Resolved: read more, buy more, write more poetry.
Terrific group of poems about finding love finally in his old age, the beauty of upstate New York, survival in poverty (a poet’s wages), friendship, aches and pains, sleeplessness, surviving the death of one’s daughter, visiting Adrienne Rich in Santa Cruz two years after the 1989 earthquake, discussing poetry (“How can poetry be written by people who want no change?” and “No longer do we need an insane president to end us by pushing a button. People need only go on living as they are, without change, the complacent and hard-eyed everywhere.”)
From Faxes to William, a group of nineteen poems ostensibly faxed to his friend William, who does not have a fax machine.
The fallen hibiscus flower
that was so exotic, intricate, and splendid
lay on the floor, a reddish
pulpy mess. I took it
to the container of unpleasantness
for the compost heap. Inevitably,
William, I thought of
all the poems I’ve written
The Goldfinch finally arrived from the library, where I was one of several hundreds of people waiting for the chance to slurp down this fantastically written, well-paced novel. During my wait for the book, I viewed the actual Fabritius painting at the Frick, peering through the throng of heads ogling the gorgeous bird with delicate chain, the painting made even more famous (if possible) by the book’s release last fall.
Interesting that I thought the narrator was female up until the very point where she (actually he) finds shelter at a friend’s house and the parents tell her (him) to bunk up with Andy, their son. The clouds parted and I realized that Theo (could be a nickname for Theodora!) was actually of the male persuasion. With that minor detail cleared up, I plowed ahead.
Theo’s misbehavior at school leads to a chat with the school counsellor, requiring his mom to take the morning off work, and they head to the Met to get out of the rain while they wait for the appointment. Theo notices a red headed girl and her grandfather (?) who lean in close to hear his mom’s exposition about The Goldfinch. When his mom decides to head back for one quick look at another painting, Theo heads back towards the gift shop, then follows the red headed girl. An explosion rocks the museum, bodies lie strewn about. Theo comes to in an eerie quiet lull when emergency personnel have been evacuated with the threat of a second bomb, wanders about trying to find his mom and stumbles onto the old man, the red headed girl’s grandfather, who he chats with for a few minutes before the old man (Welty)’s death. During that time, Welty hands over his ring and instructs Theo to take the Goldfinch. Theo staggers out of the building and heads home to await his mom, who was “killed instantly” he finds later. Swooped up by family services, he pleads to be taken to the family of one of his oldest friends and is installed in the wealthy Barbour home. He takes Welty’s ring to the house in the Village as instructed, meets Hobie who is caring for Pippa (red headed girl) in her recovery before she’s swooped off to Switzerland to recoup. Theo learns the art of restoring antique furniture from Hobie, has become comfortable in his life when his absentee father arrives out of nowhere to take Theo to Vegas, where Theo meets Boris and proceeds to get blackout drunk for a few years until his dad dies in a car crash. Theo heads back to NYC via bus, washes up on Hobie’s doorstep and pleads for him to take temporary custody of him. This and everything proceeding is the most solid aspect of the book.
Then we fast forward eight years, Theo managing the front of the house for the antique shop, making millions of dollars on fraudulent claims, doing crazy amounts of drugs, running into Pratt Barbour on the street to find that his friend Andy drowned in a storm along with their dad. Theo visits Mrs. Barbour and discovers he is a source of great comfort for her, so returns again and again, eventually taking the daughter Kitsey out, proposing, engagment, etc. But his heart is still with Pippa, bestowing lavish gifts on her during visits, the night of his engagement party. Boris shows up on his doorstep and admits to having stolen The Goldfinch when they were in Vegas, Theo has been keeping an old civics book in storage that he thought was the painting. Harebrained schemes to retrieve the painting, trip to Amsterdam, held up by goons and Theo shoots one of them, freaks out in his hotel room for a few weeks, then Boris arrives with buckets of cash because he has the reward money for the return of the painting.
Taking fragments of historical documents, Lepore pieces together the life of Jane Franklin, youngest sister of Benjamin. Lucky for Jane’s memory, her brother was Important, so pieces of her past were inadvertently salvaged as well. Lepore constructs a story to hang on the barest of bones of historical fact, but shows us her handiwork all the while, not trying to trick us but showing the utter difficulty of history of the smaller people. Allusions to V Woolf’s lamentation about Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister Judith are made throughout.
Benjamin took pains to educate his sister while he was living at home, but he flew the coop in his early teens, leaving her to a life of letter-writing, mending, householding, and unfortunately marrying early (15 years old!) to a man who did not have the same gumption or success that Benjamin exuded. As their relatives died off, Benjamin held close to Jane (from afar), with a constant stream of letters over the decades.
A great look into the early postal system (you paid when you received a letter, not when you posted one), colonial days, the Revolution, and a peek into the daily life of a regular woman during this era (give birth, get pregnant, repeat). Jane had twelve children, only a handful surviving childhood, two mentally disturbed. Horrifying details about early historian Jared Sparks who cut up the 73 page draft of Washington’s first inaugural address and handed out the strips as mementos to friends because the handwriting was Washington’s but the composition itself was not his style.
I want to learn more about Patience Wright, a wax sculptor who Jane sent a letter of introduction to Benjamin for Wright’s entree into London society. Wright ends up acting as an American spy, hearing gossip while taking the likeness of the king’s ministers for her wax figures. She smuggled letters inside her wax heads out of England.
Also of interest: the utter lack of education of women leaving them helpless on the spelling front, which they were self-conscious of when writing to Benjamin, but amongst themselves, happy to flood out feelings and news with little regard to the form of the letter.