Tag Archives: Donna Tartt

My Top Ten Literary Turning Points

Life is full of ‘crucible’ moments, isn’t it? Moments which, when you look back, you recognise as being particularly important for one reason or another, influential in your development as a person, and pivotal in your individual history. I have plenty of these moments; not all of them revolve around books, but – me being me – the most important ones do. I’ve already discussed, at some length, the importance of books like The Little Prince and Elidor to me so I won’t revisit those here (you can check out this post if you’re interested), but what follows is a roughly chronological list of books which, when I first encountered them, had a profound effect on the direction of my life.

1. The Diary of a Young Girl

I was introduced to Anne Frank’s diary at around the age of seven or eight, when our teacher set it as a class text. We were only supposed to read sections of it but – of course – I ended up reading the whole thing in my own time. All our teacher told us about Anne Frank was that she had written her book when she wasn’t much older than us, and that she had lived at the time of a terrible war. I don’t think I can over-emphasise, then, how it felt to read to the end of this incredible book and learn, out of the blue, that Anne did not survive this war. By the time I’d read the first few entries, I was already in love with Anne and her family – a love which has endured to this day – and it broke my heart when I read the postscript describing how the Franks had been betrayed, and how they’d died. I felt like I’d lost a friend, and it was the first time I’d been faced with the evil that can exist in the world, made all the more terrible by being juxtaposed with some of the greatest good I’d ever read about.

Reading The Diary of a Young Girl changed my life and left an indelible impression on me, and so it was a shoo-in for my list.

Image: annefrank.org

Image: annefrank.org

2. Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters

I know I’ve mentioned pTerry on the blog before (by the way, if you don’t know why he’s called pTerry by his fans, I exhort you to find out), but he’s important enough to be included on this list again. The first Pratchett book I read was Wyrd Sisters, which I remember begging my father to buy me one sunny Saturday afternoon when I was about eight or nine. He’d long accepted the fact that I was a bookaholic by then, and in lieu of pocket money (an alien concept to my brother and I as kids) he’d agreed to buy me a book every week or two. So, on this particular book-hunting trip, I spotted the thrilling cover of Wyrd Sisters, fell instantly in love, and it was that book or no book.

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

My dad was a bit dubious about buying this book for his teeny-weeny child (which, if you look at the cover, is entirely understandable), but he trusted my judgement and it came home with us. I devoured it, didn’t understand the plot at all, but loved it anyway. I told myself ‘I’ll put this book away until I’m bigger and I’ll read it again then,’ and I did exactly that.

I loved it, and I love it still. It was the first ‘big person’s book’ I read, and for that reason it’s one of my pivotal reads.

3. Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t

I think I’ve read pretty much every Judy Blume book in existence – Deenie and Tiger Eyes very nearly made this list, too – but I’ve chosen Margaret and Then Again because I read them both in quick succession the year I turned twelve, itself a pivotal age. Margaret taught me a lot about what was facing me as I teetered on the brink of adolescence, terrifying and tantalising me in equal measure, and Then Again gave me a much-needed window into the mind of the average teenage boy. From Margaret, I learned all about menstruation and complicated friendships, and from Then Again I learned that, underneath all their inexplicable mystique, boys were just like me. That was a mind-blowing lesson.

4. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights

I read loads of books during my time at secondary school, but for some reason this one sticks out the  most. I guess this is because I studied it during the last two years of my post-primary education and then took an exam on it, and during that time I probably read it six or seven times. I’d never really been in love with a fictional character before I met Heathcliff, and even though I now see him as an emotionally manipulative loon, some of my heightened hormonal adoration remains. I adored this book when I first read it, and it was my first classic.

5. Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!

I studied English Literature at university, and – naturally enough – I read a ton of books. I could have picked any volume out of hundreds, but this one made the cut as a pivotal read because its protagonist, Alexandra Bergson, nestled in my heart and has never left. A big-boned, hard-working country girl, Alexandra is determined to make the farm she inherits from her father viable once again, and she pours every drop of her effort into her land. At one point in the novel she has a dream where she is picked up and carried effortlessly by a golden man, a man the colour of her cornfields, whom she senses loves her with the sensual passion that is missing from her real life. She is particularly moved by the fact that he is strong enough to carry her, as in reality she knows no man who would be capable of such a feat, and she wakes in tears. Alexandra is all about deep-seated passions – feelings buried so deep she can’t even admit them to herself – and, at the time in my life when I first met her I identified with her in a very profound way.

6. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

The Secret History is the book which almost got me fired from my first real job after college, because I was caught repeatedly reading it under my desk. It was, to the best of my recollection, the most unputdownable book I’d ever read up to that point in my life. It stuck straight to my brain because it described the kind of milieu I had just left – the world of the university – which was, at that time, the place in which I wanted to spend the rest of my career. I dreamed about a life in academia while answering phones and preparing mail-outs, and even though I’ve long since abandoned that dream, for very good reasons, this book gave me a taste of what I yearned for. It also made me feel glad that I was a literary nerd, which was a huge comfort.

7. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

So, this book isn’t my favourite of the Harry Potter series (that would be The Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone, fact fans), but it’s on the pivotal reads list because it’s the one where… it’s the book in which… Oh, goodness. I just can’t say it.

Image: vadamagazine.com

Image: vadamagazine.com

I adored Dumbledore. I can’t even explain why. I prefer him even to Gandalf, which is saying something. When I read that scene, the one where he… anyway, I remember screaming ‘No!’ and weeping, uncontrollably, as though I’d just been punched in the solar plexus. I had to close the book, allow myself time for a good cry, and then attempt to finish it through a veil of tears despite the fact that all the sunshine had just been removed from my life.

Yes. This is how emotionally invested I can allow myself to become in fictional characters.

So. This is the book that taught me how to keep going with a book series even when the heart has been ripped out of it. Pivotal, I’m sure you’ll agree.

8. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman

I wish I knew more about graphic novels. It’s a genre into which I’ve always intended to immerse myself, but I’ve never quite managed to get around to it. The only graphic novel series I’ve ever read in its entirety is Sandman, but – to be fair – if you’re only going to read one, then Sandman is a good one to pick. Based around a family of siblings known as the Endless, consisting of Death, Delirium, Desire, Destiny, Destruction, Despair and Dream, the latter being the central character in the series, it follows their interactions with the fate of the universe and the lives of humans both individually and generally. The Endless are not gods – they are older even than that – but they are more like personifications of their names, and each of them has a vital role in the correct running of our universe and all universes. They are definitely a dysfunctional family unit, but their adventures make for compelling and awe-inspiring reading. Also, the art is incredible. Several artists illustrated the series, but I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite.

9. The SF Masterworks Series

All right, so these aren’t a book, singular, but they were definitely a pivotal literary event in my life. I discovered the SF Masterworks series while I worked as a bookseller, and it was almost more than I could do to avoid ordering them all in for myself. I have managed to collect several of them, however, and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Look out for their distinctive yellowish covers, and collect away. They are fantastic. They taught me how big a nerd I am, and how comfortable I am with that knowledge.

10. The Dream of the Rood

I couldn’t leave a list like this without mentioning a medieval text. The Dream of the Rood is an anonymous Old English poem about Christ’s crucifixion written from the point of view of the cross, which is exactly as nuts as it sounds. It’s a psychedelic piece of literature, and it transfixed me when I first read it. In my final year at university we were asked to write a paper on it, and even though there were plenty of widely available translations (or modernisations, really) of the text, I wrote my own, painstakingly working through the poem word for word. I’ve never been so absorbed by anything in my life, before or since.

I wrote the paper. I got a First. It was awesome.

Also, as a direct result of this text I did an MA and then a Ph.D. in medieval literature, which led – indirectly, but clearly – to the rest of my life’s happiness. So, pretty pivotal.

So, there you have it. My life’s defining moments, as expressed in books. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and if you have, please consider writing one of your own and linking back here. I’d love to read what your top ten (or five, or twenty) literary turning points are.

My Neil Gaiman collection, aka my pride and joy.

My Neil Gaiman collection, aka my pride and joy.





Book Review Saturday – ‘The Goldfinch’

You might remember me saying a while back – with unalloyed glee – how glad I was to hear that the majestic Donna Tartt had a new book coming out, and how excited I was to read it. You might remember me spouting on about how much I loved her work, and how every word that dripped from Tartt’s golden-nibbed pen of genius was a masterpiece.

Well. I still think so. Donna Tartt is amazing, and her work leaves me stunned.

I will add one caveat, though: Holy heck, but the woman uses a lot of words. They’re all amazing words, of course, but when they’re piled up in such huge heaps, it can be hard to appreciate how gorgeously wrought each individual phrase is, and that’s a shame. At 771 pages in my edition, I hate to say it but – I think this book is a little too long.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

‘The Goldfinch’ is a huge, dense, complex and challenging book. Every second of the ten years its author has spent writing it is evident; the amount of research Tartt must have done in order to make the book so real, so detailed, so utterly ‘trompe l’oeil’, is there to be seen. I have read reviews which have criticised the book for being too detailed, but I don’t agree with that. For me, the level of description is just right – the details make the scenes come alive in a way I’ve rarely experienced.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the book tells the story of Theodore Decker who, at thirteen, is involved in a horrific event at an art museum. He and his mother, attending an exhibition featuring the painting which gives the novel its name, are caught up in an explosion. Separated by chance at the exact moment the bomb detonates, Theo survives – but of his mother, there is no sign. Theo, caught in the rubble and dust of the half-collapsed building, becomes aware of an elderly man lying nearby – a man he had earlier glimpsed walking with a red-haired girl who had, for reasons unknown even to Theo himself, caught his eye. In a very moving passage, we see Theo keeping this strange, dying man company as his last breaths leave his body, but the old man lives long enough to give Theo a ring, an address to bring it to, and an instruction to take a painting which is lying, frameless, nearby.

Stunned, terrified, half-concussed, Theo obeys, and stumbles out of the rubble with a priceless Grand Master under his arm.

'The Goldfinch,' Carel Fabritius, 1654, Mauritshius, The Hague, the Netherlands. Image: the-toast.net

‘The Goldfinch,’ Carel Fabritius, 1654, Mauritshius, The Hague, the Netherlands.
Image: the-toast.net

Over the days that follow, Theo realises his mother has been killed. He is removed from his home and his old life by social workers, and attempts are made to place him with his distant and uninvolved grandparents. Because they are unable – or unwilling – to take him, he goes to live with a schoolfriend, Andy Barbour, and his family, society people with household staff and an apartment which overlooks Park Avenue. One of the most interesting – if, I felt, underused – characters in this novel is Mrs Barbour, Andy’s mother, who is described as cool, standoffish and controlled (the epitome of New York sangfroid), but who turns out to be one of the only stable and supportive pillars in Theo’s life. He lives, as happily as he can, with this family for quite some time – until the day his feckless, addicted, alcoholic father, with trashy girlfriend in tow – arrive back into his life and announce they want to bring him to Las Vegas to live with them.

In Las Vegas he meets Boris, a boy of around his own age who is described as having an ‘Australian-Ukrainian’ accent, which I found annoying because there was just no way I could imagine such a thing. The way Boris’ dialect is written sounded totally Ukrainian/Russian to me, and it gets more so as the book goes on. Boris is a shambling, rambling type, a boy who – like his alcoholic, depressive, raging, abusive father – lives his life in the constant grip of some sort of stimulant or sedative, and who leads Theo down a path which is the diametric opposite of the one he was living in New York. He fades out of school, he becomes addicted to a variety of substances, he starts to get involved in petty crime, and – touchingly – he begins to grow close to his father for the first time in his life.

Through all of this, he has the painting hidden away, wrapped in a pillowcase and secured with duct tape. It reminds him of his mother, because she loved it, and because she died in her attempt to see it, and he cannot bear to give it back.

Then, another tragedy derails his life once again, and he runs from Las Vegas with the weight of a thousand worlds on his young shoulders, strung out and homeless, and desperate with fear. In his luggage, he has the stolen painting. Back in New York, he seeks out the address given to him by the dying old man in the museum, and he brings the ring he was given. What he finds is a home, and the love of a beautiful character named Hobie – a giant of a man who restores antique furniture with the skill and care of an artist – and an opportunity to live a secure and peaceful life.

But Theo can’t allow himself to do this, at least not while the stolen painting is still in his possession. As the years pass, we begin to learn how valuable it is, and how desperately the art world wishes to retrieve it – and how heavily this weighs on Theo. I loved the way Tartt paints her narrator, and how convincingly she portrays this conflict at the heart of his character. He knows he should return the painting, and he is afraid of the consequences if he does not, but he simply can’t bring himself to do it. Having said all that, I have to admit that I simply did not like Theo very much, as a human being or as a narrator. I found it difficult to warm to him, I found myself thinking that he only had himself to blame for a lot of the trouble he ended up in, and – while I understood his intense need to keep the painting, and not hand it in – I couldn’t help but think to myself as I read: ‘Just throw it away! Leave it somewhere! Hand it in anonymously! Mail it to the museum!’ Anything to be free of the burden of it.

But that, of course, is the point.

His struggles reminded me of Raskolnikov’s in ‘Crime and Punishment’, and I thought it was strange that Tartt kept mentioning ‘The Idiot’, and even makes reference to Raskolnikov (through the mouth of Boris) – it was like she was afraid her readers wouldn’t get what she was driving at unless she spelled it out in extremely clear terms. I felt she didn’t really need to do this; her depiction of Theo’s mental self-torture is effective enough without labouring the comparison. In any case, as Theo grows up, his internal struggles grow with him, and his attempts to self-medicate lead him down darker and darker paths, until eventually he ends up in a situation where you, the reader, feel there is only one way out.

I don’t want to give away anything about how the plot develops – mainly because even writing a paraphrase of it would be far too long for one blog post! – but also because I’d hate to spoil the complexity of it for anyone else. Overall, I thought ‘The Goldfinch’ was an excellent study of human psychology and a touching exploration of the bonds of friendship, though I feel very deeply that Theo is not being honest with himself at any point in this sprawling narrative, and that is the overriding impression I will take away from the novel. I was left feeling a little cheated by the ending, too, though on another level I’m glad it concluded the way it did. I do think the book is too long, too in love with its own verbosity and splendour, and perhaps a little too reliant on stereotype – drunk, brawling Russians; icy society beauties; large, clumsy-looking but utterly gentle father-figures; white-trash girlfriends – but in so many ways it is a novel worth reading.

It’s not for those who like gentle storytelling, and it’s not for those looking for a light read. It’s a mystery, and a thriller, and a love story (several of those, in fact), and an examination of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – and it was worth waiting for.

Have you read it? If so, I’d love to know your thoughts.

Long Time Coming

I dithered over buying a Sunday newspaper yesterday. Those Sundays when I do buy one, it normally lies, unread, until at least Thursday; the more papers we get, the longer the period of unread-ness lasts. This isn’t because the papers aren’t good, or worth reading – but, for whatever reason, there’s always something better to do than get stuck in. However, yesterday I wandered into our local shop and saw some copies of the Sunday Times lying piled on the floor. I flipped to the Culture magazine (as I am wont), and saw a face with which I was familiar, and a name which piqued my interest, and news that I had, somehow, managed to miss until that point; and so, I bought the paper.

This was the face:

Image: telegraph.co.uk

Image: telegraph.co.uk

And this was the name:

Donna Tartt

And this was the news:

Donna Tartt has written a new novel, which will be published in English on October 22nd, and it will be called ‘The Goldfinch.’

I devoured the article when I got home, quivering with annoyance at myself that such a huge event (for me) could be taking place, and that this was the first I’d heard of it. A new novel from Donna Tartt is massive news, for those who, very patiently, follow her work. She, for me, is one of those life-changing authors who demonstrates not only how good fiction writing can be, but also how an author can – with enough talent, and enough luck – have the life of an artist. For Donna Tartt is not only an author – she is that rarest of rare things, an author whose output is tectonic-slow, but who has a readership devoted to her every syllable, and whose work is treated like precious printed jewels. I imagine her life as being a long, gentle fluttering from one day to the next, golden and perfect phrases dripping from her pen, her mind ever set on higher things… Of course, I’m sure this is entirely wrong, but I like my little dream, all the same.

She reminds me of a Tamara de Lempicka painting, somehow. Image: theculturetrip.com Painting: 'Saint-Moritz', 1929

She reminds me of a Tamara de Lempicka painting, somehow.
Image: theculturetrip.com
Painting: ‘Saint-Moritz’, 1929

I am a fan not only of Tartt’s writing, but also of her approach to her writing and the skill with which she has constructed her life. Donna Tartt had a childhood comparable with any novelistic heroine, which is to say it sounds like it would make a far better plot for a novel than an actual life for a young child to live through. In the Sunday Times interview she talks about her isolation and her separation from her parents and her interest in the dark flipside of life from an early age; she discusses her familiarity with death as a result of being raised, in the main, by eccentric and elderly aunts, and the freedom that came from their ‘light touch’ guardianship. It seems no wonder that she writes so well about the fractures in the human psyche and the shadowed underbelly of the consciousness, and that isolation – that of her protagonists, but also, at a fundamental level, that of all human beings from one another – are such strong themes in her books.

Her first novel, ‘The Secret History,’ captivated me when I first read it about twelve or thirteen years ago. Even then, it was an ‘old’ book; first published in 1992, it has been a bestseller ever since. I had just finished my degree at the time I read the book, and – as it takes place in a university – I read it with a sense of recognition and familiarity. I’ve only learned recently that Tartt began the novel while a student herself, which is unsurprising on one level and also, frankly, terrifying on another; I am amazed that a 19-year-old woman could have an idea so riveting, and then go on to write a book so good, as ‘The Secret History.’ It captured my mind completely at the time, as the first book I’d read ‘for pleasure’ in many years. I didn’t have long to wait for her next book, ‘The Little Friend,’ because it was published shortly after I first became aware of her work, and so the wait for this third novel has been interminable. I wondered for a long time if she was ever going to write another novel – in some ways, Tartt reminds me of that other great literary magician, Harper Lee, whose sole novel remains an unassailable masterpiece.

Perhaps it’s a mindset common to those in the southern states of America – don’t write too many books, but make them all works of genius.

In any case, I’m looking forward to, eventually, getting my hands on ‘The Goldfinch.’ It’s good to know that there are some constants in this world – death, taxes and the inevitable brilliance of Donna Tartt.

It’s also nice to have an author to whose lifestyle one can aspire; sadly, her ability far outstrips my own, but a gal can dream!