Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (in which I am long-winded)

I wasn't in a hurry to read this book. 
It's silly, really; I loved Donna Tartt's The Secret History, and everyone's been raving about this book since it came out. I guess the description just left me cold. I mean, boy loses his mother, boy feels alienated, boy has some weird connection to a painting that leads him into criminal society somehow....(I'm paraphrasing from the book jacket here, if it wasn't obvious). It just didn't sound like something I needed to run out and read immediately. But then I got not one but two copies for Christmas, so I figured what the hell. 
This is why I should never read dust jackets. This one was definitely a fail. Because this book? This book, guys. It's nothing like the dry coming-of-age novel that stupid blurb would like us to believe it to be. Stupid blurbs, with their nefarious, blurb-y plots!
In fact, this book is both gorgeously written and brilliantly plotted, and populated with some of the most memorable characters I've ever read. I finished the novel over a week ago and I can't stop thinking about it. I kind of want to live in this book.
I'll back up. I know I usually skip the plot summaries, but I just want to see if I can right some of that terrible blurb's wrongs. Mild spoilers ahead. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Summer and Bird, by Katherine Catmull

The first review I wrote of Summer and Bird got eaten by crappy coffee shop internet. That's okay. It was pretty crappy writing. I'm out of practice. But this is my first book of 2014, a book I waited over a year to read, so long that my reserve at the library expired before I could actually get my hands on the book. Lucky thing Christmas came up when it did. I need to write about this book because that always helps set things in my mind and I don't want to forget this one. So here goes: take two.

Summer and Bird are sisters, just twelve and nine years old, respectively, when they wake up one morning to find their parents gone. (My sister and I used to pretend our parents were gone. It sounded so glamorous when we were little, to imagine fending for ourselves. Of course, if we'd ever woken up to find ourselves abandoned, we'd have been every bit as scared and confused as Summer and Bird.) They follow the few clues left to them--or they think they follow them, because they aren't very clear--and find themselves in the land of Down, where they wind up on separate journeys, following separate paths. Beyond that I don't want to get too specific, but I will say I've never read a book that felt quite like this one before. It reads like a fairy tale, both lyrical and unflinching. It's a book that resists simplicity--as one character puts it, "Nothing important means just one thing." 

And none of the characters are just one thing--in fact, all are pulled in at least a few directions. Bird, the youngest, is torn between guilt over the role she may have played in her parents' disappearance, and her ambitions to break away from her family and rise above them. Summer has her own guilt, and is torn between feeling responsible for her younger sister at the same time as she resents her for being the seemingly special one. Even their parents are torn, their mother between her true self and the life she's built with her family; their father between his wife and his children. I just love this. It feels like my whole life these days is about being pulled in different directions. Is my first responsibility to my friends or my family (or, shocker, to myself)? Is it more satisfying to feel capable and responsible and ADULT, or to say "fuck it" to the mess and the laundry and just feed my soul with books and writing and art and occasionally too much bourbon? I don't for a second think these are the biggest problems facing anyone in the world. I mean, come on, I am privileged to be having these dilemmas. But they're still issues I'm grappling with, and I so, so appreciated Catmull's ability to show so many sides of the same story, with compassion and understanding for all the characters. 

Because these are characters who do wrong. They all make some bad decisions throughout the book--they're not just unwise but occasionally selfish, veering into morally sketchy-as-hell. But they aren't demonized for it. Just when you think you've got a character figured out, Catmull switches things up and you're looking at the picture from another frame. Nothing important means just one thing. 

So if you want to read a really lovely book--seriously, prepare for some gorgeous brain-pictures here, people--that's also creepy and epic and funny and sad...this one's a good bet. Happy 2014.