Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Donna Tartt”

ElCicco#CBR4Review#20: True Grit by Charles Portis

True Grit, a 1968 novel by Arkansas native Charles McColl Portis, is a highly regarded piece of modern American fiction. It has twice been made into major motion pictures and once filmed for TV.

True Grit tells the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross, circa 1875 Arkansas, who is set on avenging her father’s death at the hands of Tom Chaney, a hired hand. Mattie is a self assured, strong-willed young woman of Christian morals. She has a head for business and is unafraid to make judgments and see her decisions through to completion. When word of her father’s murder while on a business trip reaches home, there is no question that Mattie will take charge. She is the eldest child and her mother is too overcome to handle matters. Mattie travels to Fort Smith to see to her father’s body and his business deals (missing his funeral) and then sets down to getting justice. Frustrated by the slow response of law enforcement to her father’s murder, Mattie decides to hire someone to help her track down and kill Tom Chaney, who has fled into Indian Territory.

Mattie is a singular character. Though a young girl, she bosses about as if she were a man twice her age. And she gets her way most of the time. She gets the business deal she wants on the horses her father had purchased, and she hires US Marshal Rooster Cogburn to pursue Chaney with her in tow. She is determined to hire Cogburn because, according to the sheriff, he of all the marshals is the meanest. “He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking.” Mattie observes Cogburn giving testimony in court, where the defense attorney for outlaw Odus Wharton implies that Cogburn is an outlaw himself for his excessive force and shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to law enforcement. For Mattie, this means, Cogburn has “true grit”.

Mattie’s plan is complicated by the arrival in Fort Smith of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, who is also after Chaney for murder. LaBoeuf is a bit of a dandy, and Mattie’s initial impression is that he is arrogant and rude. He does himself no favors by trying to convince Mattie to return home and let the professionals do their work. He wants to work with a Federal Marshal like Cogburn, but Mattie tries to brush him off and tells him to find his own Marshal. Their first conversation is combative but also an opportunity for Portis to show his flair for humor. After Mattie insults LaBoeuf’s investigating skills by pointing out that in four months of searching, he hasn’t found Chaney yet, LaBoeuf says, “Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.” “One would be as unpleasant as the other,” Mattie replies.

Eventually, Mattie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf set out together into Indian Territory, although the two men do try to leave Mattie behind and LaBoeuf especially loathes her presence on the journey. Both Cogburn and LaBoeuf are concerned with money, and the three cannot agree on the question of whether Chaney, once apprehended, will be remanded to justice in Texas or Arkansas. Mattie has very definite ideas of what should happen to Chaney — death, and if there is to be a trial, it should be in Arkansas.

While searching for Chaney, the reader learns a bit about the backgrounds of Cogburn and LaBoeuf. Cogburn is 40-ish and fought alongside Jesse and Frank James under Capt. Quantrill in the Civil War. Quantrill was known for the war crimes he committed against civilian populations, and it is hinted that Cogburn might have been involved in one of the worst at Lawrence, Kansas. His work history after the war involved a variety of trades and illicit activities. He became a Federal Marshal after an employer brought him up on charges in Reno. The Marshal there recognized Cogburn from their youth and got him a job. LaBoeuf, on the other hand, was too young to get involved in the war until the very end, missing out on any important action, much to his disappointment. LaBoeuf has a glorified view of the war and fighting, which is perhaps easier to have when you haven’t seen the fighting. He remarks that he nearly cried when he heard the war was over. He is disgusted by Cogburn’s past (riding with Quantrill) and by his current behavior — siding with Mattie against him and engaging in excessive drinking.

As far as I’m concerned, Mattie is the most interesting character and the one who possesses “true grit.” It is hard to like her sometimes. She’s judgmental and can be obnoxious in her dealings with others, but she knows her purpose and is incredibly brave. I also find it interesting and funny that she frequently threatens to call in her lawyer to deal with those she feels are not being fair with her (i.e, giving in to her demands). Her confidence in the value of a good lawyer is especially amusing in her exchange with the outlaw known as Lucky Ned Pepper. When he discovers that LaBoeuf shot his horse, Lucky Ned says, “A man from Texas has no authority to fire at me.” Mattie responds, “I know nothing about that. I have a good lawyer at home.” Ned then asks about the fate of some of his other men and Mattie says, “They are both dead. It was a terrible thing to see. I was in the very middle of it. Do you need a good lawyer?” Later she adds, “My lawyer has political influence.”

True Grit has some interesting things to say about frontier justice (or injustice) and what I would call “American character.” Those in charge of law enforcement and justice are often unjust and guilty of lawbreaking themselves. Mattie, who puts so much stock in her lawyer’s abilities to protect her family’s property, leaves him out of her search for criminal justice and is only too eager to become a vigilante when it comes to avenging her father’s death. I think that that kind of thinking is widespread today. We are often called a litigious society and we still see today that people with guns are eager to take the law into their own hands (think Trayvon Martin). The resolution to this story and Mattie’s fate made me think of “an eye for an eye” in a very literal way. Mattie makes a physical sacrifice and seems to have no regrets about any of her actions.

The epilogue to this edition was written by Donna Tartt, a lifelong fan of the book along with several generations of her family. Tartt writes that True Grit was taught in one of her high school lit classes, and as I read the book, it occurred to me that this actually could be “youth lit.” True Grit really is an American Classic and a great read.


heathpie’s #CBR4 Review #3 – The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History weaves an unbelievable, yet surprisingly believable, tale of a group of undergraduate students, bound together by their knowledge and interest of Greek language and literature, their unflinching self-superiority, and later, the murder of one of their own.

Even though the crime is revealed in the prologue, this is a mystery novel. On top of that, however, it is very much a tragedy – a Greek tragedy – from the start, and its brilliance smolders as we learn more and more about the whys rather than the hows.

Richard Papen is a transfer to Hampden College in Vermont, escaping the banality of his California life and his uninterested family. A Greek scholar, he is dismayed to learn that the only professor of Classical Studies has closed his courses to all but a few hand-selected students.

Soon, however, Richard slowly works his way into their elite circle, at part by accident, but mostly due to the drive of his overwhelming curiosity. The group is small – only five students – but they intrigue and captivate Richard. Henry: brilliant and wealthy; Francis: closeted yet confident; the twins, Charles and Camilla: secretive; and the doomed Bunny: boisterous, with secrets of his own.

And there is the professor who brought them together – Julian – who they call by his first name (of course). A bit of a celebrity in the academic world as well as the “real” world, Julian seems to encourage his students to isolate themselves and push their studies and experiences to new heights. His character is one of the most important in the book, yet probably the least is known about him in the end.

The plot twists and turns as Richard is brought deeper into the confidences of the circle’s members, and we – along with him – slowly come to the realization that things have gotten really weird.

As I devoured this story, there were moments where I was completely transported to this small town in Vermont, sitting in class with the group, preparing dinner with them at the twins’ apartment, studying with Richard in his small dormitory room, and even drinking the weekend away at Francis’s aunt’s house in the country. Tartt is an exceptional writer to accomplish this at so many points throughout the novel.

The main reason that I selected this book – and was even aware of its existence – was because it was mentioned in a review of a second season episode of “True Blood.” Without those reviews (from the incomparable Jacob of Television Without Pity), I don’t know that I would have understood what was happening on that guilty pleasure of a show, and later, what was really happening in History.

I understand that The Secret History made quite a splash upon publication and it spent weeks and weeks on the best seller lists. It really is quite a feat for a first novel, and it is a major accomplishment. The only frustration I had was not with the content or the storyline – Tartt quotes ancient and modern texts at times, and they are not always translated into English. I enrolled in the bare minimum of required language courses (Spanish, hola!) to get out of college, so when I was unable to understand those quotes, I really wondered what I was missing – especially since Tartt rarely seemed to include passages in this novel that I would deem unnecessary.

All in all, a fantastic, satisfying read.

sevenstories’ #CBR4 Review #1: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Kicking off #CBR4 with a novel I loved and bizarrely has been reviewed already today by another Cannonballer!

“Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever.”

I loved this novel. The uninspiring cover hides a magnificent novel that works as a murder mystery in reverse as we are showed what has happened at the very very beginning and are left to discover how it came about. The novel is populated with intriguing characters, evocative settings and a story that really gets under your skin.

I’ve added a ‘Read More’ as it’s a relatively long review but please do read more!

Read more…

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