Sunday, May 01, 2016

Ancient Chained Book Libraries, Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, and the Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

What fascinates me most about these hundreds of years old libraries is their chained volumes that have been kept intact all these years later. It is hard for us to imagine, in this modern era, that books were so valuable and rare that stealing them was of great concern. Hence the chains wrought into their spines so that you'd have to read and utilize them for research only for as long as you were willing to sit on the hard wooden benches under daylight or candlelight. 

'The Oldest Libraries Around the World'

"It's no secret around here that we're a little bit obsessed with
libraries--their collections, stunning designs and sometimes playful
interiors," Flavorwire noted in taking "a trip around the world to
highlight some of the oldest libraries in existence
of ancient art and architecture, history and prized books. Here are ten
of our favorites."

Journey to Munich is the 12th Maisie Dobbs mystery written by the redoubtable Jacqueline Winspear. I've read all the Maisie Dobbs novels, and adored them, but this latest slender volume was exciting, as it marks a new beginning for Maisie at the start of the second World War. Here's the blurb:
Working with the British Secret Service on an undercover mission, Maisie Dobbs is sent to Hitler’s Germany in this thrilling tale of danger and intrigue—the twelfth novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s New York Times bestselling “series that seems to get better with each entry” (Wall Street Journal).
It’s early 1938, and Maisie Dobbs is back in England. On a fine yet chilly morning, as she walks towards Fitzroy Square—a place of many memories—she is intercepted by Brian Huntley and Robert MacFarlane of the Secret Service. The German government has agreed to release a British subject from prison, but only if he is handed over to a family member. Because the man’s wife is bedridden and his daughter has been killed in an accident, the Secret Service wants Maisie—who bears a striking resemblance to the daughter—to retrieve the man from Dachau, on the outskirts of Munich.
The British government is not alone in its interest in Maisie’s travel plans. Her nemesis—the man she holds responsible for her husband’s death—has learned of her journey, and is also desperate for her help.
Traveling into the heart of Nazi Germany, Maisie encounters unexpected dangers—and finds herself questioning whether it’s time to return to the work she loved. But the Secret Service may have other ideas. . . .
I thoroughly enjoyed this latest installment, because Maisie is finally getting her groove back after the death of her husband and miscarriage of her child. My only concerns were that Maisie seemed way too nice to John and Lorraine Otterburn, who were responsible for the death of her husband in an airplane crash. Why she would search for their adult daughter Elaine, who abandoned her husband and child and ran off to Germany is completely beyond me. Elaine made her choice, and the Otterburns should have respected that and not tried to force Maisie into yet more danger by having her try to find a way out of Germany for their daughter. Elaine is a spoiled wealthy woman who has acted as a prostitute for a Nazi officer and is under suspicion of being a spy. The fact that Maisie tries several times to get her to see the light and leave is, again, beyond me, because who really cares about this awful woman and her terrible choices? Maisie ends up giving her plane seat to Elaine so she can escape, and it then is harder and more dangerous for Maisie to leave by other means. She also discovers that Donat is not in Dachau, but is in hiding, and is able to get him out of the country with Elaine, whom it turns out is his daughter from an affair that Lorraine had with Donat because John Otterburn is such a creep. At any rate, Maisie finally decides to open up her private investigations business again and hire back Billy and the office girl, so I look forward to further adventures with the three of them during WW2 in England. I'd give this satisfying read an A, and recommend it to those who enjoy historical mysteries with female sleuths.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer was listed on one of those Best Books of the 21st Century, or Books Everyone Should Read, or are often overlooked kind of lists. So I got a copy, along with the Goldfinch by Donna Tartt because I'd been meaning to read that one, too. Come to find out they are both books that should only be read by insufferably smug New York City dwellers who also happen to be Jewish. I truly have no problems with Jewish people, my stepfather was Jewish, and I thought he was a kind and gentleman who treated my mother very well for 30 years during her second marriage. I also worked on Mercer Island, which has several different synagogues and a healthy Jewish population. For some reason, though, the Interestings seems to use a lot of cliches about neurotic Jewish people who are jealous of everyone elses success throughout the novel. Here's the blurb:
The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.
The kind of creativity that is rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty; not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence. Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, eventually resigns herself to a more practical occupation and lifestyle. Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing the guitar and becomes an engineer. But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful—true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding. The friendships endure and even prosper, but also underscore the differences in their fates, in what their talents have become and the shapes their lives have taken.
Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters who come together and apart in a changing New York City, The Interestings explores the meaning of talent; the nature of envy; the roles of class, art, money, and power; and how all of it can shift and tilt precipitously over the course of a friendship and a life.
 The reason I finished this book is that the six main characters are only a year older than I am, so when they are at summer camp at the start of the book in 1974, I knew just what they were talking about when they discussed politics and pot, and TV and movies of that time. Their stories diverge from mine rather sharply when they get out of high school and start college, however. Even before that, there seems to be something of a class divide between the characters whose parents are "cool" because they have money and foster their children's talents and make excuses for the child who is a sociopathic narcissist. In Iowa, where I was raised, there wasn't as much of a class divide because most of the kids I grew up with were middle class suburban kids whose parents worked as teachers or doctors or whatever. Of course there were some whose parents were lawyers or the mayor or were wealthy, but that never held as much cache as being good looking, thin and popular, or good at sports and good looking if you were a guy. The old "jocks and cheerleaders" vs "smart nerds and ugly/fat/gay kids" thing. Of course there were also the "stoners" and the "juvie" kids who were also outcasts, and often those kids came from poor households, often with crappy parents or divorced parents who paid little attention to their kids. Still, there weren't the kind of parents who, in this novel, have an elaborate household full of every kind of creative thing their children could want, plus parents who were great cooks and able to take care of their teenage children's friends as well as look the other way when they smoked pot. Jules, the main narrator, lives outside of NYC with her dreadfully normal and poor mother and sister, and once she becomes friends with the cool kids at camp, Ethan Figman, who is ugly but a genius animator, and Ash and Goodman, brother and sister who live in the aforementioned elaborate household (and Jonah, the beautiful gay son of a hippie folk singer) and Cathy Kiplinger, the busty beautiful blonde who wants to be a ballerina but is too voluptuous to continue on in that profession, she spends the rest of the book being envious, jealous and sarcastic/rude to these people she supposedly cares about, because they have things that she doesn't. One of the themes that runs throughout the novel is that Ethan, who becomes rich and famous through his animated TV show Figland, fell in love with Jules when they were at camp together, but she doesn't feel any sexual spark for him and just wants to remain friends. Though she claims that she isn't at all good looking herself, somehow Ethan, who is described as doughy, fat and ugly-featured, isn't good enough for Jules, who aspires to a relationship with Goodman, who is older than the rest of them and is a real jerk. Ethan is a truly nice guy, though he seemed very immature to me, in his obsession with Jules, whom he always thinks will somehow come around to falling in love and having sex with him (she never does), and his disgust and dislike of his autistic son, whose imperfection seems to freak him out, though he himself is imperfect. Jules was just a horrible bitchy sour person whom I came to loathe because she could never seem to enjoy anything in her life because she wasn't rich or famous. Goodman, who rapes Cathy and gets away with it because he flees, with the help of his parents, to Sweden, becomes just another sleazy junkie slimeball, and Ash and her parents always seem to believe everything he says, even though it's obvious he's a liar, cheat and grifter. Ash marries Ethan and they have two children together, yet Ash, who doesn't seem to have a whole lot of talent, seemed to me to just be using Ethan as someone who would fund her art/theater projects and keep her in the style to which she had become accustomed. Jonah, after a stint with the Moonies cult, finally decides he is gay and comes out, but is thwarted in his musical career by having been fed drugs by a folk singer friend of his mothers when he was a child, and then ripped off when said folk singer stole whatever lyrics and song snippets Jonah sang while under the influence. Why Jonah never tells his mother or brings this jerk up on charges is beyond me. Jonah's mother, in a pathetic attempt to remain popular and have an audience for her work becomes a Moonie and marries a guy that the cult leader chooses for her.  Jules has a career has a psychotherapist and marries a guy who becomes extremely depressed and has a child. Even after Ethan gives her and her husband money to buy an apartment, and she tries to revive the summer camp, she's still unhappy. Ethan dies, and poor Cathy ends up with a better life than Goodman, who is an insane homeless bum. I'd give this novel a B, and recommend it to anyone who can't enjoy life because other people have more than they do. BTW, this book could have used an editor to cut about 100 pages of whining out.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt was hailed by just about every major newspaper, especially the NY Times, as being a great American novel. This weighty tome is almost 800 pages long (200 pages too long, in my opinion) and, like the Interestings, full of New Yorkers who think that they only place on earth that you can be a real human being is in New York. Because, of course, anywhere else lacks culture and refinement and intelligent people (said with sarcasm). Here's the blurb:
The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind....Donna Tartt has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction."—Stephen King, The New York Times Book Review
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 at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.
The Goldfinch is a mesmerizing, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.
First of all, I felt that this novel should not have won the Pulitzer Prize. It was snobbish, insular and the protagonist was a sniveling coward and a liar, thief and murderer, in addition to being a junkie and nihilist. He is thrown clear when a bomb goes off in a museum and kills his mother, and he takes the ring off of a man who is dying, who tells him to take the Goldfinch painting off the wall and go to his antique shop. Theo encounters the girl who was with this man at the shop, and also encounters Hobie, who is the business partner of the dead man, and a furniture repair and restoration expert. Theo develops an obsession with the girl, though she doesn't feel quite the same about him, but instead of trying to develop a relationship with her he just whines about her and mopes around. Theo is taken in by a wealthy family whose son Andy is a fellow smart geek and his friend, in that both of them were beaten up by the same people in middle school. Unfortunately, Theo's crappy father, a one time actor turned gambler and drug addict/alcoholic who abandoned his wife and son, shows up when he thinks he can get money from Theo's college fund for his gambling debts. He's living in Las Vegas with a sleazy casino worker and her little fluffy dog, and neither can be bothered to make sure that Theo has enough to eat or clean clothes to wear, though to be fair, Theo is too afraid of his physically abusive father to actually ask him for food or help with the laundry. Instead, Theo befriends a drug and alcohol addict kid from the Ukraine whose abusive father works in mining. Boris is very open about his theft of food and dealing drugs, and he manages to keep Theo drunk, fed and high for a few years before Theo's father is killed in a car accident (which was probably actually planned because he owed money to the local mobsters). Theo, who has been hiding the painting this whole time, returns to New York and sets about ripping people off by selling them antiques that are not actually real, but fakes restored by the expert hand of Hobie, who has no idea what is going on (it strains credulity that a full grown man doesn't know that suddenly all the money coming in isn't from the legit antiques that never leave the showroom). After about 10 years, Boris returns to tell Theo that he stole the Goldfinch painting off of him years ago, and substituted a high school textbook, and has been using the painting to fund drug cartels ever since. But, suddenly realizing his mistake (why he feels guilty after so long, is never explained) he demands that Theo, who is a coward, go to Amsterdam with him and retrieve the painting from some other drug mobsters, and he swears that Theo won't be in any danger (yeah, right). At this point, all Theo wants is to marry Andy's sister (Andy and his insane father die in a boating accident) and have the painting returned to the museum in such a way that he won't be held accountable for taking it in the first place. He of course also still obsesses over Pippa, but she claims they are too much alike to ever become a couple (that's a head-scratcher). Of course, Boris's plans go sideways and again, Theo is in danger and ends up shooting a drug kingpin. Boris decides to turn in the guy who took the painting for the reward money, which he then splits with Theo, who returns to NY and finally tells Hobie the whole sad tale. Hobie insists that he buy all the fake furniture back, which he does, but readers aren't certain whether or not Theo ever manages to kick his drug and alcohol habit. End of story. Lots of boring discussions of taking too many drugs and drinking and vomiting, having hangovers, being deathly sick and the beauty and wonder of art. I'd give this book a B-, and only recommend it to people who don't mind reading about sleazy junkies and con artists and abusive parents. There is very little to like in terms of characters in this book, so be prepared to choke down your own bile as you read.

No comments: