Best Reads of 2019

February has not only arrived but almost left and yet this is my first post of 2020. 2019 was a difficult yet beautiful year. I got my degree and opened a coffee shop in my hometown, a project that began with my family’s support and has been getting bigger and bigger… so much that we now moved to a bigger space and, thanks to my boyfriend’s help, are organizing book clubs, live music nights and movie projections.

This is the reason I haven’t been reading and writing as much, but I wouldn’t dare to complain. I read just a few books last year but they were important and marked me in many different ways —this year seems to be following the same pattern, for I have read only two books and they’ve made a big impression on me—. All of this is just an excuse to post about the books I liked best in 2019. It is also some sort of reopening of my blog, for I’ll be back posting reviews and whatever I find myself musing about. Thank you for reading and for making me part of such a beautiful community as this.

Travels with Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck

“I was born lost and I take no pleasure in being found”

Mysteries of Winterthurn, Joyce Carol Oates

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

“All great and precious things are lonely”

Shirley, Charlotte Brontë

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

Romantic Outlaws, Charlotte Gordon

A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit

H is for Hawk, Helen McDonald

Men and Gods: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History by Donna Tartt has been on my radar for a while now. I’ve heard many people praise it and as many hate it, which really made me want to read it. One of the reviews on the back of the book says, “a thriller for thinking people”, which I took as a challenge.

It took me almost three weeks to read this one, which is extremely rare for me. It wasn’t however, because it was boring or tedious, it was just because this is one of those books you want to savour slowly, taking in every word, every sentence. I spent many a sleepless night reading The Secret History and thinking about it; sometimes, after hours of reading and what felt like a thousand pages, I would come out of a daze to find out I had read less than fifty. Donna Tartt’s novel is both bewitching and gripping, chilling and endearing, paced masterfully, a perfect balance between contemplation and action, narrative and dialogue.

The Secret History tells the story of Richard, a California-born 20-year-old who gets accepted into Hampden, a prestigious college in Vermont, to study Classics. In Hampden, he’s quickly seduced by professor Julian Morrow and his reduced group of students, some kind of elitist sect in which all study hours are devoted to classic Greek. A group of rich, young people who dress cool and spend their afternoons discussing the sublime? Yes, defiintely cool. As Richard slowly gets to know his new friends, he also starts suspecting something is definitely wrong with their weekend getaways, their excess drinking and their suspicious behaviours at night.

I would definitely describe the novel as a thriller. Not because it adjusts to the model narratively speaking, but because the whole plot is driven by expectation. The first part of it deals with the anticipation and suspicion of murder while the second part deals with the consequences of the murder and the possibility of it being discovered. The plot is at all times intertwined with various literary references, mostly to Greek tragedies, in which various themes come up: can one escape destiny? is it possible for us to understand ancient texts? can we achieve an experience rid of thought? is beauty good? is knowledge good? (and what does good mean, for that matter?)

While the plot kept me both horrified and intrigued, it was Tartt’s descriptive abilities that made me fall in love with the book. Every description of gloomy New England in words of our protagonist, Richard Papen, who had never been outside of California before, is magical and nostalgic. Every word about trees, skies and clouds, about flowers and college buildings, sleepless nights and Vermont landscapes is spellbinding. Every time I opened the book I would feel immediately transported to this dreamy, hazy New England.

There also many philosophical topics that come out as the novel advances, most of them related to Classical philosophers, but also the burdens of the modern mind and the possibilities of existence without thought, a discussion that leads to fatal events in the novel. I guess what’s chilling about The Secret History is that its about a bunch of nerds who take their philosophy classes too far.

“It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown I back, throat to the stars, “more like deer than human being.” To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.” 

A cover by Edward Gorey I was reminded of.

The book also a powerful critique of our society and its constant quest for the aesthetically pleasing, whether through money, excess or knowledge. There is a very relatable theme too, for any person who, like me, studied anything related to humanities: the loss of innocence that comes when we discover that our teachers aren’t perfect, that our favourite authors are mortals, that artists aren’t necessarily good and, in words of Richard, that “there is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty – unless she is wed to something more meaningful – is always superficial.”

And I believe that in The Secret History beauty and that “something more meaningful” come together in a perfect balance. In conclusion, I enjoyed this book enormously and it gave me the chills very often. I can’t wait to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt too! She’s a wonderful writer.

Have you read The Secret History? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

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“The Best is Only Bought at the Cost of Great Pain”: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds

Where to even start with this novel. The first time I heard of The Thorn Birds was because my aunt tried to make me watch the 80’s TV series some years ago. I remember nothing, I think I slept through it. However, I recently found a wonderful list on Goodreads about awesome novels that are 800+ pages, and The Thorn Birds was there among Gone With the Wind, which I adore, and Lonesome Dove, which I recently had the pleasure of reading. So I decided to give The Thorn Birds a chance (did I mention it was like $6 dollars on Amazon*?). I honestly love long books, I love the feeling of having a story to go to every night.

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The Thorn Birds is a family saga set in the Australian Outback. It focuses mainly on Meggie Cleary, the only daughter of Fiona and Paddy Cleary, who is a poor farm labourer in New Zealand. Fiona, Fee, belonged to an aristocratic family and Paddy ran away from Ireland after killing a man, and their lives in New Zealand are far from easy. Every member of the Cleary family has to work from dusk until dawn just to make ends meet.

So After Paddy receives an invitation from his older and estranged sister, Mary Carson, to live (and work for her) in her immense state, Drogheda, in Australia, they are much relieved. But the Australian Outback turns out to be an inhospitable land that brings even more challenges to the Clearys. There they try to start over and are helped by the Catholic priest of the area, Father Ralph, another Irish immigrant. But tension arises when Father Ralph and Meggie get too close and Aunt Mary gets jealous. Also, there are dust storms, droughts, unbearable heat waves and freezing winters, as well as problems among the other Cleary children, so things are quite tough. Of course, Meggie starts developing feelings for Father Ralph, who is ridiculously handsome, and he, in turn, starts to fall for her.

The book dwells on many themes across almost 700 pages, among them the feelings of nationality and patriotism between Irish expats in New Zealand and Australia, the situation of women at the beginnings of the 20th century (the novel is set between 1915 and 1969), the senseless rules and monetary motivations of the Catholic Church and, of course, forbidden love by different prejudices: economic status, race, nationality, religion (or religious vows). It is actually a very sad, very tragic story in which everything seems to be against the Clearys. The title, in fact, comes from the myth of a type of bird which spends its life looking for a thorn tree and, finding it, impales itself upon it to sing for the first and last time a song that is beautiful beyond description, “for the best is only bought at the cost of great pain… or so says the legend”. Whether the fate of the characters is indeed great and worth all the toil and pain they go through is for the reader to decide.

What else to say? I enjoyed this book immensely. The introduction of characters, the narrative voice changing from their perspective to an outer, warning voice that foretells tragedy—and which you do not want to listen to—, enthralling descriptions of landscapes and storms, short passages that bring to life the day-to-day of the life in the New Zealand farm or the paddocks in Drogheda… it all adds up to a majestic story, a book that no doubt has marked thousands of readers. This is the kind of book where you become thoroughly invested in the fate of the characters, I found myself laughing, crying, gasping, unable to put the book down. Now that I have finished it I have sucha a clear image of the setting, the plains, the paddocks, the kangaroos and sheep. I just love when a book gives you that.

The story is divided into seven parts, each one focusing on a different character and period of time. There are many, many characters, and each one of them is brought to life with detail and genuineness. There are no cartoons even amongst the less important characters, each of them is given motivation and, love them or hate them, a personal story. I think that is the major achievement of the novel.

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After doing some research I found that this book was quite the hit in its time (it was published in 1977), but it is not very popular now. Comparing it to similar books, say family sagas set in a historical period, such as Gone With the Wind or A Hundred Years of Solitude, I can see why The Thorn Birds has not aged as well. There are certain parts of the book that had me thinking, this really was written for an 80s audience. Especially the whole sexy-yet-tormented-priest thing. There are a few passages that feel like Colleen McCullough went out of her way to make the Meggie-Ralph affair spicier than it would be fitting considering the general tone of the novel. But hey, it did get made into an 80s tv series.

Apart from that I have no complaints, this book is a story told with mastery and diligence, it has a set of the kind of characters that seem more real than actual people. It has been a pleasure to go home to it every night and I am actually sorry it’s over. But life moves on and I have bought myself another thick book to fill the void, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I fear will not mend the damage left by The Thorn Birds.

What are you guys reading? Have you read The Thorn Birds?

 

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