Book Review: “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

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Donna Tartt is the bestselling author of The Goldfinch, The Little Friend, and The Secret History. Each of these novels involves suspense and intense character studies.

The Secret History is about an eclectic group of college students who find themselves in a lot of trouble as close-kept secrets are revealed.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Secret History gets right: Terrible people doing terrible things? Check. Secrets, murder, drugs, and pagan rituals? Check. An engrossing setting, to the point that you feel like you are actually in the book? Check.

Donna Tartt is excellent at drawing you in to the world that she’s created. Right away, you are introduced to a bizarre crime, and the rest of the book has you scrambling to figure out how the story ends up there.

Any book with an unreliable narrator is going to have your brain spinning, but few books do this quite so well as The Secret History. A lot of the book’s events and character development is seen through the eyes of someone who slowly begins to realize that he doesn’t really know that much about anything after all. This allows the reader to piece together the puzzle, and guess what? Some of it is entirely up to your imagination! I guessed several twists accurately throughout the book, but there were a few that weren’t fully explained (such as the characters’ true motivations and feelings).

Reading about Richard, the story’s narrator, and his university experiences in Hampden reminded me of both my own time in college and the college students that I manage at work. I loved seeing the dichotomy between Richard and his friends’ great intellect and their terrible decision-making and lifestyle habits. How can they be so intelligent as to speak to each other in Latin one minute and then try to live in a freezing warehouse in the middle of a Vermont winter the next? Honestly, this dichotomy is pretty realistic for what I recall of myself and my friends in that stage of life.

Richard wanting to be a part of the strange but exotic Greek students group is a relatable feeling. It can be hard to find your place in a new environment; however, you don’t want to pick the wrong group of people that everyone else warns you about (as Richard inevitably does). Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla, and Bunny are in turns fascinating, terrifying, hilarious, and deeply disturbing people; as Richard gets sucked further and further into their sordid lives, so do we.

In spite of the sometimes flowery prose and the pretentious characters who are spouting Greek one moment and stoned out of their minds the next, I couldn’t put this book down. It’s a testament to Donna Tartt’s writing that she made such unlikable characters and their various crimes so intriguing and their college, despite its obvious flaws, so nostalgic.

What The Secret History gets wrong: Most of the characters in this book are unlikable. It’s kind of like a modern The Great Gatsby in that way- still a great story, but you may get annoyed by how pretentious and selfish the characters are. (Side note: the main character’s favorite book is The Great Gatsby because he identifies with Jay Gatsby, which is hilarious because he is totally a Nick Carraway instead.)

Who should read The Secret History: Readers who enjoy academia, mythology, suspense, crime, and literary writing.

Who shouldn’t read The Secret History: Readers who are looking for a shorter, faster-paced story. It’s easy to get lost in the world of The Secret History, but the plot does take a while to develop. This is a dark story that explores the evil in human nature, so if you’re looking for a light read, don’t pick this one up yet.

 

The Secret History is available in our Recreational Reading section at the library.

Content note: violence; sexual content (most of which happens off-screen); moments of racism, homophobia, and sexism from a few characters; lots of substance abuse; pagan rituals. Reader discretion is advised.

Featured Book: “Complete Guide To Gardening And Landscaping”

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Time Life’s Complete Guide to Gardening and Landscaping is a tome. It’s a how-to guide, an encyclopedia, an almanac, and an advice column all rolled into one. Pretty much anything you can think of regarding plants- zoning, irrigation, houseplant care, troubleshooting- is not only written about in detail but illustrated for the reader.

Check out the Complete Guide to Gardening and Landscaping if you want to learn how to:

  • make a garden for the first time
  • properly care for your houseplants
  • start growing vegetables
  • landscape your property
  • fight bugs and other pests that are bothering your plants
  • identify various kinds of flowers, trees, succulents, and more

 

This thorough, comprehensive book is available at the library. Look around the “SB” section for more books on plants, gardening, landscaping, and nature.

Book Review: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney

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Normal People by Sally Rooney is the bestselling story of the ups and downs of an Irish millennial couple’s relationship. Since its publication in 2018, Normal People has been adapted into a popular TV show on Hulu.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What Normal People gets right: The writing in Normal People is simple, direct, and poignant; I flew through this book because it was easy to read and understand without oversimplifying its subject matter. Likewise, the characters are believable- they have flaws and virtues that constantly pop up alongside each other. Connell worries about what others think and wants to be a “nice” person; yet he is at his best when he allows himself to be vulnerable and to stand up for others. In contrast, Marianne feels different from everyone else and is not afraid to express her opinions, but she is burdened with her abusive family and fear of close relationships.

As someone the same age as the main characters, I found most of their interactions and cultural references relatable (albeit some of their political conversations were specific to  Ireland and I needed to look them up).

What Normal People gets wrong: There’s definitely some moments that will make you cringe. I was genuinely worried about both Connell and Marianne at times. It’s impressive that the book can get such a strong emotional reaction out of its readers, but at the same time, it’s not a fun book to read.

I also wasn’t a fan of the open-ended conclusion. I am usually fine with open endings, but I really thought this book was moving in a clear direction and the plot just didn’t end up there. I expected more personal growth out of the characters than how they were acting on the last few pages.

Who should read Normal People: Readers who enjoy books about relationships, recent history, and mental health awareness.

Who shouldn’t read Normal People: This is a sad one, guys. If you, like me, occasionally like to read something that will make you cringe and maybe even cry, then pick this one up. But if you’d rather read to escape, or if you don’t want to read about abusive situations, just skip this one. Readers who like linear plots and strong conclusions will not like Normal People, either.

 

Normal People is available in the Recreational Reading section at the library.

Content note: suggestive scenes, language, substance abuse, sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse. Reader discretion is advised.

Reading List: Poetry

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Most poems can be read in one sitting, but their meaning may stay way with you forever. If you’re a fan of poetry, check out the poetry collections below. Some are eBooks that you can read from home, and others are print books that are available at the library.

 

Questions About Angels by Billy Collins (eBook)

Billy Collins – winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, veteran of a one-hour Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, and a guest on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion – arrives at Random House with the poetic equivalent of a Greatest Hits album, seasoned with some wonderful new numbers. Read our review here.

 

American Primitive by Mary Oliver

50 lyrical poems by the author express renewal of humanity in love and oneness with the natural.

 

Selected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes

The poems Hughes wrote celebrated the experience of invisible men and women: of slaves who “rushed the boots of Washington”; of musicians on Lenox Avenue; of the poor and the lovesick; of losers in “the raffle of night.” They conveyed that experience in a voice that blended the spoken with the sung, that turned poetic lines into the phrases of jazz and blues, and that ripped through the curtain separating high from popular culture.

 

The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Contains in sequence all the poetry written by the author from 1956 until her suicide in 1963, together with fifty selections from her pre-1956 work.

 

New Poets of Native Nations edited by Heid E. Erdich

This anthology gathers poets of diverse ages, styles, languages, and tribal affiliations to present the extraordinary range and power of new Native poetry.

 

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The Varorium Edition of the Poems of W.B. Yeats by W.B. Yeats

This book contains the complete poems of Irish author and activist W.B. Yeats. Yeats’ poetry speaks of love, nature, politics, and myths.

 

Selected Poetry by Victor Hugo and Steven Monte (eBook, includes poems in French and English)

This generous, varied selection of poems by one of France’s best-loved and most reviled poets is presented with facing originals, detailed notes, and a lively introduction to the author’s life and work. Steven Monte presents more than eighty poems in translation and in the original French, taken from the earliest poetic publications of the 1820’s, through collections published during exile, to works published in the years following Hugo’s death in 1883.

 

The Woman I Kept To Myself: Poems by Julia Alvarez

The Dominican-American writer presents a collection of autobiographical poems, each comprising three 10-line stanzas.

 

The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop

A collection of 149 poems by the author.

 

Selected Poetry, 1937-1990 by João Cabral de Melo Neto (eBook, includes poems in Portuguese and English)

Brings together a representative selection of the work of one of Brazil’s most respected poets, including many poems published in English for the first time.

People’s Choice Book Review: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

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Recently, I asked the Union community via Instagram to pick a book for me to review (these are the kind of fun shenanigans I’ve been up to while working from home). The choices were Race Matters, The Sun Also Rises, and The Handmaid’s Tale.  Each of these books are available at the library, so patrons can read the review and then pick out the book. The votes came in, and The Handmaid’s Tale was chosen!

Spoiler-free description of The Handmaid’s Tale: a woman in a dogmatic society, the Republic of Gilead, must play the hated role of a Handmaid while grappling with memories of a past life.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale a year or two ago. I’d heard of it before, and as the show based on the book gained more media attention, the buzz put the book back on my radar (although I still haven’t watched the show). I remember reading The Handmaid’s Tale as fast as my eyes could skim the words- the story was so engrossing and equal parts mind-numbingly sad and frustrating. As soon as I finished, I handed the book over to my husband, and he also read it blazingly fast. I strongly believe that The Handmaid’s Tale is a book by women, for women (and it attracts a largely female audience because it’s talking about female experiences, and boys don’t read “girl” books starting at an early age). But this story is also very much for men, too. In fact, I wish more men would read The Handmaid’s Tale.

Let’s get one thing straight about The Handmaid’s Tale before we dive in to the review: this is a book about a very messed up society. If you’ve kept up with author Margaret Atwood at all, then you know that she is obviously not promoting the mistreatment of women with this book. She is fighting against it in real life by showing how terrible it is in fiction. This is one of those books where some really rough acts and crimes are committed, but that doesn’t mean that the book is promoting this kind of behavior- it’s actually the exact opposite. Yet, The Handmaid’s Tale still winds up on banned book lists because people are afraid to read about real problems (that’s just my opinion there, but hey, this is a book review, so most of this is my opinion).

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Handmaid’s Tale gets right: This is a very insulated story. It’s told from one woman’s perspective, and since she’s been subjected to brainwashing and abuse, sometimes her perspective is shocking. A lot of books about crazy government regimes focus on the politics or the activists, but this book zeroes in on one Handmaid’s story. I love that. It’s so much more personal and relatable than if we had 300+ pages about every terrible law that Gilead passed.

The Handmaid’s Tale is fictional. Some might call it satire, but it’s also a warning to the real world. Sometimes you can reach a wider audience by instilling your values and fears into fiction, and Atwood does this beautifully in The Handmaid’s Tale. A very paraphrased and basic version of her message is this: women are equal to men, but a lot of societies don’t treat them this way; biological differences are often used by those in power to subjugate women; and systemic oppression is wrong. As a feminist, I appreciate these messages being brought to the general public in the form of a story- this makes hard facts and opinions more accessible to everyone.

What The Handmaid’s Tale gets wrong: There are some slower parts to the book, but honestly you probably won’t notice. You’ll be too caught up in how awful Gilead is. Also, there’s a cliffhanger and we had to wait over 30 years for a sequel. So, if you’re just now picking up this book, you will be excited to know that you can read The Testaments right after (and you can read my review of The Testaments here).

Who should read The Handmaid’s Tale: Readers who enjoy dystopian books, feminist literature, and finally knowing what all of the hype is about.

Who shouldn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale: Younger audiences should wait until they are mature enough for the heavy content.

The Handmaid’s Tale is available as a print book at the library.

Content note: there are scenes of rape and abuse all throughout the book. Reader discretion is advised.

Book Review: “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

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The library ladies chose The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern for our second book club pick. This popular novel is a favorite among readers who enjoy books with magic, secrets, and romance.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What The Night Circus gets right: I love the magical realism in this book. Some magicians are faking it, but others have an innate gift for real magic, and it’s fascinating to read about.

The Night Circus introduces the reader to the two main characters and gets the plot going quickly. I flew through the first few chapters, excited to find out what was going to happen next and how Celia and Marco would eventually meet for their challenge.

What The Night Circus gets wrong: To be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of either of the main characters. They were both selfish and deceptive. The book only scratches the surface of the problems and baggage that they carry into their relationship.

I didn’t love the book’s ending, either. It was a little too happy and tied things up too neatly, which was a stark contrast to the darkness in the plot throughout the rest of the book.

Who should read The Night Circus: Readers who enjoy fantasy, magic, and character-driven books. People who love movies like The Prestige.

Who shouldn’t read The Night Circus: If you have a hard time reading about child abuse, then maybe skip this one for now. The book doesn’t linger on these scenes, but Celia suffers a broken wrist and damaged fingers from her father’s abuse.

 

The Night Circus is available here at the library.

Content note: abuse, a mildly suggestive scene.

Top 5 Books To Read On A Rainy Day

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In 2018, Jackson had the wettest year on record with a whopping 77 inches of rainfall. With all of the rain that we so often experience here, it’s nice to curl up inside with a good book and look out at the weather from a dry distance. Here are 5 cozy books that you can get lost in on a rainy day.

*book descriptions provided by the publishers c/o the library catalog

 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, a stunningly ambitious and beautiful novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Ten-year-old Mary comes to live in a lonely house on the Yorkshire moors and discovers an invalid cousin and the mysteries of a locked garden.

 

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

Like the blues- sweet, sad, and full of truth- this masterful work of fiction rocks us with powerful emotions. In it are anger and pain, but above all, love: the affirmative love of a woman for her man, the sustaining love of the black family.

 

Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier

Caught up in the danger at an inn of evil repute, Mary must survive murder, mystery, storms, and smugglers before she can build a life with Jem.

 

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

In the first book of C.S. Lewis’s legendary science fiction trilogy, Dr. Ransom is kidnapped and spirited by spaceship to the mysterious red planet of Malandra. He escapes and goes on the run, jeopardizing both his chances of ever returning to Earth and his very life.

 

 

 

Top 5 Books About Running

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This past December, I ran my very first marathon. It was so fun and yet so painful at the same time! What I most liked about the race was the support and energy I felt from the other runners and spectators. It really felt like I was doing something meaningful, even though I’m sure a lot of people thought I was crazy for running 26.2 miles in the cold.

There’s definitely a sense of community among runners, and there are several books about running that accurately capture this feeling. Read the list below and click the links to find these books in the library!

 

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

My favorite book about running, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, is short and to the point. Murakami, a marathon runner and a famous novelist, writes with wisdom about his experiences. He compares running to writing and examines the discipline behind long distance running.

 

Running: A Global History by Thor Gotaas

How did we as humans become so fascinated with running? This book explains it all, tracing runners throughout world history.

 

Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel by Matt Fitzgerald

The best elite runners have learned that the key to faster running is to hear what your body is telling you. But are you listening?

 

A Heart In A Body In The World by Deb Caletti

This young adult fiction novel is about a girl on a cross-country run, trying to deal with a traumatic event from her past. Along the way, she becomes a reluctant activist and symbol.

 

The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb

Read all about the true story of how three elite athletes trained to run a mile in under four minutes.

 

All of these books are available at the library- just click the links to find their locations!

Book Review: “Home” by Toni Morrison

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Last year, I read my first Toni Morrison book: Beloved. It was extremely well-written but deeply heavy in subject matter, so I had to take some time before I was ready to dive into another Morrison novel. Home is the story of Korean War veteran Frank and his quest to save his sister, Cee, and somehow find his place in a world that he doesn’t recognize. Coming in at less than 150 pages, it’s a short and fast read.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What Home gets right: Cee’s struggles as a black woman trying to support herself were portrayed with compassion and understanding. Sure, Cee makes some honest mistakes, but by the end of the novel she has grown up and will hopefully be able to heal from her trauma.

Frank’s and Cee’s stories are sad ones, but Home ends on a hopeful note. Their sibling bond is powerful in a world where relationships between many men and women are difficult and even abusive.

What Home does wrong: This is a Toni Morrison novel, so if you thought you were going to get out of this reading unscathed and completely emotionally sound, you’re wrong. Morrison really surprised me with one of the plot points, and this unfortunate surprise made the rest of the book hard to read. However, having read Beloved, I knew that Morrison often tackles uncomfortable and disturbing issues in her books. Should have seen it coming!

Who should read Home: Readers who are interested in history, veterans, African American experiences in the U.S., and superb literary writing.

Who shouldn’t read Home: Readers who are looking for lighter subjects and writing styles.

 

Home is currently available at the library.

Content note: flashbacks include a disturbing scene, and Cee is horribly mistreated at the hands of a corrupt doctor. Reader discretion is advised.

Book Review: “A Heart In A Body In The World” by Deb Caletti

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After completing my first marathon, I wanted to read a young adult (YA) book about running. I picked up A Heart In A Body In The World by Deb Caletti from the library’s Family Room. This novel is about much more than running (it has the major theme of dealing with a traumatic event) but running sets the framework for the main character, Annabelle, to begin the healing process.

Annabelle is a high school cross country runner who is in therapy and trying to deal with PTSD after a terrible event. On a whim, she decides to embark on a giant run from Seattle to Washington, D.C. Her grandfather helps her out, providing her with food and support from his RV. Soon her run turns into a cause, with hundreds around the country tuning in and showing support.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What A Heart In A Body In The World gets right: This has nothing do with the actual story, but wow, what a great cover!

As for the actual story: the hazards of running are really well described! When Annabelle freaked out in the shower because she hadn’t realized that she was chafed from her run, and the hot water was stinging her? That’s real, y’all . . . just take my word for it. And while she wishes for some Body Glide for chafing, let me tell you, that stuff only works some of the time.

It’s sad that recent, real-life events have made a novel like this so timely and necessary, but I’m glad that author Deb Caletti wasn’t afraid to tackle this kind of subject.

This book will show you the worst of humanity, but it also shows you the best of humanity: the surprising kindness of strangers, the willingness to support a good cause, and the love that a family has for each other. Annabelle’s story is both sobering and inspiring. It’s a story worth reading, even if you end up crying a little along the way.

What A Heart In A Body In The World does wrong: I personally am not the biggest fan of books that are written in present tense, so that took a little getting used to with this novel. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the “heart facts” that prefaced many of the chapters- they were interesting, but they took me out of the story.

Who should read A Heart In A Body In The World: Readers who enjoy running and young adult novels.

Who shouldn’t read A Heart In A Body In The World: While this book is certainly inspiring, it’s also very sad at times. If you’re looking for something more lighthearted to read, then pick up something different.

 

A Heart In A Body In The World is available in the library’s Family Room.

Content note: PTSD, gun violence, language.