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Books: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch was another one of my summer reading pleasures. Donna Tartt, creates an almost Dickensian world of loss, friendship, criminality and redemption with the world of  art, and the love of old and well crafted things as its backdrop.

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The story is told from the point of view of Theodore Decker, a thirteen year old boy whose mother dies in a terrorist attack while they’re visiting the art museum. Theodore’s mother has a passion for art which she shares with her son.  Before leaving the ruined museum, he meets “Welty” who gives him a ring and somehow signals to him to take The Goldfinch, a beautiful painting by the 17th century dutch painter Carel Fabritius.   The Goldfinch is a rendering  of a small bird, chained to its perch. The horrifying notion of a beautiful but chained bird becomes a driving metaphor for life throughout the book.

Theodore’s life is destroyed by the loss of his mother and as he tumbles down the rabbit hole of loss and grief, the painting he has taken is the one thing that gives him a reason to live. The calmness he feels when he holds the painting gets him through his worst times.

The book is a study on how we create family when its taken from you. First Theodore lands at the Barbours, a wealthy, deeply eccentric family of his friend Andy. When his less than perfect father and his girlfriend come to claim him, off he goes to Las Vegas where he is left mostly to his own devices while his father and his girlfriend gamble to earn their living.

One of the parts of the book I love the most is when he meets Boris, a young boy his age whose mother is also dead and whose father is a violent, crazy, Ukrainian drunk who works in mines all over the world. The two boys spend their days playing truant, drinking, doing drugs and embarking on a life of petty crime.

Tartt captures the authenticity of adolescent friendship  that feels real and funny and sad at the same time.

The boys eventually separate when Theo heads back to New York but it’s the unlikely ups and downs of this friendship that drives the second half of the book. The painting goes missing and the two re-unite to find it.

In between, of course, there is so much more. Theo finds a home with Hobie, the partner of Welty, and learns the world of antiques. None of the friendship and safety offered by Hobie stops Theo’s descent into addiction and criminal wrong-doing. Ultimately he has to decide if he’s going to live or die and in the end, like the life of the goldfinch, he has to make peace with his lot in life.

I loved he book but thought it was too long in sections. My husband read the book and said the word I fear most “Shantaram” a book he detested for its long-windedness. I would agree that this book could have used a good edit. Still, it was a great world to be a part of and I loved how art was upheld as a necessary outcome and reflection of the human experience.

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Books: Ru by Kim Thúy

As part of my summer reading spree I read Kim Thuy’s memoir-esque novel Ru. In 1979 Kim escaped Vietnam with her family in a boat, landed in a refugee camp in Malaysia and eventually she and her family made their way to Quebec where she still lives today.

One of the things Kim does so well in this slight but beautifully written volume is intertwine her family’s history and journey to the culture and traditions of Vietnam.

Each chapter is short and the language is poetic. It’s almost as though the book is a collection of linked poems that tell the story of the immensely difficult journey her family took leaving Saigon to try and forge a better life in a new ,strange and cold country.

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Her descriptions of life in Vietnam are teeming with that “other life”.  The life of Lotus blossoms, servants, aunties, chefs, tennis courts, jewels and parties.  But with a country recovering from civil war and with the takeover of Saigon by the north, the good life they had known was rapidly coming to an end. Soldiers moved into their home, their possessions were taken, their lives threatened.

I love the descriptions of the large, sprawling families who care for each other through good and also extraordinarily difficult times. The tale of her families opulent life is contrasted with the stories of war, a child shot to death, a mother losing her son, old and young women, through whatever means doing what they must to put food on the table, more often than not doing soul destroying and backbreaking work.

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It’s easy to forget the lives left behind. And when the family comes to Montreal they live in a world difficult to understand and navigate, its newness underscoring everything they had to let go to  start anew. It’s a good reminder of what is left behind and what it takes to integrate and adapt and how that informs who you become.

I liked the book a lot and it’s poetic style offered incredible moments of truth, pain and beauty but it’s ephemeral nature also made it more difficult to attach to the narrator or the characters in the book.

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Books: The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

9780349004365Why mince words I loved this book. From the opening page you’re drawn into this lovely world of 1920’s London and the lives of a mother and grown daughter whose circumstances are forever changed by the Great War.

To make ends meet they rent out rooms in their their grand old house to a young couple or ‘paying guests’ . Although awkward at first, a relationship quickly develops and before you know it the old house comes to life again with a steamy, illicit, passionate love affair.

Of course, illicit affairs are the stuff of real life and fiction. I think what makes this one unique is that it explores illicit love amidst the backdrop of changing moral fabric. The old world where women played prescriptive roles was changing. The Edwardian sensibility was fading against the rise of the middle class and the collapse of the old social genteel order. When the Barbers, a rough and tumble young couple (he’s an insurance broker, she a stay-at-home wife of questionable class) move in, their relationship with Frances and her mother becomes a microcosm of the new social order that is emerging.

This all sounds very academic but what this book is, is an extraordinary romp that’s well executed on multiple levels.  Without giving too much away I would say that the book is also a study in the slippery slope of moral indiscretion where one act begets another and before you know it,your characters are far away from who they thought they were or hoped to be. Another great read! I loved it and look forward to reading other books by the talented Ms. Waters!

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All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

UnknownI have a soft spot for books and stories set in either of the world war periods of the twentieth century. It’s close enough in time to feel familiar and far enough away to enable those standing on the other side to reflect on the horror and the beauty of people inextricably entrenched in global and local conflict. How in god’s name do we survive these things?

All the Light We Cannot See is the story of Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl of 10 and her father a keeper of keys and the maker of miniature cities who flee to St. Malo France, during the occupation of Paris in the Second World War. The other main character Werner, is a German boy the same age as Marie and a technical radio wizard who escapes the poverty of his orphaned family life through conscription to a brutal elite German military school that serves the Third Reich.

As we follow Werner’s story it is his talent with radio technology that makes him particularly adept at tracking resistance fighters…and ultimately this is what leads him across eastern Europe to St. Malo where Marie and her father live with an eccentric great uncle….a resistance fighter.

A part of this story is also about highly prized gem..one that has supposed dark powers and which is eagerly sought by the Nazis. This part of the story doesn’t particularly interest me too much.

But what I found magical about this book are the stories of “the things we cannot see”….the worlds that are created for us by art, technology, imagination and the greatness of the human heart. Marie’s father builds miniature cities for her, exact replicas of where she lives so she can ‘see’ where she is going…so she can explore her world.

As for Marie, her world is also made bigger by the books her father buys her and her uncle shares with her. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea weaves its way throughout the story. Werner and his sister Jutta’s worlds are made vast and beautiful by the French science lessons they secretly listen to through Werner’s radio…a moment that ties two French brothers love of the world and technology to two lonely children in Germany.

The convergence of Marie-Laure’s world and her love of books meets Werner’s when she reads Twenty Thousand Leagues using the radio and unwittingly broadcasts ‘art’ to the world and to Werner in his moment of darkness.

Wow, it is these moments that I live for and it is handled beautifully in this grand tale.  Go buy this book. Read it. Enjoy it and then pass it on. Art is what makes humans beautiful.

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Station Eleven: Emily St. John Mandel – Book Review

Unknown-2I have been shaken out of my reading lull with Emily St. John Mandel’s wild, beautiful book Station Eleven. The book moves back and forth between two very different but related worlds. One world is the world today as we know it and the other is the one that exists after a pandemic kills 99% of the human race.

The book opens in a theatre in Toronto where aging and legendary film actor Arthur Leander plays King Lear for his final time. He suffers a massive heart attack on stage and dies. A member of the audience runs to help him, the same man who years earlier, had as a paparazzi, stalked Leander and his wife Miranda outside his Hollywood mansion. When the paparazzi/medic leaves the theatre he calls a friend who tells him people are dying everywhere – that he should get out as soon as he can.

This last evening marks the end of the ‘old’ world. The new world order picks up with characters whose iives at some point or another have intersected with Arthur’s’ life. By moving back and forth between the old and the new world we not only find out about Arthur’s life but also of those who survived the pandemic.

The new world picks up in year twenty with Kirsten, who is now in her twenties and a survivor of the old world.She had been a child actress in the old world and now travels with a Shakespearean Theatre caravan who roam from settlement to settlement and in between dodge the dangers of a civilization that has become entirely undone. Nothing remains of the old world except ghosts of its former structures, abandoned houses, cars, buildings and airplanes – meals left half eaten, skeletons fully dressed lying in beds, on roads and in cars reminding the survivors of another life and time.

This merry band of artists and actors called the Travelling Symphony travel under the banner “survival is not enough” a line taken directly from Star Trek.  As a part of her old world possessions Kirsten has two limited edition comic books in her possession called Station Eleven which tells the story of Dr. Eleven, a physicist who lives on a space station after escaping an alien takeover of Earth. These comics at one time belonged to Miranda Leander, Arthur’s first wife, who was their author.

So what does all this mean? This book is more than just a story of a fading actor and his empty life. It’s more than a dystopic vision of post modern collapse and the end of the world as we know it. This is a rich novel where art and life are inextricably intertwined and it’s as though the world is a stage. And indeed the novel opens with Arthur in his last moments playing one of the greatest characters in literature – King Lear.

This theme continues with Miranda’s comics. She is driven to create a world that mirrors her own strange life in many ways. And as these comics get passed on they become the lifeblood of inspiration to two characters (Kirsten and the cult leader) in the new dystopian world. And in many ways the post pandemic world resembles Station Eleven  – an outpost world created out of the ruins of the death of a civilization.

And again, there are moments in the book, for example when Arthur is dining with his old friend and he notices that Arthur is no longer himself but is acting. It could be a commentary on the shallowness of Arthur and the world he lives in but it’s also the indivisibility of life and art. Life and art flow through each other like a river. Life without art is only survival as the Travelling Symphony knows. It elevates the human condition on every level and in the end it saves us from ourselves, each other and from barbarity. It’s what makes us a mensch.

I feel that Emily St. John Mandel has written a book that lays art against a bleak hopeless world (both the new and the old) and shows us that everything from comics to film and theatre including old standards like Shakespeare make the world an infinitely better more hopeful,  and more feeling place.

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YouTube: I’m reading a book – Julian Smith

This is just awesome.

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Blurbondency: how do you react to bamboozling book blurbs? (via Lynsey May writes down the night)

I love Lynsey’s rant on “blurbondency”. I have to say, I’ve run into this myself from time to time.

Blurbondency – The feeling of let down and confusion that follows reading a book because it has a blurb from one of your favourite authors, only to find the book disappointing and unreadable. Self doubt and a re-examination of bookshelves is also to be expected. Blurbs are powerful things. They act as the same kind of seal of approval you’re looking for when you’re eyeing up a potential date. I’ve picked up and taken home plenty of books thanks t … Read More

via Lynsey May writes down the night

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