Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Goldfinch

By Donna Tartt
 Little, Brown     2013
771 pages     Fiction

All week I have been compulsively reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, gazing out at the sea while reading a torturous and tortured story. The incongruity of the scene has been emotionally draining for me. I wanted to be on vacation but I couldn’t stop reading. At the same time, I was extremely grateful that I could devote so much time to the book. If I had been home, I would have resented the intrusions that would have kept me from delving in so completely. 

The Goldfinch starts out with a bang—literally. Theo Decker and his mother are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art one weekday morning before going to Theo’s school, where he is a 13-year-old middle school student, in trouble with the dean for smoking and/or stealing. Theo is a very bright son of a very bright mother (dad having left the year before). While Theo is looking at the Dutch Masters, mom wanders into another room. There is a huge bomb explosion and when Theo becomes conscious again, an old man he had earlier noticed, is dying at his feet. He gives Theo a ring and asks him to deliver it to an address, and he tells Theo to save the small painting of the Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius and then he dies. Theo grabs the painting, stuffs it in his backpack and makes his way out of the museum. He can’t find his mother anywhere, so he goes home to wait for her. She never arrives; she has been killed in the explosion.

At that point, everything goes downhill for the suddenly orphaned boy. He spends a school term with the Upper East Side family of a school friend while authorities look for his father. The family gives Theo some stability and the mother in the family helps Theo deal with his loss. During this year, another important set-up occurs when Theo returns the dead man’s ring to the address he has remembered. There he meets the girl, Pippa, who had been in the museum with the old man, and her guardian, Hobie, an antique dealer and restorer. Pippa becomes the love of Theo’s life, and Hobie, dear Hobie, becomes his lifelong friend and mentor.

In the spring, Theo’s ne’er-do-well father and his girlfriend come to claim Theo, and they take him to live in suburban Las Vegas, where he spends his high school years. Boris, a Ukrainian student who has also lost his mother, teams up with Theo to carouse their way through high school. All these characters appear and reappear throughout the novel over a period of about 15 years, and Boris continues to influence Theo throughout the rest of the novel. 

After the breathtaking beginning, there is a meandering middle section in which Theo continues to hide the painting, which causes him no end of anxiety. When his alcoholic father is killed in an automobile accident, Theo returns to New York to live with Hobie and he learns all about the antique business. The middle section of the book is important, however long it is, because it teaches the reader patience. One reviewer says of Tartt: “. . .she takes fully grown, already passionate readers and reminds them of the particularly deep pleasures that a long, winding novel can hold. In the short-form era in which we live, the Internet has supposedly whittled our attention-spans down to the size of hotel soap, and it's good to be reminded that sometimes more is definitely more.” 

The writing is so marvelous that you read on for hundreds of pages; you just can’t get enough of it. Then, just as you think you don’t want any more glorious writing—you want some action—you lose your breath again as the plot picks up and moves to Amsterdam, and then goes full speed ahead to a dramatic climax in which the stolen painting plays a pivotal role.

I am in awe of Donna Tartt. This is the first book of Tartt's that I have read. Actually there have only been two others. The Goldfinch took ten years to write. All the way through I marveled at her skill, but the skill doesn’t overwhelm the character development or the plot. There are elements of Dickens, Catcher in the Rye and Empire of the Sun. One reviewer felt that the early sections reminded her of the Harry Potter series. Tartt seems to really understand teenage boys. Boris is incredibly charismatic and Theo remains an appealing character throughout the story. My favorite character is Hobie, the bachelor antique dealer who takes Theo in when he is at his lowest point and becomes the parental figure and mentor that Theo desperately needs. The plot is so well developed that there are very few unbelievable moments. If I have any complaints about plot, is that sometimes the reader wishes that it would move a little bit faster.

There is so much loss in The Goldfinch that I have pondered Theo’s fate almost as much as he does. He makes so many bad choices, but he is so appealing that you keep wanting him to shape up and “get his shit together.” And when, in the end, he has an epiphany and finds purpose for his life, you are so proud of the decisions that move his life forward. The end of the book is quite philosophical. I wanted to copy whole passages; they were so heartfelt. He says, “A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

When I finished the book this afternoon, I breathed heavily and began to cry—filled with emotion and exhaustion. I was done; yet, I immediately longed for more. Theo is a character that will stay with me for a long time. The Goldfinch will stay with me even longer. The NPR reviewer summed it up thus: “While The Goldfinch delves seriously and studiously into themes of art, beauty, loss and freedom, I mostly loved it because it kept me wishing I could stay in its fully-imagined world a little longer. Donna Tartt was right to take her time with this book. Readers will want to take their time with it, too.”

I’m going to read an amusing murder mystery next; I don’t think I can stand to read any more great literature for a while. I need time to recover.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Virtual Ascendance: Video Games and the Remaking of Reality

By Devin C. Griffiths
Rowman & Littlefield   2013
215 pages     Non-Fiction

Devin Griffiths has written a comprehensive view of the state of video gaming from its beginnings to its many manifestations today and its Virtual Ascendance. Certainly gaming has moved from its Pong beginnings to its ubiquitous presence in most homes, but Griffiths also shows us the many ways that gaming has changed and will continue to change society. He says, “Gaming is fundamental to our experience as human beings, to our biology. Like the need for food, shelter, clothing, and love, the need to play is coded in our genes. Who’s a gamer? We all are. Whether our game is played with dice, cards, tiles, pencil and paper, on a board, or on the latest touchscreen tablet, we all have one, we’re all linked by the common thread of play.” 

As Griffiths explores the past, present, and the future of gaming, he expands our knowledge of what we think we know to what we think is possible—or maybe impossible. In 2012 there were four hundred million people around the world playing some type of massively multiplayer online role-playing game or MMO. Wow! At the same time that he explores the kinds of games that people do for fun, he is also exploring the potential of role playing games for education, for health, and for military training. This, I would think, is the future of gaming. Just as there are people tremendously engrossed in MMO role playing, there are developers seeking new uses for gaming to the benefit of society. Griffith even devotes an entire chapter to the music that goes with the games, and how symphony orchestras are enticing an entire new generation to love classical music. 

One thing I didn’t know was that I could be considered a gamer. I am part of the demographic that Griffiths devotes an entire chapter to—casual gaming. I am a casual gamer because I play two games—Candy Crush Saga on my cell phone and Words with Friends on my tablet. Every time I have just a few minutes, I pick up my phone and play a level. It only takes a minute, and I have a minute to waste. Actually, I have to say I am addicted to Candy Crush. Can anyone help me get beyond level 100? I play Words with Friends totally anonymously and usually have 4 or 5 games going at one time. Actually I am pretty good at Words with Friends. Comes from years and years of playing Scrabble with my mother and my sister.

 I am on vacation this week and I have sworn off my games as part of my vacation. It is sort of like swearing off coffee—you know you can do it for a while—but forever???

Griffiths devotes a chapter of Virtual Ascendance to what he sees as the future of gaming for education. This type of simulation gaming was just coming into fashion when I retired, but lately I have been helping some graduate students in science education. They are very interested in simulations as part of cooperative learning, one of the new educational trends. There is much more to gaming than killing people. In one of his examples, he discusses the game Whyville and how a teacher used it to teach her students about infectious diseases. 

He speaks about the misconception that violent games create violent children. His discussion is relevant but in the end he has no answers other than to say that violent video games are not bad in themselves, but they reflect “those aspects of human nature of which we’re least proud. Right now, we live in a society that accepts violence as the norm, even celebrates it.” He feels that blaming video games is ignoring the ills that plague our society because we, as humans, are prone to finding scapegoats. In another chapter, he discusses how gaming is being used to treat severely mentally ill people—the other side of the same coin.

My son-in-law is a gamer. I asked him about it as I was reading the book. He says that he likes role playing games with a good story line. He is not so much interested in shooting things as he is in figuring things out. Because of that he says that his all-time favorite game is Blade of Darkness, an older game that most people don’t play. He says he likes it because the story line is so complex. He says that the graphics aren’t as good as the newer games, but the plot is wonderful. This is the same son-in-law that loved the Game of Thrones books, so his gaming choices seem logical.

Virtual Ascendance expanded my understanding of gaming and gave me some encouragement for its future uses. Things are moving so fast that Griffiths will have to come out with a companion book in a year or two. It was also a fairly breezy read. Griffiths writes well and the book is well researched. There are extensive notes and a comprehensive index. A friend introduced me to him via email and I agreed to read and blog about his book. Glad I did. I really learned a lot. 

I have on my shelf a book called The App Generation by famous educator Howard Gardner. I am anxious to read it to see how he feels about gaming and social media. 

Facebook page for Virtual Ascendance:


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

by Novella Carpenter
Penguin Books   2009
276 pages     Memoir

The theme for the Reading Together program at the Kalamazoo Public Library this year is food and there are two author visits scheduled, including Tracie McMillan author of The American Way of Eating and Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. Excellent choices I think, particularly in our community which has a booming farmer’s market, a localvore movement, and farms all over southwest Michigan bringing fruit, vegetables, and meat to our tables.

Novella Carpenter’s earliest years were spent on a hippie farm in Idaho, and by the time she and her boyfriend Bill moved to Oakland California, they had gardened for as many years as they had been together. They chose to live in Oakland because it was a bit scruffy as a community, and they thought that they would fit right in. In a second floor apartment near the Interstate on a dead-end street, they looked over an empty lot. Ah-Ha, they thought, a perfect spot for a garden, so over the course of a couple of years, they squatted on the property, building raised bed gardens, tending bees and chickens. Finally, the owner of the property gave her permission to farm, and she expanded her repertoire from plants, bees, and chickens to turkeys, ducks, geese, rabbits, and, wonder of wonders, pigs. 

Carpenter has a wonderful sense of the ridiculous. She doesn’t take herself too seriously. She also seems to understand that they are living in a neighborhood and life situation that most people would not choose. One story that runs through the memoir is about Bobby who lives at the end of the street in a wrecked car. Lana, another neighbor, lives in a warehouse where she runs a speakeasy. Another neighbor cooks meals which she sells to guests at her dining table to raise extra cash. It is a colorful neighborhood, and Novella and Bill are as colorful as everyone else. So, no one is surprised by Novella’s urban farm, and Novella is generous with her food and with her gardening advice.

Sometimes, Carpenter’s behavior is so outlandish that even she can’t believe that she is doing whatever it is she is doing. Some of the best stories concern her dumpster diving behind neighborhood restaurants in order to feed the animals. This gets really crazy after they get two pigs, because the pigs eat mountains of food every day and seem to prefer their food already cooked. In one of their forays, they meet a famous chef who seems really entranced with Novella’s spunk and offers to teach her how to make sausage and other exotic salamis. Novella realizes that she can’t get too attached to her animals, because she knows that she is raising these animals for food, but at the same time, she has a strict sense about how they should be treated and how they should be killed and butchered. 

Another interesting narrative concerned  the month
Carpenter decided to eat only what she could find in her garden or within 1000 feet of her house. This proved to be a hellish month with very few carbohydrates and no coffee. She was hungry all the time. She ate a lot of eggs, a couple of ducks and rabbits, and subsisted on a lot of salads. In her desperation for carbohydrates, she even ground up some decorative corn and made a sort of pancake of the cornmeal. She says, “And so I did something I’d never done before. I ate an item of home d├ęcor. ..They were the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten.”

Having lived most of my adult life in Southwest Michigan where the season begins with asparagus and ends with apples, I enjoyed every minute of this book. My husband Lee was a 4Her and so were my three kids. We raised rabbits for competition and garden vegetables to show at the fair. I have “put foods by” every year, but I never have considered myself an urban farmer. My little plot of garden doesn’t produce very well, and I have decided to grow herbs and flowers rather than tomatoes and green peppers which I have been trying to do for several years. As long as I can get fresh tomatoes at the farmer’s market, I guess that I will be happy.

This year, for the first time in many years, we shared a pig with my daughter’s in-laws. Wow! What a difference from what we usually buy at the grocery. The bacon and pork chops were marvelous. We have one ham left that we are saving for Easter. Carpenter closes her book by talking about all the wonderful meals they made from their two pigs. I could completely relate. Not that I plan to raise a pig on the patio!

You might also want to read Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It tells about the year her family lived off the products of their farm and the neighboring farms. 

Also I enjoyed Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin. Here is my blog posting about it:

Carpenter’s blog is delightful:
Novella Carpenter appears in Kalamazoo on April 15. Here is the information about her visit:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

An Unspoken Compromise

by Rizi Xavier Timane
 Hawkfish Publishing     2013
185 pages     Spiritual

Rizi Timane began his life in Nigeria as Nasele, a girl. He always knew he was a boy, but did not transition until he was in his late 30s. An Unspoken Compromise, his memoir and spiritual guide, is directed to the LGBT community he serves with his ministry. He has been a resident of the United States for many years and has a PhD. He studied theology at Claremont School of Theology and he works as a pastor and counselor, specializing in LGBT and grief issues.

An Unspoken Compromise is divided into two parts; the first part is a memoir and the second is a theological look at the biblical passages that are most often presented as indictments of homosexuality. The two themes that I identified with the most are his lifelong desire to be accepted by his parents, and the biblical, fundamentalist position taken by his parents that would not allow them to accept him for most of his life.

The first theme--the overwhelming desire for love and acceptance by his parents--is a very heart-rending exploration of a child's need for acceptance. His mother was very outspoken in her condemnation of his "choices," but Timane seems to understand that it is her religious views speaking rather than her heart, which seems to yearn to hug him close. When my son came out to me as a gay man, I remember that my very first thought was, "There is nothing that can separate my son from me or from the love of God!" 
The second theme is a study of the scriptures.
Timane helps LGBT Christians understand the context of the scriptures that on first reading seem so condemning. He says, "For example, instead of viewing the Bible as unforgiving and set in stone, I read it with an open, humble, and inquisitive mind, and always view its stories within the appropriate historical context." He tells his readers that condemning Christians are followers of the Bible rather than followers of Jesus who preached love and compassion and acceptance.

My denomination, the United Methodist Church, is embroiled in a huge controversy over gay marriage and the acceptance of LGBT people into ministry. A recent AP news story explains it better than I could write it. You can find it here. The crux of the matter is that Methodism is a world-wide religion, and Methodists in the United States are open to gay marriage and a change in the church discipline that would allow the acceptance of the LGBT community to happen. However, the members of the world denomination in Africa and Asia are unwilling to make that move. It is anybody's guess where the controversy will end. My guess is that the denomination will split into two parts, but most Methodists don't want to see this happen. It is very disconcerting to see the denomination that I have been part of all my life in this huge quandary. Most people understand that the issue of the place of the LGBT community in society to be the civil rights issue of our generation. 
  I received this book from the publicist, and I appreciated receiving it because it helped me put my own church's agony into a very personal context.