Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Donna Tartt's The Secret History is a book about a murder, but more in the vein of Crime and Punishment than Presumed Innocent. Richard, our narrator, joins a group of five young men and one woman in the study of classic Greek at a small private college in Vermont. He goes to great lengths to conceal the fact that he's there on scholarship, as this fact might alienate him from his blue-blood classmates. We learn on the first page, though, that the group will murder Bunny (short for Edmund), one of their own. The way that this plays out is sort of a horror story, as Bunny, virtually blackmailing the others in the group, seems unaware that he's digging his own grave and leaving his friends with no other solution. The aftermath of the murder is even darker, as Bunny's friends have to feign grief while staying at Bunny's parents' home during the weekend of the funeral. The fear of discovery and the degeneration of trust within the group are, of course, much more difficult to bear than the problem that the murder was intended to solve. Remorse seems to be generally lacking. I did not love this book, partly because it's overly long, but also because it's impossible to imagine how these students, drunk most of the time, ever became Greek scholars. However, there are some interesting forces at work. Richard is a hanger-on, blinded by misplaced admiration for the other members of the group and mesmerized by their charismatic professor. The price he pays for trying to fit in is very high indeed.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


This book opens with an apocalyptic-type scene where a man is walking through ash and debris. Three pages later we realize that the scene is New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Keith is a lawyer who escapes from the South Tower and goes home to his estranged wife Lianne and young son Justin. He brings with him a briefcase belonging to Florence Givens, who lost it during a fall in the stairwell. The book is about these 4 people, primarily Keith and Lianne, plus Hammad, one of the terrorists. The Falling Man is a performance artist who seems to re-enact the leaps from the burning towers by falling head first with a harness and a non-bungee-like tether. (My favorite image is that of the Falling Man as a Tarot card.) Symbolically, Keith is the falling man, though, as he has a brief affair with Florence and then becomes a full-time poker player—possibly in some kind of homage to his poker-night friends who died in the World Trade Center. DeLillo makes copious use of pronouns, so that it sometimes requires several paragraphs of reading to determine who is the antecedent of "he" or "she." This technique emphasizes the disconnectedness of the characters that is prevalent throughout the novel. The tragedy has caused them to become somewhat robotic and caused me to consider the lives of the survivors and their families. The inclusion of Hammad's story, brief and incomplete, seemed unnecessary to me, and he doesn't come to life nearly as well as the terrorists did in The Garden of Last Days by AndrĂ© Dubus III. As far as Keith and Lianne are concerned, DeLillo sums them up in what is probably the most quoted and most telling line in the novel: "She wanted to be safe in the world and he did not."
Amazon: 3.5 stars (86 reviews)
Barnes and Noble: 3 stars (14 reviews)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

AWAY by Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom's tone in Away is a bit detached, so that the main character, Lillian Leyd, comes off as a bit detached also. That's somewhat appropriate, though, since Lillian has emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s alone after the murder of her husband and parents in Russia. Her 4-year-old daughter Sophie escaped the massacre but is missing and presumed dead. Lillian's blunt plea at a hiring call for theatre seamstresses earns her a job and also the role of mistress to a theatre bigwig and to his handsome son, who needs a cover for his homosexuality. When Lillian receives word that Sophie is alive and living in Siberia, a friend advises her to take the land route to retrieve her. Adventures ensue as she travels cross-country in train broom closets, becomes an unwitting accomplice to a murder in Seattle, and eventually heads up through the Yukon toward Alaska. Lillian remains enigmatic and aloof throughout the novel, but I had to admire her sheer determination and an almost reckless fearlessness, which stems from the fact that she really has nothing to lose. The pace of the book is quite brisk, and I loved the periodic snippets that summarize the future of characters that are abandoned along the route. These and the last fifty pages make this book a very memorable read.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Juliet is a thirty-something writer in post-WWII England, contemplating a subject for her next book. She receives a letter from a Dawsey Adams in Guernsey, one of the Channel islands, who owns a book that was formerly hers. Thus begins the correspondence between Juliet and the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The club was formed as a ruse for being out after curfew during the German occupation of the island. (Potato peel pie--mashed potatoes sweetened with beets in a potato peel crust--was invented when there was little to eat there.) The book consists entirely of letters written by the various characters to one another, which make it easy to read in small bites, but you won't want to. The war stories from Guernsey are alternately tragic and hilarious. Coupled with Juliet's other correspondence--with her gay publisher, with her handsome but smarmy suitor, and with her friends--these letters make for a lively tale. The Guernsey residents, with a few villainous exceptions, are caring and nurturing but not without a sense of humor and a zest for life. They have weathered the worst for five years and come out with their sanity intact. Juliet eventually visits the island and then finds it increasingly difficult to leave as she finds herself drawn to both a motherless child and a man. This is the type of book that you savor, and I want to reread it already.