Monthly Archives: November 2015

Cutting For Stone : a Novel by Abraham Verghese

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I started this book…last summer?…because the work book club was reading it. I really enjoyed it at first, but for some reason I bogged down in the middle because a) it was due back at the library and b) I was really frustrated with Marion, the protagonist, and some members of his family that annoyed me. Then I had to wait forever for it to come around on the holds list again, and stop being mad at Marion (because as my father always says, you can choose your friends but you’re stuck with your family, so poor Marion is stuck), and finally finish it off.

Basically, this is a love story about a man who is madly in love with both his profession and his country, while also thinking he is in love with a woman, but he’s really in love with his idea of a relationship with that woman, so that doesn’t work out. If you can get past being embarrassed for Marion over his one-sided, nearly imaginary relationship with a girl he grows up with, it’s actually a great coming-of-age story. We begin in Ethiopia at a hospital called Missing (Mission Hospital, actually, but no one calls it that). Marion is the son of an English surgeon and an Indian nun who work there. He and his twin were born unexpectedly – the nun never told anyone that she was pregnant, and their father was a blackout drinker and had no idea they’d ever consummated their relationship. There are complications, she dies, their father leaves Ethiopia in shock and grief, and the boys are taken in by another doctor at the hospital. Once the boys have a family, the story takes flight.

When the boys are about to finish high school – Marion plans to go to medical school and Shiva just wants to be done – there is a pivotal event that changes the life of Genet, the girl Marion loves. Shiva does something that hurts Marion deeply, and sets a whole sequence of events into motion that I can’t describe without ruining the story. Suffice it to say, Marion leaves Shiva by stages – first moving out of their shared bedroom, then out of the country to finish medical training in the United States. How they reconnect, what happens to Genet, what happens to their adopted parents and what happened to their missing father – it’s all out in the open by the end. I still am not quite sure I forgive Marion for being quite so stupid about Genet, but it was definitely worth reading the book despite his romantic ineptitude.

After I finished the book, I looked on Amazon and saw that it is reviewed there by John Irving. I found this funny, because throughout the book I kept comparing it in style to a John Irving novel. (Something about the grand scope of following someone from early childhood on, and feeling like you’ve become part of their life by the end. Plus all of the medical parts.) If you’ve read A Prayer for Owen Meany, or The Cider House Rules, Marion is very like both John Wheelwright and Homer Wells (and if I think about it too much, Shiva is rather like Owen Meany in the sense that he holds so much sway over Marion even when he isn’t present, and because he is odd and no one but Marion truly “gets” him). So if you like Irving, or Charles Dickens, or Thomas Hardy or any of those long rambling life story writers, you’ll probably like it.

Oh – and don’t be fooled by the history of the Ethiopian revolution while reading this. The events of the story follow the spirit but not the letter of the actual historic events. So you’ll get an idea of what life was like in Ethiopia at the time, but don’t take the story’s events as fact.

 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (and also The Secret History because I read them together)

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My book club generally picks a few books ahead so that we can all get the book early. Two of our members, unbeknownst to each other, chose back-to-back Donna Tartt books for November and December. I had never read any of her books, and had heard completely opposing opinions of her work from coworkers whose taste I normally trust. How could she be the best author coworker H ever read while simultaneously being “not finishable” to coworker E? Well, after reading The Secret History for November’s meeting and The Goldfinch for December’s, I have a theory: H must have read Goldfinch while E read The Secret History.

The Secret History is basically Evan Hunter’s Come Winter updated for a new generation (sister Julia, are you reading this? You might like it). It’s full of completely unlikeable, unredeemable characters doing awful, thoughtless, painful things to other people and then taking no responsibility and feeling no remorse for those actions. It’s not just the protagonist – his friends, his parents, and his teacher are all pretty much a waste of DNA. I kept waiting for someone to actually learn something from their colossal mistakes, but (spoiler alert) no one ever did and they kept piling bad decisions on top of one another. Skip this one, seriously, unless you like books about self-involved assholes that make you sorry you’re a fellow human. (It’s like the literary equivalent of watching Pulp Fiction, just replace the gratuitous bible quotes with Greek literature.)

The Goldfinch, on the other hand, I loved. The protagonist is just as flawed a person as the characters from Secret History, but I sympathized with him because unlike the overprivileged, snobbish characters in Secret History, Theo has horrible life experiences to overcome, so I cut him a lot of slack. (Also, his crimes don’t seem so heinous. I could see myself committing a few of them if I was a motherless shell-shocked teen. Richard and his friends’ crimes in Secret History? No excuses, they shouldn’t have done any of them. Ever.) Warning: The beginning of the novel takes forever. It says right on the book jacket that his mother dies. He tells you himself on the first page that she dies. And then it takes like 40 billion chapters for her to actually die so we can get on with the remaining events of the story. Once his mother is safely disposed of, the story picks up. We watch 13-year-old Theo as he stumbles through life with no idea what to do next, or how to do it. A childhood friend’s family takes him in temporarily, and he tries his best to fit in with them, but it doesn’t last. Neither does his stint living with his deadbeat dad in Las Vegas. It is only when Theo takes his life into his own hands, seeking out a family of his own choosing, that things start looking up for him. The problem? Theo has been essentially allowed to raise himself, and no matter how old he gets, he still keeps making decisions a 13 year old boy would make, and they keep working out about as well as you’d expect.

It all comes to a head once Theo is in his 20s, when every bad decision he’s ever made gathers to smack him in the face at once. Watching the chips fall is highly entertaining – can it get worse? Yes! It can! But wait, it’s getting EVEN WORSE!  I can’t tell you any more or I’ll spoil the story. I’ll just throw out a few reasons you might want to read it: Art theft, antiques fraud, the Russian Mafia, rampant drug use, infidelity, mental illness, denial, unrequited love…it’s all in there. And the glorious descriptions of Carel Fabritus’ The Goldfinch – the painting at the story’s center – made me want to steal it myself.

So – if you like long, rambling stories that teeter just on the brink of disaster, and you often find yourself sticking with a novel just to see what horrible thing will happen next, you might like The Goldfinch. To be fair, you might also like The Secret History – it has the same “oh shit they’re going to …” vibe, but the things that happen are far more horrible and the people far less redeemable than Theo and his collected “family”.

As a side note, I wonder seriously about Donna Tartt’s drug use. They say that writers should write what they know, but if Tartt uses even a tenth of the drugs and alcohol her characters do, how the hell does she have enough brains left to string together coherent sentences? I know I am a fairly conservative person when it comes to substance abuse (well, except for grad school, but really, what else was there to do in Kansas City for 3 years?), but holy cow, how many drugs can a person wash down with how much alcohol before they just fall down and DIE?

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

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The third time’s a charm for Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin Ellacott (I rambled about the first and second earlier). This book gets more personal than the previous installments, showing the reader glimpses of Robin’s past life that give us reasons for her confidence issues. We see more of Strike’s past, too – his mother has apparently provided him not only with enough enemies (and strange allies – we meet a friend of Strike’s from childhood who I hope against hope becomes a recurring character) to keep him busy but also enough material to keep his therapist (if he had one, and he should) occupied for years.

The setup: Robin gets a package, delivered by motorcycle courier. She’s in the thick of her wedding plans, so she assumes it’s the disposable cameras she ordered for the reception – until she opens it to find a woman’s severed leg. Strike reveals that he knows 4 different people that could have sent it – and the novel takes off, with the police chasing after the person Strike thinks least likely, and he and Robin tailing the other three. There is the usual stress between Strike and the police (there are those on the force still sensitive about his previous successes, which have made them look bad), Robin and her fiancé (will they resolve their differences in time for the wedding?), Robin and Strike (what exactly did Strike mean when he called her a “partner”? Will she finally be recognized as a real detective?), and once again the agency teeters on the brink of financial ruin…and of course, the suspense thickens as it becomes clear that the killer has set his sights on Robin.

The thing about this book that I really liked (though I read a review that thought this was awful) was the fact that it was told partly from the killer’s point of view. The killer himself gives us tons of tantalizing clues in his segments, but the three suspects are so similar in personality, motive, and methods that I never managed to figure out which of them it was. This is why I love this series – I haven’t picked the killer YET, and failure has never made me so happy.

Speaking of reading reviews, I found this in a review by Christobel Kent  in The Guardian:

If your taste in detective fiction runs to the minimalist, then this is not for you. If Georges Simenon is a simple, perfect kitchen stool and Agatha Christie a sensible wingbacked chair, then Robert Galbraith is a vast, overstuffed sofa, complete with dog hair and something unmentionable behind the cushions.

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. Also the couch is upholstered in a vigorous, colorful paisley print. With texture. Enjoy.