Surviving Twenty Something

Author Libraries: Donna Tartt

Books, Author LibraryDanna Rowan
Donna Tartt

Though you could say almost an endless amount about Donna Tartt and her slightly mysterious persona (recluse, hard-drinking Southerner, celibate Catholic, crevats and sharply angled bob), I'm much more interested in her writing than the outward presence she may or may not intentionally cultivate. 

Her debut novel The Secret History had a profound impact on my life— it spurred a renewed interest in the classics, and encourages my own writing to this day. But what poems, novels, and non-fiction collections were behind her own great works of fiction? Skim any interview with Donna Tartt and you'll see her latest novel The Goldfinch referred to as 'Dickensian'— but what beyond that?

Well, needless to say, I've added quite a few books to that ever growing list: To Be Read.

"To paraphrase Nabokov: all I want from a book is the tingle down the spine, for my hairs to stand on end." — Donna Tartt





1. The Difficulty of Being


I’ve always got a dozen books going, which is why my suitcases are always so heavy. At the moment: Am greatly enjoying the Neversink Library reissue of Jean Cocteau’s “Difficulty of Being,” since my copy from college is so torn up the pages are falling out.

By the time he published The Difficulty of Being in 1947, Jean Cocteau had produced some of the most respected films and literature of the twentieth century, and had worked with the foremost artists of his time, including Proust, Gide, Picasso and Stravinsky.

This memoir tells the inside account of those achievements and of his glittering social circle. Cocteau writes about his childhood, about his development as an artist, and the peculiarity of the artist’s life, about his dreams, friendships, pain, and laughter. He probes his motivations and explains his philosophies, giving intimate details in soaring prose. And sprinkled throughout are anecdotes about the elite and historic people he associated with.

Beyond illuminating a truly remarkable life, The Difficulty of Being is an inspiring homage to the belief that art matters.


2. The Big Sleep


I always have a comfort book going too, something I’ve read many times, and for me at the moment that comfort book is Raymond Chandler’s 'The Big Sleep.'

'I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.' 

Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe is hired by wheelchair-bound General Sternwood to discover who is indulging in some petty blackmail. A weary, old man, Sternwood just wants the problem to go away. But Marlowe finds he has his work cut out just keeping Sternwood's wild, devil-may-care daughters out of trouble as they prowl LA's dirtiest and darkest streets. And pretty soon, he's up to his neck in hoodlums and corpses...



3. Peter Pan

J.M. Barrie

“I suppose in the end Peter Pan was such an important book to both of us because it is ultimately such a dark book, about change, loss, aging, mortality, death: the very questions that hung so heavy between us.”

One starry night, Peter Pan and Tinker Bell lead the three Darling children over the rooftops of London and away to Neverland — the island where lost boys play, mermaids splash and fairies make mischief. But a villainous-looking gang of pirates lurk in the docks, led by the terrifying Captain James Hook. Magic and excitement are in the air, but if Captain Hook has his way, before long, someone will be walking the plank and swimming with the crocodiles... 


4. Oliver Twist

Charles dickens

“I was in the third-fourth grade... My grandmother was reading it to me. I liked Nancy Drew, but I was really worried about Oliver Twist in a way I wasn't about Nancy Drew. I mean Oliver was in terrible danger, it was a novel with real blood, it was scarier than anything I'd ever seen on television. It was quite a frightening book and really got into my bloodstream in a way.”

The story of the orphan Oliver, who runs away from the workhouse only to be taken in by a den of thieves, shocked readers when it was first published. Dickens' tale of childhood innocence beset by evil depicts the dark criminal underworld of a London peopled by vivid and memorable characters — the arch-villain Fagin, the artful Dodger, the menacing Bill Sikes and the prostitute Nancy. Combining elements of Gothic Romance, the Newgate Novel and popular melodrama, Dickens created an entirely new kind of fiction, scathing in its indictment of a cruel society, and pervaded by an unforgettable sense of threat and mystery. 


5. The portable edgar allen poe

Edgar Allen Poe

Although I've always liked Tennessee Williams, and grew to love Flannery O'Connor in college, I've not been as influenced by Southern writers as one might think. Poe is the great exception."

Even if you don’t like Poe—he invented the detective story. And science fiction. In essence, he invented a huge part of the twentieth century.”

A masquerade ball in a secluded abbey; a vendetta settled in the wine cellars of an Italian palazzo; a gloomy castle in a desolated landscape; the beating of a heart beneath the floorboards: the plots and settings of Poe’s dark, mysterious tales continue to haunt the popular imagination. This new selection introduces the greatest Gothic fiction from one of the most deranged and deliciously weird writers of the 19th century.


6. The Iliad


“And I know I don’t love “Ulysses” as much as I am supposed to — but then again, I never cared even one-tenth so much for the “Odyssey” as I do for the ‘Iliad.’

Dating to the ninth century B.C., Homer’s timeless poem still vividly conveys the horror and heroism of men and gods wrestling with towering emotions and battling amidst devastation and destruction, as it moves inexorably to the wrenching, tragic conclusion of the Trojan War. Renowned classicist Bernard Knox observes in his superb introduction that although the violence of the Iliad is grim and relentless, it coexists with both images of civilized life and a poignant yearning for peace.


7. The year of magical thinking

joan didion

Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill. At first they thought it was flu, then pneumonia, then complete sceptic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later - the night before New Year's Eve -the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of 40 years was over. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LA airport, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Centre to relieve a massive hematoma.

This powerful book is Didion's attempt to make sense of the weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness ... about marriage and children and memory ... about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself'. The result is an exploration of an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage, and a life, in good times and bad.


8. THe plays, poems, and writings of oscar wilde

oscar wilde

Oscar Wilde has been acknowledged as the wittiest writer in the English language. This collection proves that he was also one of the most versatile. Effortlessly achieved, each revealing a different aspect of his brilliance, all of the plays, prose writings, and poems gathered here support Wilde’s belief that entertainment provides the best kind of edification. The works gathered here include Wilde’s once-controversial and now classic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the riotously comic plays “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” and the famous poem he wrote after being released from prison, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” This expanded new edition now includes the complete version of Wilde’s moving letter from prison, De Profundis, and his teasing parable about Shakespeare, The Portrait of Mr. W. H. Other notable included writings are the semi-comic mystery story “Lord Arthur’s Savile’s Crime” and the essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism.


9. Poets in a landscape

gilbert highet

Am also loving Gilbert Highet’s “Poets in a Landscape,” a charming appreciation of Catullus and Propertius and the Latin poets.

Gilbert Highet was a legendary teacher at Columbia University, admired both for his scholarship and his charisma as a lecturer. Poets in a Landscape is his delightful exploration of Latin literature and the Italian landscape. As Highet writes in his introduction, “I have endeavored to recall some of the greatest Roman poets by describing the places were they lived, recreating their characters and evoking the essence of their work.” The poets are Catullus, Vergil, Propertius, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, and Juvenal. Highet brings them life, setting them in their historical context and locating them in the physical world, while also offering crisp modern translations of the poets’ finest work. The result is an entirely sui generis amalgam of travel writing, biography, criticism, and pure poetry—altogether an unexcelled introduction to the world of the classics.



10. The unquiet grave

cyril connolly

I certainly haven’t enjoyed anything more than “The Unquiet Grave,” by Cyril Connolly, which I went back and reread sometime early this year. I’ve loved it since I was a teenager and like always to have it to hand; when I lived in France, years ago, it was one of only six books I carried with me — but because of its aphoristic nature, usually I only read bits and pieces of it, and it’s been many years since I read the whole thing start to finish.

Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) was one of the most influential book reviewers and critics in England, contributing regularly to The New Statesmen, The Observer, and The Sunday Times. His essays have been collected in book form and published to wide acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. The Unquiet Grave is considered by many to be his most enduring work. It is a highly personal journal written during the devastation of World War II, filled with reflective passages that deal with aging, the break-up of a long term relationship, and the horrors of the war around him. It is also a wonderfully varied intellectual feast: a collection of aphorisms, epigrams, and quotations from such masters of European literature as Horace, Baudelaire, Sainte-Beuve, Flaubert, and Goethe. Dazzlingly original in both form and content, The Unquiet Grave has continued to influence generations of writers.


AUTHOR LIBRARIES: NEIL GAIMAN // Explore your favourite authors most beloved books, and the books that have had the greatest impact on their life and writing in the new Author Libraries series. It's no secret that Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite authors, a person whose books I come back to over and over again each year. So when I decided I was going to start the Author Libraries series— well, there wasn't any question about where I was going to start.