The Goose Girl

“The resonance of Faladas voice came softly, an echo of what was once spoken, like the voice of the sea from a shell. They faced each other thus in silent conversation, the shivering once princess and the mounted head of her steed, dead speaking with dead.” (The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale)

The Goose Girl CoverA fantastic, consistent book with lyrical, smooth prose. I read it in snatches of time during lunch breaks, but it was more than difficult to wait 24 hours for the next time I could pick it up. I’m afraid my reading schedule for the past year has been so luxurious that it quite spoiled my ability to wait more than a day or two for the end of a book.

Whenever you experience a drastic schedule change in your life, like when changing jobs or moving, it is always difficult to find where your time to read has gone. Has it migrated to commuting time? Has it changed from large stretches of uninterrupted time to bits and pieces throughout the day? Trust me, it is there. Somewhere. But you must discover it – you must experiment with your reading. I’m not talking about the age old adage about making time in your schedule for the important things, I’m talking about finding the time that is already there. Perhaps, once you try it, you’ll find that you love read/walking, or read/eating. Maybe you’ll find poetry, short stories, or children’s books suit the small chunks of time you have better than long novels do. Or perhaps you’ll find that cleaning your house on a Sunday afternoon is not half as important as finishing a book or two…

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 400 pgs
Ending: Fairy-tale appropriate
Further Reading: Shannon Hale has a host of beloved books, including a further three novels in the Bayrne world. Goose Girl reminds me of Ella Enchanted for their whimsical, quirky twists but classic fairy tale feeling.

Barchester Towers

“But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here, perhaps, it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between author and his readers, by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favorite personage.” (Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope)

Barchester Towers CoverHaving loved The Warden so completely three years ago, I’d had an idea in my head of what I’d get out of this book, namely: the minutely detailed thoughts of both morally upright and reprehensible characters in a quiet 18– English town. Perfect. But this time through, the reading experience was so much more about how Trollope guided me through the book. It was almost as if he inserted himself as a character instead of as a mysterious first- or third-person narrator. And, as characters go, Tollope himself became among the most honest, steadfast, and lovable in the book.

Though one does not expect to find post-modern ideas in a 19th century author, Trollope appears to take extreme pleasure in breaking the fourth wall whenever possible. He constantly and convivially breaks through the traditional author-reader barriers and addresses us directly about a wide range of subjects, including the future of the book and the current state of novels. He admonishes the reader to think of his characters in a certain way, upbraids us for not having enough sympathy, and assuages our fears about favorite characters. His narrative method makes the book feel like a conversation rather than a piece of entertainment, and perhaps trains our minds to think of all books as a conversation between author and reader instead of objects to be digested whole.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 388 pgs
Ending: Revealed early in the work, but entirely satisfying nevertheless
Incidental Learning: 18– English culture, laws, religion, and customs
Further Reading: All of Trollope! If you like his unique narrative style, you are in luck because Trollope was prolific and diligent in his art. Continue by reading the rest of the Barchester series.

The Wise Man’s Fear

“It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect.” (The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss)

The Wise Man's Fear CoverCan fantasy writing ever be good? Without a doubt. For we have the Suzanna Clarkes, Neil Gaimans, and the T. H Whites of the world, do we not? These authors are more imaginative and precise with their prose any two literary authors taken together. But there is something about the genre that leads to bland, repetitive writing – perhaps because the genre tends to value plot over prose. Even some of the most famous authors, Rowling, Jordan, Martin, can be repetitive and overly descriptive. Rothfuss has a huge following of fans who would put his writing squarely in the first category, but I am less sure. Rothfuss is fantastic with imagery, excellent with the narrative voice, and exemplary with dialogue. But for all that, he is too overwritten for my taste.

On this second book in the presumed Kingkiller Chronicles trilogy, Rothfuss’s writing reminded me strongly of Pat Conroy’s. So strongly, in fact, that though they are on opposite ends of the fantasy scale, one being high-fantasy and the other being only mildly magical realism, I think that they would make tremendous read-alikes. They both have egotistical, arrogant narrators who know how to tell a story, and love reminding their audience of that fact. And they are both so overwritten that you don’t know whether to be embarrassed for their grandiose metaphors, or to allow yourself to enjoy them without judgement.

Overwritten or no, if book 3 of this trilogy came out today, I’d wait in line all night to read it.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 1120
Ending: not quite a cliff-hanger, but definitely not a complete work in-and-of itself
Incidental Learning: Lute playing, story telling
Further Reading: As I said, Conroy is your man if you like Rothfuss.

The Sweet Dove Died

“When the tea came it was of a strength and darkness that reminded one more of meat extract than of some delicate infusion of leaves from India or Ceylon. James sipped his cautiously as if afraid that it might poison him.” (The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym)

The Sweet Dove DiedOne always has a list of books in the back of one’s mind that are sure picks: books that are just like a favorite author, recommended by several trustworthy sources. Somehow, though the reading experience is guaranteed, one almost never gets around to reading them. Like the sureness of the bet diminishes the curiosity that drives one to read. Just as re-reading should be saved for times when one needs comfort, so should these pre-approved books.  Barbara Pym was definitely one of these authors for me, both because of Nancy Pearl’s enthusiastic recommendation and this lovely article.

This must mean that my idea of a guaranteed book is one in which the day-to-day lives of selfish, elegant, middle-aged British women are described slowly, with light prose and dry wit. Which is 100% true. Give me a Wodehouse, Benson, Gibbons, Waugh, (and now Pym) on any cold, overcast day, and I will be a happier person. I can think of nothing more comforting than spending a day reading about a world where there is always a neighbor good enough to offer a cup of tea when one is too weary to go on.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBR - Avoid
Length: 200 pgs
Ending: unexpected and in-character. Satisfyingly, no lessons are learned, and all middle-aged people maintain their dignity.
Incidental Learning: 1970′s london culture, antiques
Further Reading: Though the writing style is very similar to 1920′s authors like E.F. Benson, Barbara Pym reminds me a lot of Donna Tart because both authors attempt to combine their smooth, almost outdated, writing styles with up to the moment details. Whenever Tart mentions drugs, or Pym jeans, I feel like I’m reading an anachronistic detail added in by an unscrupulous editor.

Tenth of December

“Was she special? Did she consider herself special? Oh, gosh, she didn’t know… There was so much she didn’t know! Like how to change the oil. Or even check the oil. How to open the hood. How to bake brownies. That was embarrassing actually, being a girl and all. And what was a mortgage? Did it come with the house? When you breast-fed, did you have to like push the milk out? Egads.” (The Tenth of December by George Saunders)

The tenth of december coverUntil now, short stories have always been the hated/feared green vegetable of reading for me. I knew they were good for my mind, good for the writers, good for the whole institution of publishing, but to me each individual short story was always the exact same reading experience. Namely: excellent writer experiments with prose, closely examines psyche of character, and ends precisely when character reveals his/her self. Like short story writers all had the same idea about how to be profound when given only a few pages.  Not so with George Saunders. He redefines profundity.

Saunders has a superb mastery of language, using profanity, colloquialisms, and {special characters} to great effect, but he truly won my heart by adding subtle, understated twists of sci-fi to his stories. George Saunders’ near futures skip the mundane aspects of science fiction, the world-hazards and technological overloads, and jump straight to what is most important. Children grapple with the morality of displaying people in their yard. A man looses his job because a pill makes him too Chivalrous. A prisoner decides whether he can stand idly by while scientists kill another inmate. In any of his near-future glimpses, Saunders focuses on people, on the decisions they must make, on what is in their hearts. This is Literature first and foremost; the sci-fi parts are simply for your reading pleasure.

Read the title story now
Recommended Action: Buy - BorrowTBR - Avoid
Length: 272 pgs
Ending: Each story was pretty complete, with its own beginning, middle, and end
Further Reading: Since I admittedly have little experience with the form, I’ll recommend a few other books with subtle sci-fi twists: When You Reach MeThe City and the CityFamiliar, and Life After Life. 

The Goldfinch

“‘Well, girls always love assholes,’ said Platt, not bothering to dispute this, ‘Haven’t you noticed?’
No, I thought bleakly, untrue. Else why didn’t Pippa love me?” (The Goldfinch by Donna Tart)

The GoldfinchIf you could write a book for yourself to read this very moment, what would it be like? Me? Mine would be a cohesive story, have an unreliable/unlikable narrator. It would probably be overflowing with adverbs and hopefully smooth prose, and I’d most likely force myself to include pieces of modernity in order to surprise myself with my ability to be current. I’d end the story satisfactorily, with the main conflict concluded, but with a few subplots left to be thought through. It would be poignant, but not too heavy-handed. Fortunately, I don’t have to go through the trouble of actually writing this book, for Donna Tartt already created it for me to read. 

Every now and then, I find a book that seems crafted for my reading soul. These aren’t the books that stretch my mind with their brilliance (like The City and the City or Tenth of December), nor the books that are perfectly crafted from beginning to end (like The Warden). They are books that somehow resonate with the way my mind works and thinks through thoughts; books that feel familiar though I’ve never read them before.

So what does this mean for you? Someone who is contemplating reading The Goldfinch? Well, it may mean that if you enjoy reading this blog, you will enjoy reading Donna Tartt. But more likely: you’ll start to look out for these resonant books yourself, and be delighted when you find them.

Recommended Action: Buy - BorrowTBRAvoid
Length: 784 pgs.
Ending: Complete, satisfying, hopeful
Incidental Learning: Dutch painters, antique furniture, prescription drug abuse, PTSD
Further Reading: The Goldfinch reminds me of  Humboldt’s Gift in how both books switch between serious discussions of paintings/furniture/high-society and fairly humorous  worlds of drugs and theft. Tartt has a more lyrical, fuller story than Bellow, with less arm-chair philosophizing, but the balance is similar.

Infinite Jest

“If, by the virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility, like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts. You will find… that people addicted to a Substance who abruptly stop ingesting the Substance often suffer wicked papular acne, often for months afterward, as the accumulations of a Substance slowly leave the body… That females are capable of being just as vulgar about sexual and eliminatory functions as males… That some people really do look like rodents…” (Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace)

Infinite Jest Cover

Infinite Jest the book is the complete opposite of its subject, Infinite Jest the fatally entertaining film. If the book has a plot, it is that a mysterious entertainment cartridge labeled only with a smiley face is circulating the country; everyone who watches it is so entertained they loose all desire to do anything else with their lives. The book revolves around the family of the man who made the entertainment, the cross-dressing American investigator and wheel-chaired Canadian separatist looking for it, and the hideously deformed/fatally perfect cocaine addict who starred in it. In contrast to the film, reading Infinite Jest is hardly entertaining at all.

The pleasure derived from the work is so far removed from the act of reading it that the pleasure’s origin is hardly recognizable. The reading experience is so unfamiliar, so blocked by extra phrases, pedantic descriptions of drugs and tennis, and laborious endnotes, that your mind is working too hard to grasp its nuances while actually reading. The intense pleasure, the hilarity and brilliance, somehow come after, while your mind is subconsciously sorting through the inanity. You’ll often find that a half-hour session spent reading Infinite Jest will yield only frustration, but later you’ll be struck by an original and perfect thought that you’ll swear came fully formed from your own mind, until you remember that boring book you were reading earlier…

For example, you’ll see a GIF out of the corner of your eye and think ‘Is that Mr. Bouncety Bounce?’ before you realize that Mr. Bouncety Bounce is a disturbing adult dressed like a baby who appears on television only in Infinite Jest.  You’ll make a passing reference to Identification or your Own Personal Daddy and then register that those terms don’t have much meaning to the general populace, but have somehow become part of the way that you think and express yourself. You’ll be reading in a room of crazy people (read: library) who are singing unawares with their headphones on or dancing to no music at all, and you’ll find out that you’re the craziest of them all because you’ve been laughing for three minutes already without even noticing.

The act of reading infinite jest may not be consistently entertaining, it may be a rather poor experience in fact, but you’ll find that your head is a much more interesting, unexpected place to be as a result of the effort. So I can’t make any judgments on the book as a whole now. I am going to wait. I expect my mind will be pulling it together for some time yet.

Recommended Action: I couldn’t say. Read it if you are willing to commit approximately 6 weeks of a reading life to a book that is at once hilarious, disgusting, boring, brilliant, pedantic, and experimental.
Length: 1078  6″x 9.2″ pages in aprox. 10pt font with 100 pages of 6 pt. endnotes.
Ending: So far, outrageously disappointing. Pulls nothing together, resolves nothing, and is, frankly, disgusting. We’ll see how I feel about it tomorrow.
Incidental Learning: You will learn more than you ever needed to know about recreational drugs, half-way houses, AA, Tennis, physical deformities, and modern art films.
Further Reading: This should probably be prior reading. You should be familiar with Hamlet, obviously, but I also found just having read A Clockwork Orange incredibly helpful – there are similar thematic overtones and Wallace borrows a lot from Burgess’s language and style.


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