Browse Tag by fall 2013 books
reviews

Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Every decade or so, Donna Tartt reemerges from her reclusive writerly life to publish a new book, at which time her readers crawl back out from under the spines of other novels, ready to accept the magnificent volume into our lives and libraries. I don’t keep it a secret that Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is my favourite book (along with Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight, which is in the same vein, really: pretentious teenagers, witty writing, murder), so I was eager to see if Tartt’s new book could compare. Spoiler alert: it does. The Goldfinch returns with Tartt’s signature combination of unforgettable characters and gorgeous prose.The_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

I was fortunate to attend Tartt’s reading at the Toronto Reference Library last November, and since I thought I would never, ever get the opportunity to see her in person or get a book signed, I was thrilled. Like, really thrilled. Cross-it-off-the-bucket-list thrilled. At the reading, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Tartt is less severe than her author photos and reclusiveness might suggest: she warmly answered questions from both the interviewer (Jared Bland, who was wonderful as always) and fans (only appearing weary at one questioner’s insistence that she name her top four books. They were, for the record: Lolita, Bleak House, Jekyll & Hyde and The Great Gatsby). Dream fulfilled, I settled down to finish the novel.

At nearly eight hundred pages, The Goldfinch was certainly worth the eleven-year wait since The Little Friend. The story is told by Theo Decker, who as a young boy survives a bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The explosion kills his mother and creates a bond between Theo and a dying old man, who encourages him to take the titular Goldfinch painting. For reasons he can’t explain, Theo doesn’t return the painting, but keeps it secretly with him when his his previously absent, alcoholic father turns up to whisk him off to Las Vegas for a life of artificial domesticity, complete with McMansion, dog and new stepmother. In Vegas, Theo befriends Boris, another abandoned son, and the pair search for meaning in the desolate desert landscape, and increasingly in petty theft, drugs, and alcohol. Theo later returns to New York (with painting hidden in his suitcase) and grows up under the care of Hobie, a delightfully absent-minded antiques restorer. Theo remains haunted by his past, his parents, his painting, until Boris shows up to turn Theo’s life upside down, again. The Goldfinch is a sort of Tell-Tale Heart story, with Theo slowly being driven mad by his act of theft – obsessively checking on the painting, compulsively tracking the news for hints that the authorities might be on to him, and gazing on it in a my-precious sort of way.

The Goldfinch questions the difference between life and art by consuming Theo’s life with paintings, museums, and antiques, but seems to suggest that what both have in common is not love, or passion, but artifice. The novel’s  character-like settings (art-obsessed New York City, the spectral suburbs of “Lost Vegas,” and feverish Amsterdam) mirror the important people in Theo’s life (shallow Kitsey, his delinquent father, and the unattainable Pippa), and highlight his loneliness. Perhaps only Boris escapes accusations of artifice: hot-tempered, drunk, and charming, he embodies the chaotic life that Theo is thrown into, but simultaneously manages to ground him and provide freedom. As usual with Tartt’s male protagonists, Theo is a wonderfully deceptive narrator, and Tartt manages to surprise the reader again and again with her skillful plotting. With its beautiful writing and engaging story, The Goldfinch is my favourite book of 2013.

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Review: Not Quite the Classics by Colin Mochrie

Not Quite the Classics (Viking Canada) was a book Colin Mochrie never intended to write, but I’m glad he did. Inspired by the improv game First Line, Last Line, Mochrie writes twelve short stories stemming from the first and last lines of classic novels and poems. Some are more successful than others, but all show the twisted sense of humour Mochrie is known for.15792001

My vote for strongest story is “Twas Not Right Before Christmas”, and not just because it references Doctor Who. The story, based on Clement Moore’s classic Christmas poem, mixes together major Christmas stories, as the narrator finds characters ranging from the Ghost of Christmas Past to Clarence the angel in his living room on Christmas Eve due to a tear in the space-time continuum. In true Christmas Special fashion, the Tardis materializes and the Doctor endeavours to set things right (“‘I hate you,’ said a green man, whose shoes seemed to pinch/ ‘I’m not that kind of Who, you idiot Grinch'”), but in typical Doctor Who tradition, the Doctor “can’t really explain […] it’s too convoluted” how he’s going to save Christmas. It feels like a great fanfiction.

Other stories I liked were “Franken’s Time”, based on Frankenstein, in which a farmer’s pet chicken attempts to reanimate its departed mate; “Fahren Heights Bin 451”, in which a noir-style private detective Burn McDeere is hired to find a set of lost car keys (“Frankly, McDeere, I don’t give a damn”); “A Tale of Two Critters”, the autobiography of (the unnamed) Wile E. Coyote and his nemesis the Roadrunner; “Re: Becker” (inspired by Du Maurier’s Rebecca) in which the unimaginative Morely agrees to an unusual task after his friend’s death; and “Moby: Toupee or not Toupee”, in which a struggling actor find a magical wig that turns his career around.

Mochrie clearly tries to capitalize on trendy genres or characters, as evidenced by “A Study in Ha-Ha”in which Sherlock Holmes attempts a career in stand-up comedy; “The Grateful Gatsby”, which is a mixture of Downton Abbey and Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories; and “The Cat and My Dad”, which is set during the zombie apocalypse.

Some stories fell flat for me. “Casey at the Bar” awkwardly rhymes its way through a disgraced Leafs goalie’s evening out as he attempts to score a date; “Waterhouse Five” is an unamusing story of an unlucky man’s prostate exam that clearly aims for cheap laughs; “The Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Fourth” attempts a mediocre fantasy tale about a Bilbo-Baggins-type reluctant protagonist who must restore the throne to the rightful ruler.

Unsurprisingly, Not Quite the Classics is not the High Literature its stories are based on, but that’s the point. Mochrie’s stories are not especially complex or subtle, but his writing is generally capable and reflects his brand of humour. Generally the collection was less amusing than I was hoping; I smiled and cringed in about equal proportion (but then, butt jokes are not my thing). He does a passable imitation of genre styles: “Fahren Heights Bin 451” is particularly competent example of noir, although “The Grateful Gatsby” and “A Study in Ha-Ha” have too many “my dear old chap”-type flourishes for my taste. Despite some forgettable stories, Mochrie’s talent for humour is evident. As Cleolinda says, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like.

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Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Random House) is an uncanny psychological thriller that delves into the secretive world of underground filmmaker Stanislas Cordova to explore the relationship between the constructs of truth and fantasy.Pessl_Night-Film

Night Film follows discredited investigative journalist Scott McGrath as he attempts to discover why Ashely Cordova, the daughter of super genius, super reclusive, and super disturbing filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, has killed herself after mysteriously appearing to him. Aided by Nora and Hopper, two teenagers who also had contact with Ashley before her death, McGrath wades through an ever-twisting series of leads involving witchcraft, an escape from a mental asylum, Satanic rituals, matching tattoos, disappearing witnesses, a false priest, and rumours of child mistreatment. All clues seem to point back to the mysterious Cordova, who seems to be loosely based on Stanley Kubrick, and who haunts the novel through his absence, frequently slipping out of McGrath’s reach just as he nears the truth. Perhaps the most uncanny sequence in the novel when McGrath and crew infiltrate Cordova’s estate and seem to enter one of Cordova’s films. The consistently eerie scenarios (such as the disappearance of all interview subjects and evidence files overnight, or the mysterious black figurine that McGrath finds planted on all children connected with Ashley, including his own young daughter) and characters (the cryptic Cordova, the son with three missing fingers) keep the novel engaging and delightfully tense.

Example of Night Film's media
Example of Night Film’s media

One innovative aspect of Night Film is its media: mockup pages of online articles, websites, police reports, scraps of paper and photographs augment the text in a way that reminded me of Lemony Snicket’s Unauthorized Autobiography. Initially I was disappointed that the URLs on the webpage mockups didn’t lead anywhere when I typed them into my browser; perhaps, I thought, my transmedia expectations were too high after The Lizzie Bennet Diaries or Sherlock’s The Science of Deduction and John Watson blogs. However, I was happily surprised when I reached the end and discovered that there was a decoder app I could download to scan the bird symbols I’d noticed in some of the images (pleasingly, the app works on the ebook version too!). This revealed an extensive amount of extra content, more than I had been expecting: case reports from Ashley’s time at Briarwood, transcripts from court proceedings, recordings of Ashley’s music, even a syllabus for Beckman’s class on Cordova. Pessl’s YouTube channel also has “found footage” from Cordova’s films. I wish I had discovered this content before I finished the book, as it would have added even more depth to Scott McGrath’s investigation. As it is, all credit to Pessl and Random House for undertaking this transmedia project.

I had conflicted feelings about Pessl’s previous book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics: I really liked the first two-thirds, but hated the ending. So I approached Night Film with caution, afraid of getting burned again. But no fear! Night Film delivered a strong, strange story that kept me eagerly reading from start to finish.

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Longbourn and Pride & Prejudice

Longbourn (Random House of Canada) is a delightful revisiting of the Bennet household, examining social questions and historic conflicts in a different light than Pride and Prejudice.

The novel follows the Bennets’ below-stairs help, particularly the housemaid Sarah and her relationship with the new manservant James. Besides an interesting servant’s perspective of the Bennet family, other new characters and downstairs drama add colour to the classic novel.longbourn-cover-1

Longbourn is true to Pride and Prejudice and Baker’s attention to detail allows the reader to easily map the events of the novel to the original. I learned a lot about how housework was done in Regency England – I’m quite thankful laundry no longer involves handwashing everything in vats of boiled water and lye. Despite Baker’s obvious love for the novel, I’m not sure if I liked the histories she invents for some of the original characters, Mr. Bennet in particular; however, I accept that our headcanons are different. One addition I really enjoyed was the character of Ptolemy Bingley: the dynamic he brought helped broaden the scope of the novel beyond the Bennets’ kitchen, where I felt a lot of the action was (fairly or unfairly) centred.

Baker’s novel is a wonderful retelling of  Pride and Prejudice with a Downton Abbey twist. I enjoyed seeing the Bennets from the perspective of someone who might not hold them with the same kind of reverence as modern fans might (although it was a relief that Elizabeth and Jane, at least, passed the test). Longbourn captures what I love about Pride and Prejudice and creates a rich look at love, work, and ambition in a Regency-era household.

I was fortunate enough to win tickets to Jo Baker on Pride and Prejudice, thanks to Random House of Canada and Indigo Events. The event was wonderful; following a screening of Joe Wright’s 2005 film Pride and Prejudice, Jo Baker and Eleanor Wachtel (host extraordinare of CBC’s Writers & Company and TIFF’s Books on Film series) discussed both Baker’s new novel Longbourn and the film adaptation.

It was not my first time seeing this version of Pride and Prejudice (far from it), but my first time seeing it in theatres. The film was beautiful as always. During the opening remarks, Baker said that what she enjoyed about Wright’s movie was that it was “grittier” than most period films since it showed the dirt and livestock that were a part of everyday life. She suggested that this time around that we pay attention to the servants in the background, and the handkerchief. Baker considers the scene which follows a housemaid – the equivalent of Sarah in her own Longbourn – singing softly to herself as she moves throughout the Bennet house a “beautiful moment.” It was wonderful to see the movie on the big screen; the audience lent a new energy to the film on my umpteenth viewing and reminded me how funny this version actually is (possibly my favourite audience member was the man who had clearly not seen the movie before and laughed loudly at the funny parts).

Eleanor Wachtel interviewing Jo Baker. Photo by Monique Mongeon
Eleanor Wachtel interviewing Jo Baker. Photo by Monique Mongeon

Following the film, Eleanor Wachtel interviewed Jo Baker, with the conversation ranging from where Jo Baker’s interest in service came from (her grandmother was a housemaid), on what subject was her Ph.D thesis (Irish literature, particularly Elizabeth Bowen, who writes about the country house and social class in a manner not totally divorced from Austen), and whether Baker would consider adapting another Austen novel from the perspective of the servants (no). When Wachtel noted Baker’s apparent fondness for Mr. Collins, she said she could relate to his awkwardness: “We all have awkward moments, his is just lasting a lifetime.” Following the interview was a Q&A and a signing. It was wonderful to spend an evening in the company of so many people who love Pride and Prejudice.

You can watch Jo Baker talk about Longbourn here.

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8 New Books I’m Excited About This Fall

For me, autumn is usually a time of new school books and an increased reading load. This fall, however, marks the first year I’m not in class, and so to celebrate, I plan to use some of my free time to read for pleasure. Luckily, it seems like all my favourite authors are putting out new books this season. Some of them are out already, and some of them I’ve been waiting for for years. Here’s what’s on my to-buy to-read to-love list, in no particular order:

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1. Longbourn by Jo Baker (Random House; published October 8, 2013)

I actually just finished reading this one, and it was wonderful. Longbourn a below-stairs reimagining of Pride and Prejudice, featuring our favourite Bennets and new characters with mysterious pasts and secret ambitions. Baker creates a more complex household than seen in Austen’s work; if you like Downton Abbey, you will enjoy this novel!

 

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2. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh (Simon & Schuster; published October 29, 2013)

It’s no secret that Hyperbole and a Half is my favourite blog. One part webcomic, one part hilarious stories, Allie Brosh illustrates the weird and embarrassing things and relatable episodes that happen to her (must-read: This is Why I’ll Never Be an Adult). Her posts about depression are honest and accessible. I’ve been excited about this book since Allie first announced it, and don’t expect to be disappointed. Hyperbole and a Half is a mix of posts that appeared on her blog and new content. Counting down the days!

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3. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Random House; published August 28, 2013)

This one is on my shelf, waiting to be read. A historical novel set in New Zealand, it follows a man trying to solve a number of mysterious crimes. The cover is my favourite of the season. The Luminaries has been shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Read it before it wins!

 

 

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4. Not Quite the Classics by Colin Mochrie (Penguin; published October 22, 2013)

I grew up watching Colin Mochrie’s comedy on TV, so when I found out he was publishing a collection of short stories, I was intrigued. In Not Quite the Classics, Mochrie takes the first and last lines of famous stories, including Dickens, Sherlock Holmes and, I’ve heard, a cameo by Doctor Who, and improvises a new and twisted middle. I’m curious to see whether his written comedy matches his wit on television.

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5. Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Random House; published August 20, 2013)

Marisha Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006), was, for me, a book with a great first half and a dissatisfying ending. Despite this, I’m eager to read Pessl’s new book, a thriller about a mysterious (dead) cult filmmaker and his mysterious (dead) daughter, and the enigma that surrounds them. Postmodern and noir, Night Film contains website screenshots, news clippings and other pieces of “evidence” that propel the story. Reviews are mixed so far, but I’m hoping that it doesn’t disappoint.

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6. Allegiant by Veronica Roth (HarperCollins; published October 22, 2013)

Do I even need to say why I’m excited about this one? It’s the final book in the Divergent trilogy, and I love dystopian YA. In Allegiant, Tris ventures outside the fence with Tobias to try to discover a more peaceful life. This book is told from both Tris and Tobias’s perspective and I’m interested to find out how that affects the reader’s view of Tris and her society. Looking forward to the conclusion of this series!

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7. When Did You See Her Last? by Lemony Snicket (Little, Brown; published October 15, 2013)

My long-standing love affair with Lemony Snicket’s books (and alter ego Daniel Handler’s) extends to his new noir-style series All The Wrong Questions, of which When Did You See Her Last? is the second installment. Following a young Lemony Snicket through his V.F.D. neophyte training, this book finds Lemony searching for the missing Cleo Knight and the runaway Ellington Feint. Full of the usual incompetent adults, mysterious organizations and witty turns of phrase, When Did You See Her Last? promises to be a funny and satisfying read. Read the first two chapters here.

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8. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown; published October 22, 2013)

Donna Tartt publishes one book per decade, so everyone is very excited about The Goldfinch, her first novel since 2002. Her first book, The Secret History, was a massive bestseller and is my actual favourite book (and, as I’m sure you know, it’s hard for a book person to choose). Like all of her novels, The Goldfinch centres around death: this time, a young boy’s mother dies and he attempts to avoid being taken into a New York orphanage; he soon becomes obsessed with a mysterious painting. I’m trying to keep my expectations realistic, but I can’t wait to read Tartt’s beautiful, gothic prose again.

Let me know what you’re looking forward to reading this fall!