Thursday, January 9, 2014

Last of the 2013 books!

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
If you haven't seen or heard of this novel, you've been living under a rock, at least in the literary world.  It is on every best-seller list, everyone's 'must read' agenda, and on every book store shelf.  The length and heft of this book is daunting, but it is oh-so worth it.  I was about a quarter in when I left on vacation, so I just downloaded the $7.50 version to my Kindle so I could continue my obsessive reading - I was done one day into my vacation.  While I have never read anything else by Tartt, I would say this book is definitely a masterpiece.  Extremely well written, she tells the life story of Theo, a young boy who seems to make questionable choices in both friends and life.  At the outset, Theo and his mom are on the way to a school conference, to discuss his suspension, when they stop by the Met for a 'look-see' at his mother's favorite painting, a 17th century oil painting of a chained goldfinch, painted by Rembrandt's teacher.  While there, an explosion occurs, mom dies, and Theo becomes inextricably connected to another 'family', as well as the painting. (and yes, much of this is on the book jacket and takes place in the first 30 pages, so I hope I didn't give too much away).  Life takes Theo in a multitude of directions while he forms relationships with some 'interesting' people, namely his bff Boris, a Ukranian boy of suspicious background.  An unrequited love, some time spent in the underworld of drugs, the nastiness of New York high society, and criminal dealings in the art world, all make up a book you cannot put down.  The characters are complex - it's hard to 'love' Theo, but difficult not to root for him - and Boris is just highly entertaining.  I did get a bit bogged down during the Vegas era, but just plow on through - it is so worth it.  Highly recommend*****

The Dinner by Herman Koch
A friend loaned me this book, begging me to read it so we could digest it together.  After only taking 24 hours to finish it, I totally get it - this is one nasty, disturbing, provoking book that I absolutely could not put down.  It all takes place in one night, at a dinner with two brothers and their wives.  Set in Amersterdam, written by a Dutch author, this book definitely has the 'flavor' of Northern Europe.  As the story unfolds, we see two brothers who are less than familial with one another, two wives who seem to have secrets and agendas kept from their husbands, and of course, children who cause issues for both parents.  It would be criminal of me to tell any more of the plot, as it Koch's ability to spin out the pieces of the issues, one by one, that keeps one turning the page.  Ultimately, we see moral and societal dilemmas that makes you question what is right, and what is wrong.  I cannot say that any of the characters are likable - in fact, they are pretty much despicable, depraved human beings.  Yet, I loved this book - not for the people in it, but for the provocation the book brought to my mind. This would be an outstanding book club book; I can only imagine the hours of conversation surrounding it.

The House Girl by Tara Conklin
After watching my own daughter go through the first year of law school, I was intrigued by the author's life story.  A graduate from Yale, and then NYU law school, as well as a Masters of Arts from Tufts, Conklin spent years as a corporate lawyer, before leaving that world to settle in Seattle as a fiction writer; this is her first novel.  I do love reading 'firsts', as I usually find them to be the most genuine look at a writer's style, and I did truly enjoy this book.  A short-story writer for years, Conklin strung a number of her stories together to make up this plot line.  We have the tale of the corporate lawyer, doing pro-bono work for a mogul looking for reparations over slavery.  As the lawyer searches for a good face for a class action suit, she runs across Josephine, a house slave to a woman of the antebellum South.  As we travel back in time and see Josephine's life, we also move through the art world of New York city, and question who was the real painter of the art work on display, the slave or the owner.  Conklin moves quite seamlessly between time periods, and amongst the variety of characters, not an easy thing to do.  If you love historical fiction, this is a good one; the description of the live of the slaves is real and disturbing and painful, as is the life of the abolitionists who try to help.  I got the distinct feeling Conklin is less than enamored with corporate law, as many of the lawyers turn out to be sharks, but the main character does seem to have a soul and a heart.  This was a good vacation read.

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
This was our book club choice for January memoirs, and it was a home run, as far as I'm concerned.  Written in 2007, it was on all the bestseller lists for months and had all the political pundits talking as well.  For some reason I missed it back then; I am so grateful to have read it now.  It is a first person account of Ayaan Ali, a Muslim woman who grew up in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia, eventually emigrating to the Netherlands, ending at age 35 when she comes to live in the United States.  The first half focuses on her life in Africa, enduring female mutilation as part of her grandmother's religious and cultural beliefs, searching for her religious identify in fundamentalist Islamic groups, and navigating the complexities of her family and clan relationships.  It is often heart-wrenching and painful to read.  The writing is beautiful, but dense; this is not what I would call a quick read.  At times I was bogged down a bit by all the African names and trying to keep them straight (I swear, every man's name started with "M"!!).  The second half of the book is her life as a refugee in the Netherlands, her rise in the political party, and her infamy as a Muslim woman who denounces not only the way women are abused and subjugated, but turns her back on religious beliefs as well.  I found the politics of the story fascinating, even more so in light of the riots and bombings and murders that occurred because of the Dutch cartoonist this past summer.  This is one of those books that just made me feel smarter; I learned about Islam, about Africa, about European politics, and what it takes to truly be a survivor.  I remain permanently fascinated by how some people survive trauma, and others fold; what is it about their character that pushes them to live and to rise above such a painful upbringing?  I look forward to our book club discussion; I'm sure it will be hours long.

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