The Goldfinch

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not really a very “likeable” book, but it is a very powerful one. Basic plot: boy loses mother, is cast adrift, descends into drug use and alcoholism, makes choices that spiral out of control, and eventually grows up and tries to put things right. One of those choices was stealing a valuable painting from the MOMA during a terrorist bombing that kills his mother. He clings to this painting as a sort of anchor in his life, and it is his undoing, but in the end, it is also his salvation. Tedious in some sections, especially life with his until then absent father in Las Vegas, and his descent into drug abuse with his friend Boris — and Theo is not really a very likeable character himself — nevertheless, it was also mesmerizing. The painting is a character in its own right – perhaps the only character that I actually cared about. The power of this book is in the broader themes that transcend plot and characters: how much do we control our fate? what is the power of art? the nature of authenticity? what happens when we try to follow our heart, but our heart cannot be trusted? Dickensian in scope, there is more than a nod here to Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Will all be well in the end? Maybe, and maybe not.

Book Description: Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art. As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love–and his talisman, the painting, places him at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

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H is for Hawk

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A wonderful intimate look at the world of falconry, a memoir of loss and grief, and an examination of the life and world of T.H. White. A fan of White ever since the Disney version of A Sword in the Stone, I quickly realized how little I knew of this apparently tortured man. Any rereading of The Once and Future King will undoubtedly be enriched by this. Helen gives us a moving portrait of her father, as she examines the rawness of her own grief accompanied by the rawness of living close to a wild, untameable creature. Life with a goshawk confronts us with death — but death as a part of the whole cycle of life and being alive. Her lyrical meditations cover the gamut of human experience — history, philosophy, psychology, the natural world, hopes, fears, depression, madness, cruelty, love and healing — told with heart-wrenching honesty.

Book Description: When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life.

Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.

Year of Wonders

Year of WondersYear of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would have given this 5 stars except for the rather unbelievable ending. Already taking historical license with facts and characters to create melodrama, it kind of jumped the shark at that point. But I loved the overall writing which was lyrical and richly textured, and puts you right in that time and place. Here is a strong and introspective (though anachronistic) woman that makes you think about what you would do, and how you would behave in these circumstances. It runs the gamut of human emotions – love, hate, fear, self-sacrifice, self-preservation, greed, grief, and madness. Ultimately, though, it failed to show me what was wonderful about having survived, and did a disservice to the real minister of Eyam, William Mompesson.

Book Description (from back cover): When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated mountain village, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna’s eyes we follow the story of the plague year, 1666, as her fellow villagers make an extraordinary choice: convinced by a visionary young minister they elect to quarantine themselves within the village boundaries to arrest the spread of the disease. But as death reaches into every household, faith frays. When villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must confront the deaths of family, the disintegration of her communtity, and the lure of illicit love. As she struggles to survive, a year of plague becomes instead annus mirabilis, a “year of wonders.”

Red Sparrow

Red SparrowRed Sparrow by Jason Matthews

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4 1/2 stars. Not my usual genre, but I enjoyed this a lot. This is contemporary Russia under Putin, told with all the insider knowledge of a former CIA operative. We follow the careers of two young people – Nathaniel Nash with the CIA and Dominika Egorova with the SVR trying to recruit each other, a CIA mole looking to find and train his replacement, a senator’s wife who is a Russian mole, and a ruthless Russian assassin. The characters are fascinating, and even minor characters are well developed. Dominika is a synesthete who can read emotions by the colors around people. The author certainly knows his stuff. My eyes glazed over a few times from all the acronyms, and the procedural details. He also clearly loves food, and describes meals in great detail. Somewhat incongruously for a thriller, there are brief recipes given at the end of each chapter, and I found myself trying to guess what the recipe would be as I listened to this audiobook. I will definitely be looking out for the next book in the series with Nash and Dominika.

Book description: State intelligence officer Dominika Egorova struggles to survive in the cast-iron bureaucracy of post-Soviet intelligence. Drafted against her will to become a “Sparrow,” a trained seductress in the service, Dominika is assigned to operate against Nathaniel Nash, a first-tour CIA officer who handles the CIA’s most sensitive penetration of Russian intelligence. The two young intelligence officers, trained in their respective spy schools, collide in a charged atmosphere of tradecraft, deception, and, inevitably, a forbidden spiral of carnal attraction that threatens their careers and the security of America’s most valuable mole in Moscow. Seeking revenge against her soulless masters, Dominika begins a fateful double life, recruited by the CIA to ferret out a high-level traitor in Washington; hunt down a Russian illegal buried deep in the US military and, against all odds, to return to Moscow as the new-generation penetration of Putin’s intelligence service. Dominika and Nathaniel’s impossible love affair and twisted spy game come to a deadly conclusion in the shocking climax of this electrifying, up-to-the minute spy thriller.