‘The Goldfinch’: The book captivates like the work of art it’s about

You know how some books are wonderful the read, but you hate the ending? And some books have a magnificent plot that wraps up in a perfect bow, but reading it is hard?

The Goldfinch“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt is one of those rare books that’s as wonderful in the journey as it is in the destination. I couldn’t recommend this work of fiction more strongly. It’s achingly beautiful, even in its ugliness, and it tells the kind of meaningful story that resonates.

I picked it up because it was recommended as one of the best books of 2013 by Amazon books editors, and it lives up to the accolades. “The Goldfinch” is the subject of a master work of art that captivates young Theo after his mother dies in a shocking accident. We follow Theo through his teenage years in Arizona and New York City and then through a life-changing series of events in his 20s.

The book is 771 pages long, and Tartt’s writing uses a lot of description, but it’s beautiful, languorous language of people, locations and feelings, even when it describes such ugly things as drug-use, hangovers and opiate withdrawal. Speed-readers might not like it; I really savored the writing.

At one point, the main character is pondering John Singer Sargent’s art, and makes a point that the author herself uses:

I think of something I read about Sargent: how, in portraiture, Sargent always looked for the animal in the sitter (a tendency that, once I knew to look for it, I saw everywhere in his work: in the long foxy noses and pointed ears of Sargent’s heiresses, in his rabbit-toothed intellectuals and leonine captains of industry, his plum owl-faced children).

In a way that tells so much about the players Tartt, too, evokes animal in her character descriptions:

By contrast Hobie lived and wafted like some great sea mammal in his own mild atmosphere, the dark brown of tea stains and tobacco, where every clock in the house said something different and time didn’t actually correspond to the standard measure but instead meandered along at its own sedate tick-tock, obeying the pace of his antique-crowded backwater, far from the factory-built, epoxy-glued version of the world.

In “The Best Books of 2013″ by Amazon Books editors, Tartt said she reaches for a book of poetry when she’s feeling dull or uninspired while writing, and it shows. I dog-ear the pages of a book with beautiful turns of a phrase or powerful description, and look how many pages I dog-eared on this one:


Here are a couple of examples:

I felt rotten. Dead butterfly floating on the surface of the pool. Audible machine hum. Drowned crickets and beetles swirling in the plastic filter baskets.

We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

About two-thirds of the way through, I disliked the main character so much, I wondered why I had plowed through 500 pages to spend time with him. He didn’t actually redeem himself in the end, but Tartt did with her descriptions and philosophy of objects, beauty and right and wrong.

This is a book for readers. If you’re one of those, pick it up.

A different kind of the same

America is an amazing place, and one of them is its geographical size, which we Americans often take for granted.

This is especially true for us Midwesterners who are accustomed to driving long distances past miles of farm land to get from one city to the next, most of them very much like each other. But this is weird for people from other places, as I was reminded recently when Melle Dielesen was interviewed on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday.

Dieleson is lead singer of the Dutch garage pop group Mozes and The Firstborn; the band’s self-titled debut album was released in February. NPR’s Rachel Martin asked him about culture shock.

“One of the things is that we had to do a 12-hour drive from Arizona to Texas, and the fact that you can drive for 12 hours, then you get out of the car, and people still speak the same language, people still have the same fast food chains,” Dieleson said. “Whereas in Europe, if you drive for 12 hours, people speak really weird and, you know, they eat different kinds of cheese and you know, stuff, it kind of, it really doesn’t make any sense to us.”

As I drove from northern Illinois to central Kentucky recently, I was so unimpressed to see Cracker Barrel restaurants everywhere. Ho, hum. Even Kentucky Fried Chicken is just ubiquitous KFC anymore, not a special taste of Kentucky.


On the other hand, I was happy to find a familiar Barnes & Noble with its Nook station and Starbucks inside. (I’m a creature of habit when it suits me.)

I am reminded to appreciate this strange sameness of America even as I am about to embark on an epic journey far from the familiarity of Olive Garden restaurant and DSW shoe stores.

While I am away, I’ve prepared a whole slew of fresh new blogs for your entertainment and edification, but I will be unplugged and logged out. I will gratefully respond to your comments when I return. Enjoy! I know I will.

When old smoke detectors die

fire truck

Did you know smoke alarms wear out?

Yeah, well, neither did I until the fire department showed up in my driveway (!).

During dinner last night, the smoke alarms — all six of them — went off. Nothing was burning, including the stuffed pork chops.

I couldn’t turn them off, so my Beloved called the fire captain who lives down the street. He sent his team over (complete with red fire engine), and it was determined our smoke detectors have worn out. Tired smoke alarms don’t go quietly into the night, which I guess is smart engineering because inoperable smoke detectors are dangerous; old smoke alarms scream to their owners in the language of obnoxious beeping: “Replace me! Replace me! Replace me!”

Alas, nothing lasts forever.

The moniker of Monica

With a name like Monica Lee, I can float through the world and the World Wide Web with enough candy sprinkles to be recognized and enough vanilla to be semi anonymous. It’s like skirting through a crowd by turning my shoulders sideways and gently nudging people to and fro while making my way through — you know I’m there, but you may not be fully conscious of my uniqueness.

It’s not Joe Johnson or Mary Smith, but Monica Lee is easy to articulate, easy to spell and easy to remember if you want to remember it. It’s also common enough to melt into the mass; “Monica” is the 131st most common first name in America, and “Lee” the 24th most common surname (thanks Mongabay.com for those stats).

I like that the “Lee” part is a bit of a red herring. I’m not of Asian descent, and “Lee” is in fact my middle name. I was born Monica Lee Redacted. I got married and became Monica Lee SomethingElseRedacted because that’s what mainline, rule-following girls in Minnesota did — they took their husband’s name.

The surname of my first husband was a lot like Lewinsky, and I didn’t need any more baggage from that marriage than I already had, so when I got divorced, I became Monica Lee (through I considered changing my name to Monica Lee Rockefeller just for fun). That’s when the rebel in me finally made an appearance. For a couple of years I had no middle name; “Lee” was my last name, and I relished in a simple existence that made applications and restaurant reservations so easy.

When I remarried, I took my Beloved’s name in all the legal senses and became Monica Lee SomethingElseRedacted, but I didn’t want to lose the simplicity of Monica Lee. It’s not that I don’t like my Beloved’s last name, but it’s the 7,501st most common surname in America, so it’s pretty distinctive and requires a recitation of the spelling every time I use it, so “Monica Lee” is my public name in all its succinct and straightforward glory.

If you google “Monica Lee,” you’ll find 61.5 million results. I am not the Monica Lee at the top of the list which, for branding purposes, is not preferred. (If you type in my full legal name, you’ll find a lot of legal references that actually do belong to me, and that’s not exactly the kind of brand image I want to promote.)

I’m not this Monica Lee (who expertly holds the first result in Google):

Monica Lee 1

Or this one:

Monica Lee 2

Not this one either:

Monica Lee 3

And certainly not this one (not that there’s anything wrong with her, it’s just that I couldn’t look anything less like this one):

Monica Lee 4

And I’m just fine with being a ways down on Google’s list. Among my friends, I’m unique, and that’s good enough.

Me. In costume. Behind the fortune-telling cards.

Me. In costume. Behind the fortune-telling cards.

On the internet, I’ve cultivated the ambiguity that fails to connect my name to my image. If you follow this blog, you may notice I rarely post pictures of myself. In fact, every picture of my face posted on this blog is either an old one or an obscured visage. In fact, I didn’t even own up to being Monica Lee for first three years of writing this blog. That’s was too scary, and I didn’t want that much notoriety (and I certainly didn’t want to make anything easy for identity thieves). Even my husband was simply “my Beloved” though now I occasionally identify him by his real name, Tyler. I’ve warmed up to using my name (if not my picture), though I don’t mind being referred to as “Minnesota Transplant” (by the way, this blog does in fact hold the No. 1 result in most search engines when typing in “Minnesota Transplant”).

Even my author blog eschews “Monica Lee” (you’ll find that one at http://mindfulmonica.wordpress.com/ because I’m a mindful writer, if not a famous one).

Names are powerful, and I was reminded of that recently while reading Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” (which I loved! — book review coming next week). In her book, her characters have distinctive monikers like Boris, Hobart and Pippa. Unforgettable.

I know in my heart I’m uniquely me, even if my name isn’t very rare. I have an aunt who sometimes calls me Monica Wee, as a reminder of what I once called myself as a child who had a hard time getting my tongue around L sounds. That’s probably my best label because the expression of delight, excitement and exhilaration in “whee!” is the kind of brand image I can get behind.

I believe

Take courage. We walk in the wilderness today and in the Promised Land tomorrow.

~ D.L. Moody

I had a bolt of realization at church a couple of weeks ago not unlike the apostle Paul’s blinding burst of insight on the road to Damascus. Paul writes of the moment as a revelation.

I wasn’t walking on a desert road nor was I blinded but the revelation that came to my mind has colored my thoughts ever since.

I was sitting in the pew silently weeping. Our new pastor was preaching his first sermon in front of our congregation; he was installed with much pomp later that afternoon.

But I wasn’t thinking much about the new pastor whom I’m sure is a fine fellow. I was thinking of our former pastor who died a little over a year ago and whom this new pastor was replacing.

I had just read in the bulletin that the flowers on the altar were placed there in memory of my former pastor. I thought how nice it was to have him present in some small way at the installation of the new pastor, but I also thought of how I missed my former pastor.

This former pastor welcomed me and my Beloved to his church seven years ago. He married us. He confirm my stepson.

I always try to get to know a pastor when I join a church — to know him beyond his weekly sermons. I got to know this pastor over many miles by running with him in the church Walk-R-Run club. I like to know my pastors just in case they have to bury me. I don’t want a stranger officiating at my funeral. I never expected seven years ago that I might outlive my pastor, not just by a few years but by a few decades.

Now, as I was sitting in the pew in front of a new pastor, I thought the only reason to get to know him would be for the funeral familiarity factor. Beyond the weekly services, I don’t need to be confirmed. I don’t need to be married (I hope I’m done with that). I don’t need him for a baptism either. All that’s left in terms of life events is that funeral.

So I was stewing in the juices of grief when the new pastor said something that made me think about eternity.

I’m going to get theological here so I should warn you, I’m not theologian. But I have a theory. A theory about heaven. Or whatever one calls the place you go when you die.

I believe the body is temporary, but the soul is eternal. For me, “eternal” not only means “without end” but also “without beginning.” I don’t think humans have the power to create souls — bodies, sure, but not souls. When a baby is conceived, its soul comes from somewhere. It’s not created by the union of a sperm and an egg; an eternal soul comes from somewhere to be, to exist in the newly created person.

Following me? To follow my argument so far, you have to believe in the soul, that the spirit is separate from the body (though joined with it in life), that it is eternal and that it comes from someplace — let’s call it heaven.

I don’t remember anything about my existence before I was conceived. I don’t remember anything before I was 5, in fact, but certainly nothing about whatever existence I had before being joined with this body.

So why do I think I will remember anything about my current state when my body is dead? I’m beginning to believe I won’t. Wherever my soul was is where my soul returns, completely unaware of how much I hate Cracker Barrel, how much I love to read, how frustrated I am with my wrinkles, how elated I am when I step into an elevator bound for the top floor. All these strong emotions I have in this earthly body will be meaningless when I’m dead. I will no longer have a body. My soul, without all its earthly bonds, will return to eternity without so much as a backward glance.

Don’t get me wrong here. I still believe our earthly lives are important and meaningful, but I just believe they are important and meaningful here on earth, to our fellow men. We can make a difference, do the right thing, pay attention to the details, be remembered fondly here on earth. None of it matters to our souls once our bodies die.

For now, we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known.

~ 1 Corinthians 13:12

This concept of an eternal soul without memories of its earthly existence jives with my new view of heaven. I don’t think heaven has streets or feasts or happy reunions with loved ones. Without bodies, we don’t need methods of transportation or clocks or milk-and-honey rivers or parents or spouses or children. Beings with bodies — and hands and feet and eyes and stomachs and sexual desires — need those things. Eternal souls do not.

I don’t know what I believe about individuality but I’m not sure we’re even individuals in the eternal plain. This is a sticking point in my mind that I haven’t yet entirely resolved.

The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord.

~ Psalm 24:1

This philosophy is both disconcerting and comforting. It’s a little disconcerting to think all the people and things so important to me now will not even be the stuff of memories in eternity. But there’s a certain comfort, too, in believing “this, too, shall pass.” If heaven is perfect and pain-free, then all my sorrows will disappear. But then why would my joys, so often rooted in my body (good tastes, beautiful music, physical elation) stick with me?

My former pastor is not sorry to see his congregation welcome a new pastor. It doesn’t matter who buries me. My body is like the flowers on the altar — beautiful and unique. And fleeting. Every moment matters only for right now.

The best we can hope for in this life is a knothole peek at the shining realities ahead. Yet a glimpse is enough. It’s enough to convince our hearts that whatever sufferings and sorrows currently assail us aren’t worthy of comparison to that which waits over the horizon.

~ Joni Eareckson Tada

Check out these cute cupcakes slash cookies

My excuse, if I had been asked, would have been “I’m a writer, not a pastry chef.”

Fortunately, the people with whom I was mingling weren’t actors on a sitcom, so everyone who said anything said nice things.

I made Krissy’s Mini Chocolate Chip Cupcakes in honor of the birthday of our colleague Carolyn, who despite celebrating her birthday today was attending a regular meeting of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Personal Historians (I will mention, by the way, I am honored to have been named the new coordinator for the group — yay, me).

Anyway, Carolyn bothered to come to our meeting despite celebrating this personal milestone, so we recognized her commitment with sweets and by singing “Happy Birthday.”

My version of these cute little treats wasn’t as bad as some “Nailed It!” renditions of popular pins on Pinterest, but let’s just say, I’m not as expert with a piping bag as I am with a pen. Also, Krissy used mini chocolate chips while I limited my “mini” to the size of the cupcakes (perhaps unwise). But buttercream hides a lot of sins, and it’s hard to go wrong with anything with chocolate in the name.

Nailed it!

Nailed it!

In any case, they tasted good (or, at least, that’s what people said). That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.

Write blog. Check.

Monica Lee:

Long day and long to-do list. Some things never change. See this post from two years ago.

Originally posted on Minnesota Transplant:

Began the day with 36 things on my things to do this and ended it with 27.

Did manage cross off “shower.” Sometimes I have to put even that on the list or it doesn’t get done.

Should have known at 8 a.m. I would never accomplish 36 things. I’ve read one can accomplish only six things in a day. Not including basics. Like showering.

So here at 11 p.m., after a late dinner of green bean fries, I’m staring at this list of un-done tasks and tomorrow’s list of 22 additional tasks. I feel like I should be getting up instead of going to bed.

But I’m going to bed anyway.

Cross that off the list.

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