Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Secret Formula

One of my favorite books is Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.  After reading it, I told everyone who would listen about it.  My sister told me that if I thought that book was good, I should read The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which has the same premise, but which she said was even better.  Since then, my sister and I have agreed to disagree about which one is better, but the literary world is on her side.  A BBC list of the 100 best books of all time just circulated among my Facebook friends, and while Secret History has a solid seat on that list, Special Topics doesn't make the cut.  I think that which book you prefer might also depend on which book you read first.  I read Special Topics before Secret History, and liked Special Topics better, while my sister read them in the opposite order, with the opposite opinion.

The plots of The Secret History and Special Topics are very similar.  An outsider comes to a new school, and notices a group of closely knit students, including both men and women.  The outsider admires the group from afar, and then meets one member of the group who introduces him or her to the others.  The outsider does not instantly fit in, and realizes, uncomfortably, that the group has a secret that they don't want to share.  The outsider eventually determines that the secret is sinister, but never grasps how sinister, until it is too late to avoid becoming complicit in their activities.

Last year, the New York Times reviewed a book called The Hidden by Tobias Hill.  From the review it sounded to me that The Hidden might be another book using this same formula, and I was intrigued.  In The Hidden, the outsider, Ben, is older than the outsiders in Secret History and Special Topics but that barely complicates the story.  Ben is going through a divorce and needs to take a break, so he decides to go to Greece, under the pretense that he will be doing work to advance his studies of ancient Greece, but actually with no plans.  An acquaintance from his school runs into Ben, and tells him about an archaeological dig in the area which was once Sparta.  Ben instantly sees an opportunity to do something that is really interesting while on his hiatus from his life.

After making the requisite arrangements, Ben joins the dig, and is befriended by locals working there who warn him not to associate with the other foreigners, including Ben's acquaintance.  In Secret History and Special Topics there are teachers who are close to the clique, and have varying degrees of knowledge about the clique's secret.  In The Hidden, that role is played by Missy, who is in charge of the dig, who knows that there is a secret, and who believes that it's "bad voodoo", but doesn't know what it is.

What is it about this plot formula that keeps me reading?  It works.  And it works in The Hidden too.  The reader plays the role of the outsider, and slowly tries to piece the secret together.  Once the secret is known, the reader joins the outsider in analyzing all of the alternatives available, and deciding that the situation is hopeless.  In all three of these books, it is not clear why the clique eventually accepts the outsider and lets him or her in on the secrets, but it's really the only way that the story could be told.

Of these three, my favorite is still Special Topics, in part because the outsider never really figures the whole thing out, and some members of the clique are left guessing too.  There's a lot to talk about after finishing that book, and while the unanswered questions leave you wanting to know more, it's a good feeling.  My second favorite is The Secret History, which is really well written, but which spells the secret out completely.  The only thing that you are left wondering is why, why, why did the clique do the thing which they have to keep secret.  The Hidden reveals most but not quite all of the secrets, and it may have been better if more was left unanswered.  The clique is digging in ancient Sparta, and there is the opportunity to have a true "Spartan" ending, which would have left Ben facing a moral dilemma, and which would have been more haunting for the reader.  Another difficulty with The Hidden is that Hill rarely tells you who is speaking, which makes the underlying meaning of what is being said hard to follow, and stalls the character development of the individual clique members.

All said and done, the next time a book with this plot formula comes out, I'll read that one too.

Next Up:  You Better Not Cry:  Stories for Christmas by Augusten Burroughs.  My friend, Kim, lent me this book, and I am thinking it will be something light and fluffy to get me into the holiday spirit before I dig into A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin.

Still Listening to:  Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Most Wonderful Day of the Year

It's the most wonderful day of the year. . . yes it's Thanksgiving, but that's not why.  Yes, it's also the night before Black Friday, which I also love, but that's not why.  It's the day that I found the New York Times 2010 Notable Books List online!  The list won't be published in the paper for two more weeks, but I've found that if you Google compulsively for it this time of the year, eventually it will appear!  Here is the list.

Of course, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen made the list.  Other books on my TBR list that made it are Great House by Nicole Krauss, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.  I was disappointed to see that Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin and Sunnyside by Glen David Gold didn't make the cut.  I was also surprised not to see Just Kids by Patti Smith, especially since it just won the National Book Award. 

After reading the new list, my TBR list now includes Contested Will - Who Wrote Shakespeare by James Shapiro, which is about the controversy concerning who actually wrote the works accredited to Shakespeare, and why we are so obsessed with the question.  I also added Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip by Lisa Robertson.  How could I not want to read a book by that name?

In other good news, Jonathan Safran Foer has a new book out!  It is called Tree of Codes, and it sounds really interesting.  According to the Vanity Fair article that I read, JSF loves the book, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz.  He decided to write a new book using some of the words from The Street of Crocodiles, in the order in which they are written, to write an entirely different story.  The book is die cut, so that it looks like someone cut out some of Schulz's words on each page with an Exacto knife.  I am really excited about the concept of this book, but of course, I will have to read The Street of Crocodiles before reading Tree of Codes in order to appreciate it.  Additionally, Amazon says that if I order it, the book will ship in 1 to 4 MONTHS.  Huh???  Is JSF personally cutting out the omitted words just for me? 

All in all, it is a pretty wonderful day!

Still reading:  The Hidden by Tobias Hill.  OK.  I'll level with you.  The reason that I really wanted to read it is that the NYT review that I read made it sound like The Hidden would be along the same lines as The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.  So far (220 pages in) I am still intrigued, but prepared to be disappointed.  I'll keep you posted.

Still Listening to:  Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.  I am intrigued by this one too!  I keep forgetting it is a memoir - it seems more like fiction, but is so poignant because it is real.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Unspoiled Little Stranger

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is not the type of book that I normally read.   It is surprising that I even stumbled upon it, but I'm glad that I did.  It was named one of the top 100 books of the year by the New York Times in its 2009 Notable Books List, which may be where I first heard about it.  Each year, I eagerly await the Notable Books List, which usually comes out around Thanksgiving.  This year I read lots of books on the list, but of the books that I have blogged about, The Little Stranger, Museum of Innocence, Wolf Hall, and Columbine were named Notable Books of 2009.

The Little Stranger is an old fashioned ghost story.  It is set on an estate in rural England after World War II.  While the story must take place in 1949 or 1950, it feels more like it is taking place in the 1800s.  The Ayres family is committed to dated ideas of class and the formalities that proper people follow.  They are also economizing by not running their generator, and depending on candlelight for much of the story.  Our story teller is the family doctor, Dr. Faraday, whose mother worked for the Ayres family when she was young.  I remember hearing in high school that normal people go crazy, but rich people get eccentric.  The Ayres family is plenty eccentric. 

I listened to this book on CD in my car, and I loved it so much that I was constantly on the look out for opportunities to drive somewhere by myself.  This book was especially good to listen to since it is a ghost story, and stories like that are more often heard around a camp fire than read.  The important thing for me to tell you about The Little Stranger is to not read anything else about it.  The New York Times review and the Amazon Editorial Reviews are full of spoilers that I wish I hadn't read.  So trust me on this one.  Go get it and read.  We can talk about the plot later.  I think that this will be my choice for The Eclectic Book Group to read the next time it is my pick, so I will write more about it then.

Next Up on CD:  Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. 

Still waiting for:  The Hidden by Tobias Hill.  I was really interested in this book after reading the NYT review last year, but apparently no one else was.  My library doesn't have it, and had to order it from another county.  In fact, there are only 4 copies of it available in libraries in the entire state of Michigan.  I requested it last Sunday and am still waiting to get it, which puts me in a strange place because I don't want to start reading another book.  Sometimes when the library gets a book from a different library one is only allowed to borrow it for one week.  That means that if I start something new, I'll have to drop it in the middle, and read The Hidden when I get it.  I know that I should take it as a warning that so few libraries have it, and I probably shouldn't expect it to be very good, but I want to try it anyhow.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


My local library has a used book sale about every 6 months, and it is always crammed with so many books, that it is not possible to see them all.  Today I picked up 10 new-to-me books, along with 5 books and 1 DVD for my daughter, and a book for my son, all for $20.00!  I may go back tomorrow for 1/2 off day, or on Monday for "bag day", because I know that even though I spent more than an hour there, I missed lots of other goodies!

The two books that I got that I am most excited about are

Netherland by Joseph O'Neil


Absrudistan by Gary Shteyngart

I also picked up A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which has been on my TBR list since January, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick, and So Long at the Fair by Christina Schwartz.  When I got home, I was disappointed to see that So Long at the Fair is in large print, both because I think I'll find the large print distracting and hard to read, and because someone else who needs large print might have really liked to have found this copy.  Oh well.

As you know, I also like to buy copies of books that I have read before, but which I don't own, and I picked up a couple of those too - Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe by Sandra Gulland, and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.  I have actually bought The History of Love a few times to give to people, as it is one of my all time favorites, but I didn't have a copy of my own. 

This is the last used book sale of the season for me, but The Eclectic Book Group (yes, I have gone to initial caps in recognition that this label has become a proper name) will likely do a used book exchange in December, so I may still pick up a couple more new-to-me titles this year.

Gotta go read.  My nightstand is so full that there were books on the floor underneath it even before this sale.  There are worse things that I could collect, I suppose.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Story Behind the Painting

In Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk, the main character, Kemal, travels the world in an effort to learn how to make the best possible museum to honor his love, Fuson.  One of the museums that he visits is the Musee Gustave Moreau, where he is inspired by the fact that Gustave Moreau turned his own home into a museum, just as Kemal planned to turn Fuson's home into her museum.  When Kemal visited that museum, I felt a twinge of regret, and a wish to go back to Paris.  The Musee Gustave Moreau was the one place that I wanted to visit in Paris that we just didn't get a chance to see.

I first read about Gustave Moreau in Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland.  Moreau was a painter, and a collector of art, during the time when the impressionists were making their mark in Paris. Reading Museum of Innocence, with Kemal mentioning the Musee Gustave Moreau, put me in the mood to read more books about the stories behind impressionist paintings.  When I stumbled upon Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman at a used book sale, I knew that it would not sit in my nightstand unread for long.

Lydia Cassatt reminded me less of Luncheon of the Boating Party, however, than it did Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.  It has been a few years since I read GWTPE, but as I remember it, the story there was told by the model, instead of the artist.  The story was also told by the model in Lydia Cassatt.  I think that I liked Luncheon of the Boating Party better, because it was told from varying perspectives, focusing on Renoir's struggles with the painting, but also telling the stories of the models. 

I also prefer Renoir's painting to those of Cassatt and Vermeer, although I didn't get to see it in Paris, since it is kept in Washington D.C.  The painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party (pictured at left)  is itself more active than the paintings by Mary Cassatt which were the subject of Lydia Cassatt (one is included at the top of this post), and the painting, Girl with the Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer.  There may just be more to tell about an active painting than a lone model. 

I enjoy this mini-genre of stories behind the paintings, and think that I will continue to seek them out.  Actually, Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin, is basically of the same genre, with the only difference being that the art on which that story is based is a photo instead of a painting.  I have Girl in Hyacinth Blue  by Susan Vreeland on my TBR list, which will give me the chance to see if I like her handling of the subject of Vermeer better than Chevalier's.

Next Up:  The Hidden by Tobias Hill

Still Listening to:  The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Columbine: a Parents' Guide

On April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold staged their attack on their high school, Columbine, my son turned 7 months old.  Like the rest of the nation, I was transfixed by television, trying to find out every detail.  Of course, I thought about the killers' parents.  I wondered what they did wrong, or what they failed to do.  What could I learn from them?  Could it be as simple as giving my son organic milk, or not letting him watch Saturday Night Live?  I wanted concrete lessons, and if the lessons had been there I would have followed them.  It was especially important to me, because at seven months old, my son already owned a gun.

I come from a hunting family, and so does my husband.  My dad, father-in-law and husband all hunt deer, pheasants, turkey, you name it.  My father-in-law could not let my son's first Christmas pass without buying him a Daisy Red Ryder BB Gun.  And in light of Columbine, that worried me.  I assumed, like so many others did, that Harris and Klebold must have had easy access to guns.  It turns out that they did, but that they bought them through a friend at a gun show, rather than "borrowing" their dads'.  I wanted Columbine by Dave Cullen to come out the week after the tragedy.  Instead, it was worth a ten year wait.

While I was waiting, I heard about Jodi Picoult's book, Nineteen Minutes, and I even picked it as one of my choices for the eclectic book group to read.  If I couldn't have the answers on how to avoid raising a school shooter from an authoritative source, why not look to fiction?  Nineteen Minutes was a scary book, as it centered on the nineteen minutes of a boy's killing spree inside his high school, and how those nineteen minutes impacted the lives of all involved.  Nineteen Minutes obviously took inspiration from the tragedy at Columbine, but instead of giving me good advice, it perpetuated the myths.  The killer will be a loner, a loser, a victim of bullying.  The parents will be distracted; the mom will probably work.  The killer will be obsessed with video games, and some incident will trigger the killing.  In Columbine, Dave Cullen debunks all of these stereotypes, and that makes the truth scarier for a parent than fiction.

The real killers in Columbine did get into trouble from time to time, and yes, some signs were missed.  But for the most part, it seems that there was very little that their parents could have done differently.  The killers came from stable two parent homes.  Klebold went to prom and his mom waited up for him to talk about how the night went.  Both kids were highly intelligent, and had after school jobs.  They had friends - lots of friends.  Their parents did not own guns.  Harris seemed to be an Eddie Haskell character, who could smooth talk his way out of any situation.  His dad doubted his stories from time to time, but rarely had concrete proof that his son had lied.

What parenting lessons could I take from this?  Very few.  It seemed to me like there were two areas where if communication had been better, maybe the tragedy could have been prevented.  The first is communication between the Klebold and the Harris parents.  I can't recall any mention of the Klebolds speaking with the Harrises about the boys.  Could that have helped?  Maybe.  The other area is more troubling, and I think that it continues to be a problem.  Klebold and Harris both got arrested and faced felony charges, but their school was not told about it.  Then they both turned in papers talking about murderous crime sprees which concerned their teachers.  The police had one reason to be concerned, and the school had another, but they never shared their concerns with each other.  I know that kids are innocent until proven guilty, but why shouldn't the police be working with the school counselor?  This is a weak link.  But after reading Columbine I have to conclude that if Harris had not caused this tragedy, he probably would have caused others.

Columbine is a very well researched book.  Cullen did a great job in sticking to the facts without offering  solutions.  Cullen was one of the reporters covering the story, and I would have liked to have heard more about his experiences reporting the tragedy.  I do think it was professional of him not to try to inject himself into the story, so maybe just giving the reader a glimpse of his role as a member of the media in the end notes, like Cullen does, is enough.

Now my son is 12, and he has his hunter's safety certificate.  We don't have guns in our house and we do drink organic milk.  He's allowed to watch Saturday Night Live, but rarely does.  We play basketball and read together.  He's a great kid, and I'm lucky to have him. 

Next Up:  Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman

Still Listening to:  The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...