Book Review – The Secret History (Donna Tartt)

Death is the mother of beauty.

Death is the mother of beauty.

Whenever you pick up a critically acclaimed book, you’re always sceptical whether it’d be yet another pretentious piece of work. Thankfully this wasn’t!

I for one get excited rather than be put off by a thick book and was glad to discover that the book didn’t use it’s run time to bore the daylights out of me. But that being said, there certainly are parts that feel a little stretched and could’ve been done without, though Donna Tartt makes up for it by introducing an interesting piece of storyline every now and then that pulls you in again.

The Secret History is an engaging book to say the least. It tells the story of an elusive group of friends in college and makes us privy to their group dynamics. We see a façade that’s enchanting but mysterious; with you always wanting to turn the page to get a glimpse beyond it. Narrated by the protagonist Richard Papen, right in the beginning the reader is made aware of the identity of the murder victim as well as the perpetrators of the act, thereby making this novel more of a ‘whydunit’ than a ‘whodunit’.  What follows is an interesting set of events that make you feel like a part of the Hampden college campus life as well as each of the characters’ lives. So much so that once you get through with the book, it takes a tiny while to come to terms with the fact that it has indeed ended.

Donna Tartt beautifully narrates the story by employing wonderful words and quotes in a variety of languages like English, Greek, Latin and French. Certainly a good read for a book aficionado.

Here are a few memorable quotes from the book:

  • The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell. ~ Milton
  • “Why does that obstinate little voice in our heads torment us so? Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls – which after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable than any other thing? But isn’t it also pain that often makes us more aware of self? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from all the world, that no one and no other thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow older, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us. Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that’s why we’re so anxious to lose them, don’t you think?”
  • The Erinyes turned up the volume of the inner monologue, magnified qualities already present to great excess, made people so much themselves that they couldn’t stand it.
  • The least of us know that love is a cruel and terrible master. ~ Sophocles
  • Objects such as corpses, painful to view in themselves, can become delightful to contemplate in a work of art. ~Aristotle
  • Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.
  • Death is the mother of beauty.
  • It’s a temptation for any intelligent person to try to murder the primitive, emotive, appetitive self. But that’s a mistake. Because it is dangerous to ignore the existence of the irrational. The more cultivated a person is, the more intelligent, the more repressed.
  • 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 hiney 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, unstrung our bones. Then spit us out reborn.
  • Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.
  • But of course I didn’t see this crucial moment then for what it was; I suppose we never do.
  • Men have friends, women have relatives, and animals have their own kind. ~Greek axiom.
  • I suppose that when anyone accustomed to working with the mind I faced with a straightforward action, there’s a tendency to embellish, to make it overly clever.
  • What is unthinkable is undoable.
  • Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things – naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror – are too terrible to even grasp at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory, that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself – quite to one’s surprise – in an entirely different world.
  • Any action, in the fullness of time, sinks to nothingness.
  • It does not do to be frightened of things about which you know nothing.
  • There is nothing wrong with the love of beauty. But beauty – unless she is wed to something more meaningful – is always superficial.
  • Psychology is only another word for what the ancients called fate.

The Cuckoo’s Calling – J. K. Rowling

The Cuckoo's Calling

When you’ve had astounding success and raked in unfathomable moolah with your first venture, expectations of people eyeing your subsequent outing will naturally be sky-high. So does J. K. Rowling deliver?

The word ‘success’ probably wouldn’t suffice to describe the author’s earlier attempt with the Harry Potter series. With millions of books sold and top-grossing film adaptations made, she decided to move on to other genres of writing. But typecast she got; which is why she decided to use the alias Robert Galbraith to write The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Now I haven’t (and never felt the need to) read any of her previous works; including, yes, Harry Potter. So naturally I didn’t have any expectations whatsoever of the writer and her style of writing.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a Crime/Thriller Detective novel that’s a far cry from the children’s book genre the author’s worked on before. The plot of the novel is good; but you only realize it once after you get done with the book. That’s because while you’re reading it, you’re stuck in and confused with the myriad of long, fragmented and superfluous sentences that make you wonder what the point of the sentence was in the first place. Yup! A sentence just like this one.

So this is a sleuth story about a supermodel’s sudden death (hailed as suicide) with signs of it being a cold-blooded murder underneath. The model’s brother hires a crippled war hero turned detective, Cormoran Strike, to solve the case.

Well once you get past the sloppy first half which bores you more often than you’d like, the second half turns out to be much faster and moves at a consistent pace with revelations at frequent intervals. Rowling’s descriptions of situations and mannerisms of characters is pretty good and lets you elaborately imagine their appearance, personality and even body language with ease.

If only her writing style was as engaging as I’d have thought, this book would’ve been a pretty great detective thriller.

Kafka On The Shore – Haruki Murakami

Kafka by the hsore

This is the first work I’ve read of Haruki Murakami and I’m certainly impressed if not totally blown away.

Even though the novel talks about outlandish things like fish falling from the sky, talking cats, un-aged soldiers, alternate worlds and taboo topics like mother-son and sister-brother love; it definitely is a gripping read.

Murakami intertwines the lives and stories of the two lead characters wonderfully and never lets you lose interest in the story. But the best part about this 600 page saga is the beauty with which he explains each and every situation and feeling by drawing elegant and totally appropriate analogies with things that you would’ve rendered misfit under normal circumstances. While turning page after page, you’d be able to relate with the characters (no matter how weird), conjure up images of places you’ve never ever been to and even feel the heaviness of silence weighing on the character.

Read it if you haven’t already! I wouldn’t recommend it for a novice reader though.

Here are a few quotes I found noteworthy:

  • “Silence, I discover, is something you can actually hear.”
  • “You can’t look too far ahead. Do that and you’ll lose sight of what you’re doing and stumble.”
  • “But nature is actually unnatural, in a way. And relaxation can be threatening. It takes experience and preparation to really live with those contradictions.”
  • “generally, when someone is trying very hard to get something, they don’t. And when they’re running away from something as hard as they can, it usually catches up with them.”
  • “Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story.” – Tolstoy
  • “I happen to like the strange ones. People who look normal and leads normal lives – they’re the ones you have to watch out for.”
  • “Artists are those who can evade the verbose.”
  • “The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future. In truth, all sensation is already memory.”
  • “Far away the crow caws. The earth slowly keeps on turning. But beyond any of those details of the real, there are dreams. And everyone’s living in them.”
  • “Things that are open have to be shut.”
  • “Pointless thinking is worse than no thinking at all.”
  • “Until things happen, they haven’t happened. And often things aren’t what they seem.”
  • “Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”
  • “Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive.”