Thursday, January 2, 2014

October-December Books

**The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt has been widely praised as one of the best books of 2013. I agree but, at 784 pages, I think it could have been even better with a bit more disciplined editing. It starts with a bang—an explosion at the Met that kills  Theo’s mother and casts him adrift to become his own person.  With long passages of grief, dissolution, and criminality,,  the prose is often eloquent, wise and beautiful. Theo moves from Park Avenue to Las Vegas to Greenwich  Village to Amsterdam and back to NYC  in search of himself and eventually discovers a deeply flawed person he can accept.

*Wilson by A. Scott Berg’s new 800-page biography spares no detail, but is probably the definitive story of the 28th president, both as an icon and a talented but flawed human being. Berg captures his southern childhood, his rise through academe and his brief tenure as governor of New Jersey before defeating  the incumbent  President Taft, and past president Teddy Roosevelt. The Allied success in WWI prompted Wilson to travel to Europe for the peace conference; the first sitting president to leave the country. He was the first U.S. president to be welcomed as a rock star, and  was determined negotiate  a charter for a League of Nations. But when the Senate refused to ratify the treaty, Wilson suffered a stroke and spent the last months of his presidency in seclusion, with his wife, Edith, effectively running the executive office.

Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search by Martin Sixsmith is less about the search and more about the adoption abuses of the Catholic  Church and  Michael Hess’s struggle to deal with the conflict between his homosexuality and the values of  his Church and his Republican Party.  The movie deals more effectively with the sense of loss experienced by his mother, and is superbly  played by Judy Densch.

**The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion is  screen-ready blend of “The Curioius Incident of the Dog in the Night” and “Big Bang Theory.”   Don Tillman is a brilliant but  socially challenged professor of genetics, who’s decided it’s time he found a wife—since married people tend to live longer. In the evidence-based manner with which Don approaches everything, he designs the Wife Project to find his perfect partner: a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey that ‘proves’ Rosie would be a terrible choice.  Still he finds her fun to be with. Already available in 35 languages, Rosie is “funny, touching, and hard to put down.”

Levels of Life by Man Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes  is “urbane and wry, his style pared and sure, but his emotions are stormy.”  Barnes describes three nineteenth-century balloon flights in England and France enjoyed by three intriguing, eventually interconnected “balloonatics.” The narrator  is coping with the recent death of his wife, but I missed some of the “profound metaphorical resonance of Barnes’ fascination with ballooning.”  The reviews are so impressive, I can only conclude that I am not quite smart enough to adequately appreciate Barnes’ genius.

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