Posted in Books, Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for a Busting Out June

The season finale of “Game of Thrones” looms ahead, and by my count, we have two potential shockers to go if the show runners intend to wrap up the events in “A Storm of Swords,” the third novel in George R.R. Martin’s saga, this Sunday. Can it be done in one episode? If not, I’m curious to see their choice as we’ll soon start another countdown to a new season.

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Until “Orange is the New Black” appeared with new episodes on Netflix last Friday (I’m now 5.5 episodes in, and it’s as good as, if not better than Season One), spring had me focused on books and baseball. The baseball you already know about. The books, though, unlike the New York Mets, have been more consistently rewarding.

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tartI had been disappointed by Donna Tartt before—there are few novels with a bigger letdown than “The Little Friend,” particularly if you’ve read her first book, the riveting”The Secret History.” But “The Goldfinch,” her recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is far more satisfying—that is, until 7/8ths through, when things take an oblique left turn.

“The Goldfinch” is about loss and recovery, in both the literal and figurative senses. Not to mention life’s many shades of gray, flim-flammery (both borderline and more classically criminal), loyalty and love at first sight. Thirteen year-old Theodore Decker and his mother, on a spur of the moment visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are among the victims of a terrorist bombing. Her death sets Theo off on a fourteen year journey that begins in the rubble of the explosion. A dying fellow victim urges him to salvage the Dutch master Fabritius’ portrait of a goldfinch, which becomes Theo’s talisman.

“The Goldfinch” is Dickensian in event and scope; the characters, ranging from the Park Avenue family that takes Theo in, to the inimitable Boris, who befriends Theo when he later relocates to Las Vegas, are wonderfully drawn. Equally fascinating are Tartt’s excursions into the world of antiques and furniture restoration, the profession of Hobie, Theo’s benefactor. To my surprise, these digressions, rather than detracting from the story, enrich the novel and the characters to such an extent that you wish Tartt had spent more time in this world.

But it’s Theo’s mother, beautifully drawn by the author, who may stay with you the longest. In spite of her death, she’s never really gone; her character is so vividly presented that you find yourself wondering, at the various turns Theo’s life takes, what she’d think of all this. He knows what he’s lost in her, which makes her absence even more heartbreaking.

The tale is a long one but quite rewarding, even if you feel, as I did, that the climax of “The Goldfinch” is more than a little outrageous. You’ll still enjoy the journey.

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A little book-related anecdote:

Begley_UpdikeWhen I attended law school in Boston, I lived on Marlborough Street in the Back Bay. It was then a rabbit warren of studio and one bedroom apartments occupied for the most part by students (It should not surprise you that since then the area has gone so co-op and condo it’s off the charts). My building was fairly standard issue with one exception—we had a laundromat in the basement so we drew a fair amount of traffic from the neighborhood.

One weekday afternoon there I sat with highlighter and law book in hand while my clothes cycled through washer and dryer. A man walked into the laundromat with a full basket of wash and I was immediately bombarded by a machine gun, rat-a-tat series of impressions: “He’s not a student” “OH MY GOD that’s John Updike!” “How can it be John Updike? He’s too short.”

I immediately put my detective mind into overdrive. He was older than average student age: I would have said late 30’s, though that in itself wasn’t unusual since a number of older, post-grad students, primarily Viet Nam vets, lived in the neighborhood. However, he was wearing a beautiful and quite expensive-looking tweed jacket (this was the height of the bell-bottom era), which would have indicated he actually worked for a living. The nose was unmistakable, but the mystery remained. Why would John Updike be doing laundry in a rundown student ghetto? I knew he lived in Massachusetts, but why would he be doing his wash on Marlborough Street?

I was still in my shy years, so I didn’t have the nerve to just go up to him with “Aren’t you…?” Part of me was afraid that if this was John Updike, I’d start gushing over “Couples” which remains one of my all-time favorite novels (and I think few works have better portrayed mid- and late-twentieth century America than the Rabbit books). Another part of me was just plain awed into silence at the thought of speaking with him. So I let the moment pass as he loaded up a couple of machines and departed. Having spun and dried, my laundry was done and I returned upstairs to my tiny studio apartment and hours of Evidence, Estates and Trusts and the Uniform Commercial Code. I never saw him again.

Flash forward to this past Saturday when I took Adam Begley’s new biography of Updike out of the library. Naturally I sought out the good parts first—how much of “Couples” was based on his own marriage and/or those of his neighbors in Ipswich, MA (answer: plenty). And then finally after all those years, I had my confirmation: the man in the laundromat had indeed been John Updike. I saw him when he was living in a small apartment on Beacon Street, right around the corner from me, after he had split from his first wife.

Long time coming, but I’m glad for the verification. And by the way, Begley’s book is fascinating.

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