Friday, June 27, 2014

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I attended a liberal arts school in the late sixties and early seventies, so I knew people who fit the mold of the main characters in The Secret History: reasonably smart, from well to do families, and generally acting as if our interests were less valuable than theirs. I also knew a few students who were more interested in drugs and alcohol than anything else the university had to offer, including their classes. So Donna Tartt’s setup worked well for me. But in real life I didn’t get to follow the lives of those people as closely as I did in The Secret History where I found their self-centered reactions to the complex situation believable. I also found myself pulling for people who had done some horrible things.

The Secret History is a crime novel from the point of view of one of the criminals. That’s clear from the beginning, so this isn’t a spoiler. Richard Papen is an impulsive young man with a family that doesn’t want him around. He picks his college for arbitrary reasons and picks his major because overcoming the challenge of signing up for Greek is more important than thinking of his future. Right away we see his decisions are a little edgy, but we like and sympathize with him. I find Richard very believable in the context of the novel. I know some reviewers have felt Tartt’s male characters are not male enough. Perhaps Richard thought a little too much about what he and his friends were wearing, but other than that I had no trouble with his masculinity.

Henry Winter and Bunny Corcoran are the two most interesting characters in the book. In a way they flip roles over the course of the book. Although, there are other things going on that push them in unique directions. I can't say much more than that without revealing the plot. Camilla and Charles are interesting in a very broad way, yet I didn't feel I got to know them as well as the other students of Julian Morrow. And every college has its Judy Pooveys, who might be attracted to someone or interested in something that's going on, but always too stoned to care. The teacher, Julian, is also fascinating because he epitomizes the concept of a college environment as a sanctuary where ideas can grow and anything can be discussed, but he has been living this ideal for so long he's lost all concept of the way events stimulated by his ideas can affect him. As the story unfurls, his reactions are wonderful.

The main characters in The Secret History meet as students in a Greek class. This, however, is unlike any language class I ever took. It's more about thinking and philosophy than it is about communication or reading. Here's a quote about that subject. Richard Papen is reflecting on something Julian Morrow has taught him:

The value of Greek prose composition, he said, was not that it gave one any particular facility in the language that could not be gained as easily by other methods but that if done properly, off the top of one's head, it taught one to think in Greek. One's thought patterns become different, he said, when forced into the confines of a rigid and unfamiliar tongue. Certain common ideas become inexpressible; other, previously undreamt-of ones spring to life, finding miraculous new articulation.

It seems like a wonderful thing, to gain a new way of thinking, but it depends on what the new ideas are.

What I liked the most about the book was the slow way Donna Tartt built her plot, carefully giving her readers enough information about her characters to believe the plot was progressing. I read this book and I’m currently listening to the audio of Tartt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch. I waited to finish this one before starting The Goldfinch. They aren’t linked in any way, so the order doesn’t matter, but the style is similar. I’m glad I didn’t try to read them both at the same time. But they are both great reads.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules of CivilityRules of Civility by Amor Towles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many of the reviews of Rules of Civility compare the book to The Great Gatsby and I can see that connection. But the story that came to my mind when I read Amor Towles' novel was Breakfast at Tiffany's (the movie more than the novella which I read too many years ago to discuss). Both stories take place in New York and seem to celebrate the city's whirlwind culture. Also, Tinker Grey has a connection to Paul Varjak that is obvious at the end. But the greatest link is in the characters of Eve Ross and Holly Golightly. They are both young women who have come to the city from rural settings determined to make a life for themselves – primarily by finding the right (i.e. wealthy) men.

Katie Kontent is the narrator and primary character in Rules of Civility, so I find it interesting that Towles decided to follow up his novel with a short story collection about Eve rather than continuing with Katie's story. I like that choice. Katie's character was a little too knowledgeable to be believable. She knew the current culture enough to recognize jazz numbers, recite specific lines of poetry by poets she hadn't brought up, and recognize the work of contemporary artists when she happened to see their paintings hanging. She was like a walking culture encyclopedia, but nobody ever commented on her wealth of knowledge. Instead Tinker simply found her a more interesting conversationalist than her roommate. This read as if the author was intruding his own interests on the story.

Towles has received some criticism from other reviewers because Katie seems to think from a male perspective. I agree that her first description of Eve reads as if it was written by a man with a very romantic view of women. But after that I wasn't bothered by thoughts that seemed masculine. Of course, women would naturally be more sensitive to that issue than a male reader.

I listened to the audio version of this book, read by Rebecca Lowman. I found her even toned, slightly apathetic interpretation perfect for the sophisticated feel of this novel, so I would recommend listening to this one.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Laika in Lisan by Maron Anrow

Laika in LisanLaika in Lisan by Maron Anrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Laika in Lisan by Maron Anrow, the author has built a fictional world apparently inspired by North Korea. Lisan is a country with closed borders, a leader who has manipulated his people to make them worship him, and a son of the leader who is biding his time to gain the power his father enjoys.

While the accuracy of what we know about such a closed off country will always be in doubt, Anrow has created her own world where conjecture and imagination are not only allowed, but probably bring us closer to truth than any list of facts ever could. Also, the villains (both individuals and governments) of Anrow's novel aren't entirely evil and the heroes aren't without their own flaws. This alone brings a truth that can't be found in most news articles.

Lakia is a young woman who lives in the democratic country of Trea, but has always been fascinated by the neighboring country of Lisan. She is also fluent in their language, which apparently is not common among the people of Trea. When Lord Hamin, the autocratic leader of Lisan, decides to open a new university, Laika jumps at the opportunity to become a visiting scholar. Her decision forces her to leave her position as a tutor for the children of a wealthy family and to disappoint her family, especially her father who had fought in a war between the two countries and is still bitter about the experience.

At times I felt Anrow's writing lacked detail, causing the plot to move too quickly and some important scenes to lack credibility. I also thought Anrow told too much of what her characters were feeling rather than allowing her readers to discover their feelings through their actions. One area where this criticism was not true was in Lakia's relation with Rodya, a young man she encounters after she and her guides are attacked on their way to the Holy City. The relationship between Lakia and Rodya grows slowly with twists and turns that are fascinating to read.

Laika in Lisan is a story about making important decisions in a world that isn't black and white. Laika is put in positions she isn't prepared to handle and as a result is consumed by doubt. This is what makes Anrow's characters real and what makes her novel an interesting read.

Steve Lindahl – author of White Horse Regressions and Motherless Soul

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