Monday, January 19, 2015

Further Consequences of Reading: The Goldfinch and "Value Added" Books


I'm a bit late on the bandwagon, I know... but I've just started reading Donna Tartt's newest book, The Goldfinch. I was a little hesitant to even begin it, despite all the praise I've heard. My experience last fall with Eleanor Catton's book, The Luminariesput me right off "big" books. And when I say "big," I mean (mostly) with respect to the huge amount of fulsome praise and media coverage these books garnered. But I also mean "big" in the sense of size. When I looked at Tartt's book (a whopping 771 pages), it just made me feel tired. Kind of how I used to feel when a professor at university assigned a five thousand word essay instead of, say, a fifteen hundred word one. Why, oh why, was it sooo much harder to get started on the bigger task? 



But I must say, I am loving this book. And unlike reading Catton's book, when I found the excruciatingly detailed description... excruciating... I'm sliding through this book effortlessly. Like a hot knife through butter. The Goldfinch is one of those books that is completely absorbing. You kind of crawl into the story, and then look up after an hour (or three) blinking and wondering where you are. 

I found this picture of Donna Tartt on the style website, The Fashion SpotShe's lovely isn't she? I love that menswear look on her. And the cravat.


Surprisingly, to me at least, the rave reviews of The Goldfinch are only half the story. For it seems this very big book has unleashed an even bigger storm of literary controversy. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and described as "dazzling" by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, it's also been relegated to the shelves of "children's literature" by James Wood of the New Yorker, and panned in Paris Review by Lorin Stein, who not only trashes the book, but even dismisses the positive reviews, saying that those critics who praised the book are "afraid to say when a popular book is crap." 

Whew... calm down people. 

To get a taste of both sides of this debate, you really should read this article by Laura Miller in The Guardian, or this one  by Evgenia Peretz in Vanity Fair. In looking at other works, like The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye, which were initially panned by critics and then went on to become classics, Peretz asks the question: "What makes a work literature, and who gets to decide?" Hmmm. This is obviously one of those rhetorical questions that is so much fun to debate. I almost wish I were still teaching. 

If I modified the question a bit to... "What makes a book great, and who gets to decide?" .... I would have to say that one of the things that makes a book great for me (besides a plot I can get lost in, evocative description, and characters I care about) is what I have come to refer to as "value-added."  And by "value-added" I mean some aspect of plot or setting in the book which teaches me something new. Or inspires me to explore, on my own, an idea, a place, or a person that the writer has touched on in the book. I love it when a book sends me off on a tangent to look up a quote, or explore a place, or the real life of a historical figure. 

The Goldfinch does this for me. Like in an early scene in the book, when the narrator, Theo Decker, and his mother are in a museum and the mum describes the painting "The Anatomy Lesson" by Rembrandt. How it seems as if the body in the picture "lights up the faces of the men looking down at it. Like it's shining with its own light source." And how the two characters in the back of the painting seem to be "...looking at us. You and me. Like they see us standing here in front of them-- two people from the future." I love that bit. So, I had to stop reading right then and go look up that painting on the internet. 


www.rembrandthuis.nl
Or the scene in which the same character explains to her son why she loves the painting "The Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius so much. "It was a small picture, the smallest in the exhibition, and  the simplest: a yellow finch, against a plain, pale background, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle." And then when I saw that painting for myself... it looked exactly like I had envisioned it: a little gold bird... plain, fragile... heartbreaking, in a way. Tartt's prose made me understand how the character loves the painting and made me love the painting too.


en.wikipedia.org
Later passages of The Goldfinch, after Theo meets Hobie, make me long for antique shopping, browsing through dusty shops piled with treasures, chatting with owners about provenance, hearing the stories of the items they sell. 

I'm only on page two hundred, so I can't pass judgement on the book as a whole. Yet.  But I will say that maybe James Wood's comment that the book should be on the children's shelf is not far off the mark. And while Wood definitely means this as a criticism, I don't. Because I think that, like the best children's books, Tartt's novel creates an almost magical atmosphere, a world inhabited by fascinating people, who might seem a little unreal at times. But whom we desperately want to know, and to follow, to find out where they are going and what happens when they get there. 

And because thinking (and writing) about one book always leads me to another, and another, I will leave you with three other books that I consider "value-added" books.

Lily King's brilliant Euphoria. Inspired by the real life story of anthropologist Margaret Mead, King's novel tells the utterly captivating and tragic story of three anthropologists on a field trip to New Guinea in 1933. Emily Eakin, in the NY Times Sunday Book Review, calls the book "uncanny" and "transporting."  Yep. It sure is. 



King's book made me very curious about the real life of Margaret Mead, whose name I had heard, but whose work and life I knew almost nothing about. I always fancied Mead as a large, solid woman, rather like Julia Child. But she was tiny, as you can see in the picture below. This is Mead with both her second and soon-to-be-third husbands. Tiny and brilliant, just like the character Nell in Euphoria.


Library of Congress
Elly Griffiths writes a whole series of "value-added" books. Griffiths' crime-fiction series features forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, who struggles with her job and her personal life, and at the same time stumbles upon, and solves, murders. Griffiths is a good writer and I really enjoy her books. But the "value-added" in them, for me, is the detail about archaeology and Celtic folk lore, Roman ruins and Nordic mythology which she weaves into her plots. As well as the beautifully atmospheric descriptions of the Norfolk coast. Ruth's cottage in the novel looks out over the Norfolk marshes, where the land and sea become one... and Griffiths makes you feel as if you might look up from the book and actually be there.


Last year I wrote a post about how I was obsessed with Irish books, in particular Irish mystery novels, and how they had inspired my search into my own Irish heritage. You can read that post here

Pretty much any book about Ireland has "value-added" for me. Especially now that Hubby and I have travelled there and I've actually been to many of the places I read about. But, I think it was Nuala O'Faolain's book My Dream of You which first piqued my interest in Irish history. O'Faolain's exploration of the potato famine, and its lasting effects on modern-day Irish society, was fascinating to me. One reviewer remarked that O'Faolain and "so many other Irish writers" are preoccupied with the "inescapability of the past." I can identify with that "preoccupation" ...but I'm not sure that's an exclusively Irish thing. Nor a terribly bad thing. 



All of these books qualify as "great", to me. According to my definition, a great book must transport us to another place or time and immerse us in the lives of the characters. It must be beautifully and skilfully written. And it must have something else I call "value added"... it must teach us something, or inspire us to explore that something, whatever it is. 

Many months ago I wrote a post called  The Consequences of Reading. I talked about what reading brings to my life, and how I inherited my love of books from my mum, who got it from her mum, my grandmother. Books have always been a shared passion for Mum and me. Most of the phone conversations we have, at some point, wend their way around to what we are reading. I buy her books for Christmas, knowing that when I travel to Fredericton I can borrow them back. 

And when I'm home visiting we always go on an outing to Gus's Used Books, where she's a regular. I love how, when he sees us, Gus rolls his eyes and says," Uh oh...here's trouble." And Mum laughs and shakes her cane at him. 

Gus knows everything there is to know about books. He knows what Mum likes, and is starting to know what I like as well. When we make our choices, he always stuffs an extra paperback or two into Mum's bag, then gallantly escorts us out to the car. 

I guess shopping for books at Gus's is what you might call "value-added" shopping. 

And I guess a relationship that has a shared love of books at its heart is just one more wonderful consequence of reading. 



14 comments:

  1. This essay on what makes for great reading is great. In fact, the idea of 'value added' as a measure of great reading makes this a great essay, a 'value added' piece. Thank you, Ms. Burpee!

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    1. Why thank-you, Ms. Frank. So great of a great friend to say such kind things!

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  2. I read Donna Tartt's the Secret History and found it well written but dark....I am currently reading Louise Penny's book The Beautiful Mystery...
    I worked for many years in a school library and think there is nothing better than engaging young people in the art of reading.

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    1. I'm not far enough into The Goldfinch (only 1/3 of the way through) to know if it's ultimately a dark book. You're right there IS nothing better than seeing kids turned on to books!

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  3. Your post was so well-written! I just spent the weekend in Fredericton, (with wild weather), and now want to go back and look in Gus' bookshop....maybe in warmer weather. Keep writing! Your posts are good reading.
    LmC - New Brunswick

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    1. Thanks for your kind words. Next time you're in F'ton, you should pay Gus a visit. And tell him Mum and I sent you!

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  4. As a lifelong keen reader , I enjoyed this post & it sent me off to read the books section of your blog . I'm also a Mitford fan , especially the biographies of the family itself . Crime fiction is a favorite too such as kate Atkinson & many of the others you mention . I've made a note of some of the names new to me & will be looking out for them . So thanks for that . Do you like Peter Robinson ? I believe he is a Canadian Yorkshireman or should that be a yorkshire Canadian ?
    Wendy in York

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    1. Thanks Wendy. So glad you checked out the "Books" section of the blog. I just added those topic sections a couple of weeks ago so that readers could do just that. I love Peter Robinson.... I'm not sure how you would label him. Feel free to pass along any other writers that you like. I'm always on the lookout for new writers, especially now that Reginald Hill (my absolute fav) has died, as well as P.D. James. Boo hoo. They will be missed.

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  5. i read your great post this morning and have thought about it all day. like you, i've been afraid of THE GOLDFINCH. i downloaded it to my kindle months ago but keep putting off reading it. i read the VANITY FAIR article also and was interested in the controversy. may i weigh in on the "what makes a book great" question? i agree with all all your points and love the idea of "value added." but i think there must be a time element. some books tap so directly into the zeitgeist that people feel an immediate "aha" when they read them. these books win lots of prizes and become wildly popular. twenty years later they've slid into obscurity because they were defined by that particular moment in time. a truly great book has something that is timeless and issues that resonate with people across time and culture, something universal. i love all your posts and look forward to them, but your book-related posts are the absolute best! i will definite pull up my big girl pants and read THE GOLDFINCH next.

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    1. Thanks for weighing in, Susan. Good point. I guess that's why some books become dated, and others, even when dealing with very specific issues of the day, do not. Thanks, as always, for reading.

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  6. I've popped back to recommend a book I read recently called Flappers by Judith Mackrell . It's a rather gossipy read about six real women of the 1920s who each pushed the boundaries , so to speak . Some of the women are more interesting than others but , if you haven't read it , it is worth reading . For crime , I like the Maeve Kerrigan series by Jane Casey - not as good as Kate Atkinson but decent plots , some suspense & good characterization . The first one is The Burning .
    Wendy in York

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    1. Thanks, Wendy. I'll look for those books.

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  7. Your description of Gus' bookshop made me so long for the day when we had book stores here in California. Sadly they are few and far between. I too thought The Luminaries long and tedious. I kept reading because I had spent some time in that area of the world. I read the Goldfinch last year without reading anything of the controversy. I thought everything about it was wonderful. I fell in love with all the main male characters, Teo, the good boy, Boris the bad boy, and of course Hobie. I often judge a book good if it stays with me. All of these characters will be with me for life. Love this post.

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    1. Our independent book stores are disappearing fast, but there are still a few hold outs, like Gus. Thank goodness. Thanks for reading, Sally.

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