Things I Spied V: Books, Part Deux “The Goldfinch”

Long before “The Goldfinch” was a book, it was a painting, a small one, on wood, of a family pet, signed C. Fabritius, 1654. That same year the painter, aged 32 years, was killed in an explosion of the munitions storage facility of Delft. All of his work, except perhaps a dozen paintings, was also destroyed.

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I read Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” many many years ago, and my lasting impression was of its interminable length. Nevertheless, intrigued by the bird I started her new book,also “The Goldfinch” and was swept away. “Dickensian” has been used to describe this first person tale, which begins as it mirrors Fabritius’s loss.

Theo Dreher, aged 11, reflexively rescues the painting after an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum, where it is on loan from the Netherlands. While he soon realizes that he should return it, it comes to represent the world he has lost, as he bounces to a friend’s family, then to Las Vegas, back to New York and eventually to Amsterdam.

Michiko Kakutani of The NY Times declared the book “Dickensian” and the characters Theo meets: Hobie, Pippa, Boris, Xandra, the Family Barbour, could with minor tweaks, fit into 19th century London. It is long, and somewhat rambling, but Tartt can create suspense in a scene determining whether Theo’s dog will be thrown off a bus as well one in which drug dealers might murder Theo’s friend.

Throughout, the language is rich, the descriptions unique. The olive green water in the canal, Amsterdam at Christmas, “Bells and garlands, Advent stars in the shop windows,ribbons and gilded walnuts.”

As Theo reaches manhood, he is not always admirable, and at times I found him reprehensible. But, as with a recalcitrant relative or friend, I stuck with him because of our shared backstory, and because I cared.

I saw “The Goldfinch” (that’s the painting) again last week at the Frick, where it was on loan with “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” and other Dutch masterworks from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague. I was mesmerized on both visits. Whether or not the publication of the book was planned in synchrony with the exhibit, the crowds for the little bird were as size able as those
for “The Girl”. And apparently more T-shirts, posters and coffee cups of the Bird were sold than of the Girl.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of that, but for a good, long read, preferably by the fireside with some Dutch cocoa, you might want to try “The Goldfinch”. I am so glad I did. It is a book that haunts.

Things I Spied V: Books

As anyone who sees my Goodreads list knows, I am nothing if not eclectic in my reading habits. Murder mysteries abound, as do series based on one character (though I got tired of Kinsey Milhone long before she reached the end of the alphabet). Scandinavian authors are represented in excess of their demographic reality, despite their prevalence of hard-drinking protagonists, and translations, both good and lumpy.

But the two books I have read, and finished, in tandem most recently couldn’t be more different from my usual fare or from one another, and they are two of the best books I have read in a long time. In fact, if you saw me recently, I probably bludgeoned you with my recommendation that you read “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. Regardless of your age, interests, gender or usual preferences in literature, this is a book I recommend.

I will admit that the fuss of late over “The Greatest Generation” had left me somewhat cold. To me, each generation has its greats, and it’s not-so-greats, and they should be celebrated or ignored accordingly. But “Unbroken”, the story of one man, Louie Zamperini, his experiences in World War II, and peripherally, those of his compatriots, sheds a different light on that generation, and has changed my thinking.

Zamperini was a troubled kid, and found himself as a runner, eventually reaching Olympic success just before the war. He was a bombardier in a B-24 aircraft, and the sheer statistics of deaths in training, not to mention combat, in these ill-made planes are staggering. Yet the men flew them, day after day, mission after mission. They had no choice.

Zamperini’s plane was downed, and he and others spent weeks on a raft floating in the Pacific without food or water. Their rescue led to greater, and greater and greater difficulties, until it is hard to imagine anyone surviving the experience. But clearly some did, to tell this tale.

An interesting sidelight is Hillenbrand’s parallel story of the families of some of her protagonists, back home in the States, knowing nothing for months or even years of the fates of the missing.

At the end of the book she touches on the experiences of the men who survived and returned home, as well as on the fates of some of their captors. We understand something now of the post-traumatic stress that members of the military may experience, and there are some medical and non-medical interventions, but back then they and their families were on their own, and the results were often not pretty.

My father was a sailor in the Pacific Theater, and the war was the seminal experience of his life. He had a collection of funny, and sometimes exciting stories he told. There was the time he received a medal as a member of the “Guinea Pig” unit, seeking out mines after the war and, unfortunately, finding one. He was able to turn the ship  and prevent it crashing into the harbor after it lost its power in the explosion. Then there was the seaplane taking him back home that was so overloaded it couldn’t get out of the water, and had to keep trying as the men tossed out more and more of their baggage…but nothing of what he saw in China or Japan when he reached there. Or what he felt about it all.

My mother is more voluble. She is still angry that he volunteered, when he had a safe job in the defense industry, and left her to cope with two small children.

So I hope you will check out “Unbroken” and get a better appreciation of that Greatest Generation.

And next week, a book as different as chalk from cheese, “The Goldfinch”.

Teen Angel, Are You Listenin’?

It all started with that stunning final episode of “Breaking Bad” (mild spoiler alert). As Marty Robbins’ 1959 “El Paso” was revived as the soundtrack for Walt’s career (Mexican girl=methamphetamine), the tune bored its way into my ear canal and brain, an ear worm on constant repeat. A few days later it was replaced by “Teen Angel”(“I pulled you out and we were safe, but you went running back”), also from 1959, and then “Tell Laura I Love Her”(1960, “Tell Laura not to cry, my love for her will never die”).

Memories were triggered, of “Endless Sleep” (1958) which seems to have started it all, “Running Bear”(where was political correctness when you needed it?), and “Last Kiss”, though gratefully, none became aurally embedded. But it started me wondering, what was it about the late Fifties/early Sixties that inspired these lugubrious laments?

Was it The Bomb? I still remember filing to the dank school basement where we would sit cross-legged in orderly rows on the newspaper we kept handy in our desks, then bow our heads to our knees, hands over our necks, perhaps praying, more likely giggling. Memory fails, appalled.

The Communist Menace? While later they were called out as Commies, Joan Baez (1960) and other folkies brought back some of the equally tragic early English ballads, “The Trees They Do Grow High” and “Barbara Allen”.

The Teen Tragedy trend has lasted sporadically up until the present day, with Katy Perry’s “One That Got Away” but peaked around 1963. There were two seminal events in my life in that period, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the American debut of the Beatles, the first in November 1963, the latter in February 1964, both filtered through the monochrome eye of our TV.

“She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)” was the antithesis of those ballads of woe, and it might be argued that the meteoric rise of the Merseyside Four and their music helped to sweep away the sadness. It is strange to realize that the Beatles only performed in concert until 1966, yet their music became the soundtrack of our lives. In 2002 I was visiting a University in Moldova (smallest, poorest country in Europe, look it up). Our hosts spoke Romanian and Russian, our group spoke neither. At dinner, as the vodka flowed, they began to serenade us, and requested a song in return. We were stymied, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” didn’t quite fit the bill. But then one of our group started in with “Michelle, Ma Belle.” Our Comrades joined in with that, and all of the other Beatles songs we could muster. There was just something about “La la la la la la la, hey Jude” that melted any remaining ice, and helped mask our inability to match them, shot for vodka shot.

My brother Richard has served as an invaluable resource for this piece. While I couldn’t wait to escape the Fifties, he has immersed himself in its music and cultural icons, and even had a Fifties-themed wedding! He has offered to sing any and all of the Fifties pop songs referenced here if you phone with a request. Just contact me and I’ll pass on his number. After all, the Fifties were a time of innocence.

An End and an Beginning

Some years you just can’t wait to see end, and 2013 was one of them.

The lists of “Best” and “Worst” are all over the media, but I have little patience for them right now. On the other hand, I have been mulling over a personal issue, one that has concerned me for much of my life.

I remember often being told by adults as I became a teenager and college student, “Enjoy yourself, these are the best years of your life.” The sentiment usually provoked anxiety rather than joy “If these are the best years, what will the worst years be like?” For much of my childhood and young adulthood, I was a fish out of water.

Bored by the lessons in elementary school, I was often given ancient, discontinued textbooks to read once I had finished class assignments. I suppose they provided me with a broader education, if an outdated one. While my intellectual prowess was assured, socially I often felt like the ugly duckling, and the teasing culture in my family didn’t do much to provide support. Having good old Uncle Charlie compliment you that “Your acne looks a lot better today” added to the mix.

High school was somewhat more interesting, both intellectually and socially, and I attended a school far from home, taking a train, then a bus ride to get there and back each day, broadening my geographical horizons. “The City” twenty-five miles south, suddenly became a destination, and Uncle Charlie a gateway to museums, music, art and theater.

College and finding a career were another improvement, but the “best years of my life?” I hoped not.

And so it has continued. I have been happy to note each decade or so that I didn’t feel that those “best years” had yet occurred. Is it because my life has been so boring or depressing? No, just the opposite! My life has been full of joys, and challenges, and experiences, and wonderful family and friends. It’s just gotten better and better the longer I’ve lived, so I’ve never been willing to look back and freeze any set of years in amber and call them my “best”.

I think George Carlin (though it might originally have been Sean Morey)summed up my attitude much more effectively that I ever could:

I want to live my next life backwards:
You start out dead and get that out of the way.
Then you wake up in a nursing home
feeling better every day.
Then you get kicked out for being too healthy.
Enjoy your retirement and collect your pension.
Then when you start work,
you get a gold watch on your first day.

You work 40 years
until you’re too young to work.
You get ready for High School: drink alcohol, party, and you’re generally promiscuous.

Then you go to primary school,
you become a kid,
you play,
and you have no responsibilities.
Then you become a baby, and then…

You spend your last 9 months
floating peacefully in luxury, in spa-like conditions
– central heating, room service on tap,
and then…
You finish off as an orgasm.

Not sure how that will play out this time around, but I am optimistic, as always. Happy New Year!