‘The Goldfinch’ and Other Modern Masterpieces

Are the days of very ambitious novels over? Some readers think so.

They lament that we no longer have sweeping, sprawling, often-lengthy classics like Moby-Dick (Herman Melville), War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy), Middlemarch (George Eliot), The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham), East of Eden (John Steinbeck), Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), Doctor Zhivago (Boris Pasternak), One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), History (Elsa Morante), and other amazing works.

Why? Those who feel the classic-novel days are finished might blame such things as anti-intellectualism (which became accentuated under the Reagan presidency of the 1980s), shorter attention spans (symbolized by MTV’s emergence in the ’80s), and the many media distractions of the digital age (which flowered starting in the 1990s with the Internet and in the 2000s with social media).

But amid the fun, shallow, and/or escapist novels published from the 1980s on (heck, there were fun, shallow, and/or escapist novels before that, too 🙂 ), there are also a number of jaw-dropping works in our modern era that are as good or nearly as good as literature’s long-ago masterpieces. These hyper-ambitious novels ask (and often answer) the big questions about life, death, love, family, friendship, art, religion, politics, violence, injustice, oppression, and more — while simultaneously offering lots of memorable characters and entertainment.

I thought of that last week after finishing Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch — an impressive, riveting, very readable, almost-Dickensian novel that might well be considered an all-time classic a century from now. Partly a coming-of-age novel, partly a thriller, partly a howl against the seeming meaninglessness of existence, partly a funny satire of upper-class frivolity, and wholly written like a dream, The Goldfinch is 771 pages of literary firepower. It’s the story of Theo Decker, and how being at the site of a terrorist attack that kills his mother profoundly affects his (ill-fated but not completely ill-fated) life — which becomes strongly connected to the renowned “The Goldfinch” painting he dazedly takes before stumbling out of the bombed museum.

In addition to Tartt’s 2013 book, there are various other late-20th-century and early-21st-century novels with transcendent, go-for-broke content. From the start of the 1980s on, I would include in that group Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, among others.

I would also include wildly popular series such as J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books — and perhaps Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and its two sequels, and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels.

Do you agree or disagree with the premise that there are some recent/relatively recent novels as great or almost as great as literature’s older iconic works? What are some novels, from the 1980s on, that you feel are the most ambitious and memorable?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

154 thoughts on “‘The Goldfinch’ and Other Modern Masterpieces

  1. My vote for sweeping modern masterpiece is “My Name is Red,” The book centers around the murder of an Ottoman Miniaturist in 1591, with the events happening over a 9-day period with narrators being everyone and everything: the corpse, a tree, the color red on the wall, etc. It blends mystery, romance, history, and philosophy of the Ottoman Empire into a finely woven tapestry that is so engulfing, it gives anyone pause to hear about the Q’uran.

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    • That does sound like an impressive novel, Eric, and I know that Orhan Pamuk is an excellent writer. Thanks for mentioning and wonderfully summarizing “My Name is Red” — now on my to-read list. 🙂

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  2. Hi Dave, another off-topic subject again, but this has been an awful week for many of us. First there was the news about David Bowie, then there was another sad story about Alan Rickman, who played many roles, from the villain in Die Hard, to the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood to the Severus Snape of the Harry Potter series. I always loved him as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood. it’s somewhat odd that both of these actors died within days of each other, both at 69 years old and from cancer.

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    • That was terrible news, Kat Lib. Not really off-topic, with Alan Rickman having appeared in various movies based on books — including the “Harry Potter” series you mentioned here and I mentioned in my post. Severus Snape is such a great character. Maybe the most complex in J.K. Rowling’s series and not in the easy-to-pigeonhole good or evil camp like so many other “Harry Potter” characters — and Rickman nailed the part. So sad about his passing, and, yes, the coincidences relating to David Bowie’s death are eerie.

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      • Reminded me , the Snape character, of mortal featured in that recently discovered bit of apocrypha, The Book of Judas.

        Sorry to see Rickman go– such a versatile,able actor.

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  3. Howdy, Dave!

    — Do you agree or disagree with the premise that there are some recent/relatively recent novels as great or almost as great as literature’s older iconic works? —

    Agree. However, I haven’t read any of them yet. And the fault lies not in their authors but in myself, that I am (allegedly) mortal and (purportedly) short of time. Still, as a pop-culture vulture, I am ever ready to turn and face the strange in the work of any contemporary equivalent of Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Nobel Prize-winning writer not only of the excellent and widely known “Quo Vadis?” but also of the even more excellent and unwidely known Trilogy: “With Fire and Sword,” “The Deluge” and “Fire in the Steppe.”

    Happy Julian New Year!

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

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    • Happy New Year to you, too, J.J.!

      It IS hard to find time to read everything we want, and many masterpieces (modern-day and otherwise) tend to be on the long side. There are some short masterpieces (a la “The Great Gatsby”) but often what makes a masterpiece a masterpiece is the sweeping, sprawling nature of the novel. (I realize I’m stating the obvious here. 🙂 )

      I definitely want to try Sienkiewicz in 2016.

      “…face the strange” — nice, seamlessly included David Bowie reference!

      By the way, I finally started “Steppenwolf” and am finding that Herman Hesse novel to be REALLY good. Still early in it. Thanks so much for recommending it!

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      • — I finally started “Steppenwolf” and am finding that Herman Hesse novel to be REALLY good. —

        Nice! Since my completion of “The Deluge” last year, however, I now consider “Steppenwolf” — and all fictional works of fewer than 850 pages — not novels but short stories, with one key difference between their authors Henryk and Hermann centering on the munster lengths of the former’s productions: The Sienkiewiczesque “Deluge” has alchemically transmuted the Hessian “Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game)” into a quick read, to the great astonishment of my 20ish-year-old self . . .

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        • Ha, J.J.! It’s definitely all relative. 🙂 After lugging around the hardcover, 771-page “The Goldfinch” for a couple of weeks, the 218-page paperback I have of “Steppenwolf” does seem like a light-in-weight (but not lightweight!!!) short story.

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  4. Another excellent topic Dave..no I have not read ” The Golkdfinch” but added to my long list of the books I need to read and I am far behind .
    Read some classics as you mention and tried some shallow ones like “Fifty Shades of Grey” could not go beyond 50 pages. I believe they were all published in paper backs..perhaps the publisher never ever imagined them to be so popular.

    Deeply saddened by David Bowie`s passing just a couple of days after his birthday. ..but he had a full life and passed in his own terms. Understand Bowie and his beautiful wife Iman kept their personal life private.

    I wish I have attended some his concerts and now Mr. Bowie will be bigger than ever.

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    • Thank you, bebe! Glad you liked the column!

      It’s impossible to read everything we want to read. 😦 Like you, I’m far behind. Heck, my list is truly out of control — and occasionally reading very long novels doesn’t help. 🙂 But I’m so glad I read some of those long novels, like “The Goldfinch.”

      Some shallow novels are wonderful to read, some not… I never tried “Fifty Shades of Grey” myself, though — like you — I should have just out of curiosity.

      Very eloquent words about David Bowie in your next-to-last paragraph. As you said, a VERY full life. I wish I had attended one of his concerts, too, but I go to so few of them and there were other musicians and bands I wanted to see more.

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      • Dave I thought surely you must have…for me living in Midwest and my husband being tune/tone deaf it was not possible. Once we attended a concert in Nashville…can`t even remember who that was and we left early by choice ( sympathy ) with the constant fidgeting and discomfort suffered by him.
        Oh well you gain some and lose some and all the collection of CD`s are my respite . Even boxes of cassette tapes. Had a lot of LP`s and gave them away when moving from Nashville with lots of regret 🙂

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        • Sorry you haven’t been able to go to more concerts, bebe. My concert-going has been limited due to finances, being a parent, etc. I guess watching YouTube is a tiny bit of a substitute, along with listening to music via CDs, etc. 🙂 Sorry, also, about your LPs. 😦

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  5. Great topic for intelligent debate as always Dave and quite the perennial one to boot. I’ll chime in with a few probably obvious observations and then mention one or two tomes that I feel are relatively modern and can at least be whispered in the same breath as say War and Peace or Great Expectations. I am pretty sure every generation laments the current Arts environment or scene doesn’t hold a candle to the pinnacles of the past. To some extent this is the pretensions of the would be hip type and also perhaps the grumblings of age (yes I called us all “old” 🙂 ) but of course that doesn’t preclude there being truth to the proposition . I for one will postulate that over 99% of the “new” music popular just plain sucks and couldn’t care less if you called me Methuselah. Next an obvious observation Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice or any of the works of EA Poe didn’t become canonized , understood or loved until well after publication so who’s to say what novels now mostly remaindered wont be the subject of Ivy League graduate courses ( Comic Confessional for instance) ? Anyway a couple of offerings from my porch for literary immortality that go all out for the brass ring Midnight’s Children – Salmon Rushdie One Hundred and One Years of Solitude – Marquez and in an impish spirit a dark horse candidate The Barrytown Trilogy ( The Commitments , The Snapper and The Van ) – Roddy Doyle. As for this weeks sad alternate topic of discussion ” The stars look very different, today ” … Peace

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    • Glad you liked this week’s topic, Donny — and thanks for the superb comment!

      Yes, people often idealize the past — thinking everything (including literature) was better back then. Sometimes true, sometimes not.

      And a GREAT observation that it occasionally takes many years before a masterpiece is seen as a masterpiece (unfortunately, this may be long after the author’s death). “Moby-Dick” and “Pride and Prejudice” are excellent examples of that phenomenon. So, as you said, some relatively recent books could also go that route — but not “Comic (and Column) Confessional,” which will remain obscure. 🙂

      Finally, I appreciate your listing of some relatively recent ambitious novels. You inspired me to put “Midnight’s Children” on my to-read list!

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    • ” I am pretty sure every generation laments the current Arts environment or scene doesn’t hold a candle to the pinnacles of the past.”

      I think you’re right about most folks in most eras, but reading Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, I was struck by how much good he found among contemporaries and the recently departed. Of course, when you take into consideration just when he was writing….

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      • Such a mesmerizing and thanks to Boswell alive writer and thinker. Whenever I hear Johnson’s name it summons up the wonderful anecdote of him kicking a large rock and declaring in exasperation ” I refute Bishop Berkeley thusly ” 🙂

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        • Yes indeed!
          I like the anecdote in Boswell wherein the author manages to persuade the great man to leave the comforts of London for the beauties of the Lake District. So great is Boswell’s enthusiasm for the place that when they are nearby, he stops the coach so that he and Johnson can walk up a hill to take in the splendid views. Spreading his arms out wide, he asks Johnson rapturously “What do you see?”
          “The other side,” said Johnson, who turned and walked back down the hill to the coach.

          At least that’s how I recall it.

          Johnson was, after all the man who declared “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London everything life may afford.”

          And howzabout that Rasselas?

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    • “I for one will postulate that over 99% of the “new” music popular just plain sucks and couldn’t care less if you called me Methuselah.”

      99%? I think perhaps you’re being too kind. And this may make me sound like Methuselah’s grandmother, but I wouldn’t even call that stuff music. No instruments, no singing. Just noise.

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      • I don’t quite agree, but mostly, I do.

        Perhaps you would enjoy Tony Bennett’s take on rap, when asked if he was a fan. His reply (more or less– this is from memory): “I’m a melody man myself, and I keep waiting for that second note.”

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        • I can deal with rap. It’s not my cup of tea, but I think it serves a purpose. Today’s ‘music’ is just noise. Unfortunately, the radio in my new office is set to a popular music station. Every song sounds the same. There are no instruments. One note, over and over, and a person talking / whining / screaming along. The really scary part is these are the exact same things that people said when I went through my hard rock / grunge stage. But I really just don’t get it. The girls bop along to the same beat all day, and I just want to pity them because they’ve obviously never heard ‘real’ music. I don’t know when I became so old.

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          • I have mixed feelings about recent music. Not a big rap fan, but I admire the cleverness and intricacy and social relevancy of some of the lyrics. In other genres, Adele is a powerful singer (such as in her new blockbuster hit “Hello”), and several Taylor Swift songs are smart and/or fun and/or catchy and/or full of attitude (“Blank Space,” “Shake It Off,” etc.). Never quite got Lady Gaga’s popularity. As bands go, I like the sort-of-recent Muse (including its song “Uprising”), Arcade Fire (“The Suburbs”), Metric (“Sick Muse”), Evanescence (“My Immortal”), etc. But I tend to mostly listen to music from bands that started in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s (The Who, The Moody Blues, Rush, U2, 10,000 Maniacs, etc.). Heck, I love Australia’s The Seekers, too! So I’m not exactly contemporary… 🙂

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            • Dave..yes Adele of course…let`s not forget Kelly Clarkson who has a powerful clear voice and then there is Lady Gaga..her theatrics are a turn off but she is a great classical singer. Josh Groban is another one..and so on…I totally disagree on Taylor Swift 😉

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              • Thanks, bebe! You named some singers with great “pipes.” And, yes, Taylor Swift is polarizing — people love her or hate her. 🙂 She’s not my favorite, and and her songs are not that “deep,” but I can see the talent and intelligence she has.

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          • A suggestion: try listening to Phoenix, a French (!) rock outfit I happened to see on one of the PBS music shows, such as Live from the Artist’s Den. Found myself watching, having stopped by momentarily while channel-surfing. I was still watching a half hour later. The I saw the show again when it was re-run. Still like them–maybe you will too.

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              • I think I’ve mentioned these two bands before so I’ll mention them again. Fleet Foxes and The Decemberists. Fleet Foxes is, unfortunately it appears, no longer together. They recorded two albums in 2008 and 2011 and an EP in 2008. They had strong vocal harmonies and in some ways were in the Crosby, Stills & Nash continuum. They were from the Pacific Northwest and their music has the folk sound of that region or at least what I think of in connection with that area, which I’ve never visited. The Decemberists are, happily, still kicking and on tour currently. They are also from the Northwest (Oregon I believe) and they also have an Americana folk orientation yet there are also distinct influences of R.E.M. and even progressive rock. Their keyboard person is reportedly a big Jethro Tull fan and that probably influenced their most progressive concept album, ‘The Hazards of Love’, which is an honest to God rock opera with continuous music. These bands impress me probably more than almost anyone I’ve heard since R.E.M. when they were at their best which, in turn, impressed me partly due to their influence from The Byrds who for a while were labeled ‘The American Beatles’. Probably what impresses me about these bands is the strong musicality, the sophisticated arrangements and enough diversity to keep my attention from flagging. That’s my two cents’ (and two bands) worth.

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                • I do remember you mentioning Fleet Foxes and The Decemberists, bobess48, and have listened to and liked them (on YouTube). Great descriptions of both! Any band with an R.E.M. influence is okay by me — Michael Stipe and company were one of my favorite groups in the ’80s and ’90s. (“Automatic for the People” was among the CDs I listened to during my recent car trip.) And the Byrds? Such a distinctive sound.

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      • I do think there are many great young artists breaking new ground in old traditional forms ( Dave Rawlings & Gillian Welch or Joe Bonamassa with the cellist Tina Guo to name two) but the popular stuff in the clubs or on hit radio is uniformly awful.

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        • I hear you about hit radio, Donny. Corporate-controlled stations (many owned by Clear Channel or whatever that company is called now) play mostly safe, boring stuff — ignoring whatever great, original material is out there. And the safe, boring stuff is played over and over.

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  6. Ripeness is all, y’all.

    There was an era of the novel, and it’s over– which hardly means there are no novels written anymore, but rather, that novels will in all likelihood not be the medium by which our population generally will tell or receive their culture’s most currently charged stories or themes. The last novels which commanded a great share of the public’s attention, if I remember correctly, were Fifty Shades and the Harry Potter series. These are mostly not comparable beyond the fact that they are each conveyances of fantasy and escape, not the big questions roiling contemporary consciousness– we have moved on, for better or worse, to prefer other media for the job.

    “The great American novel”— remember when this used to be a thing? There were a few generations of aspirants for the title, and some might argue it was written already (Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick have each been cited as such). John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy is among the most literal attempts, but it’s not the only one. Now, the novel’s primacy as medium is past– so if the great American novel were to be published tomorrow, how many would notice without a twitter alert? It’s obviously still possible for a contemporary contender for the title to appear, but what’s harder is: attracting the attention of the public, the general public in its millions, to the point that the newly-minted GAM could mean as much to that public as novels once did, and routinely.

    These have been my working assumptions, at any rate. So for the last four decades, most of what I’ve read has been older than myself, detective/thriller novels excluded. The past has been relentlessly winnowed, and what remains after all the picking-over tends to be the best– best of the year, best of the decade, best of the century, while contemporary stuff is, inevitably, on average, more average. And there’s just so damn much stuff to read out of the past, when novels ruled the earth, just to consider oneself moderately informed on the subject of literature. At my age, if I read only the best of the best, I’ll still miss hundreds of good books, and dozens of great ones.

    But I know I’m missing some good things among contemporary offerings too. And will repair to the shelves to pick out a Cormac McCarthy soon, at the very least. Probably one of his older things, if history repeats. Mine, that is.

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    • So eloquent, jhNY. Thanks! Novels are indeed nowhere near as prominent as they used to be in society — there are so many other slices of the media pie, entertainment pie, what-we-spend-our-time-with pie — the Internet, social media, movies, TV, etc., etc. Sort of the way newspapers have lost much of their primacy. In terms of impact, a terrific movie is probably more akin to a “Great American Novel” these days than a novel is. 🙂

      And it’s true and a great observation (if I’m understanding you right) that the older/very much older novels available tend to be winnowed to where mostly the better ones are the only ones easily to be gotten. The not-so-good authors of long ago are often out of print (though we might find the not-so-good efforts of great authors).

      The newer novels that command the most attention do indeed seem to be mass-audience, fantastical ones like the “Harry Potter” series and “Fifty Shades of Grey” (and “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight” and a few others). But there are a handful of literary novels that break through to some extent, with “The Goldfinch” and “Freedom” examples of that from the past half decade or so. Those two titles, and a handful of other titles, have “Great American Novel” aspirations. But, as you note, they usually don’t have the enormous audience of today’s mass-audience fare or of the 19th century’s literary blockbusters (blockbusters relative to the smaller populations and smaller percentage of literate people of that time).

      BTW, as much as I love and am awed by “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the Tom Sawyer nonsense in the last third of Mark Twain’s book puts it a bit below “GAN” status for me. “Moby-Dick”? I’m in (as a “GAN” contender, not in the whale’s belly. 🙂 ) Other possibilities? “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Scarlet Letter,” “Invisible Man,” “Native Son,” “The House of Mirth”…

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      • My mention of the GAN and some candidates (not mine, but left over from what went around the English Department long ago when I was in college) for the title was not so much to endorse any title or author, but more to underline that the notion of the GAN is for most in contemporary culture an un-pressing issue nowadays.

        But I do like your choices.

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    • Terrific comment as always, jhNY. If I remember correctly, “The Deathly Hallows” was the most pre-ordered book of all time. When “Go Set a Watchman” was released, it was second only to the final HP instalment. While “GSAW” isn’t necessarily ‘new’, it is nice to know that people still pay attention to literature that isn’t the current ‘fad’. Not that there’s anything wrong with “Harry Potter”. Though the less said about “50 shades” the better.

      jhNY, have you read “The Road”. It’s currently the only McCarthy that I’ve read, but I thought it was absolutely amazing!

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      • “The Road” IS excellent, Susan. Other Cormac McCarthy novels well worth reading include “Blood Meridian,” “Suttree,” The Border Trilogy (“All the Pretty Horses,” etc.), and “No Country for Old Men.” Most range from somewhat to VERY violent, and most of the significant characters are male, but McCarthy’s writing is so transcendent that I’m willing to deal with those two negatives. 🙂

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      • I have read no McCarthy, but plan to this very year. I am tempted by Blood Meridian, but I will look over The Road with care when I come across it. Thanks!

        TKAM, temporal precursor of GSAW, is so far as I can tell, a book read by millions over generations, including (maybe as a majority) folks who have read nearly no other novels not assigned in school (which is where and why so many read it). It cannot surprise that its first draft attracted so much attention from the very occasional reading public. But as TKAM is a wonderful book, it’s a bit heartening to see that attention so directed.

        Not unrelated, for a while a few years ago, judging by the tomes tucked under children’s arms hereabouts, it appeared as if ‘reading’, for those children, and ‘Harry Potter’ were more or less the same thing, as Harry Potter books were all they carried.

        Reading books seems too much an enthusiasm limited to a title or series or two for a great many today, and less a general practice. But then again, 200 years ago, most readers probably mostly read one book: The Good Book.

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        • Fortunately, I think a decent percentage of youngsters who read mostly “Harry Potter” developed the fiction habit and moved on to other authors. If I had the magical powers of Dumbledore, I could give that percentage… 🙂

          (Great point about the Bible, too!)

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          • I think even if readers don’t move on to other books, it’s still great that they’re reading what they love. Even if that is Harry Potter over and over. If you don’t love reading, then why would you bother. I don’t love TV. There are two or three comedy series that I enjoy, and I can watch them over and over. But don’t ask me to discuss them, or ‘progress’ to anything else, because I just don’t care enough.

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            • Very good point, Susan. Better just “Harry Potter,” or just rereading something else a person loves, than no fiction at all.

              And I’m with you on TV. Used to watch a good deal of it years ago — including the various “Star Trek” series! — but I watch absolutely nothing now. It helped that I stopped subscribing to cable about 15 years ago. 🙂

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            • “I think even if readers don’t move on to other books, it’s still great that they’re reading what they love. ”

              This is a notion I’ve turned over and over in my mind of late, realizing I had read many things, always eager for more things to read, while KNOWING, really, very few books in depth– even the ones I’ve read twice. A really good book is as rare as a really good piece of orchestral music– there’s much to gain from revisits, as the complexities and nuances therein do not always reveal themselves even to the most attentive the first time around. Or the second. Or…

              Guess the main thing is to choose wisely those things you would dwell on. I sometimes think I’d have been better off, and more cultured and even wise, had I devoted myself to a very few great things, like Shakespeare’s plays, than what I feel I have done: skittered across the tops of a great many literary surfaces.

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  7. Hi Dave,
    While recently reading books like “Crime and Punishment” and “Grapes of Wrath”, I thought They don’t make books like this anymore! But even as I thought it, I knew it wasn’t true. As I was reading your blog, the first book that came to mind was “The Luminaries”, which I’m glad to see got a mention. And as always, that was quickly followed by “Cloud Atlas”. I think one of the reasons that these ‘ambitious’ novels don’t really stand out, is because they’re in the bookstore on the same shelf as “Twilight” or “50 shades” or even “Harry Potter”. Whereas the shelf that has Hermin Melville on it, mostly contains great books. We don’t have to sift through the mid 1800s version of “50 shades” to find “Moby Dick”.
    The other book that I thought of was “The Raw Shark Texts” by Steven Hall. By far the oddest book that I’ve ever read. I can understand why people wouldn’t like it, but I personally think that it worked, so for me, I’d call that a successful ambitious book. Though, like Pat, I’m not even really sure how to define ambitious!

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    • Yes, Susan, it’s heartening that some authors still DO write novels that at least approach the “amazingness” of the iconic classics.

      Thanks again for recommending the great “The Luminaries,” which is as ambitious as a novel can be. And thanks for mentioning “Cloud Atlas” and “The Raw Shark Texts” (what a title for the latter!).

      Interesting, excellent observation by you — some modern masterpieces do indeed mix with modern popular literature on bookstore shelves, which can make those classics not seem as…classic. (I wonder back in the day whether book buyers seeking “Moby-Dick” had to sift through “Fifty Shades of White.” 🙂 Then again, Herman Melville’s novel didn’t sell many copies when published, so there wasn’t much sifting for it…)

      Hope your new job is going well!

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      • Well, maybe people had to sift through “Moby Dick” to find Jane Austen? I downloaded “Emma” the other day, but thanks to the full time job, I’ve only managed to get through a page or two. It’s great being back at work, and the people are amazing, but it really is eating into my reading time!

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        • Another possibility, Susan! 🙂

          Jane Austen’s and Herman Melville’s writing approaches almost seem like they’re from different planets. As you know, Melville rarely explored romantic relationships in his writing, and one of the few times he did — in the memorable “Pierre” — things got rather weird.

          I think “Emma” is an excellent novel, but there are Jane Austen books I prefer (especially “Persuasion” and “Pride and Prejudice”). Given my predilection for Austen titles that begin with “P,” I regret that “Emma” wasn’t called “Pemma”…

          Glad the new job and the people are great! That’s some measure of solace for your reading-time reduction.

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          • I bought a copy of Pierre, and so far, have only flipped through it, but, I found therein some of the most magical writing about the guitar I have ever encountered. Here’s a taste:

            “I said to the man–I will buy of thee the thing thou callest a guitar. But thou must put new strings to it. So he went to search for them; and brought the strings, and restringing the guitar,tuned it for me. So with part of my earnings I bought the guitar.
            Straightway I took it to my little chamber in the gable, and softly laid it on my bed. Then I murmured; sung and murmured to it; very lowly, very softly; I could hardly hear myself. And I changed the modulations of my singings and my murmurings; and still sung, and murmured, lowly, softly,–more and more; and presently I heard a sudden sound: sweet and low beyond all telling was the sweet and sudden sound. I clapt my hands; the guitar was speaking to me; the dear guitar was singing to me;murmuring and singing to me, the guitar. Then I sung and murmured to it with a still different modulation; and once more it answered me from a different string; and once more it murmured to me, and it answered to me with a different string. The guitar was human; the guitar taught me the secret of the guitar; the guitar learned me to play on the guitar. No music-master have I ever had but the guitar. I made a loving friend of it; a heart friend of it. It sings to me as I to it. Love is not all onone side with my guitar. All the wonders that are unimaginable and unspeakable; all these wonders are translated in the mysterious melodiousness of the guitar. It knows all my past history. Sometimes it plays to me the mystic visions of the confused large house I never name. Sometimes it brings to me the bird-twitterings in the air; and sometimes it strikes up in me rapturous pulsations of legendary delights eternally unexperienced and unknown to me. Bring me the guitar.”

            Now there’s a weird romance!

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            • A weird “romance” indeed — and, as you say, magical writing. Herman Melville could be amazingly eloquent.

              “Pierre” immediately pulverized Melville’s reputation because of its alleged “perversions,” but I think it’s a riveting novel. Way ahead of its time, too.

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              • His ironic plotline re the writing game did nothing to endear him to those from whom he needed critical support either, as I understand the book’s history.

                I’ve got Pierre as published, but Mandy found a version, published in the Eighties in which his bitter take on literary matters has been expunged–illustrated by Maurice Sendak(!)– so that his long-ago feud cannot subtract from what the editor, at least, has determined is the original intention of the book. Can’t decide which to read first. Which so far has meant: another Reacher!

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                • Interesting, jhNY — an “abridged” version of “Pierre”! The complete novel DOES contain a lot of bitterness aimed at the publishing world, some critics, and some readers (their market focus, their shying away from truly original and/or disturbing material, etc.). Understandable after Melville’s “Moby-Dick” tanked and was met with so much anger the year before.

                  As for your funny quip about the Reacher books, I think reading one of them is the solution to just about anything. 🙂 (I finished the new “Make Me” a few days ago — another winner, and it’s interesting to see Jack not seem so invincible and…well…no more spoilers.)

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                  • You can’t spoil Make Me for me anyway– read it last month. Haven’t quite read as many as you have, but I blame lack of opportunity more than anything like discipline. If they were for sale nearby– all of them– then that’s how many I would have read by now. BTW, I don’t count it as one of his best, but even the ones I like least I’m happy to have read.

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                    • Oops — you probably told me that, jhNY. As with Jack Reacher in “Make Me,” a memory lapse… 🙂

                      Part of the way through that 2015 book, I wasn’t too enamored. But then it picked up for me — partly because Reacher was a little more vulnerable. Of the 18 Reacher novels I’ve read, I’d put it squarely in the middle of the pack somewhere. And since I love or at least greatly like all the novels, that’s pretty good. Sort of what you said in your last line…

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          • “Persuasion” is only my list after “Emma”. And I actually don’t know anything about Melville’s writing, as I’ve not yet read “Moby Dick”. I will get there… eventually…

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            • Susan, it’s hard to call any Jane Austen novel underrated these days, but “Persuasion” doesn’t seem to get quite as many “props” as several of her other books. I think it may be my favorite Austen work. It helps that the protagonist (Anne Elliot) is a bit older and wiser and more buffeted by life than some of Austen’s other protagonists.

              As for Herman Melville, well, it’s hard to get to every author! 🙂 If you ever want to try Melville but don’t have the time to read “Moby-Dick,” his longish short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” is incredible and his first novel “Typee” is memorable escapist/adventure fiction.

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            • If and when you do get there, my advice: keep in mind you are reading an experimental novel, unlike any other– though there are many elements within that derive from earlier forms and types.

              As soon as I allowed myself to be taken wherever the author would have me go, and dropped all my assumptions about what to expect, I really enjoyed myself. The second time around–and only a few years ago. My first brush with the book, in school, was more of a travail by far, and over-rushed.

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              • Thanks to you, Dave (and I think Kat-Lib) I am very much looking forward to “”Persuasion”. Have managed to get through a whole two chapters of “Emma”! What a shame that I didn’t win the ridiculous lotto prize that the US just had. Then not only could I have retired, I would have made sure none of the commenters here ever had to work again either!

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                • Oh, and I meant to say – jhNY, assume that you’re talking about “Moby Dick” above? I expect it to be a little bit of work on my part, and I’m ok with that. I’m certainly not expecting a fun and easy Lee Child style ride. Which is completely fine, as long as it’s worth it. As I’m expecting it to be work, and only hoping for it to be enjoyable, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.

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                    • Terrific thumbnail description of “Moby-Dick,” Anonymous! Thanks!

                      Like jhNY, I had some trouble with the novel the first time I read it many years ago. I reread it around 2005 (?), and was mesmerized (though the chapters without the characters that discuss whaling matters can be a bit slow). A real shame it sold so poorly and didn’t get critical acclaim until decades after Herman Melville died. Heck, if Melville could have just got a small cut of Starbucks’ profits after that coffee chain named itself after his Starbuck character in “M-D”… 🙂

                      Oops — or are you jhNY who inadvertently posted under “Anonymous”?

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                • You’re welcome, Susan! Kat Lib is indeed a major Jane Austen fan and expert, though I’m forgetting where she places “Persuasion” in Austen’s six-novel canon. Hopefully, Kat Lib will chime in if she sees this thread. And great that you’ve read some of “Emma” despite all the time your new job is taking!

                  Very nice/kind thought of yours about sharing that ridiculous lottery prize the U.S. just had. 🙂 It would be great for people to only have to keep a paying job if they loved it. I’ve wondered what I would do with $1.5 billion, and concluded that I would put $750 million in one of my apartment’s bedrooms and $750 million in the other (before giving much of it away to worthy recipients and causes).

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  8. Jonathan Franzen gets a bad rap but I found his Freedom compelling, was a sprawling (epic?) capture of the slow fall of American culture/society, a fictional representation of Morris Berman’s books. Likewise, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, along the same lines. T.C. Boyle is still going strong (most recent, The Harder They Come).

    Decades earlier: John Updike’s “quadrilogy” spanning 1960-1990: Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit at Rest.

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    • Joe, I agree! Jonathan Franzen’s work might be over-hyped, and his personality can be off-putting at times, but, like you, I think “Freedom” (the only Franzen novel I’ve read) is brilliant and deep and entertaining.

      I’ve also read only one T.C. Boyle book, “The Road to Wellville” (which you recommended to me a couple of years ago). Also compelling and ambitious!

      I had mixed feelings about “Rabbit, Run” (I haven’t read the next three of John Updike’s quartet). Disliked Rabbit Angstrom a lot and was bothered by all the sexism — partly, I’m sure, a reflection of the novel’s late-1950s setting. But “Rabbit, Run” was an impressive book in many ways, and I imagine the next three novels were quite good as Rabbit’s story continued and Updike became an even more experienced writer.

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    • Hi Joe, you’re the first person that I can recall mentioning any work by Lionel Shriver, and most specifically, “So Much for That.” This novel was loved by both my sister and me, although she couldn’t stand or even read “We Need to Talk about Kevin.” We have similar taste in books, but she can’t handle any book that doesn’t have a very sympathetic character. I don’t have quite the same qualms as my sister does.

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  9. As I said on Facebook, I’m glad you enjoyed this book. It was a bit of a roller coaster for me. I put it down for a few months at one point–about halfway through–because I found Theo’s fate to be too sad. I thought the author was completely right to resist the urge to have him miraculously bounce back and find meaning in his life. But it was still hard to read. On the other hand, I was glad to read (on Facebook) that you liked the ending because I thought, however fantastic the means, Theo did deserve that second chance. And by that point the reader deserves a reprieve as well.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Sheila — and thanks again for recommending “The Goldfinch,” which kept me mesmerized while I was away during my non-blogging week. 🙂

      I agree that a lot of “The Goldfinch” was painful, and painful to read. I guess very ambitious novels that get into the big, often melancholy aspects of life are that way. The best ones tend to be depressing as hell yet somehow inspiring and uplifting as the protagonist doesn’t give up. It helps when an author gives her or his beleaguered lead character some hope at the end, as in a number of literature’s best novels: “Crime and Punishment,” “Jane Eyre,” etc.

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  10. The first time I ever saw that goldfinch illustration accompanying Tartt’s novel, it was on the cover of WS Merwin’s translations of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry. Wonder if that’s just a coincidence, or a connection consciously made….though the way most publishers work, I lean toward the former.

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    • Interesting, jhNY! I didn’t realize that illustration has appeared elsewhere.

      And, yes, one is right to be skeptical about the competence of some publishers. The publisher of my book was…well…I won’t “go there.” 🙂

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    • Sorry you didn’t like “The Goldfinch,” Roz. Goes to show that different people (obviously) have different literary likes and dislikes, which is one reason why the comments section of this blog is so interesting. 🙂

      Great that you saw David Bowie in concert! As I mentioned to Kat Lib below, I was a fan but not a huge fan while of course admiring his amazing abilities.

      Among Bowie’s many persona changes, I’m pretty sure he was never Donna Tartt! 🙂

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    • Roz, thanks for also mentioning Bowie. I’m also still at a loss to describe how much this man and his songs were so important to me, more than many recordings. It was interesting that here in Philly they were talking about how he recorded two albums here in the 1970s. One was a live recording of concerts he gave at the Tower Theater, and the other was at Sigma Sound for “Young
      Americans,” because he was intrigued by the “Philly sound.”

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      • Perhaps this will be old news to a fan like yourself, but Luther Vandross sang background vocals on “Young Americans”. You’ve brought back an old memory for me– renting equipment to the Tarsias, father and son, at Sigma in Philly.

        Thanks!

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              • So funny! Given my last name, I should remember Aardvark. 🙂

                (BTW, in my previous comment, I was referring to “Anonymous” in the generic sense rather than to the person who posts excellent comments on this blog deliberately under the name “Anonymous.” 🙂 )

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                • My posts, including the one above, that have come in as Anonymous, thanks to having filled in the e-mail line, but not the moniker line, are all inadvertent– which is to say, I am not Anonymous on purpose, but rather, on accident. Which is also to say I am not the one who is deliberately Anonymous, though know you know someone is.

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          • jhNY, I found “Grail Nights” absolutely intriguing. Thank you for including me! When I first started reading, I thought the book was going to be a mystery and Sheila was going to help her friend find the origin of the old letters and their meaning. And then I thought we were going to solve the mystery of her friend’s death. Then when her lighter disappeared, I thought that was a “clue”. As I continued to read, I realized that I was reading somewhat independent stories woven together beautifully by the main character, Sheila. I finally realized as the last story unfolded that it was a book about loss, many different kinds of loss, as we go through life. A great read!

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        • jhNY, yes, I did know about Luther Vandross singing background vocals on “Fascination,” as well as John Lennon co-writing “Fame.” Lennon recorded “Fame” and “Across the Universe” with Bowie, which were included on “Young Americans.” On one of the local radio stations here in Philly, it was mentioned today how Bowie came to Sigma Sound with security and an entourage, which was very unlike others recording there. There were fans who would hang out just to get a glimpse of Bowie, and on the final day, he had them brought in to the studio and they sat on the floor listening to the rough version of “Young Americans.”

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        • Same with me Dave…and I do not have any of his CD`s…regrettably. Finding CD`s are rare these days but I might start looking for them. I am old fashioned when comes to music CD`s are my best bud when cooking or running around my house with surround system.

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          • Yes, bebe, CDs are definitely going out of fashion in favor of digitally delivered music. But I still like them, too, and often listen to them when cooking (like you) or driving.

            I never owned a David Bowie CD (or LP), either. Again, I liked his work, but never enough to buy it. I’m trying to analyze why — maybe it’s because, as great as some of his songs were, there was usually kind of an ironic distance, a posing, an emotional remove as he sang them. It’s part of what made him interesting (that and his constant changing of musical styles) but there was something not quite heartfelt enough for me. Just one person’s opinion. He WAS a genius.

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            • They say now Bowie was the greatest Rock n roll musician of all times…which also I never realized. last few days I`ve been listening to a lot of them being posted in another site and that pleases me so much so I am planning to correct my neglect for all those years.
              NYT online had him as the top news for two days in a row tells me something that I never knew. Could be Bowie and Iman guarded their personal lives private. No one even know that Bowie was sick until his death.

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              • David Bowie definitely mixed “out there” publicness with personal privacy — which is probably a good combination.

                Greatest of all time? I can’t agree with “They’s” opinion about that, but Bowie was certainly great. I guess some people (not you!) sometimes get a bit carried away right after the death of a very famous person.

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                    • I can’t even begin to think of Bowie as being somehow comparable to Michael Jackson. Of course, music is still in the beholder of the music, as well as those videos, but I’ll take Bowie any day over Michael Jackson. Especially since Bowie had another career as an actor, as well as being an artist.

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                    • Thanks, Kat Lib! I hear you. David Bowie definitely had more talent and depth than Michael Jackson, and was a less weird person. But Jackson was pretty talented, too, sold more records, and did some acting in his videos and “The Wiz” movie. In “celebrity” terms, Jackson was more famous than Bowie, for whatever that was worth. 🙂

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                • I just saw the discussion…nice from Kat Lib and JhNY and I think both were great musicians in their own genre although both are Rock n roll. Lately I`ve been listening a lot of Bowie and there was not a single one that i don`t like.

                  Dave…I must be totally out of it…today went to Sam`s club for CD`s. Would you believe they only had ” FOUR” selections. Pleased to know Rod Stewart ( that`s another great one) was one of them. The young man said it is a dying industry. HA..

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                  • Wow — just four selections, bebe. That DOES sound likes a dying industry.

                    Yes, David Bowie and Michael Jackson definitely had their own genres, with Bowie trying new genres every few years — like Lady Gaga does now.

                    I’ve also been listening to a few Bowie songs on YouTube. To cite one song, he certainly sounds a LOT like the Rolling Stones on “Rebel Rebel”…

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            • ” as great as some of his songs were, there was usually kind of an ironic distance, a posing, an emotional remove as he sang them.”

              I think what your detecting is part of what has been termed ‘camp’, in the broadest sense, which among other things, is a kind of artful and beguiling misdirection. There’s a book, a big picture-book sort of paperback out of the 1980’s as I remember, called Camp: The Lie That Tells The Truth, which, more than my powers to convey, would reveal something about the Bowie POV and poses– as well as something about a great many characters out of theater, literature and society from the mid-19th century on.

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              • Yes, “camp” can to a great degree describe Bowie’s approach. And, as the title of that 1980s paperback you cite indicates, camp can at times get at the truth more than a direct, more emotional approach. Still, I often (not always) prefer music with a strong element of…not sure of the word…heartfeltness?

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                • Mostly I do too, but obviously, I make exceptions, and often. The heartfelt quality of Springsteen, being sold around the same time as Bowie’s distance and mask-making, seemed no more, and possibly less, sincere– to me.

                  De gustibus, again.

                  Shards of the godhead. We have broken our old object of worship into comparatively harmless bits distributed throughout politics and the arts, and are free to worship who we choose as we please. This may be the ultimate in campy misdirection….

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  11. I used to read books like War and Peace when I was a lot younger and had more time. Nowadays I tend to pick a much shorter read as I like to finish a book in a week, certainly within a fortnight. I really want to read Goldfinch and it’s on my kindle app, patiently waiting for me. Maybe my attention span has shortened….. hmmm, I’ll have to do something about that.

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    • Well said, Jean! And I know exactly what you mean. While I still read long novels here and there (as I noted in my response to Kat Lib a few comments below), I also don’t read as many as I used to — because of time considerations; thankfully, I don’t think my attention span has shortened. 🙂 But when I do read long novels, and if they’re good, one gets immersed in a way that’s even more pronounced than with a shorter novel (I know I’m stating the obvious!). That goes not only for long classics but also for long popular fiction (“Shogun,” Anne Rice’s “The Witching Hour,” etc.).

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  12. I recommend anything by Dennis Lehane. “The Given Day” is perhaps his best. Most people probably know his work from film and television. The movie “Mystic River” was based on the novel by the same name and he has written for HBO’s “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire”.

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    • Thank you, Almost Iowa! I will try to get to Dennis Lehane in 2016. 🙂 I always find it interesting when an author’s best-known novel (in this case “Mystic River”) might not necessarily be his or hers BEST novel. And it’s impressive when an author can write well in multiple mediums.

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  13. I just read a reply from “Brian” and he mentions the Crimson Petal and the White. I read it a few years ago and it was a wonderful read. After I finished it I gave it to someone and she never mentioned anything about it. It made me feel that she didn’t like the book, threw it out maybe, thought it was trash? And I started questioning my judgment. So glad I saw Brian’s reply.

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  14. Some of the books that you mention I feel are right up there with the best literature of the past. The Blind Assassin was a classic I loved The Goldfinch. I was having trouble getting into any book for pleasure and was afraid that I had “scatter brain” for awhile and was concerned about myself and wondered if I would ever enjoy reading again. Then I received The Goldfinch for a Christmas present and loved every word. To this day I am disappointed when someone says anything negative about this book. I’m in the middle of Purity and this book is taking me through all kinds of emotions, some negative and making me feel uncomfortable. I hated Oscar Woo by the way.

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    • Thanks for the great comment, Claire! Glad you feel some modern classics stack up with some long-ago classics. 🙂

      “The Blind Assassin” IS a tour de force — so many layers to it (such as the novel within the novel and all those newspaper clippings and other non-traditional text) and a memorable look at old age, among other things.

      “The Goldfinch” really does make one fall in love with reading again, or love reading even more! Donna Tartt’s writing talent is awe-inspiring.

      As for “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” I liked it rather than loved it while admiring its breadth and ambition (all those amazing footnotes, for instance). One thing the novel lacked was a lot of warmth.

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  15. Hi Dave … I don’t know if it would hold up in terms of greatness, but I liked it a lot — Rosamunde Pilcher’s “The Shell Seekers”. Also, the bulk of Stephen King’s works are from the 80s on, as well as those of another favorite writer, John Grisham.

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    • Hi Pat! Yes, among Stephen King’s many novels are some very ambitious ones (“The Stand,” “The Tommyknockers,” “11/22/63,” etc.). I’m not as well versed in John Grisham’s work (I’ve read just three of his books — including “The Client” and “The Firm”); has he done any that are in the really ambitious category in addition to being very satisfying legal thrillers?

      I just put “The Shell Seekers” on my to-read list after seeing your comment and checking out the book on Wikipedia. Thanks for mentioning it — and for your comment!

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      • I’ve only read Grisham’s legal thrillers, Dave (if I’m honest about it, I’ll pick a good thriller over a classic every time). I haven’t read his book “A Painted House”, which is not in the legal thriller category at all; according to Wikipedia, it’s about hard times in the Midwest, as seen through the eyes of a seven-year old. Would that be considered ambitious? I’m not sure what ambitious is, lol. Does it have to do with length, or genre, or something else?

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        • I love both the classics and thrillers, Pat, and it can be interesting (in a whiplash sort of way 🙂 ) when one follows another. For instance, right after I finished “The Goldfinch,” I read Lee Child’s new Jack Reacher novel “Make Me.” Both riveting, but SO different.

          “A Painted House” sounds like it could be ambitious. Hard to define what makes a novel that way — often long, but not always; causes one to think deeply in addition to being entertained; etc. It’s almost one of those “I know it when I see it” type of things. 🙂

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          • Dave, I haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions, but one thing I do plan to do is read at least one of those Jack Reacher novels. There have been so many references to those here over the past few months, to the point that I am utterly intrigued. I’m just going to start with the first one and see where that leads 🙂

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            • The Jack Reacher novels do get mentioned a lot around here, Pat. 🙂 Reacher is just an amazing character creation — charismatic, smart, violent, kind of feminist, sort of amoral yet enraged by injustice, no home, no car. I look forward to hearing what you think of the first novel (“The Killing Floor”)!

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        • PatD, I have read “A Painted House” and it is not anything that you think Grisham would ever write. I wasn’t nearly as fond of it as I was of Grisham’s legal thrillers.

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    • PatD, “The Shell Seekers” came to my mind immediately while I was reading this blog. I absolutely ADORED it! Dave, do you remember “The Song of the Lark” by Willa Cather? I think we discussed it once. “The Song of the Lark” is also a painting at the Chicago Museum of Art. Similarly, “The Shell Seekers” is the name of a painting (a fictional painting) by the main character’s father. I recommend it HIGHLY!

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      • I do remember “The Song of the Lark,” lulabelle! A terrific Willa Cather novel that I wish were better known today. And, yes, it’s another book — like “The Shell Seekers” and “The Goldfinch” — named after a fictional or real painting. 🙂

        Thanks for joining Pat in recommending “The Shell Seekers”!

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  16. I have only read Donna Tartt’s first novel, ‘The Secret History’ and had intended to read her second novel, ‘The Little Friend’ before the hoopla surrounding the release of ‘The Goldfinch’. ‘Secret History’ is very good but still has the flavor of being a first novel.

    There are all kinds of measures for literary greatness, I suppose, but novels with picaresque narratives or for tackling the ‘big questions’ do seem to be in shorter supply in the latter half of the 20th century and in the 21st century.

    One author with an ambitious narrative/thematic reach is Michel Faber. ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ is actually set in England around the time that Charles Dickens and George Eliot were living and concerns a prostitute who works up to the position of mistress/governess of one of her smitten customers. She realizes the powerlessness of her position, partly due to her previous work experience and primarily because of her status as a woman. It’s a big, bold narrative with razor sharp prose and acute psychological insight. It was also written around 2002 I believe so it does qualify as a 21st century novel. Of course, the book of Faber’s that caught my attention originally in a library-related e-mail of upcoming releases is his latest novel, ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ about an interplanetary missionary attempting to conduct an extremely long distance relationship with his wife left on Earth which, by the way, is falling apart and falling to hell. There are certainly some big themes tossed around here including the residents of the distant world’s perspective on spirituality and religion and how they interpret this strange book or strange, new things (The Bible) from this strange planet. For an author to reach out of the rabble of modern authors to grab my attention he has to have something distinctive and Faber certainly does.

    I wouldn’t rate the Hunger Games as great literature although they are pretty decent dystopian novels and, by focusing on young people as warriors (they are ‘young adult’ novels after all), they bring out the horrific practice of sending out the youngest members of the population to fight to the death (as so many soldiers who were too young to vote but not too young to fight) have done. I also wouldn’t consider the Harry Potter books as great literature although they are certainly imaginative and they also address concerns of growing up in a way that modern mainstream fiction fails to do very often. Rowling certainly bears the Dickensian influence so I suppose they could be literary descendants of ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Great Expectations’ in a sense. I haven’t read the Stig Larsson books nor seen any of the film adaptations so I don’t feel qualified to comment on the literary quality there.

    One fantasy author who is indisputably ambitious is George R.R. Martin. His ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ is certainly at this point as ambitious as ‘Lord of the Rings’ and also more grittily realistic. Part of this is due to the fact that Martin incorporates historic elements of the middle ages (particularly the ‘War of the Roses’) as well as character types such as the Emperor Claudius and his psychopathic nephew Caligula (thanks to Robert Graves’ great historical duo ‘I Claudius’ and ‘Claudius the God’). There is also a female Rasputinesque character and several heroic villains and villainous heroes. In short, there are no guarantees that certain characters will survive the series and others will not, like life (and war). He also populates his world with as many characters of diverse circumstances and backgrounds as Balzac. So he qualifies in that respect. I’m not suprised that he has been regrettably delayed, yet again, in delivering the latest installment, ‘The Winds of Winter’. When you’re writing on such a huge canvas if you care about making it as good as possible it’s going to take some time. After all, Tolkien spent roughly 20-30 years to write ‘Lord of the Rings’ and all of its peripheral works. At this point, Martin’s been at his series for over 20 years.

    So yes, I suppose there’s still literary ambition. We overlook some of it if we insist that all of it resemble the masterpieces of previous eras.

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    • Thanks, Brian, for adding so much to my blog post with your terrific comment!

      I would definitely be interested in reading Donna Tartt’s other two novels; “The Goldfinch” was my first of hers. She writes like clockwork — a book every decade or so. 🙂

      Excellent descriptions of those two Michael Faber novels, which certainly sound ambitious and fascinating!

      I realize I might have exaggerated the literary merits of the “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” series, but there is certainly a LOT to them. And I STILL haven’t read George R.R. Martin, so I can’t comment on his ambitious works.

      Thanks again!

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    • “Rowling certainly bears the Dickensian influence so I suppose they could be literary descendants of ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Great Expectations’ in a sense.”

      That was fun to consider, sincerely. Thanks!

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      • I agree, jhNY. I hadn’t thought of it before Brian mentioned it, but there is definitely something Dickensian about the “Harry Potter” series, albeit in a magic-world setting. (Heck, while Dickens’ work was based in the real world, or a fictionalized version of the real world, “A Christmas Carol” did have its fantastical elements.)

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        • “(Heck, while Dickens’ work was based in the real world, or a fictionalized version of the real world, “A Christmas Carol” did have its fantastical elements.)”

          Yes indeed. And falls (with an aim at sales which was not disappointed) within a 19th century British tradition, since largely discarded: the reading of ghost stories by the family around the fire at Christmas

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          • For drama, it’s hard to beat a ghost appearing in a book — whether that book is read quietly or orally. A few ghosts at Hogwarts, too, though J.K. Rowling often played their appearances for laughs — as Oscar Wilde did in “The Canterville Ghost.” Some poignancy amid the laughs, too, of course.

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  17. Hi Dave, this is an interesting topic for me, as my sister who reads as much or more than I do, automatically will reject books that are “too long.” I do agree that those of us who are coming close to the end of our lives, don’t want to spend too much time on a special long book when there are so many deserving books out there now.

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    • I hear you, Kat Lib. I feel a little guilty when I read very long novels, figuring I’m losing time I could spend reading multiple great novels. So I tend to limit 700-plus-page books to maybe a half dozen a year. But when they’re as good as “The Goldfinch,” the time spent is so worth it. I would have been happy if Donna Tartt’s masterpiece was 1,000 pages rather than 771.

      I hope you have many more reading years in your future. 🙂

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      • Morning Dave, I was deeply saddened to wake up to the news about David Bowie, my all-time favorite musician. I think he was a genius, not just musically, but as a true artist, actor, and performer, and he was influential in many ways, even when it came to more mundane things such as fashion. I’m having trouble coming up with the words to convey how important he was in my life for many years. I can’t even tell you which was my favorite persona he kept reinventing himself as; they were all wonderful to me, although for different reasons. The last time I saw him was on his Sound and Vision tour, which was his “greatest hits” as voted for by fans. I must admit that there were tears in my eyes when he started “Ziggy Stardust,” though that isn’t one of my very favorite songs. I suppose “Heroes” ranks right up there, especially when he has performed it live.

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        • Good morning, Kat Lib. Beautiful, eloquent comment.

          Yes, VERY sad news about David Bowie — and surprising; he wasn’t THAT old, and I had just been reading about his new, jazz-oriented album a few days ago. Given how much you admired Bowie, I totally understand how his death would have a big impact on you. Very glad you got to see him in concert when he was around.

          I wasn’t a huge fan of Bowie myself, but I enjoyed some of his work and was also impressed with the way he changed musical styles and personas (as you mentioned). Sort of like Madonna before Madonna, though I know that Bowie was a genius and that Madonna, while impressive, is not as “deep.”

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        • Bowie, more than any other star, kept me interested and involved in pop/rock music in the 1970’s and early ’80’s. Very sorry, and even unsettled, to hear of his death. Only saw him once– the Thin White Duke tour– but I did have the perspicacity to review an lp of his for a major metropolitan daily, a bit before everybody was doing it. Haven’t seen what I wrote in many years, but I’m certain it was heartfelt and overwritten, as this will be, if I don’t end here.

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          • Great words about Bowie, jhNY. I guess we all had favorites who helped us through the ’70s and early ’80s pop/rock years when perhaps there was a bit of a comedown from some amazing pop/rock years of the ’60s. For me, it was people/bands like Springsteen and The Clash. Glad that you got to see Bowie in concert, and to review one of his records.

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          • I just typed a very heartfelt reply to your comment about David Bowie, but I somehow seem to have deleted it by mistake. I’ll only say that I’ve never had a celebrity or musical death that affected me more than this, even more than John Lennon or George Harrison, which were very hard, especially the former. I think I’ll binge watch the concerts I have on DVD, especially “Serious Moonlight,” and some of his movies, such as “Labyrinth” and “Absolute Beginners.” I am very fond of his “Station to Station” album that included the great songs, “Stay,” “Word on a Wing,” “Wild is the Wind,” and “Golden Years.”

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            • Station to Station is one of my faves too. If you don’t know this already, perhaps you will enjoy learning: Wild Is the Wind is not original, nor contemporary to the recording of Station to Station. In fact, I used to own a recording of the song by Johnny Mathis (!), recorded in the early ’60’s….but Bowie’s interpretation is wise, and great, and better.

              Funny thing: only yesterday, a line of Bowie’s rolled around in my head for hours, from the lp Diamond Dogs: “:Be elusive, but don’t go far.” I wonder why.

              I was in the midst of a songwriting session a block away from the Dakota the night John Lennon was shot, having moved to NYC only months before. I heard to commotion in the streets, and we ran down the block once we heard what had happened from passersby. It’s hard to even recall how much of the color and excitement of the city drained away for me when Lennon died, never, really, to return. And yet, I’ve lived here ever since…

              Of course, being an oldster, I remember just where I was when Elvis died too. I can see the headline in the newspaper rack in my mind’s eye. The old afternoon paper in DC, the Star, I think– shocking.

              But then again– I can remember when Patsy Klein died too.

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              • Kat Lib and jhNY, those were excellent, interesting, elegiac, heartfelt comments. It’s both wonderful and sobering how certain songs and musicians — and certain musician deaths — affect us. (One of the powerful elements of Don McLean’s “American Pie” is its reference to rock-star deaths.)

                When our favorite musicians die, it feels sort of like losing a friend. We don’t know them, but we listened to them for hours, often just us and “them” alone in a room.

                In my case, since I love/loved bands such as 10,000 Maniacs and The Clash, I was very jolted by the before-their-time deaths of guitarist Robert Buck (10KM) and lead singer Joe Strummer (Clash) in 2000 and 2002, respectively. Both were great songwriters, too.

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                • jhNY: I was familiar with “Wild is the Wind” from an album recorded by Nina Simone, which I heard for the first time at my brother’s home in Cape Ann, MA, back in the late 60’s. I didn’t however know that Johnny Mathis also recorded this song, and at that time, I wasn’t the huge Bowie fan I came to be. I can’t imagine how John Lennon’s death so close to where you lived affected you; I know I was in tears driving to work the next morning upon hearing the news.

                  Dave: You mentioned the classic “American Pie” by Don McLean. I went to a concert of his perhaps six or seven years ago at the Keswick Theater, and it was very good. The funny part was when his guitar broke a string during his best known work (“American Pie”); he recovered quickly with a very loud profanity, but he managed to pull it off.

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                  • Nina Simone — another great musical artist, Kat Lib. I was just listening to her sing “My Baby Just Cares for Me” the other day.

                    John Lennon’s death — so senseless and shocking. A disturbed nobody killing a globally admired genius; it’s hard to ever get over that.

                    So glad that you got to see Don McLean in concert, and I loved your anecdote about the guitar string (“the day the guitar string died”? 🙂 ). As I might have mentioned to you before, the only time I saw McLean live was way back in the mid-1970s when he was one of the singers at a memorable tribute concert for Paul Robeson soon after Robeson’s death.

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                    • Hi Dave, I just finished watching the set done by Bowie at the 1985 Live Aid Concert, the last song being “Heroes.” The final show-of the event was in London, hours earlier than in Philadelphia, but in England, it was “Feed the World” (which isn’t the name of the song, but “Don’t They Know It’s Christmas” or some such thing, but it gets me every time) Whatever, it was a powerful moment in time.

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                    • A very memorable part of very memorable concerts, Kat Lib. So many major singers and bands performed that day in the U.S. and Britain — Bowie, U2, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, The Who, Elton John, Madonna. As you know, the theme song of the American side of Live Aid was “We Are the World.”

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