Tuesday, December 31, 2013


      Donna Tartt seems to publish a new novel about every eleven years or so.  I was just about to dive into the first (that I know about) The Secret History, when I kept reading about her latest The Goldfinch. I was hooked by the reviews.
     The novel is told as a flashback between bookends of almost the same scene.  I had to go back to the beginning to discover that everything that was going to happen had been revealed.  (Nothing new there--Harper Lee does it on page one of To Kill a Mockingbird.)

     The main character Theo is about eleven when the actual story begins, living with his divorced mom in their New York apartment, setting out for a parent conference after his suspension from school.  On the way, though, nauseous from the cab ride, they hop out ahead of their destination and because of the rain and time they have to kill before the appointment, they go into a museum with a visiting exhibit of European artworks from around the time of Rembrandt and Vermeer. The Anatomy Lesson is there, along with a small painting by Fabritius, The Goldfinch, a small painting of a bird, its leg held by a barely visible wire.

     Along with a number of school groups, Theo also notices with interest a red-haired girl there with an elderly man he assumes is her grandfather.  While the two make eye contact, they never speak, yet he is intrigued by her.  As they get ready to leave, standing near the gift shop, his mother decides to go back for one more look at The Anatomy Lesson, but Theo decides to wait for her, hoping for a closer brush with the girl.  Instead, someone rushes in, there's a huge explosion, and he comes to later to find himself in the middle of the destruction of a bombing, presumably an act of terrorism.  The old man, seriously injured near him, gives him a ring and a package.  Unable to find his mother, Theo picks his way out of the museum to the chaos outside and finally decides to follow their established emergency plan if separated:  he goes home.

     The story from that point takes him to the antique shop where the old man had been co-owner, to Las Vegas for awhile to live with his alcoholic, gambling father and his girlfriend Xandra, where he meets Boris, a Russian immigrant in his class who becomes his closest adolescent companion until he leaves and returns to New York.

    Tartt weaves a long, beautifully told, even painful story as Theo reaches adulthood, taking the old man's place as a partner in the antique shop, but also dabbling with  art fraud and caught up in illegal drug use.  As important to him as his friend Boris, his partner Hobie and the mysterious red-haired Pippa, are the wealthy family of a classmate that took him in for awhile after the loss of his mother.  His life bears the indelible but inescapable mark of the tragedy at the museum, which he sees reflected in Pippa, also a scarred survivor.

     As a lover of museums, I find myself drawn to fiction--even nonfiction--about art and artists.  Reading this novel, I just assumed the work--like The Girl in Hyacinth Blue--was a fictional work of art, so my discovery after finishing the book that it exists, that my friend Carol, another voracious reader, had actually seen the painting at the Frick, means that now I have more research to do, another artist, another painting about which I must know more.  Maybe I'll figure out a way to visit the Frick Museum before the painting heads back to its usual place.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Time to Read; Time to Write

Through this most hectic of holiday periods, I have found myself woefully behind in book posts, for which I apologize. I have, though, found time to read, even when everything else in my life has been frenzied and hectic.  One drawback of a teaching career is that I hit that grading/posting deadline twice a year, not just once.  (Think of April 15 for CPAs or December 25 for Santa and the elf crew).

The first year I taught was particularly stressful, and I had the foolish misfortune of having research papers due right around the end of the first semester.  That year, as many of my students may remember, we still didn't have a tree the Saturday before Christmas and might not have had one at all had not three of the boys from the senior class delivered on  they said they had cut themselves to my driveway. It was beautiful-- at least twelve feet tall, perfect for the out high ceiling in the living room. Recently, in a Facebook conversation with the goodhearted tree givers, most of them pled the fifth or asked if the statute of limitations was up.  Enough said.

This year, though, I've read a wonderful variety of books the last three or four weeks, so I can't wait to share some of them.  I will also be taking down my wall calendar for 2013 so I can transcribe a list of everything I read in the past year.

For now, though, I want to mention one I'm not quite through reading, Ann Patchett's recent collection of essays and other nonfiction pieces, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I've been a Patchett fan for years, ever since I read Bel Canto. That book captivated me for many reasons. It's one of those books that has stuck with me in ways some books don't.  I remember tiny incidences, specific characters, impressions from the book.  I've had the chance to hear her speak three times--once with Allan Gurganus, one of her professors and a gentleman I have grown to admire for his writing and for his generosity of spirit, one at the NCTE convention in Nashville several years ago (in which she reinforced her support of assigning the classics to high school students), and recently at UNC-Asheville.

Reading through this recent collection, I sometimes feel guilty for presuming to think I know an author simply because I've read her books, for even daring to think I could breach her wall of privacy.  She comes across as both private and approachable, a confusing mix.  Since I always visit Parnassus Books, the store she co-owns, when I'm in Nashville, and because she lives in a city I've loved since my own college years, I am always overwhelmed by the sense of the familiar when I read her essays.

I also feel a particular connection when she touches on topics of interest to me.  Case in point:  She has one essay explaining the controversy that arose when Clemson selected her memoir Truth and Beauty as their freshman read, after which an alum decided the book was vile, as must be its author.  She also publishes the speech she wrote and delivered at Clemson (accompanied by a bodyguard provided by the college.)  My overwhelming takeaway is the need for students--especially college students--to see their educations as something in which they engage, not as something done to them.

When I make reading assignments in my classes, I try to do so with conscientious purpose.  I would never choose something prurient for the sake of shock; however, I sometimes find a book or a story worth reading together, even when I find some ideas or language or situations objectionable.  Teaching English and literature, I've always believed, is about teaching people to think.  I don't know if it's possible to teach anyone HOW to think, but I certainly try to encourage the process of critical thinking. Already, I'm considering ways to interject some of these pieces in my upcoming composition  course, where I hope to engage my students in thinking, talking, and writing about their own learning, their educational goals, the development of their own system of values, perhaps shaped by their families, but adopted intentionally.  I don't think they'll find any of that in Spark Notes.