Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt


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The Goldfinch is an epic triumph of contemporary fiction, in which Tartt perfectly captures and executes, her coming of age story of protagonist, Theo Decker. After a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, kills his mother, Theo’s life, his emotions and actions, are inextricably tied to Carel Fabritius’s masterpiece painting, The Goldfinch, his mother’s favorite, which he carries out of the museum. Tartt conceives an expert combination of characterization and storytelling; and, as time passes by in the novel the reader grows more invested in Theo’s decisions, fate, and the ways they connect to the painting. She writes with a detailed and gritty specificity of the repeated unfair and unlucky events Theo endures. Through Theo’s maturation: his life without his parents, relationships, perspectives, emotions, and actions, Tartt reflects not only Theo’s circumstances, but larger existentialist concepts. It is through her honest and sad portrayal of Theo and his similarity to The Goldfinch, that the reader understands the symbolism, beauty and the tragedy, both in Theo’s life and the broader human experience.

From the start, Tartt wisely binds Theo and the painting and establishes separate plotlines, so that the themes merge and diverge: the reader is invested in Theo’s future and the implications of his relationship with the painting. The author tells Theo’s story of love, loss, and growth, with wisdom and articulation, that keep the reader empathizing with his weakness and humanity and anguishing about his poor choices. The author writes of the crude and rough reality of situations in ways that show that even in unhappiness and loss, there is beauty too. Tartt associates the painting with Theo’s loneliness, despair, and memories, as she describes it’s aesthetics and history. The reader sees and feels as Theo does; the painting and what it embodies are very special. It comforts Theo and plagues him, it keeps the past in the present, but it also builds a new story and significance along the way.

Tartt makes important and intriguing existential arguments, regarding the human experience, for the reader to consider through her character and story choices. As the painting becomes part of Theo’s life, the reader identifies the struggles of protagonist and goldfinch, as symbols of the human plight. Tartt asks the reader to consider whether a person’s actions determine fate. Theo and his best friend Boris, reference the premise of Dostoyevsky’s, The Idiot, when they propose that being good doesn’t mean good things will happen to you. Tartt makes a powerful statement about the nature of life and fate when she allows good things to happen to bad people, while Theo strives to do the right thing, but is always discontented. The goldfinch supports her argument; it  remains indefinitely chained to its perch, as if to represent the hope we carry only to realize we have been confined all along. The novel is never uplifting, but it’s intelligence and gravity keep it intriguing and exciting from the first page to the last.

The Goldfinch provides enjoyment and appreciation for the reader who values an honest account of life’s trials; it is ripe with the grace, sorrow, and meaning of a true human experience. The author’s narrative style and subject clearly depict her vision and range for penning essential and provocative ideas so impeccable that I sometimes stopped to re-read sections, in awe of her capacity for conceptualizing and communicating. This novel conveys timeless notions that will conserve its relevancy for many years to come.

5 out of 5 Stars


Review: Euphoria by Lily King


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With Euphoria, King crafts a statement on cultural norms, perspective taking, and emotion with precision and purpose, supported by her use of elements of style. It recalls the story three anthropologists, Fen, Nell, and Bankson who are living, loving, and researching in New Guinea among native tribes. The author recalls their struggles to maintain typical western lives and customs in the jungle, while also remaining objective, unbiased, and fitting in with the locals in order to document most accurate ethnographies. King uses setting, characterization, letters, journal entries, and point of view to convey their stories. The result is a visionary achievement that reflects both differences and similarities in peoples and cultures regardless of geographical location or economic status.

King uses elements of language to support her story and theme, as she literally provides the reader with alternating perspectives within the text. The story is told through Bankson’s first person point-of-view, Nell’s journal entries, letters sent from Bankson’s mother and Nell’s girlfriend, Helen. The native perspective is viewed only from the outsider point of view, indicating a distance and misperception of his or her thoughts, emotions, or ideas. Fen, Bankson, and Nell all have distinct ideas about the native experience. The reader is never limited to one way of viewing the story for long, and when it changes, the author highlights ways in which people think about the same situation differently.

Perspective is the central theme of the text, it’s the goal of the characters as researchers to maintain objectivity, despite the a priori assumptions, ideas, and emotions they have as humans. The author poses the question, are people always limited by subjectivity? The characters are never truly able to gain the knowledge and access they need through observations or interactions with natives. The reader sees, perhaps more clearly than the characters, their westernized ways of thinking, living, feeling, separate them from doing fieldwork and interacting with the natives, in ways that eliminate subjectivity. The author details the three anthropologists using alternate approaches to living among, understanding and bonding with the natives, which ultimately shows that even people from similar backgrounds and places think, act, and feel distinctively. King proves that despite similarities of all humans, perspective is unique to the individual and is easily misinterpreted by others.

In Euphoria, we see the human struggle to balance logic and emotion mind. It is human nature to socialize and to want to learn and grow from the experiences of others. But, it is the goal of the scientist, the anthropologist, to understand another culture without judgement. King tells her story with a proficiency that reminds the reader that even within our own culture, it is extremely difficult for people to observe others objectively. She encourages the reader to reflect that a large part of what makes us human; and therefore, illogical, is our capacity to experience emotions. In the novel, the reader decides if this is  hindrance or a gift.


Star Rating: 4 out of 5

Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell


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Eleanor & Park is appealing to young adults and adults because of the writing, the pace of the story and the relatability of the characters-they are outsiders who find comfort and love in each other. While young adults undoubtedly seek different qualities in novels than adults, Rainbow Rowell finds ways to satisfy the needs of both in her Michael L. Printz Award selection. The author appeals to both audiences in composing a book that is fast-paced and easy to read with likable teenage characters who have problems navigating the challenges of life at school and at home. Does this sound familiar? Most notably, though, readers of all ages, are drawn to the feeling of not fitting, in experienced by both characters.

In order for an author to capture the hearts and minds of different age groups, she must appeal to both groups with her writing style and themes. Rowell keeps the book simple and steady enough for a younger reader yet complex and engaging enough for an older one. The author’s laid back prose and colorful descriptions of life as a teenager engage any reader: the awkwardness of puberty, bullying, not knowing how to kiss, difficulties with parents. She finds things all readers have in common to highlight about her characters; the complications they face in navigating life as teenagers is something we’ve all experienced and tend to remember. We also empathize with their plights as outsiders.

Eleanor and Park speak to readers not only because we have things in common, but their entire experience sends a message that outsiders can find a sense of belonging too. The author portrays Eleanor as the fat, weird kid. At school kids are cruel and bully her; they have no idea she has a life at home in which she’s lonely and abused. Through Eleanor’s exclusion, Rowell speaks to the place inside readers where, despite our place among the rest of humanity, we all feel alone. When Eleanor finds happiness and love in Park, we feel satisfied. Their story says something about all people who don’t belong, we think.

Whether we are in high school or middle aged, stories about other people in pain resonate. Even if Eleanor and Park are very different from you or me, we see similarities in them that make the book worth reading. When we see ourselves in characters, we learn from their experiences. A well-written story adds dimension to our own lives.  At the end of the novel, we find have learned any number of lessons about ourselves, others, love or life.

4 out of 5 Stars

Review: All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks


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All About Love: New Visions discusses the ways society traditionally views love and the roles it creates for love in our lives; but, the information is recycled and some of the perspectives are biased. The author , bell hooks, provides helpful information and personal stories, which describe how repeating incorrect patterns of behaviors lead to unhappiness. However, as opposed to other self-help books, many of her suggestions for living with more love, lack applicability. Perhaps most lingering, her feminist background gets in the way of her positive, loving message.

The author suggests definitions of love commonly held in society, which influence the ways we learn to love, are flawed. hooks points out that standard romantic or familial norms indicate that love is natural or a gift, when in reality giving and receiving love takes work. She uses M. Scott Peck’s definition as a guide, “Love is an act of will-namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice, We do not have to love. We choose to love.” (4-5) With this new description, the reader sees that love is about choices and effort. hooks asks the reader to consider how his or her life can be different by choosing instead of expecting love.

hooks wants people to individually and globally choose more love, which, despite several admirable suggestions, is difficult to implement in the real world. hooks uses her own past as an example of how she repeats incorrect behaviors she learned from her parents in her own life. She recommends recognizing old patterns, making the choice to change, and forgiving.  She more broadly, discusses the ways that individuals can change the world through love. She also recommends sacrificing money, job security and personal happiness for the betterment of others, society and world peace. But, none of this is practical. Most important, she fails to provide concrete information about how to achieve these goals. Finally, her message of love is clouded by her feminist views.

While most of the text asks the reader to love more, hooks gets carried away with insults and negativity in Chapter 3: Honesty: Be True to Love. hooks is famous for her feminist text, Feminism is for Everybody, in which she asserts just that-feminism is all inclusive and unbiased. But is it? Her chapter on honesty is a harsh rant about how men lie in relationships in order to keep power and maintain the patriarchy. Saying that “men” do this is as biased as saying all “women” think, do say, similar things, it’s incorrect, biased, judgmental. Accusing an entire group of people of dishonesty, especially for such a manipulative reason, certainly isn’t about seeing the best in people or choosing love.

hooks asks her reader to think about how his or her choices and actions related to love are influenced by the past and will make an impact in the present and future. She succeeds in making the reader think about love in his or her life. Actually making changes is always easier said than done. Nothing in this text is groundbreaking. In fact, any information that provides tangible examples to promote change and access is common sense or has already been covered in other texts. This is not bell hooks’s best work.


2.5 out of 5 stars

Review: The Tin Drum by Günter Grass


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I read The Tin Drum twice; I admit, that both times I read this novel, I forced myself to read it.  The first time I only made it to page 100, then stopped. The second, most recently, I tried again for a classic book club and finished. Both times I read it because it is considered a classic; Grass is a Nobel Prize in Literature winner. As with other masters of the craft, Grass’s work is complex, multi-layered, and difficult to comprehend for the average reader. Despite my experience with German history and literature, I miss many of the messages the author is trying to convey. I spend a lot of time analyzing the text, re-reading, and wondering how the characters and stories are meant to be interpreted? While other novels require analysis, which is rewarding in the end, this text requires the reader to constantly assess and reconsider the characters, stories, historical and cultural contexts, which makes for a frustrating reading experience.

Grass composes a work that is both stand-alone story and historical and political commentary, making the story more complex and requiring the reader to delve deeper to gain understanding. The Tin Drum is the story of protagonist, Oskar Matzerath, a boy growing up in Nazi occupied Poland, who cannot grow. It is littered with metaphors, analogies, anecdotes, which keep the reader guessing about the concepts of truth and reality for the characters in the story and more broadly, for German society. In using figures of speech so abundantly, Grass achieves a tone of confusion and misunderstanding that stays with the reader throughout the story. The intricacies of the text can either be valued by the reader, or viewed as a hindrance.

The novel requires that a reader constantly question the motives of the author in telling Oskar’s story. The stories about Oskar are too odd to be real, so the reader knows there must be underlying messages to interpret from them. There are overarching cultural and historical themes, which seem obvious, such as Oskar’s guilt and shame mirroring those of the German people. But, there are many more situations, characters, events, where the reader must guess about the author’s intentions. For me, never being certain of where or how the author intends the story to proceed makes the reading less enjoyable. Although any interpretation is subjective, I feel incompetent for not knowing, for certain, the messages I should take from the text. I prefer a novel with symbolism clear enough that I can eventually interpret it. Much of The Tin Drum still baffles me, and this makes it hard to like the book.

So, is the novel worth reading? The answer depends on what kind of reader you are and what kind of literature you prefer. Those who enjoy the investigation and breakdown of the narrative and character traits will certainly enjoy the complexities of The Tin Drum. If you know a lot about world history or German history and culture, this novel would probably be less intimidating for you. But, if you like reading that’s straight forward and fast-paced you might want to avoid this one. For me, the amount of time I spent thinking about what I should get out of it made it too hard to experience the pleasure of simply reading the book.

3.5 out of 5 stars


Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


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All the Light We Cannot See, a Pulitzer Prize Winner and National Book Award Finalist, lives up to it’s reputation as a creative and innovative work of historical fiction. The Word War II setting, while overused and poorly written in the past, shines in for Anthony Doerr as he creates a tale filled with likable and relatable characters and an equally accomplished narrative. Marie-Laure, a blind girl from Paris, lives with her veteran Uncle Etienne in Saint Malo, France, where they protect a precious gem from the Museum of Natural History collection in Paris. Marie-Laure and her Uncle own one of the only radios left in Europe. Werner, an intelligent orphaned German boy from a mining town, is trained by the Hitler Youth to track radio signals for the Nazi’s; He helps them hunt resistance fighters. The reader begs for more, finding both ideas and words swiftly flowing, as she speeds through this text. She discovers a wealth of refreshing content, which holds up until the end.

Doerr’s characters are carefully selected and unique in their traits and contributions to the text. The part each person plays in the novel, when pieced together so skillfully with those of the other characters, reveals that the right characters and narrative can make even the most popular subject matter new. The characters possess vulnerabilities, for example, Marie-Laure, is blind, that make them human and fragile and their stories unpredictable in the face of: struggle, war, the unfairness of life. Perhaps most important, the protagonist characters earn the trust and esteem of the readers, while the antagonists are loathed.

The reader develops an interest and investment into the future of the characters and the story, in part, because Doerr uses his plotlines and settings, so efficiently. The readers sees Doerr combine and overlap several divided stories, which eventually come together to create a cohesive whole. Throughout, the reader is challenged to analyze the events and actions of people, to question the concepts of good and bad, light and dark. The narrative is full of twists, there is never certainty for the characters or the reader. What will happen to these people whose struggles are so accessible? The reader needing to know more and hoping they will make it through makes for a great book.

This novel is good for a number of reasons, but it stands out because of the reader’s attachment to the characters and their special plights. Often people read a book and most of it’s contents are soon forgotten. This is a different sort of story, and it’s contents stand out, because the reader takes the journey with the characters. Doerr finds a way to keep his audience thinking and remembering long after the last page is turned.

4 out of 5 Stars

Review: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin


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The Happiness Project is something that has been done before, but this doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable and enlightening reading experience. The book is presented as a memoir of author, Gretchen Rubin’s, year-long journey of research, discovery, trial, error, and progress, to find more happiness in her life. She takes the reader along for the ride as she learns and tests out new ideas, like gratitude journaling and organizing personal spaces, for herself and her family. This enables the reader to develop a sense of things that he or she can take away to try to improve his or her own life. Rubin’s research is thorough, and her suggestions for ways to boost mood and living conditions are abundant in each chapter. My only criticism is that she tries so many different techniques over the course of the year that applying all the new options is a daunting task for most readers.

Rubin begins her story by outlining how she plans her project for the year: she chooses a topic or theme to tackle each month, such as vitality, marriage, work, parenthood, leisure, friendship, money, eternity, books, mindfulness, attitude, and happiness. For each month she reads about the topics and develops tangible goals for how to improve her life in these areas. For marriage, for example, she sets out to: quit nagging, don’t expect appreciation, fight right, no dumping, and give proofs of love. In putting her goals to practice through daily charts, she creates a real-life story of how she influences her own happiness over time. Along the way, she inspires readers with options to choose to try at home, and she provides assistance with the blog she creates while completing her own project. The only limitation is that she gathers so much information it may be hard for a reader to organize.

Rubin admits that the wealth of information she discovers is hard to juggle at times. She mentions, that she is overwhelmed with work, family, friends-life’s responsibilities. Still, this is a book about attaining happiness, so the author gets caught up in the positive aspects of the process. She discusses so many terms and concepts she is applying to her own life that she fails to mention how daunting it is to change patterns of behavior and ways of living. While it is true that making changes can lead to happiness, isn’t it also important to mention the stress and hard work that goes into them? Often, the application of the happiness project seems easy, when nothing in life is that simple.

Overall, Rubin’s year of positive education and growth is informative, reflective and inspiring. Rubin finds herself absorbed in the subject matter, which directly influences the reader. It should be noted that she makes some of her goals seem easy to achieve. But, her ability to influence readers to follow in her footsteps and make changes for the better in their own lives makes her story one worth reading.

4 out of 5 Stars

Review: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay


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Sarah’s Key is an overrated novel about a popular subject, Jewish persecution during World War II, which drives it’s popularity. There is nothing new or inventive about the subject matter, characterization, or prose found in this novel. Instead, it’s success is driven by the author’s dependence on the long standing fascination among readers with World War II era settings and stories, instead of the draw of an original story. Other key aspects of the text are also lacking: The characterizations are shallow and never delve below surface levels, and the prose is simplistic and uninteresting.

The author attempts to provide a new or surprising approach to a Holocaust story, as this example of gross mistreatment of the Jewish people happened in Paris, France. This draws readers to the text, because people are still interested in and are driven to learn more about the Jewish plight during this time. But, a piqued interest is not enough to make up for the lack of originality in the writing. This book paints the same old picture, a sort of The Diary of Anne Frank meets Suite Francaise meets The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas meets The History of Love. It combines and re-tells stories we have already read. The author also attempts, but fails, to make her characters and prose inventive.

Throughout the novel something remains missing from the character descriptions and narrative. The journalist, Julia Jarmond, in present day, researches the roundup of Jewish families in July, 1942 in Paris. She becomes interested and invested  in the fate of one child, Sarah Starzynski. The narrator describes her deep emotions and connections with the Jewish girl from the past, Sarah. Their tales are interwoven, yet it is hard to fully imagine or accept this fusion. Julia’s notions that she is connected to the girl and the actions she takes to apologize for the things that happened to Sarah as a child don’t exactly fit the situation. In the end neither of the women, nor their stories, feel authentic.

In his non-fiction text, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King wisely notes that anyone can write a bestseller with the right subject, and it doesn’t have to be well written. Sarah’s Key is a good example of this. Choosing the right subject helped sell a mediocre book. Sometimes it’s the poorly written books that become popular, because more people will read them. This doesn’t make them worth reading.

Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Review: Saturday by Ian McEwan


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A day in the life of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, a Saturday. In this exercise in perspective taking, McEwan guides the reader through the thoughts of a man from the time he wakes in the morning until he returns to bed at night. As Henry’s story unfolds second by second, the reader sees patterns emerge in his thought processes, which suggest that people have a significant influence, both on their own perspectives, and the outcomes of events. The author presses the reader to think about the complexity of the choices we make with each thought, each day.

In just one day, so many thoughts and events occur, that most people never realize they exist. With a breakdown of Henry’s ideas, memories, ruminations, McEwan poses the question: Is it possible that so much goes on in our minds, our lives, that we don’t think about how and why? As the text moves along, the reader makes definitive distinctions between two categories of thoughts Henry possesses, which lead to similar emotions: some are happy, positive and some sad, negative. Might this be true for the reader, too?

Through the lens of Henry, it is clear, a person can alter his own experiences of time or his sense of contentment with his associations. Henry’s day flies by as he moves from thought to activity and back. He can feel young and blissful when thinking about his wife, their love, and how lucky he is to have her, for example. He’s happy thinking of his son and daughter, music, snow. The reader sees what Henry fails to notice, that he can slow his perceptions of time, feel lonely and grim when he allows himself to obsess about negative events in the news or his mother’s Alzheimer’s. When a traumatic event takes place later in the day, time stands still. The reader fully grasps the effect of perception on the human mind.

What a day! McEwan creates a character and a story in which parallels are drawn to anyone who picks up this book. It is a statement about how so much of our lives are about choices. We are all left pondering more deeply the broader implications of our own thoughts and actions.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5


Review: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom


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The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom is a popular self-help best-seller, in which the author guides the reader through the four most salient and life changing ideas or mantras rooted in Toltec traditions. Ruiz breaks the short book, which is 137 pages with large font, into eight chapters. These include each of the four agreements: Be Impeccable with Your Word, Don’t Take Anything Personally, Don’t Make Assumptions, and Always Do Your Best. His agreements are insightful and undoubtedly helpful anchors for people either seeking new information to improve their quality of life or readers seeking reminders of things they already know, which encourage following a healthy and enjoyable life path. The explanations for the agreements are insightful and worth considering for every person. We tend to think we are alone in our struggles, but the truth is we could all use some advice about how to think outside of ourselves and feel better. Instead of appreciating all the positive aspects of the book, readers may experience a disconnect between information and narrative flow. The author comes off as an uncertain and inexperienced writer.

It is easy to understand why this book is popular; Ruiz cultivates meaningful messages with his four agreements. Throughout the text Ruiz teaches reasons about how and why following the agreements can be essential to living a happy life. For example, when explaining why we should not take things personally, Ruiz rationalizes that we cause our own suffering, anger resentment, and misunderstanding by assuming that other people think or act because of us. “We are all living our own dream,” he says. He shows readers new ways to consider their perceptions of experiences, relationships, worldview, in the context his agreements. These four ideas, accompanied by short explanations, are provided on the front inside cover; which stand alone as a useful tools.

All the the contents of the book have been provided more concretely on the inside cover. Each chapter dedicated to one of the four agreements reviews the information given on the cover and adds some useful explanation; but, after the first few paragraphs of description, the chapters are wordy and repetitive. The concepts are interesting, yet they don’t flow together to create a cohesive whole, and readers are left feeling as though time is being wasted. The author is talking in circles. Readers have to sift through the fluff, but the pages discussing the agreements contain a wealth of wisdom, which can inspire readers to exchange old habits for new.

The book is not well-written and much of the information is repeated, yet there are a few really essential components to take away. I continued reading and finished, because my interest was piqued by the chapter titles and introductions. The book is so short that it took little time to finish; I read it in less than two hours. The author makes some really great suggestions about how to re-define the ways we think and act. So, although his ideas aren’t communicated perfectly, I felt it is well worth the time it took to read.

Stars: 3 out of 5