up of Important Sounding Sentences.
More to the point, this is a novel that leaves you with nothing. It's not bad, it's not badly written, it's just one more novel that wants to be more than it can be.
I, for one, think Donna Tart needs to live a little, go out more, understand agency, and narrow her writing down to things she actually knows and understands: less showy, more real.
Jodi Picoult fans will love it. I'm not a Jodi Picoult fan, so I didn't love it, or even like it, really. But I did finish it, and admit it may possibly be a bit better than Picoult's tearjerkers. It does have a few insights - not on a grand scale, not when it comes to the thick threads of the novel - which are woven in with a very heavy hand, maddeningly predictable coincidences and plot lines and all - but small ones, on a small scale. Other than that, everyone is doing well at home, in school, in bed, at their jobs - except for their own private hybris which must be expunged, on a smaller or larger scale. Who knew it was so simple.
There is no reward to reading this silly, silly book. It has the intellectual depth of a puddle of water. I can't begin to explain the ways it fails its readers. Imagine someone with very little understanding of society, the human mind, civilization or technology (something like a cross between a 12 year-old boy raised by overbearing aunts and an 80 year-old recluse who reads fringe American socialist newsletters in a dingy kitchen) take up the Google scare and run away with it. Then turn it into a novel.
I could not believe this novel was written by the guy who wrote A Heartbreaking Work. And I didn't even like that one that much. But it sure was not a uni-dimensional piece of silliness.
Here's the gist of it: Dave Eggers is building a straw man (Mae) in order to make a point about the dangers of interconnectedness and visibility in the digital age.
The problem is, you can't build an argument by using a straw man. Why is Mae special? Why is she, despite consistent proof of silliness, singled out for anything - climbing through the ranks, having millions of followers, doing presentations of programs to which she did not contribute, being a sex object, being the potential cog in the wheel, being a point of interest for anyone inside the novel, let alone outside? The answer is, she is singled out because Dave Eggers had just one silly idea for this novel, and this was it.
The story of how, in the early 15th century, former papal secretary Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini found the lost text of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura might not seem like a riveting read. I hesitated before buying it, thinking that I knew how it was going to go: Lucretius's text would be lost for about 1450 years, then Poggio would find it and then the poem would be influential in promoting non-Christian, perhaps even atheist thinking in the very Christian Western world.
That's pretty much how it does go, too. The only thing is, it's still very interesting. Poggio himself is just an instrument with little actual importance, though Greenblatt makes much of his origins and career. This bit is, to be honest, fluff - but it does give some ingisht into the period. More interesting, though somewhat shoved in through the back door, were the stories of Bruno and Galileo and their face-offs with the Inquisition. Also very interesting is the discussion of ancient philosophy and the Epicurean tradition and Lucretius himself, though there is so very little to say about him that not even Greenblatt manages to summon up a plausible, flesh-and-bone historical figure.
However, the most interesting bit is the actual applied discussion of the actual text. I haven't read De Rerum Natura, except perhaps a couple of lines in high school or college when discussing world literature or something. Now I'm discovering an amazing poet.
I'm not buying Greenblatt's thesis wholesale (that the world was "made modern" through the discovery of this one poem), but I was compelled by his obvious pleasure in the text (and I'm still moved by his love for Shakespeare, which I absolutely share, but that's by the way). And so, no regrets: this little book is absolutely worth reading.
Quite a good intro. Heavy on some topics, rather light on others, but overall very enjoyable. Except for the last chapter, where all the philosophizing on the meaning of civilization left me cold.
Other than that, and up to that point, it does the job very well.
The Dinner is a spectacular book about family and society, among other things as well. This is not a cute book. It's heavy because it's about heavy things, and because it doesn't take heavy things lightly.
I liked the progression from bland dinner table conversation, pigmented with hints of a couple of mysterious incidents (something found in the phone of Paul's teenage son; Paul's sister-in-law arriving for dinner with traces of tears in her eyes), to the unfolding of the drama behind the dinner. The drama that started years before with instances of personal drama and of parenting; the drama that spikes in a horrific incident, then again in discussing it at home, then again at the dinner table.
The fact that this is a Dutch novel is extremely relevant, since Dutch society struggles with a very tolerant front which sometimes comes up to kick itself in the teeth. It is amazing what torments hide behind the blandness of equality and tolerance - not that they always turn violent, but that fear of speaking up against indiscriminate equality becomes oppressive in itself.
"The Dinner" is a painful analysis of society and family, delivered not from a high moral standpoint, but with a subtle understanding of nuances, of small things that make up or break up lives and relationships.
Informative and easy to read, indeed. Little in-depth analysis, but with the sheer amount of data, no wonder. I felt it failed to tie a few knots, but overall a good read.
I've read the previous Tey novels and will read the new one soon, but here's the thing. I keep thinking I'm going to give each of them five stars as I read, and then, once I'm done, I can't in full honesty give them more than four.
I got to Nicola Upson by searching for Agatha Christie-like novels. Someone recommended her as similar on some forum. With Fear in the Sunlight, it all started like a Christie mystery - not the "later" part of the '50s, but the setting, the hotel, the guests, the two parties being gathered together. But what Christie does schematically, in twenty-five pages, Upson does in - well, it was an audiobook so I don't know exactly how many, but it felt like half of the book. She does it extremely well, no question: the people and circumstances come alive, and it does capture your attention.
The problem is what happens afterwards: so much energy is spent on creating the backdrop of the murders, that very little is left for the actual mystery. And the solutions to her mysteries, though not bad, are never quite as clever or plausible as everything else in the book. Other than that, they're great, and the narrator is excellent.
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