The Goldfinch (Book Review)

The Goldfinch (Book Review)

The Goldfinch is a novel I wish I could have taken a weekend, shut myself inside, and read in a couple of sittings. It is that good.

Instead, it ended up being my Everest, a novel that took me months to read, mainly because I was required to read so many other books since the time I initially picked up what would become the Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction for the year. I continually, and regrettably, had to put the book down many times, and get something else read in the interim. This caused my reading of The Goldfinch to be fractured, and epic.

But in the end, it did not disappoint.

Obviously, when a book wins the Pulitzer, it is pretty universally loved. And this one should be no exception. I have no complaints about the novel, but will add another great review to the thousands that are already out there.

goldfinch2For a brief synopsis, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is a novel that spans years in the life of our narrator and protagonist, Theo. As a child, he survived an explosion at a New York art museum, that took the life of his beloved mother. During the following mayhem, he ended up taking a painting from the wall, the famous and mysterious “Goldfinch,” which would become one of the more famous missing paintings in the world as his life developed. Theo was tormented and haunted by the memories of his mother, but always had the painting as a reminder of her, of a better time, before tragedy became the centerpiece to his life.

Being forced to leave New York after the death of his mother and a time spent staying with his best friend and his rich Barbour family, Theo moves to Las Vegas, to stay with his degenerate gambler of a father and his questionable girlfriend Xandra.

It is in Las Vegas where Theo finally seems to find his footing, even though it is in all the wrong ways. Befriending Boris, they delve into a world of alcoholism and drugs that is surprising for kids of such a young age. They both drink to escape, as neither of them wants anything to do with reality. Theo is constantly trying to get away from the pain of his lost mother, and his life becomes more reckless in attempts to do so. He creates a pattern in his life that will lead to heartbreak, and some sort of resolution as to who he is, and where he belongs.

The Goldfinch eventually takes us back to New York, where Theo carves out a life for himself in the antiques business, all the while struggling with the addiction to painkillers, and a secret and occasional love of harder drugs, such as dabbling with heroin. He is a constant mess, but somehow makes his way through the world, all the while hiding the deep secret that he is an art thief, and has in his possession one of the most valuable paintings in the world. But it remains there for his comfort, even if years pass without him even looking at it. Just knowing it is there, stashed away in some storage space, is enough for Theo.

Eventually, Theo is dragged into the criminal underworld, while at the same time becoming more a part of the New York social elite, due to his dealings with rich people and their antiques purchases, and his relations with the Barbour family. He becomes a man split between his real, and not so real life, and Tartt takes us on the incredible journey of his life.

The Goldfinch is a rich, and epic story. It spares no detail, adding to the depth of the 771-pages of large paged hardcover. It is a big book, but one that tells a story that is heartbreaking and suspenseful. Through the whole novel, we are forced to wonder about the painting, and what will eventually happen to it. Will it finally bring Theo peace, or will he die in some tragic way, probably due to his self-destructive ways, leaving the painting unfound forever?

Tartt writes with intricate sentences, and long, sprawling paragraphs. Stylistically, she has created a beautiful and complex story, which spares no detail on anything, truly bringing the reader into the life of Theo, and those around him. The detail really is incredible, and it adds a depth to the story that makes us feel as though it is more than fiction: that his story is something real.

One of the strong suits of this work, is how depressing it truly is. As we truck through the pages, we realize that not all things will end well for our hero; that life really isn’t like that, and that he is going to have to face the music for a laundry list of mistakes he has made in his life.

There are hundreds of more detailed reviews of The Goldfinch out there that can examine the true depth and breadth of this novel, and how it is stylistically and culturally significant. From my end, suffice it to say that this is an exceptional novel, one that truly deserves to be recognized as something masterful at this point in time. It reads like a classic novel of a hundred years ago, yet maintains a modernity that makes it an instant, and modern, classic.

For those willing to undertake the journey of The Goldfinch, to explore the depths in which tragedy can affect all of us, it is absolutely a must-read.

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The Ash Garden (Book Review)

The Ash Garden (Book Review)

Even though this novel was published in 2001, I just recently had the opportunity to read it for the first time, and decided to do a little write up about it.

Many things have been said about this novel, and it was rightfully the winner of several awards for Dennis Bock, a Canadian author.

The Ash Garden is a tale about the residual effects of the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, which effectively ended the Second World War. We are given a story of interwoven lives, and how the dramatic impact of that day lasted through the years, both physically and emotionally.

ash2Emiko was six-years old when the bomb fell on her home town, killing her entire family. She is now faced with a life of horrible scarring, particularly facial scars, and the reconstructive surgeries that take place when she is sponsored to go to America to “get fixed.” As she grows older, Emiko becomes a film maker, and she begins to create a documentary about the Hiroshima bombing, and those that are involved in it. As a survivor of the attack, she leaves herself out of the face of the lens, but is forced to deal with what happened to her life based on the actions of others.

Anton is the German-born scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project, helping to create the bomb itself, and then studying the after effects of its use. His story, like Emiko’s, takes place on a couple of timelines, so that we are able to see different parts of his life story, and how it all rounds out towards the end. Anton is constantly faced with the ethical issues of the bomb: dropping it surely ended the war and saved innumerable lives, but at the same time, it created awful death and destruction to those who were unfortunate enough to have been there when it went off. It ruined lives for generations. With Anton, we also get to see his personal life, away from the lab, with his wife, and the third narrator of the story, Sophie.

Sophie escaped Europe during the war due to the persecution of the Jews, and part of her story is her journey to Canada, part her love story with Anton, and part her struggle with illness.

There are great parts to this novel, and some that could have used a little more.

Reading other reviews of The Ash Garden, several people complained that the story was too slow moving, or that it was confusing knowing what the actual timeline was since the narrative jumps around. I found nothing of the sort. For the timeline, Bock clearly labels the years he is discussing in the chapter headers, so this should not be an issue for any reader. Each character essentially has three parts of their life being told, and it really isn’t difficult to decipher what is happening, and when. Secondly, at just under 300 pages, I found the book to be a very quick read. It is engrossing. While the plot may not be moving forward at the pace of a locomotive, this is not the kind of book that you read when you are looking for that style of action. You don’t rent a drama when you are looking for pure action. There may have been a couple of lulls in the story, such as the romance between Anton and Sophie that doesn’t constitute the best part of the novel, but it moves along nicely, and gets us to the place that we know it is going all along: an encounter between Emiko, and the man who indirectly scarred her for life, Anton.

The story of Emiko is definitely the highlight of the novel. Her plight as an innocent girl, forever changed from the dropping of the bomb, takes us on a journey to the US, where the good people there are looking to improve her facial scarring, as well as using her as a type of experiment on the after effects of using a nuclear weapon on humans. Bock does a great job at letting us know, and understand, Emiko, as she is not only a sympathetic character, but a tough one, as well. Even though the scars she wears inside are as visible as the ones on her face. She is haunted by what happened to her, and her family, and she seeks an understanding of why it all had to happen, and who was responsible for it all. Emiko is not seeking revenge, or justice. She just needs to know.

And that is the beauty of the book. It is just a simple journey, of how the past affects how we are, and who we become, even if the decisions that lead us down our path aren’t our own. Everybody has their burden, and it weighs on us in different ways.

Dennis Bock uses incredible description to get his story across. There isn’t really that much dialogue in the novel, and he uses haunting beauty to lay out his tale. The descriptions of the violence caused by the Hiroshima bombing are gruesomely effective, painting us a picture that we don’t really want to see, but must.

I could have gone for a little more of the historical aspect of the era, specifically in Anton’s story, where there could have been more interesting things about the mysterious Manhattan Project, and the race to create the world’s deadliest weapon before the Nazis were able to. For me, this could have added some more non-fiction to the story, and included an important part of history as well.

The Ash Garden is a wonderfully written book, and it intertwines the three stories so seamlessly, that it really does become one solid narrative. The novel has a lot of thematic depth, and would be good for study at various levels.

Grasshopper Jungle (Book Review)

Grasshopper Jungle (Book Review)

In his acknowledgements at the back of the book, Andrew Smith states that he began writing Grasshopper Jungle as though no one would ever read it. He had decided to give up publishing his work, until he was convinced halfway through the novel that this one should see the light of day as well.

grasshopper-jungleSmith has created another fun, fascinating read, but one that lacks a distinctive audience. Jungle is too old for most YA readers, and too young for most adult readers. The true audience for this novel falls somewhere in between. Even though I did enjoy the book, I would find it hard to recommend to any of my students, even the high school ones, because of the language and some of the material in the novel. And I will pretty much recommend anything to students. Sex, violence, swearing. It’s all fine. But endless discussion about sperm, a fair amount of sex (both human and insect), frequent discussion about erections, and a goodly amount of swearing, makes this one a tough sell for me to give to a teenager (not because they can’t handle the material, but because I don’t want to field the parent phone call about the book I gave their kid). At times I found myself wishing that he would have dropped some of the language and edited parts of the sexual discussions, because it was a fun read that I could have seen myself giving to several people. Or, going in the opposite direction and making it purely a book for adults. That way, he could have gone all out and not censored any of his ideas.

Grasshopper Jungle is basically about two friends living in a boring Iowa town. They skateboard and smoke cigarettes. Austin and Robby have been friends since forever. Robby is gay, and in love with Austin. Austin is not sure what he is, as he is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, and Robby as well. He is confused, as he states time and time again throughout the novel. Eventually, the end of the world comes to town, in the form of large, man-sized, praying mantises that only like to do two things: eat and breed. The friends must figure out the mystery of the events leading up to the infestation, how to try and defeat it, and how to survive it together.

I found this novel difficult to get into. I liked the story just fine, but it was the way it was written that was a bit of a struggle for me. The repetitive style that Smith writes in worked wonderfully well in Winger, but often became irritating in Jungle. It seemed like everything was going around in circles for the first 150 pages. But, when things get going, they really get going in the novel. Once the infestation begins, the novel is a fun, action-packed book that is pretty hard to put down. Once the gang of Shann, Austin, and Robby find Eden, it becomes very interesting, and the whole purpose of the novel falls into place.

Austin is obsessed with history, and spends hours each day writing and drawing the history of his own lives. As the novel progresses, we see how everyone is connected through their history, and this is the brilliance of an Andrew Smith novel. While it is about giant insects eating all the people of a town, it is also about those connections, and what keeps us together and tears us apart. The relationships developed over the course of the novel are strong, and we get to feel the plight that each of the characters are going through. We understand Shann’s anger, as the boy she loves may possibly be gay, and may be in love with his best friend. We understand that Austin is confused, and he is trying his best to deal with his sexual urges, his feelings for the people closest to him, and his place in the small world they have created for themselves.

Despite not adoring the style in which the novel was written, Smith gets the job done. The frustrating repetition of the start of the novel slowly fades away, and when it is used during the second half, it tends to serve a more understandable purpose.

The novel ends satisfyingly as well, which is rare with books that could be deemed as being YA. I will assume that this will not be the beginning of a series, as Smith is not traditionally a series writer. Because of this, the ending is something that readers can be very pleased with, as we are given a conclusion that satisfies the story created.

While Grasshopper Jungle is not as laugh-out-loud funny as Winger, it has a distinct cleverness to it that is often hard to resist. As Austin goes through his life, recording their history as they live it, we are drawn into the strange world of Ealing, Iowa, the unique lives of the people that live within it, and the way that we are all connected through the stories of our past.

World War Z (Film Review)

World War Z (Film Review)

New to Netflix Canada this week is the Brad Pitt interpretation of the incredible zombie novel, World War Z.

The first thing I will say about this film, goes to those who have read the book. The film is nothing like it. Might as well forget that you have actually read the thing. In order to enjoy this movie, don’t worry about the connections to the book, as this is as loosely based on a novel as possible. The basic idea is the same, and…that is about it.

WWZThe novel did not set itself up to be a movie. It was based on a series of interviews conducted after a zombie apocalypse, in a variety of locations across the globe. In order to get a real interpretation of the novel, the film would have had to be ten hours long.

As a film, this one is mildly entertaining. It really felt as though there was a lot of buildup and a really quick payoff, finishing with an unsatisfying voice-over montage to conclude. Some good things about the movie were the special effects, Brad Pitt himself, not too much cheesiness with him trying to save his own family, a pretty interesting way to avoid the zombies, and the creatures themselves were the fast kind, not the slow, moaning type. I like a good zombie that can put up some serious 40-yard dash times.

There is some good violence to be seen in here, but this isn’t a splatterfest as some zombie films are. It is more cerebral than that, and it does it in a pretty entertaining way. They think about the zombies, where they came from, and how to identify what the issue is. The concept behind the film isn’t simply Armageddon survival tactics, with Brad Pitt saving the world, and going across the planet to save his family. There is more to it than that.

Zombie movies are awesome, for the most part, and World War Z sort of fits into the middle of them. It is not the best one that is out there, but it definitely isn’t the worst. Watching this won’t be a waste of a couple of hours.

Just forget that it is based on a novel.

New Trailer: The Fault in Our Stars

When you love a book so much, it is scary to see it come to the big screen. And I love The Fault in Our Stars. I had long wondered why no John Green books had been transformed into films, given that there is such an appeal to his stories, and such a massive popularity among teens. Who of his fans don’t believe that Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns or Will Grayson, Will Grayson would make a great movie? It almost seems as though his novels are made to be classic teen love story films.

I was dreading to see what would become of TFiOS the moment that I heard it was being made into a movie.

And I hate to say it, but I think my fears have been realized. I know that Nerdfighters everywhere will be ecstatic about certain aspects of the trailer. I, unfortunately, am not sold.

The first trailer for the movie has been released, and upon first viewing, I instantly hated it. Upon further viewings, I have softened up my stance, but still am decidedly on the fence as to the results of what this film could be.

The lines, so beautifully written on the page, come across as hokey when heard aloud, delivered by actors (specifically, the actor playing Augustus Waters) that may not have the gumption to handle such a complex role as Hazel and Augustus. The trailer gives us the outline of a definite love story, which the novel is, but holds none of the humour or sarcasm that made the book so completely memorable. If the film lacks this, and it may not, as this is only a preview, then it is simply a sad love story that is left over. And the book is so much more than that. The greatest thing about Hazel in the novel is her unique way of looking at her life. She is going to die, she knows it. She is well aware that she is a grenade, but she deals with this reality in a way so uncommon across literature.

Some positives is that there seems to be many things that have made the cut from the novel into the film. Such as the literal heart of Jesus, a brief glimpse of Hazel reading An Imperial Affliction, going after Isaac’s ex-girlfriend. All of the big speeches from the novel seem to be there as well, although I was pretty surprised to hear chunks of them in the trailer.

I will still see this movie, if only as a sign of my dedication to John Green. As of now, I am uncertain to how it will translate on to the screen, and I am infinitely worried that the incredible story that Green put on to paper will not fully be told on celluloid. Time will tell. I want so badly for it to be a great adaptation. I want to love it like I love the novel. I want to be able to show the movie when I teach this novel to my class, as I already have done a couple of times. I want The Fault in Our Stars, the movie, to be as classic and memorable as the novel.

Book Review: The Bone Season

A few words on the new novel by Samantha Shannon: too much! Reign it in!

The-Bone-SeasonThe Bone Season is a dystopian novel set in an alternate version of England where London has become a Scion Cathedral, a city where things are clamped down on, as they tend to be in dystopian novel. The biggest problem facing Scion seems to be the unnatural people in the city, mainly the clairvoyants.

Voyants are all over the place, it seems. Like, everywhere. There are actually tons of people who have a second sight, and they are all categorized into different groups, and gangs, living in criminal circles, doing unseemly things to the non-voyants in order to make a living.

If all of it sounds pretty convoluted, it’s because it is.

There are a lot of good ideas in this novel, and it is cool when voyants are stolen away to another place (formerly Oxford), where they are run by a new race, called the Rephaim. Here they are trained to fight an onslaught of menacing creatures that have put the Rephaim stronghold in danger. Each voyant has their own certain skills, from controlling poltergeists to being able to wander in to the dreams of another person. They do all of this by working within the aether, a place beyond the aura that a person puts off.

It is confusing to explain, and more often than not, it was confusing to read.

I wanted to like this book, because it is an investment in time, but when it came down to it, I found the book to be only alright. There were cool moments, but they were interspersed with pages upon pages of confusing explanation of different types of voyants and a myriad of forgetful characters that you begin to wonder if they are really important to the story or not.

This novel is the beginning of a long series, and I’m sure that Shannon would be able to do something interesting with it. She has certainly created an elaborate world for her novel. She is definitely a capable writer. One that I could see a lot of people buying into.

Just not me.

This was not the novel for me, but I understand that there is much to like here, and a definite audience that will gobble it up.