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A Few Favorite Books of 2017 (So Far)

I have long been meaning to get back to this blog. Every book I read, I think, “This is a good one…so much to say!” And then I say nothing at all, just move on to the next book. I think part of my lack of drive has to do that I’ve almost dropped social media entirely. The only things I look at with any regularity are Goodreads and Instagram, and because I’m not very good at capturing moments in photos, I rarely post anything on the latter. Being away from social media also means being away from the book discussions, something I greatly miss. I keep telling myself that’s a good reason to get back to blogging, but then again, can one blog without participating heavily in social media? A discussion for another time, perhaps.

Because I’ve been out of the fray and therefore away from influence, I’ve been meandering from book to book. I’ve had a surprisingly good reading year so far, with no slumps to date and only one book I completely abandoned halfway through, The Story Hour by Thrity Urmigar. The characters were flat, and the plot was completely contrived, and that’s all I’ve got to say about that because I’m not here to talk about the bad stuff. I’m here to talk about just a few of my favorites (so far).

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great MigrationThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migrations by Isabel Wilkerson is an absolute must-read, especially during our current climate. I wish I could shove this book into the hands of so many people I know who continue to make assumptions about African Americans based on a lot of propaganda circulated in the early Twentieth century. Wilkerson follows the journey of three African Americans from the South to the North during three decades, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Interwoven with these stories Wilkerson uncovers the bigger picture of this migration of African Americans from the South to the North that took place over the course of six decades, from 1915 to 1970, debunking myths along the way that have continued to perpetuate negative stereotypes. It was fascinating and infuriating and difficult to put down.

The Sport of KingsThe Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan completely blew me away. Oh, how I hate to write plot synopses, and trying to write one for this epic novel feels nearly impossible, so I’m going to let the publisher’s blurb do the talking:

Hellsmouth, an indomitable thoroughbred with the blood of Triple Crown winners in her veins, runs for the glory of the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. Henry Forge has partnered with his daughter, Henrietta, in an endeavor of raw obsession: to breed the next superhorse, the next Secretariat. But when Allmon Shaughnessy, an ambitious young black man, comes to work on their farm after a stint in prison, the violence of the Forges’ history and the exigencies of appetite are brought starkly into view. Entangled by fear, prejudice, and lust, the three tether their personal dreams of glory to the speed and grace of Hellsmouth.

Morgan’s prose has an abundance, a lushness, that is rare in these days of pragmatic, minimalist prose or the nudge, nudge, wink wink of irony that’s become all too common. I’m not kidding when I say I felt like I was reading The Great American Novel. All at once it reminded me of Steinbeck and felt like something completely new. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its flaws, but the overall effect is so powerful they simply don’t matter. I plan to read this one again soon, so maybe next time I’ll get around to writing a dedicated post.

Anything Is PossibleMy husband surprised me with a copy of Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. These connected stories cover the lives of people that Lucy Barton and her mother gossip about in Strout’s previous novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. I was planning to read Lucy Barton first, but I was so excited I started this one immediately. Although I loved Olive Kitteridge, the last book I read by Strout was The Burgess Boys, and it left me feeling underwhelmed. Not so with Anything Is Possible. She brings the same detail and care to her small-town Illinois characters as she did in Olive Kitteridge. At her best, Strout reminds me of Kent Haruf in the way she writes about regular people going about their quiet lives. I loved it so much that I decided to read My Name Is Lucy Barton right away…and was disappointed.

The ThicketOne of my favorite books of all time is True Grit by Charles Portis. I also happen to love a good Western. Because of this, Joe R. Lansdale’s novels kept popping up in my recommendations on Amazon and Goodreads. I chose to start with The Thicket, and I was not disappointed. When Jack Parker loses his parents to smallpox, his grandfather comes to take him and his sister Lula to live with their uncle. Along the way, they meet with a rough group of bandits who kill Jack’s grandfather and kidnap his sister. Jack is alone until he hooks up with a pair of bounty hunters, a freed slave named Eustace and a dwarf named Shorty, who offer to help him track the gang and find his sister in exchange for the land he inherited from his parents. As tragic as it all sounds, this book is laugh-out-loud funny and sharply written, with well-developed characters and a perfectly paced plot.

Usually I could pull together ten titles for this list. Going back through the forty-two titles I’ve read this year, I have plenty more four- and five-star reads in the list, but all in all these are the only ones that really stand out for me. It’s strange to have a pretty good reading year but feel so meh.

That said, I re-read both Ann  Patchett’s Commonwealth and Patti Smith’s Just Kids this year, and they were both just as stunning as they were the first time around. It didn’t seem fair to include them in the favorites so far list, though. I also started two new series that I am very much enjoying: Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series. I read a couple of J. Courtney Sullivan’s books, Saints for All Occasions (her latest) and Maine and greatly enjoyed them both. I picked up the former on a whim because The Washington Post‘s Ron Charles gave it such a glowing review; I read her first novel Commencement when it was published and thought it was only so-so, but she’s developed quite a bit as a writer, so I’ll be looking forward to whatever she writes next. I was also pleasantly surprised by two very different books about the art world, Molly Prentiss’s self-assured, impressive debut Tuesday Nights in 1980 and Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos.

Okay, so maybe it’s not all as meh as I thought.

I should also mention War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam, which includes nine first-person accounts from women who were some of the first to cover combat. This would be a great companion read if you’re planning to watch Ken Burns’s series on Vietnam (I am!).

Outside of books, the best (and most troubling) thing I experienced this year was the original Netflix series The Keepers, about how the unsolved mystery of the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik in November 1967 uncovered a horrifying web of abuse and conspiracy between the Catholic diocese of Baltimore and the Baltimore city government to cover up any number of allegations. The women at the heart of this story are absolute heroes. It’s very difficult to watch but absolutely gripping, and I’m so happy for these women that they’ve been given a platform to tell their story. Of course, a little justice would be nice. Or a lot.

How about you? How’s you’re reading year so far? If you read any of these, please share!

 

 

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Those Books I Cannot Deny

Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and The Bookish) this week asks us to list the top ten things that will make us instantly want to read a book. This is a tough one—I think next week’s topic about what makes us NOT want to pick up a book is easier—but I’ll give it a shot.

RunawayIt’s by a favorite author. Okay, that’s such a no-brainer, right? Obviously, we all look forward to books from favorite authors, but maybe we get to some a bit faster than others. As much as I love Lorrie Moore—and even though I had preordered a copy—it took me almost a year to read her most recent story collection. And I love Mary Gaitskill but haven’t read The Mare yet. But a new Alice Munro, Tana French, Donna Tartt, or Marisha Pessl? I want that book in my hands on pub day, if not before.

It’s a campus novel. I’m a huge sucker for any book set at a boarding school or a university. I blame The Official Preppy Handbook, which was published when I was in seventh grade. It’s the source of all my fantasies about wearing blue blazers and knee socks and carrying a beat-up leather messenger bag and driving an old Volvo station wagon and attending classes in grey-stone buildings covered with ivy. What? Oh, right, like you don’t have a dream. The Secret History, Prep, The Headmaster’s Wife, Skippy Dies

It’s set west of the Mississippi. Hello, Larry McMurtry. Hello, Kent Haruf. Hello, Wallace Stegner. Wait…those were all men. Hello, Louise Erdrich. Hello, Molly Gloss. Hello, Willa Cather.

LandfallsIt involves any sort of seafaring. I’m fascinated by the Dutch East India Trading Company, the age of exploration, the migration of people….as long as it’s happening on a ship. For someone who’s terrified of the ocean, I have enough books about sailing the wide open seas on my TBR list that you’d never guess. Landfalls, Ship Fever, Servants of the Map, Master and Commander

It involves cowboys/pioneers/people settling the Western US. Technically this could be considered a subset of number three, I guess, but it’s a particular one that always draws me. The Jump-Off Creek, The Son, Lonesome Dove, The News of the West

It features a WASPy New York family. You can keep your navel-gazing Brooklyn hipsters who all want to write books about being writers. I’m way more interested in the Upper East Side, particularly if the book is set before, say, 1970. The Rules of Civility, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, The Catcher in the Rye, The Nest

It’s compared favorably (by someone I trust) to a book/writer I love. No, not looking at you, Gone Girl. You’re over your limit. But if a book is compared to, say, The Secret History, The Goldfinch, Commonwealth, Empire Falls, The Likeness…Somebody stop me before I list all my favorite books. You get the picture. Although sometimes these comparisons make me leary (still not looking at you, Gone Girl). I’m sorry, but if I saw a book that said, “For readers who love Alice Munro,” I might be afraid I was going to get a cheap imitation, because honestly, who can compare?

Seating ArrangementsIt’s set anywhere from coastal New England up to Newfoundland. I’m talking rocky coast, sea spray, the Atlantic, whales, fishermen, creaky old cottages with worn shingles, lighthouses—the whole shebang. So anything from Seating Arrangements to Olive Kitteridge to Sweetland to The Shipping News. The gamut of the northern US/Canadian East Coast, if you will.

It involves a clever twist. I’ve gotten a bit more wary about this one. (Okay, Gone Girl, I’m looking at you now.) Still, I do like a good twist. I really thought Gone Girl was masterfully done. And Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (who’s twisting who?). John Fowles’s The Magus (twisty involving teacher at secluded Greek boarding school). E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (twisty/New England combo).

So, where do we line up? Any recommendations? Where do we differ? (I’d love to hear from you if you have a real comment! If you are just here to spam your own link, move on.)

Favorite Books of 2016

Today’s Top Ten (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) asks us to list our ten favorite books of 2016. When I sat down to write this post, I learned that Carrie Fisher had died. I had been telling myself all morning to start focusing on small things, like reading and writing and blogging and yoga, and not to think too much about the headlines or about all the things that currently make everything seem somewhat useless or hopeless. This year has been a very tough one, not just for much of the world but for a lot of people very close to me, but up to November I at least thought that we would all get past it. But like a lot of you out there, I feel that since November 8 that the world has tilted. I cannot seem to get over the shock I feel that so much of America is filled with hatred, that so many people willingly believe fake news and that science is equal to nothing more than mere opinion. For the first time ever, I fear the future. I also realize how weirdly lucky I am to have the luxury of that fear. I have lived through a great time of mostly peace and progress and prosperity. Like a lot of people, I assumed the world would more or less continue that way. Not anymore. And now in less than three days, the passing of two more icons. I mean, what the hell?

That said, 2016 really did have one big bright spot for me, and that was reading. I slowed down a bit after November, but at that point I was only two books away from my goal of reading 50 books this year. As of today, I’ve read 54, and I may finish another two before the year is out. I don’t have any fancy graphics and I didn’t write reviews for most of these, but these were the books that made the best impression on me in 2016:

Commonwealth, Ann Patchett. For those of us who like stories about families and all their quirks and foibles. I plan to re-read this one in 2017. That’s how much I liked it.

The Turner House, Angela Flournoy. I read this family drama about a group of grown children grappling with what to do about their Detroit family home right after finishing Commonwealth, and I found it every bit as engaging.

Mr. Splitfoot, Samantha Hunt. I had no idea what to expect from this strange and wonderful novel. The ending vexed me but overall the story was so original and engrossing I knew it would have to be on this list.

Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue. This novel about a Cameroonian family trying to make a go of life in New York just prior to the Lehman Brothers melt down and the national financial crisis that followed isn’t exactly an uplifting tale, but Mbue is such a good writer and her characters were so wonderful this one was hard to put down. She’s such a confident writer, it’s hard to believe this is a debut (same goes for Flournoy, actually).

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. I wish I could press this book into the hands of every American. I wish that books really could change minds and make people more empathetic.

All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews. You might not think you would laugh out loud reading a book about a woman trying to keep her sister from committing suicide, but you would be wrong. This touching, funny, smart book about our obligations to family and ourselves is absolutely terrific.

The Girls, Emma Cline. I keep going back and forth on this one, trying to decide if it’s overrated and I drank the KoolAid or if it really is that good. I think the fact that I read it in July and I am still thinking about it in December probably says more than anything.

Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner. Enter this in the “Why did I wait so long to read this?” category. This classic, beautiful family saga was my most favorite book this year, and another I plan to re-read sooner rather than later.

The Rules of Civility, Amor Towles. I am just a sucker for a New York tale, and I read a lot of them this year, but this one was my absolute favorite.

The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson. This harrowing tale about an orphan in North Korea has stuck in my brain, almost as though it were a documentary of things that have actually happened. Most certainly, it shows what humans are able to to endure.

You can see the full list of everything I read this year here.

What was your favorite book of 2016?

2015: Favorite Books and Year in Review

Where did the time go? How is tomorrow the last day of the year? I’m sure that I am not the only person who feels this way, but the last few months especially just seemed to fly past. The weird warm weather isn’t helping, either. In some ways I am completely baffled that we’re at years end, and in others I’m confounded that it’s not already March 2016. Oh well, neither here nor there.

I had such high hopes for reading and blogging in 2015, and they mostly did not come to pass. For one thing, I only read 32 books. That’s got to be a new low. (Except it isn’t—I only read 32 books last year, too. WHAT? Serious 2015 resolution fails. Yowza.) The truth is, though, I spent a lot of the time I could have been reading doing other things (cough*Internet*cough). Seriously, I really did waste a spectacular amount of time on the Internet this year. I wouldn’t mind that so much if it meant I had been writing reviews or commenting on blogs I enjoy. But no. Instead, I spent most of my time looking at Twitter and feeling anywhere from slightly to completely outraged by any number of things. My second biggest time-waster was Facebook, which I never liked much but has in the last year turned into meme spam factory. I find myself scrolling through all these damn memes just to see real pictures or updates from people. It’s like the Easter egg hunt of the damned.

I joined two challenges (TBR Double Dog Dare and #10BooksofSummer), but only completed the first one. For the TBR Double Dog Dare, I did a great job of reading my own books from January to April, something I’ll probably do again this year even if I don’t join a formal challenge. This is probably the first year since I started blogging that I don’t really want to buy anything. Usually I get some kind of gift card to spend on books and I rush to spend it all before the new year. I have some money to spend but instead this year I’m just putting a bunch of items on my library hold list. I’m tired of buying books and not reading them, and I want to be dedicated about not adding to the stack until I can pare it down some (that was a goal last year, too, so here’s a grain of salt to go along with this statement). I think I’ll save my gift cards for something I know I really want—and for REAL books. If I realized anything this year, it’s how much I enjoy reading physical books. I’m not knocking my e-reader (and I’ve started using Google Play books in addition to the Kindle app), but I spend so much time at a computer (for work) that spending time looking at the paper page has become a relief of sorts.

Even if I only read 32 books this year, I am happy to say that only a few of them were duds (at least for me). I found several new authors to follow (and four new series…why do they have to be series?): Sara Gran, Jeff Vandermeer, Elena Ferrante, Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling. I read three books that have been on my TBR since I started blogging (My Antonia, Cloud Atlas, and Possession). I finally read a book I bought way back when it was published in 2005 (Assassination Vacation).

And so, on to the favorites. Overall, my favorite book of the year was Patti Smith’s M Train, which I did not get a chance to review here, mainly because when I sat down to do so, it felt more like I was trying to write about a personal conversation with a good friend than writing a book review. Smith writes with such earnestness and generosity of spirit about the things she loves or has loved and lost. She loves books, is hopelessly addicted to The Killing, and compulsively watches Law and Order. She becomes obsessed with Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, ponders the loss of a favorite coat, buys a house, endures Hurricane Sandy. Reading M Train is like reading the journal of a highly artistic and observant person, except that it’s not like a journal at all because she wants you there with her.

My other favorites: Assassination Vacation made me laugh so hard I cried and instantly made me a dedicated Sarah Vowell fan. My Antonia reminded me yet again that simple stories neatly told can often be the most spectacular, and the same can be said of my last book of the year, Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. Cloud Atlas knocked my socks off, but not in ways I would have expected; I thought it would be very post-modern and intimidating, but instead found it was just plain old-fashioned storytelling from someone with a serious mastery of language and style (and genre). Skippy Dies was a book I loved for its humor and depth, so much so that if I do buy anything it will probably be Paul Murray’s latest, The Mark and The Void. Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is probably one of the best books I have ever read about the nuances of female friendship. And finally, Annihilation was one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read and makes me grateful yet again that I discovered book blogs, because without them I would still be reading in the same narrow veins of literary fiction.

And then there were the page-turners: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Seating Arrangements, Big Little Lies,  The Hand That First Held MineThe Signature of All Things, Into Thin Air, The Son. All in all, I had a great reading year, even if my volumes were low.

And so for 2016, I’m going to challenge myself to read at least 50 books. Some of the things I have lined up (East of Eden, Angle of Repose, An Instance of the Fingerpost) are not exactly small books, but I am feeling confident that with a little dedication (and a little less Internet), 2016 could be an outstanding year for reading. Happy New Year to you all!

Top Ten Tuesday: Character-Driven Novels

For today’s Tuesday Top 10 (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), participants have been asked to list their favorite character-driven novels. Since character-driven novels are pretty much all I ever read, I could just point you to any of my year-end favorite posts and say, “Have at it,” but what fun would that be? It’s difficult for me to only pick ten, but I’ll give it a shot:

Benediction, Kent Haruf. All of Haruf’s works are character driven, and while my favorite of his is probably Plainsong, this particular novel really wrenched my heart.

Benediction Cover
Texasville, Larry McMurtry. This novel (part two of the Thalia Trilogy) revisits some of the cast of The Last Picture Show, 33 years later. Set during the 1980s Texas oil bust, it’s both funny and melancholy.

Texasville (Thalia Trilogy) Cover
In the Woods, Tana French. I could have picked any of French’s books, but I decided to pick her first one because it was the first one I read and it was also the first time I felt like everything I love about literary fiction had been married to everything that’s great about suspense.

In the woods.jpg
Straight Man, Richard Russo. Again, I could have picked any of Russo’s books, but this is one of my favorite books of all time. If you like books about father-son relationships or dry-witted academics (among other things), then pick it up ASAP.


Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam. This one is not for the faint of heart, but Nadzam does such an amazing job showing what’s going on inside the head of David Lamb that it’s both frightening and mesmerizing.

Lamb Cover
Canada, Richard Ford. When Dell Parson’s parents are arrested for robbing a bank, he is estranged from his twin sister and exiled to Canada, where he works for a man with a dark secret. I read this on a whim and loved every second of it.

CanadaNovel.jpg
The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt. The Sisters brothers are assassins sent to kill a man who has invented a way to discover and steal gold from their boss. It’s a love story about two brothers, it’s a Western, and it’s darkly and awesomely funny.

Thesistersbrotherscover.jpg
You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt. What if your best friend disappeared? What if you had defined yourself around that disappearance, and then you learned it might not be true? This is an unusual coming-of-age story that I thoroughly intend to read again.

You Are One of Them Cover
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout. this is more a novel in stories, all which center around the central character of Olive Kitteridge, who lives in Crosby, Maine. Her story is told mostly through the eyes of the relatives and townspeople who know her.

Olive-kitteridge l.jpg
The Dart League King, Keith Lee Morris. I’m big on stories about sad-sacks with big dreams. Russell Harmon is getting ready for his dart league to play its final championship game of the season, and he’s banking on more than a trophy if he wins. This book has so much more than meets the eye, and I wish I could get it into the hands of more people.

The Dart League King Cover

*images and links from powells.com and Wikipedia

Favorite Reads of 2013

Better late than never, I suppose, I’ve put together a list of my favorite books of 2013. I’ve noticed a lot of people have mentioned that 2013 was a particularly dry year for them, and a lot of prolific bloggers have confessed to reading fewer titles in 2013 than in years past. For me, 2013 was a particularly good year for reading. I only read 38 books, which shocks me, but this year I started a new job that hasn’t really left me with much of a life outside work–and what life I’ve had has been mostly filled with stressing out about…work. That’s something I am determined to change in 2014, so no point in spending a lot of time whining about it, but it may take me some time to get my reading mojo back.

Another weird thing happened at the end of the year: after I finished The Goldfinch and The Little Friend, both by Donna Tartt, I found it impossible to stick with any other novel I picked up. I started no less than ten different books only to find myself becoming restless and disinterested. I cannot fault any of the books I picked up, and I plan to finish all of them at some point, but I just couldn’t seem to keep things going (see above: stress). In November I got through two non-fiction books, though: Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised (which I recommend if you enjoy quality television–I haven’t seen all of the shows he discusses in the book, so I skipped those chapters, but I’ve seen most of them, and I follow Sepinwall’s reviews online pretty religiously for shows I watch) and Ann Patchett’s The Secret of a Happy Marriage. I enjoy the way Patchett writes and have always enjoyed her non-fiction, but…well, the truth is, this book of essays is probably best read in small doses if you want to keep liking Ann Patchett (and I do). Reading all of these essays together in almost one sitting, I thought she came off as both a bit smug and full of first-world problems. While I appreciate her for opening an independent bookstore, for example, she seems (ingenuously) unaware that the book store is probably a success both because her name is attached to it and because she has rather deep pockets to help keep it going (at one point in the book, she talks about writing a $130,000 check–I’m sure many independent bookstore owners across the country wish they had ready access to such capital).

Anyway, without further ado, below are my favorite reads of 2013. I’ve added links for books I wrote about, and added a few notes for books I never got around to reviewing.

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry

American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell

Benediction, Kent Haruf

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner. This made many big-name “Best of 2013” lists this year, and I stand with those who think all praise is well-deserved. This book worked for me because I liked the narrator so much–she’s the quintessential quiet outsider who both longs to be a part of the art world and also sees the shallowness of both her longing and the art world itself.

Serena, Ron Rash. This dark, dark novel is set in western North Carolina at the start of the Depression. George Pemberton has brought his new bride Serena home to his timber camp. Serena is ruthless and ambitious, and George is completely under her spell. A dark twist on the idea that behind every great man, there’s a great woman, this novel has a Shakespearean quality that makes it both eloquent and gripping.

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, Paul French. Last year, The People Who Eat Darkness, the story of a young British woman who went missing in Japan, made my list of favorite reads. Midnight in Peking tells the true story of a young British woman found murdered in 1937. The mystery has never been solved, and the story is as chilling as any modern tale I can imagine.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl

Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam

Cartwheel, Jennifer DuBois

You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt

Open Secrets, Alice Munro. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, and this book had been lingering on my shelves far too long. It’s Munro. Enough said.

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt. I did it! I finally read The Little Friend, after five or six attempts. I picked it up because I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of The Goldfinch and had handed over my copy of The Secret History to my husband to read. I thought I might as well give this one another shot, and I’m so happy that I did, because somehow it finally clicked for me. As a matter of fact, I was almost reluctant to set it aside when The Goldfinch arrived. Set in Alexandria, Mississippi in the 1970s, The Little Friend is the story of Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, a 12-year-old girl who decides that the death of her older brother Robin was no accident and sets out with her friend Hely to find his killer. What Tartt does so effectively in this book is paint a vivid and complex picture of life in the deep South. If you’re interested in novels about the South, and want a more accurate and less cliched (and funnier, deeper) portrayal of the racial and class inequalities that persist in small Southern towns than you might find in a book such as The Help, then pick up The Little Friend.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. I am not going to say much about this one, because so much has already been said. I found it completely engrossing and enjoyable. Tartt is a world-builder, which I think is why she has lately been compared so often to Dickens. I’ve seen some reviewers who seem to want to pick apart the book–why, for example, would terrorists bomb an art gallery? I don’t know. Why, in reality, do they bomb discotheques? The book isn’t about terrorism. It’s about loneliness, isolation, friendship, and perhaps on some level the power of art to sustain us in the strangest ways.

Revisiting: The Secret History Soundtrack

secrethistoryNote: In honor of the official publication of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch tomorrow, I though it would be fun and fitting to re-post this soundtrack for The Secret History that I originally posted March 3, 2009.  I’ve also updated the post below to include a  link to the soundtrack in Spotify. Happy listening!

Several weeks ago I came across a post on American Bibliophile that challenged readers to create a soundtrack for their favorite books. Immediately this was something I wanted to do, but little did I realize how difficult it might be. First, which book should I pick? I have many favorite novels: Plainsong, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, The Bright Forever, Franny and Zooey, and Rabbit, Run, just to name a very few. I finally settled on The Secret History because I had certain songs I associated with that book from the very first time I read it. Still, that brought up another dilemma: What sort of soundtrack should I create? Should I stick to a certain time period (i.e., if the song wasn’t around when the book was published, should I be allowed to use it?) or to a certain mood? Should I create it as though it were a movie soundtrack or pick songs for each of the characters?

After thinking about it for well over a week, I decided to go with the mood (and songs that were around when or before the book was published), following the chronology of events in the book. Without further ado, I present for you my soundtrack for The Secret History. I hope you enjoy it! In fact, I hope you’ll join the challenge!

Updated:  I’ve created this playlist in Spotify. You can listen to it here.

“Blue Bell Knoll” – The Cocteau Twins. This song has opens with an ethereal beginning and moves into a swirling, windswept feel that grows in intensity through the end of the song. I think it fits the opening of the book, where Richard first quietly reveals Bunny’s murder and then backtracks to tell us the story of how he decided to go to Hampden College.

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of the situation.” (Note: This is NOT a spoiler; it’s the first sentence of the book.)

“Those first days before classes started I spent alone in my whitewashed room, in the bright meadows of Hampden. And I was happy in those first few days as really I’d never been before, roaming like a sleepwalker, stunned and drunk with beauty. A group of red-cheeked girls playing soccer, ponytails flying, their shouts and laughter carrying faintly over the velvety, twilit field. Trees creaking with apples, fallen apples red on the grass beneath, the heavy sweet smell of them rotting on the ground and the steady thrumming of wasps around them. Commons clock tower: ivied brick, white spire, spellbound in the hazy distance. The shock of first seeing a birch tree at night, rising up in the dark as cool and slim as a ghost. And the nights, bigger than imagining: black and gusty and enormous, disordered and wild with stars.”

“Three to Get Ready” – Dave Brubeck Quartet. This neat little jazz number makes me think of Richard watching the other Greek students on campus, and going to visit Julian, and realizing he wants to be a part of their world (as he imagines it). This song has the feeling of dappled sunlight and late fall afternoons, where there’s still a bit of warmth in the air, and everything in the world feels like a possibility.

“And what did I do in Hampden town? Frankly, I was too staggered by my good fortune to do much of anything. It was a glorious day; I was sick of being poor, so, before I thought the better of it, I went into an expensive men’s shop on the square and bought a couple of shirts. Then I went down to the Salvation Army and poked around in bins for a while and found a Harris tweed overcoat and a pair of brown wingtips that fit me, also some cufflinks and a funny old tie that had pictures of men hunting deer on it. When I came out of the store I was happy to find that I still had nearly a hundred dollars. Should I go to the bookstore? To the movies? Buy a bottle of Scotch? In the end, I was so swarmed by the great flock of possibilities drifted up murmuring and smiling to crowd about me on the bright autumn sidewalk that–like a farm boy flustered by a bevy of prostitutes–I brushed right through them, to the pay phone on the corner, to call a cab to take me to school.

Once in my room, I spread the clothes on my bed. The cufflinks were beaten up and had someone else’s initials on them, but they looked like real gold, glinting in the drowsy autumn sun which poured through the window and soaked in yellow pools on the oak floor–voluptuous, rich, intoxicating.”

“Symphony No. 4 in C Minor (‘Tragic’), D. 417: Adante” – Franz Schubert. This piece is so pretty, but it has an undertone of melancholy that befits this section. The time during fall leading up to Christmas, when Richard spends weekends with the others at Francis’s family home in the country, is the most idyllic time for Richard, but he’s already told us it’s not to last.

“It was dark and I couldn’t see a thing. My fingers finally closed on the door handle and only then, as I was climbing out of the car, the moon came out from behind a cloud and I saw the house. It was tremendous. I saw, in sharp, ink-black silhouette against the sky, turrets and pikes, a widow’s walk.”

“Prior to this first weekend in the country, my recollections of that fall are distant and blurry: from here on out, they come into a sharp, delightful focus. It is here that the stilted mannequins of my initial acquaintance begin to yawn and stretch and come to life. It was months before the gloss and mystery of newness, which kept me from seeing them with much objectivity, would wear entirely off…”

“The weekends at Francis’s house were the happiest times. The trees turned early that fall but the days stayed warm well into October, and in the country we spent most of our time outside. Apart from the occasional, half-hearted game of tennis…we never did anything very athletic; something about the place inspired a magnificent laziness I hadn’t known since childhood.”

“Road, River, and Rail” – The Cocteau Twins. This is one of the songs I’ve always associated with this book, mainly because the mood of the song fits so well (one good thing about The Cocteau Twins, half the time it’s impossible to know what she’s singing about, so no other meaning imposes itself on the song). Christmas break is approaching, the others are leaving, and Richard has nowhere to go, so he finds a place to stay in Hampden. This song evokes for me the feelings I think Richard has, being left behind.

“The last week of school was a flurry of packing, typing, plane reservations and phone calls home, for everybody but me. I had no need to finish my papers early because I had nowhere to go; I could pack at my leisure, after the dorms were empty.”

“I stood in the deserted street until I could no longer hear the sound of the motor, only the hiss of the powdery snow that the wind kicked up in little eddies on the ground. Then I started back to campus, hands deep in pockets and the crunch of my feet unbearably loud. The dorms were black and silent, and the big parking lot behind the tennis court was empty except for a few faculty cars and a lone green truck from Maintenance. In the dorm the hallways were littered with shoe boxes and coat hangers, doors ajar, everything dark and quiet as the grave.”

“Shipbuilding” – Elvis Costello. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say I picked this song because of the mood, and also because the whole idea of rumors and half-truths reflects the confusion Richard feels about what’s happening in his circle of friends. The ease that existed before Christmas has been replaced by a tension that cannot long be contained.

“I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in that cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me?

It’s funny, thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did.”

“Bunny, for all his appearance of amiable, callous stability, was actually a wildly erratic character…He sailed through the world guided only by the dim lights of impulse and habit, confident that his course would throw up no obstacles so large that they could not be plowed over with sheer force of momentum. But his instincts had failed him in the new set of circumstances presented…Now that the old trusted channel markers had, so to speak, been rearranged in the dark, the automatic pilot mechanism by which his psyche navigated was useless; decks awash, he floundered aimlessly, running on sandbars, veering off in all sorts of bizarre directions.”

“The Pan Piper” – Miles Davis. This song has the perfect sort of eerie feeling of being in the woods in the early spring: the dark, wet trees; the damp, musty earth. Richard and the others are in the woods to execute part of their plan to kill Bunny, when he happens upon them and fate takes its course.

“The woods were deathly still, more forbidding than I had ever seen them–green and black and stagnant, dark with the smells of mud and rot. There was no wind; no bird sang, not a leaf stirred. The dogwood blossoms were poised, white and surreal against the darkening sky, the heavy air.”

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” – Joy Division/ “True Faith” – New Order. I picked these songs for the sections where Richard and his friends are waiting for Bunny to be discovered, for the truth to be revealed–and once it is revealed, for the funeral. As time passes, they grow more irritable and unsure of each other.

“After what we’d been through in the previous weeks, it was no wonder we were all a little sick of one another. For the first few days we stayed pretty much to ourselves, except in class and in the dining halls; with Bun dead and buried, I suppose, there was much less to talk about, and no reason to stay up until four in the morning.”

“Phantasiestucke (Three Fantasy Pieces). Op. 73” – Robert Schumann. This longer piece works well as the group unravels further, as each person deals with the consequences of the murder.

“I was still trying to force back the blackest thought of all; the merest suggestion of it sent the rat’s feet of panic skittering up my spine. Had Henry intended to make me the patsy if his plan had fallen through? …so much of what I knew was only secondhand, so much of it was only what he’d told me; there was an awful lot, when you got right down to it, that I didn’t even know…I knew, from television, that there was no statute of limitations on murder. New evidence discovered. The case reopened. You read about these things all the time.”

“Mother of Pearl’ – Roxy Music. If I were making this soundtrack for a movie, I would edit out the first minute and thirty seconds to get to the heart of this song, which has the feeling of a fine party that has ended, a melancholy idea of what cannot be sustained: “I’ve been looking for something I’ve always wanted but was never mine/But now I see that something just out of reach growing very Holy Grail…” Many years later, Richard goes to meet with a few friends from that time, and finds it wrenching to part:

“Raindrops on the windshield, radio stations fading in and out. Cornfields bleak in all those gray, wide-open reaches. I had said goodbye to her once before, but it took everything I had to say goodbye to her then, again, for the last time, like poor Orpheus turning for a last backward glance at the ghost of his only love and in the same heartbeat losing her forever: hinc illae lacrimae, hence those tears.”