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.

Read Through The Decade: 2010-2020

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If you want to revisit the past 10 years, reading the books that were published in that time period is a great start. The major discoveries and concerns of a decade are often reflected in its literature and nonfiction. We’ve listed a book that was published in each year from 2010-2019, leaving 2020 open for new books. Which of these recent books have you read?

All of these books are available at the library. Click the links to find where they are located, or ask for help at the Circulation Desk.

 

2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer, yet her cells–taken without her knowledge–became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years.

 

2011

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Waging a fierce competition for which they have trained since childhood, circus magicians Celia and Marco unexpectedly fall in love with each other and share a fantastical romance that manifests in fateful ways.

 

2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Read our review of Gone Girl here.

 

2013

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A young woman from Nigeria leaves behind her home and her first love to start a new life in America, only to find her dreams are not all she expected

 

2014

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations.  But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow and Reds like him are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class. Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity’s overlords struggle for power.

 

2015

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction- if they don’t kill each other first.

 

2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape.

 

2017

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Memphis, Tennessee, 1936. The five Foss children find their lives changed forever when their parents leave them alone on the family shantyboat one stormy night. Rill Foss, just twelve years old, must protect her four younger siblings as they are wrenched from their home on the Mississippi and thrown into the care of the infamous Georgia Tann, director of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. South Carolina, Present Day. Avery Stafford has lived a charmed life. But when Avery comes home to help her father weather a health crisis and a political attack, a chance encounter with a stranger leaves her deeply shaken. Avery’s decision to learn more about the woman’s life will take her on a journey through her family’s long-hidden history.

 

2018

Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall

Explores the life of one lighthouse as it beams its message out to sea through shifting seasons, changeable weather, and the tenure of its final keeper.

 

2019

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Eleven-year-old George Washington Black – or Wash – a field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, is initially terrified when he is chosen to be the manservant of his master’s brother. To his surprise, however, the eccentric Christopher Wilde turns out to be a naturalist, explorer, inventor, and abolitionist. Soon Wash is initiated into a world where two people, separated by an impossible divide, can begin to see each other as human. But when a man is killed and a bounty is placed on Wash’s head, they must abandon everything and flee.

 

2020

What will you read in 2020? Be on the lookout as new books are released and added to our shelves!

 

Top 5 Suspenseful Movies For Halloween

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If you enjoy a little Halloween fun but don’t want to watch a movie that’s too scary, then a suspenseful film may be the right choice for you. The library has several suspenseful and older horror movies that, while entertaining, will probably not shock a modern audience. Check out our list below for some great choices!

Note: there are a lot of fantastic thrillers in the world of cinema, so this list is limited to the ones that we have available in the library.

 

Rebecca

A young bride is brought by her new husband to his manor house in England. There she finds that the memory of her husband’s first wife haunts her, and she tries to discover the secret of that mysterious woman’s death. Rebecca the book is also a classic suspense novel.

 

Nosferatu

Take it all the way back to 1922 with this thrilling, silent film about Dracula (called Nosferatu in this version). While the effects may not be as scary to a modern viewer, they are dazzling for the time period. Nosferatu is one of the most influential films of the modern horror genre.

 

Vertigo

Alfred Hitchcock was certainly one director who knew how to tell suspenseful stories. Vertigo is the story of San Francisco police detective Scottie Ferguson, who is forced to retire when a freak accident gives him a severe case of acrophobia. Ferguson is hired by a rich shipbuilder to follow his wife, who is behaving suspiciously and might be planning suicide.

 

The Sixth Sense

If you don’t know the twist to The Sixth Sense, watch it before you find out! This is a great movie to watch at least twice- once before you know the twist, and once after. Bruce Willis gives an empathetic performance as a child psychologist who tries to help a boy with visions of dead people.

 

Donnie Darko

This was my favorite movie for many years. Donnie Darko has everything that a good suspense/science fiction movie needs: a giant bunny rabbit, a countdown to the end of the world (starting on October 2nd and ending on Halloween), and a classic 80’s New Wave soundtrack. I love Donnie Darko because it’s a movie that could fit in so many genres- and it will keep you guessing until the very end- but ultimately it’s about a troubled teenage boy trying to figure out how the world works, and what’s more relatable than that?

 

Bonus movie:

Jaws

The first summer blockbuster was also a terrifying experience for moviegoers in 1975. Jaws is notable especially for its soundtrack, which inspires a creeping sense of dread as the giant shark approaches. Jaws will not be as scary to current horror fans due to limited (but still impressive) effects, which makes it a great movie for those who prefer suspense. You can read Matthew’s review of Jaws here.

 

 

Top 5 True Crime Novels

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My favorite book genre, beyond any doubt, is true crime. Don’t worry, I’m not encouraging criminals to keep committing terrible acts that make engrossing stories. The part of true crime I really enjoy is the detective work- how did the police and investigators find the criminals? What details were missed or discovered along the way? How did the family of the wronged person(s) rebuild their lives in the aftermath?

The Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker (one of the best books I’ve ever read) talks about how if you have the ability to imagine a crime, it’s already been committed by someone else. It warns you that criminals are not inhuman monsters like we may want to imagine. No, criminals are people just like us, who move and work and breathe beside us. This isn’t meant to scare you (although it is certainly scary)- this just means that we need to figure out why some people commit acts of deviance. What’s the motive? Is this behavior something you are born with, or something you’ve picked up via your environment and upbringing? It’s the classic nature vs. nurture question.

All of these questions are examined and, in some specific cases, halfway answered in quality true crime novels. Reading them, you get to follow along as more evidence comes to light and one more piece of the puzzle is found. The best true crime novels make you a part of the story. The ones listed below are examples:

 

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi

Crime: Charles Manson & The Manson Family murders

Setting: Late 60s and early 70s California

Why It’s Worth A Read: This book was written by the main prosecutor of Charles Manson and his followers, Vincent Bugliosi. Bugliosi spent countless hours trying to figure out who committed the murders and why they followed Manson’s orders so devotedly; he himself did police work when the police were too busy to take it on. The Manson Family was a cult unlike any that had been seen before, and the motive of the crimes was difficult but entirely necessary for Bugliosi to prove before the judge. Helter Skelter is fast-paced, gruesome, and exciting, especially when Bugliosi goes head-to-head with Manson in the court room.

 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Crime: Seemingly random murders of the Clutter family

Setting: Kansas, 1959

Why It’s Worth A Read: Some people believe that this book is where the true crime genre originally started. Truman Capote writes with dark precision as he recounts the crime, the history of the criminals involved, and how the small town in Kansas was changed forever. In Cold Blood is also a great example of creative nonfiction; Capote didn’t know every word spoken at the crime scene, but he improvises believable and factually accurate dialogue.

 

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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

Crime: Kidnapping and murders of World’s Fair visitors

Setting: Chicago, 1893

Why It’s Worth A Read: Erik Larson masterfully splits this book into two stories: one is that of Daniel H. Burnham, an architect who designed the 1893 World’s Fair; the other is about Dr. H.H. Holmes, a local pharmacist and serial killer. Both men would change Chicago and make history but in vastly different ways. This book is equal parts history and true crime, so you’ll learn a lot about America’s age of immigration, industrialization practices, and economic depression while following the stories.

 

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search For The Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

Crime: Around 50 serial rapes and murders

Setting: 70s and 80s California

Why It’s Worth A Read: Michelle McNamara wasn’t a police officer or detective: she was a writer who was obsessed with finding a serial killer. Over the years, McNamara gathered information online and on foot about the then unknown man. Unfortunately, McNamara died before her research could be published, so her husband (comedian Patton Oswalt) and friends gathered her extensive work and published it as I’ll Be Gone In The Dark. Spoiler alert: the police arrested the man who is believed to be the Golden State Killer in April 2018, only 2 years after McNamara’s death.

 

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Crime: Double murder

Setting: Utah, 1984

Why It’s Worth A Read: The criminals in question were fundamentalist Mormons, an extreme religious sect of Mormonism, who believed that a divine order justified their crimes. Jon Krakauer not only describes the ups and downs of this case, but he also records the history of Mormonism in depth. Chances are you’ll learn something new from this excellently researched book.