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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

goldfinch

This is not the kind of book you can review without destroying the reading experience of others coming after you, so I’m not going to review it, as such. I’m sure everyone knows by now that this book is about a hitherto rather obscure painting of a goldfinch by the 17th century artist Carel Fabritius, in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague. The basic premise is that this painting is in an exhibition at the Met that Theo Decker’s mother takes him to see one morning when he is thirteen. While they are at the museum, there is a huge explosion caused by a terrorist bomb, and while Theo survives, his mother dies. During the immediate aftermath of the bomb, Theo regains consciousness and manages to crawl across to a dying old man who gives him his signet ring and tells him where to take it. He also tells him to steal The Goldfinch, which he does. Theo then escapes the museum undetected, and the rest of the novel charts Theo’s life from that day into his late twenties, from which perspective Theo narrates the events of the novel. I initially thought it was going to be about Theo discovering some sort of mystery connected with the painting, but there is no real mystery here at all. To say much more would ruin how pleasurable it is to have the story and characters evolve beneath your eyes, in so many unexpected directions.

What I will say is that this is a fantastic, fantastic novel, creating a world so realistic that I was utterly absorbed within it. I felt I knew the characters, who are so convincingly portrayed that I could hear them and see them as I read. I wanted to know everything about them, and became desperately concerned about their fates. The settings were places I felt I had visited, so well does Tartt realise them on the page. I have seen some reviews that complain The Goldfinch is bloated, self indulgent and needs editing, but I couldn’t disagree more. The length of the novel allows it the time and space to weave its spell of realism on the reader. Yes, a few scenes could have been cut slightly shorter, and there are events that are probably not entirely necessary, but if they weren’t there, then the depth of the characters and the understanding the reader gains of them would be compromised. This is a character driven novel, and the length reflects the excess of experiences the young narrator lives through in a relatively short period of time. I wouldn’t have missed a page; each one was a pleasure to read, and each character a masterpiece of portraiture.

I read a similarly long novel earlier this year entitled The Luminaries, which won the Booker Prize and triggered a considerable amount of debate. It was very clever and it was very well written, but it had no heart that I could find. It was a mask of the kind the literary establishment seems to praise of late; something of style but no substance, something that makes the reader marvel at the skill without taking away anything to treasure in their heart. I was worried that The Goldfinch would be of a similar vein, but it was an utter joy to find that it was not. Tartt is a phenomenally intelligent writer with the ability to manipulate the language she uses in order to create characters that are utterly individualised. Her purpose when writing is not merely to impress, but to write a story that captures the heart and the imagination, whisking readers away into another world. In the act of doing so, she also manages to write something that is complex and profound, something that challenges and questions, while simultaneously being easy and pleasurable to read. Accessible literary fiction is hard to find; it is rare to come across people reading a Pulitzer Prize winning novel on a beach, but this is just that sort of novel; one that appeals to many, and is accessible to all. This is the kind of writing that deserves plaudits; this is the kind of writing I compare novels such as The Luminaries to, and rightly therefore find them lacking. Donna Tartt has no rival I can think of; The Goldfinch is perfection, and everyone should read it.

ps. I have started a facebook page for the blog so that I can give updates on what I’m reading in between blog post – you can sign up by clicking on this link!

Changes Afoot

Harold-Knight-Girl-Writing

Some of you who subscribe to my other blog, Old Fashioned Girls, which I write with my dear friend Miranda, may have seen that yesterday the blog was updated, moved to a new website (here) and contains the exciting news that Miranda and I are going to be running our own online book club and launching our first online Quarterly publication in December. We are both very pleased with how the site looks and are looking forward to branching out into new territory. I really do hope that many of you will pop over and join us. Our first book club will be in September, which Miranda will be leading, and the book is going to be My Cousin Rachel. More details are all on the new website so do go and have a browse when you have a moment.

Following on from this, I am planning on scaling back my posts on Book Snob until the New Year. This is because I have started writing a novel, which I have been planning and drafting and thinking about for a very long time, and I am determined to get it finished. Making it public is hopefully going to spur me on, as I have a tendency to give up on anything I write after a few pages, and I have also signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November, which will give me the structure and deadlines I need to complete a first draft. As such, I need to make sacrifices, and Book Snob will be one of them. I can’t stop working, and reading and writing reviews takes up far more of my time than my Old Fashioned Girls posts, so it seems an obvious solution to scale back on here. I’m not saying that I won’t be blogging any more; I very much hope to still maintain a once-a-week post, but November may be more scanty than that when the writing starts to take off with real urgency to meet the NaNoWriMo deadlines.

So, in a nutshell, you will be seeing far more of me on Old Fashioned Girls than you will on Book Snob over the next few months, and I would love to see some of my lovely Book Snob readers joining us over there for our monthly book clubs. I’ll be running the October and December clubs, so do keep your eyes peeled for the book choice announcements.

Thank you in advance for your patience; I know my posting has become increasingly erratic since I started teaching, and I appreciate you sticking with me as I work out a balance! 

 

The Amalfi Coast

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amalfi

I have longed to visit the Amalfi Coast for years, entranced by the beautiful pictures I have seen of its rugged coastline and pastel coloured villages clinging to the cliffs above the glittering Mediterranean sea. It seemed impossible that anywhere could truly be so gorgeous, but as soon as the bus from Sorrento crossed the hills that straddle the middle of the Sorrentine peninsula and gave me my first glimpse of the Amalfi coastline, I was mesmerised by what unfolded before me. Words cannot do justice to such beauty; it truly has to be seen to be believed.

Positano

 

Amalfi Cathedral

Positano, Amalfi and Ravello are all famously picturesque, and I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around all three. Positano is made up of steeply winding cobbled streets and tiny piazzas containing lovely little shops and restaurants. There is also a pretty beach down at the harbour, and I couldn’t imagine a better view while sunbathing than the sugar cube houses spilling down the hillside above and the endless sea sparkling in front. Like on Capri, much of the older architecture on the coast is heavily influenced by Moorish culture, and this is particularly noticeable in Amalfi, which is larger than Positano and has a seriously impressive cathedral. As the biggest town on this stretch of coastline, it is busy and bustling, with so many streets and staircases and nooks and crannies to explore that a week probably wouldn’t be enough to discover everything of interest. My favourite discovery was the cathedral, which is stunning inside and out, and well worth the hike up the front steps to explore. However, the highlight of the Amalfi Coast for me was Ravello, which is perched high on the cliffs above Amalfi and is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

villa rufolo

 

villa rufolo

Like Capri, Ravello has long been a place of glamour, sought out by the rich and famous for its seclusion and glorious, sweeping views of the surrounding landscape. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time to explore due to the limited public transport up to the town, but we did manage to visit Villa Rufolo, a Moorish villa much restored in the 19th century, with luscious gardens that offer uninterrupted views over the sea. In the summer, they have concerts here, and the stage literally juts out over the sea below – what an experience! If we had longer, we would have gone to Villa Cimbrone, which has an illustrious past and more envious views, and is now a hotel to boot – it’s my dream to stay there one day! The Amalfi Coast is one of those places that stays with you after you visit, and really fires the imagination. It was the jewel in the crown of a wonderful holiday, and I know I will be back for more.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

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Image from here

I took this delightful book on holiday with me, and it was the perfect read for lazy days bathed in the warm Mediterranean sun. I’ve always known about it, but the experience of reading the novel was quite different to what I had expected. I assumed it was going to be a largely comic novel, about the outlandish behaviour of an overly eccentric family, but Durrell is a far more subtle writer than that. While it is at times laugh out loud funny, this is due to his ironic wit rather than a reliance on caricature. The pleasure of My Family and Other Animals is in its understatedness, and how Durrell presents his family’s adventurous and unconventional lifestyle in a manner that makes it seem perfectly ordinary and plausible. He is also wonderful at capturing the stunning landscape of Corfu: land of olive groves, peeling Venetian mansions and sandy beaches lit at night by the soft glow of fireflies. I was certainly sold on the idea of throwing everything to the wind and moving to a Greek island by the time I finished reading!

When Gerald Durrell’s older brother Larry (the novelist Lawrence Durrell) says he is sick of living in the cold, damp climate of a miserably grey England and suggests that they all move to Corfu, rather than laughing at such impetuosity, Durrell’s mother says “Why not?” and shortly the entire family – Gerald, the youngest, Margo, Leslie and Larry, plus Roger the dog – are on their way to a new life in the sun. This is the early 1930s, when Corfu had become fashionable as an enclave of artistic types, and when the Durrells ship up, they soon find they are in good company. Spiro, an eccentric cab driver who speaks hilariously accented English thanks to a spell working in London as a young man, takes the family under his wing and finds them a lovely pink villa with glorious gardens that is nestled amidst the olive groves. Gerald is initially free to roam the island with Roger, finding plenty of intriguing species of insect to study, peasants to befriend and shady trees under which to nap, but soon it is decided that he is getting too wild and needs to be taught something. As such, a number of would-be tutors are sourced from the town, of varying quality and varying eccentricity.

Coupled with young Gerald’s adventures are those of his siblings and mother, who all float around Corfu obsessed with their own affairs. Larry is perpetually entertaining hordes of friends, eventually necessitating a move to a new house to contain them all, and complaining about his wayward younger brother’s unfortunate habit of leaving insects lying around. Leslie is fascinated by guns and hunting, and takes every opportunity to show off his skills by killing whatever animals he can find. Margot is forever trying new diets to cure her acne, and wears as little as possible in order to attract the opposite sex, with often hilarious consequences. Mrs Durrell is wonderfully vague and affectionate, and spends most of her time trying out elaborate new recipes or pottering in her garden. All of them adore life on Corfu, and embrace the people and landscape of their new island home. One of the most magical descriptions of the landscape is when they all go on a night time escapade to a local beach, and swim in the ghostly light of the water’s phosphorescence and the glowing orbs of the fireflies that gather along the water’s edge. It would be difficult to imagine a more liberating and memorable way to grow up, and I rather envied the Durrells and their carefree, sunlit world. I loved every second of the Durrell’s adventures, and reading this has made me get itchy feet again! This is such an inspiring and evocative read – definitely a favourite I’ll come back to time and again.

Naples and Herculaneum

palazzo reale

Naples

‘See Naples and die’ said Goethe, after experiencing the glories of Naples in the Golden days of the Bourbon Kings. Naples was once the wealthiest and most beautiful city in Italy, and  I couldn’t wait to see it. I imagined splendour, pomp, gilding and streetscapes so architecturally perfect that they would send me into raptures. Unfortunately, my first impression was anything but. On disembarking the train at the Piazza Garibaldi, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The building of the train station had obliterated this clearly once majestic square, and all I could see were seedy shops and crumbling stucco. Where was the fine city I had been promised? Walking through the streets to the Duomo, the dilapidation of the architecture all around me became even more pronounced. Glimpses of alleyways filled with hanging washing and mopeds were all very quintessentially Italian, but they weren’t particularly gorgeous. The Duomo, tricky to find, nestled amidst a huddle of flaking apartment buildings and shops, was breathtakingly beautiful inside, but on the outside, it was rather lost in its insalubrious surroundings. I felt very disappointed.

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Palazzo Reale

However, as I walked on, through the maze of ochred buildings with their wrought iron balconies, beautiful french windows, peeling shutters and decorative ceramic tiles, and caught glimpses of intriguing courtyards and alleyways hidden behind arches, I began to fall in love. Then, when I found the long main shopping street, with its pretty piazzas, side streets that climbed steeply up the cliffside, fantastic art deco buildings and glimpses of the sea beyond its shops, I was able to capture the essence of what made this such a gorgeous city. The piece de la resistance, however, was yet to come; at the end of the main street is Piazza del Plebisicito, home of the enormous Palazzo Reale, former palace of the King and Queen of Naples, which dangles over a cliff edge with incredible views across the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius. This Piazza, sadly covered in scaffolding so not a great photo opportunity, is truly beautiful, and I can only imagine what it looked like back in the days of Naples’ eminence. The Palazzo Reale is just as opulent inside as out, and in true Italian style, it is a bargain to visit; just 4 euros to wander the marble and gilded halls, the sumptuous state rooms and galleries, and the formal gardens overlooking the sea. It was the highlight of my visit. I wish I had have had more time to explore; I wanted to get to the archaelogical museum where most of the relics from Pompeii are on display, but it was too hot and too far to walk, so I contented myself with the Palazzo as my token nod to culture for the day. Getting the ferry back to Sorrento was the cherry on the top of a wonderful cake; the view of Naples from the sea, blurring its dilapidation into finery once more, is priceless. It was only later that I found out how badly Naples was bombed during the war, which explains the state of many of the buildings. An astonishing 20,000 civilians died from aerial bombing.

herculaneum

herculeaneum

Later in the week, I hopped back on the wonderfully named Circumvesuviana train from Sorrento to Ercolano Scavi, which is home to the ancient town of Herculaneum, unearthed from volcanic mud mere decades ago to reveal the Roman civilisation trapped at the moment of Vesuvius’ famous eruption. Unlike Pompeii, which is absolutely massive and crowded with tourists, Herculaneum is very compact, nestled amidst the existing city of Ercolano, and not as well known, so much quieter. I couldn’t bear the thought of wandering for miles around Pompeii amidst masses of crowds in the considerable heat, so I decided to visit Herculaneum instead, for a snapshot of what life was like in AD79. I found it fascinating to see how much remains; shop signs hang from walls, wooden doors and shutters separate rooms, the most intricate mosaics and paintings decorate walls and floors, and in the baths, the shelves to put clothes and towels look like they were built only yesterday. It was eerie and rather thought provoking to think that this was a world busy and bustling with people, living lives not dissimilar to ours nearly 2000 years ago. The footprints they left behind show us that we, like them, will soon be ancient history, our customs and habits discussed by people far removed from us in time, and yet in spirit, still essentially the same. I have never before been in a place that showed so clearly how little separates us from the past, and I found it an absolutely brilliant, illuminating experience. If I go back again, I’d like to visit Pompeii, but if you are in the area and it really is too hot to cope with too much walking, Herculaneum is a much more manageable alternative.