1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Since I loved The Goldfinch so much, I decided to check out some of Tartt’s earlier work. The Secret History was solid story telling with well-developed characters, but it is really dark. Much more so than The Goldfinch. So, fair warning, if you thought The Goldfinch was too dark, you might want to take a pass on The Secret History.
Richard Paupen comes from a working-class, suburban home in inland California with disinterested parents. He manages to secure a scholarship at small, elite, progressive New England college and moves to Vermont. Once there, he falls in with a disturbingly insular group of friends and things get weird- accidental (?) deaths, murder, pill popping, and functional alcoholism.
The Secret History is not as tightly written as The Goldfinch and there are some plot strings that get left hanging, but it’s excellent as a psychological thriller and the character development is superb. Tartt explores some of the same themes as she does in The Goldfinch– disengaged parents, aimless adolescent boys, and beauty in art and literature.
Overall, I liked it and would recommend it, but with the disclaimer that it’s dark and disturbing and something the very sensitive might want to take a pass on.
2. Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration by Pope Benedict XVI
It was my great plan to read this, the first volume, during March and then read the second volume, Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection in April, during the final push of Lent. Alas, it didn’t happen and I only got through the first volume. Next year!
This was a reread for me, but it’s been nearly ten years. As always, Papa Bene blows me away with his brilliant writing, exhaustive knowledge, and thoughtful approach. Really I just want to have a beer with him and have him teach me everything he knows. I’m sure he’s down for that.
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
This was a reread for me, but my bookclub was reading it. Every time I read Lewis, I am reminded of his gift for explaining spiritual truth through fiction. It’s also humbling to read these letters from one demon to another and realize, “Hey! I’m not special. That, in fact, is a common and popular technique/temptation, and I’m really just like everyone else.” Ah well- self-knowledge, right?
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
This is a very different book from Towles’ first novel, Rules of Civility. It was a bit of a slow start for me, but as I got into it, I came to love the Count and the other characters. I happened to read Eloise to my kids at the same time, which got me thinking about the living-in-a-fancy-hotel theme. Eloise was a wealthy orphan (or at least had completely absent parents) while the Count was a political prisoner under house arrest, but they both depict the hotel as a world unto itself, a microsociety inside the larger city without.
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
This book is beautifully written and I found the life of a lighthouse keeper on a desolate, far flung island off the Australian coast fascinating. The basic premise is that the couple suffers several miscarriages, followed by a stillbirth. Shortly after, a boat washes up on the shore of their isolated island home with the body of a man and a living infant. The couple decides to keep the baby and raise her as their own. The novel is the story of what follows. As beautifully written as it is, I found the premise far fetched. Who really thinks they can just keep a baby and pass it off as their own and no one will ever find out? I enjoyed the book, but didn’t find it entirely believable.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
I read this when I was a young teenager and definitely, definitely should not have read it at that point. The book is about teenagers but it is not for teenagers. I didn’t really understand it then, but heard it mentioned recently and decided to reread it. It is dark and gothic and not a feel good read. I think what I most appreciate about it is it’s examination of the psychology of suburban living. Eugenides does a masterful job of building anticipation and orchestrating it’s complex satisfaction, while leaving the reader with more questions than answers.
Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
I wanted to love this book. It’s on so many people’s list of Books That Have Changed My Life. The first half was really slow going for me and I almost quit except my BFF told me that it’s like Brideshead in that it all comes together at the very end and is better upon reread when you know what it’s really about. I do agree that it makes sense at the end, and leaves the reader with a lot of think about. Maybe I just need longer to think it over, but I don’t love it- yet. I’ll let it marinate for now and give it another shot later.