Author Archives:

Goldfinching: Four Ways to Experience a Masterpiece

goldfinch2The endurance course titled “The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt’s modern 784-page masterpiece, tests the standard of making every word count. I won’t argue here that she did. The ending alone — a long discourse on the Meaning of Something or Other — may inspire a reader to ask, “I’ve come call this way for this?” On the other hand, the plot throughout thickens artfully, and the characters are Dickensian.

Much has been written of course about Tartt’s eleven-years-in-the-making, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. So my commentary is limited here to the ways that I experienced The Goldfinch.

1. Listening, part 1. I heard the first two hundred pages as read by actor David Pittu. Foreign accents can be an enormous problem in such performances — the narrator, for example, of Donna Leon novels, all set in Venice, makes Italians sound like Russians. But Pittu makes the Russian character Boris in Tartt’s novel sound Russian, and delightfully so.

2. The next five hundred pages were consumed the old fashioned way, by hoisting the book onto my lap and turning its pages. In this way I could return again and again — harder to do when listening — to parts that stuck with me, such as narrator Theo Decker’s three-page description of clinical depression, as good, I think, as Styron’s.

3. The Kindle version was next. Here I was able to turn the body of work into 14-point type — an advantage to someone with 70-year-old eyes. The disadvantage is that 14-point type turns the book into 2,800 pages, a measure that can daunt even the most devoted reader caught up the novel’s plots and subplots from the very start when a terrorist bomb goes off in the Metropolitan Museum and a great work of art becomes the object of investigation and the metaphor for Theo’s life.

4. Listening, part 2. I was knocked out by an antibiotic, and so couldn’t read the ending. Happily,my wife came to the rescue. We often read to each other in bed. Suzanne delivered the final 50 Kindle pages as I tried to keep my eyes open. Suzanne is a poet, not an actor like David Pittu, but she acquitted herself well. Still, I don’t know anyone who exults at the finish of this novel — no shouts of “Brava!” for the author, but more like an ordinary standing ovation after a Pinter play, audience members congratulating themselves for not ducking out after the first act. On the other hand, rewards surely come from sticking with Tartt, as with any genuine work of literary art.

Klinghoffer and Artistic Freedom Die

If you write fiction, nonfiction, poetry or any combination of these, the recent tragic aria sung at the Metropolitan Opera House should make you shiver. Those of us who create for a living already face sufficient obstacles – the demands of the work itself and the fickle nature of the marketplace immediately come to mind.Continue Reading

25 Books I Love To Hear (Part 1)

I listened to my first unabridged audio book in 1989 while commuting. In all over the last 25 years, though that commute ended long ago, I’ve heard more than 200 novels, memoirs and nonfiction books. Brilliant actors such as Henry Strozier, Barbara Rosenblatt, Simon Vance, George Guidall and John McDonough have made great books jumpContinue Reading

Fearing a Poet’s Power

Ricky Greenfield died last month. He was an accomplished businessman who, steadfast in his intolerance, became my literary benefactor. And for that I remain grateful. Many years ago, Greenfield bought the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, a weekly that circulated around the state and once — in the golden age when people actually read newspapers — hadContinue Reading

Make Lunch, Write a Book

How do books come about? The most common way is when a writer gets an idea and then slaves over that idea for anywhere from ninety days (the remarkable achievement of memoirist Carlos Eire, in “Waiting for Snow in Havana”) to a decade (Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding”) or more. Another method of creation:Continue Reading

The John McPhee Reader

John McPhee’s work appears in nearly every writing class I teach. I offer it as a prime example of the carefully constructed and compelling narrative, though I have little interest in the subjects he writes about. I was never curious, for example, about the geology of the Grand Tetons or the intricacies of cattle brandingContinue Reading

Writing, Italian Style

They’ve gone. They’ve packed their laptops, narratives and memories of a week together on the Amalfi Coast. Here, they read and critiqued (with love) each other’s work. They laughed and cried and hugged and, when parting, swore to stay in touch. We all ate meals so irresistible it seemed we could raise funds for theContinue Reading

Writing LBJ

An hour before the curtain of “All the Way” at the Neil Simon Theater, two middle-aged women walked past the marquee and saw the oversized photograph of Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson. “Look,” said one. “It’s Mr. White. I didn’t know he was on Broadway.” Referring, of course, to Cranston’s breakout role in “Breaking Bad”Continue Reading

Amalfi Calls Wally Again

That’s Wally Lamb and yours truly looking at something in Praiano. Our gazes are upwards, obviously, so it’s not likely we’re peering at the unrepentant goat that ate Suzanne’s silk scarf. It may just be that we’re admiring the hillside town itself where Wally, Suzanne and I spent  a week last March with the firstContinue Reading

A Toast to Billy Collins

About thirty minutes before the reading by Billy Collins on Wednesday evening, the gates closed at Hill-Stead Museum.  No more cars could be accommodated. It was another poetry traffic jam in Farmington, Ct. By then 1,600 people filled Hill-Stead’s sunken garden. As they awaited the former U.S. Poet Laureate, another 96, many in party attire,Continue Reading