Refreshing the eye, the heart, and the imagination.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Reading Room - April Edition

Welcome to The Reading Room. The Reading Room is where I review the books I've read for the month. Even with everything that happened in April, I still made time to read. Here's a look at the line-up.


The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband. - David Finch.  David knew something was wrong with his marriage. His wife, Kristen, knew something was wrong, too. Instead of giving up, they set about solving the problem. Kristen figured out her husband has Asperger Syndrome, which means that he relates to the world a little differently: not very empathetic; obsessive compulsive about non-essential things and glib about essentials; rather self-absorbed; without what most would consider common sense. This freed her to accept David for who he is. David, however, decided to become a better husband by learning a bit more about NTs, or neuro-typicals, as those without Aspergers are called, and how to at least copy them.
This book is his journal about his efforts. It's humorous, honest, and inspiring. Here is a man who cannot relate to the world the way most people can, but his love for his wife propels him to do better for her. At the same time, his wife loves and accepts him for who and how he is, but gently and lovingly pushes him to be a better man. She doesn't accept less than what she deserves. The path for both of them is hard, but they keep at it. They don't break up. They work hard at their marriage. 
This may be a book about Asperger Syndrome, but it's more a book about love, marriage, and commitment, and well worth any married couple's time. 


The Language of Flowers. - Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Victoria has grown up in foster care, and has a really, really hard time trusting people. She doesn't love anyone, and has convinced herself that no one can ever love her. She's not worth it; she messes it up each time it's offered - sometimes intentionally, and sometimes not. When she ages out of foster care, she has nowhere to go, and the only skill she has is flower arranging and flower care. She gets a job at a local florist, and introduces the neighborhood to the language of flowers, once popular in the Victorian era, but lately out-of-favor. She is amused to see how the suggestion of a flower's meaning can change people's lives, but what she doesn't know is how a flower's meaning can change hers as well. 
As the story develops, we get glimpses into Victoria's past. We learn why she loves flowers so much, and why she believes she is not worthy of love. We begin to hope that she blooms like her beloved flowers. 
This book is one of my favorites this year so far. It's a tender look at mental health, the foster care system, and real love - not the mushy, storybook kind of love, but real, hard work love. I don't go out and buy many books anymore, but I'll be adding this one to my bookshelf. Also, this book will forever change how you look at flowers. 


The Goldfinch. - Donna Tartt. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year, so I was super curious to read it. Let me start by saying that the best thing about this book is the cover; I could sit and stare at it for days. The next best thing about the book is the beginning. 
Theodore (Theo) Decker is a 13 year old boy who is on his way to a school meeting with his mother for a discussion about his recent suspension. With time to spare, they visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but his mother never comes out alive. Just before they are about to leave the museum, bombs go off, killing many. Theo survives. Kind of. 
He manages to sneak out of the museum, a painting (Fabritius' "The Goldfinch") in tow, not realizing that his mother is dead. By the time reality sets in, he is frantic, held together only by the allure the painting, his mother's favorite, has for him. Like the bird in the painting, Theo is chained, but to this tragic event. He cannot fly away to live a free life. He finds himself on the Upper East Side of New York, taken in by wealthy friends. When his deadbeat, alcoholic dad shows up, however, his world is once more turned upside down as he leaves the city for Las Vegas, a wide open, empty and lonely desert where his only friend is a Russian teen who introduces him to drugs of all kinds. By the time Theo makes it back to New York to take up residence with a kindly antiques restorer many years later, he is almost unrecognizable: an addict with a secret. For of course he never returned the painting to the museum, and it haunts him. 
The Goldfinch starts out brilliantly. The bombing of the Met is beautifully written. The reader can feel and see the horror, can taste the metallic blood, can feel the panic and the shock. But then, perhaps like Theo himself, the story drags on through almost random, meaningless whirlwinds of events, leaving the reader feeling detached and hopeful for some good end. The people, except for the antiques restorer, are not at all lovable, and their characters do not develop. Life seems to just happen to Theo; he is pushed and pulled along the torrent of events without much intentional interaction on his part. The scenarios Theo finds himself in, particularly in Vegas and in Amsterdam later in the book, are fantastical at best. It's rather like one long drugged trip. The reader wants to get out, but can't, because the end: there has to be a good end. 
But the end is not good. The end of the actual story is ok, in and of itself, and if the novel had stopped there, it would have been passable. But the end of the novel is terrible. It becomes a philosophical sermon, spelling out what readers used to be trusted to figure out without a "P.S. This is what my book is about." The ideas are great, don't get me wrong. There are some fine points and questions to consider. But the last chapter changes voice slightly and assumes the reader's reluctance or inability to understand what has just been read. A great novel - even a good novel - would have simply ended, lingering in the reader's mind, bringing up these questions and considerations without having them spelled out.


  1. I want to read all of these books! Except maybe the Goldfinch, even though I've heard so many good reviews. I think you've described it beautifully about the P.S that (in my opinion) simply shouldn't exist at the end of a novel. I'd rather read an ending left hanging in the air than one being served on a platter – unless it's a love story, then I'm all for living happily ever after! :)

  2. I think it's a fairly divided opinion out there about The Goldfinch; either folks love it or they hate it. I knew that going in, and I still read it, and am glad I did. (Although I think I'd be just as happy having not read it! ;-)) If you're at all curious, go for it!