Literary Arcadia Literature and other things

A Modern Round-up

A fairly random collection of modern/recently published literature that I have read in the past year, May to November 2013;

Beautiful Ruins, despite being touted as “superb” is underwhelming.  The primary issue here is one of tone- the novel has two separate narratives going on at the same time and flips between them.  This device sometimes works well, but unfortunately not here.  There is plot A- the superior one that is set in Italy in the 1960’s and includes a struggling actress and a charming hotel owner, Pasqual.  Plot B is set in contemporary Hollywood and pertains to some shallow and uninteresting characters with the barest skeleton of a “mystery” to keep the action moving.  These two plots are so different in characterization and tone that they make each switch between them jarring.  I kept wishing that the novel was just about Dee and Pasqual in the 60’s.  I think that the author may have felt the same- plot A feels natural and well-crafted, as if it was written independently, and then plot B was just slapped together at the last minute to make the book more marketable.


*Cinque Terre*

I did not think I would like Where’d You Go Bernadette? as much as I did, as I was skeptical of the style the book was written in- the narrative is told through a series of emails, memos, news articles, and recalled conversations- but it works very well.  The title character, Bernadette, has disappeared and her daughter, Bee, is trying to piece together where she has gone, using any document she can get her hands on to search for clues, and making the style that the book is written in actually make sense and not just some cheap plot device set up in order to seem “edgy”.  I think that the primary reason that this book is so good is that it feels much more natural than most other books written in the last year- this is entirely due to the characters.  Bernadette is interesting because she is flawed, fascinating, an architectural genius who became a recluse, a struggling mother adored by her daughter.  Bee is also a fully realized and delightful character, despite being a child (a rare thing, since most child characters are either utterly obnoxious, or speak and think in an obviously un-child-like manner to serve as foils for adult characters).  The book kept me engaged until the end, wanting to know more about Bee, Bernadette, and just where she had disappeared to and why.  It makes the reader think, as Bernadette does; “How did I get here, in this moment, and how have I become what I am?  Can I change any of this?”.


A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize- and with good reason.  The surface plot is already interesting and well-written enough to deserve notice.  Ruth, living on a remote island with a severe case of writers block finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach.  The lunchbox is part of the flotsam that washed away with the 2011 tsunami and contains the diary of a Japanese teenager, Naoko.  Naoko is lonely and isolated, severely bullied by classmates and ignored by parents preoccupied by her fathers recent unemployment.  She decides to commit suicide, but first wants to write the history of her great-grandmother, a remarkable and innovative woman who became a Buddhist nun.  She writes in a style that addresses the reader directly- in this case her lone reader is Ruth, who becomes obsessed with Naoko’s story.  Eventually these two threads of story begin to wind around one another, and it becomes a bit metaphysical.  Throw in some magical realism, Buddhist philosophy, and scientific musings, and you have a fully developed and engaging story.  No matter what will happen and what has happened we are beings existing in a moment of time.


It is best to steer clear of My Education if you don’t enjoy explicit content (I mean sex, and I mean bunches of it).  Its pretty saucy, but this book is not about the sex, per se.  Regina is a new grad student that knows she is smart and thinks she is a mature, complete adult.  She hears rumors of the sexual exploits of a certain professor and, instead of sensibly staying away, decides to become his TA out of a morbid curiosity and to test her own maturity and prowess.  This leads her into an affair with him.  Then with his wife.  Regina is passionate, selfish, inexperienced, and behaves quite childishly at times.  Sometimes she and her lovers are downright unlikeable.  But that is ok- because this is a story about what we do when we are young, ignorant, and selfish, and how we have to deal with these actions later.  Who has not loved as deeply, or thought that they did, when they didn’t know themselves?


The Magus

I was going to offer the alternative title for this post as “Can a ‘Classic’ Truly be this Disappointing?” but thought it would be too long.  The point remains.

I loved John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  It was artistic, beautifully written, thought-provoking.  I thought that The Magus would be the same.  It is only in preparing to write this post that I discovered that this was Fowles’ first novel.  It makes sense; The Magus still has a fine writing style, and I could see glimmers of the character dissection and twists of plot that would make The French Lieutenant’s Woman so enjoyable.  But where the one is tightly plotted with solid characters the other is a poorly plotted philosophical mess with characters that act like idiots, or cardboard cut-outs, or both (certainly no one real would put up with the nonsense Conchis continually pulls on Nicholas).

The  novel starts out with promise; our hero is Nicholas, a young man at loose ends who decides to take a teaching job at a boys school on a Greek island to get away from the oppressive noise of London and his own pedestrian life.  He has also just recently gotten out of a tumultuous relationship with an Australian airline stewardess, Alison.  Nicholas is not a great person; he is selfish, unambitious, and has a self-confessed problem with dealing with women.

As soon as Nicholas arrives on the island there is already a mystery brewing.  All of the other teachers seem reluctant to talk about the island’s reclusive millionaire, Conchis.  Nicholas does eventually meet Conchis, but at first experiences nothing amiss.  When Conchis begins to befriend Nicholas and invite him to weekend parties things begin to feel a bit off for both Nicholas and the reader.  Odd things begin happening and Nicolas more than once has to second-guess what he is seeing/doing/who he is meeting.  Because of this well crafted, mysterious, build-up the first part of The Magus is great fun to read.  It also makes the latter half of the book that much more disappointing.

*Spoilers Ahead*

Nicolas finds himself a participant in increasingly bizarre encounters with Conchis, his guest Lily, and other guests.  It is clear that Fowles wrote this during the 60’s, and I suspect some of the scenes are supposed to be sexually charged and shocking.  Nicholas feels he is in love with Lily, but it could be her twin sister, as they seem to swap roles continuously.  Nicholas’ ex-girlfriend, Alison, is awkwardly dragged into the mire for seemingly no reason other than to amuse Conchis.

Nicholas finally leaves Greece, thinking “enough is enough!” but for the sake of the plot doesn’t escape Conchis’ grand scheme.  The climax of the novel is when Nicholas (who I think was naked for some reason?) was paraded in front of, and psychoanalyzed by, a group of supposedly respected psychologists.  Conchis’ ultimate goal, it turns out, was to continually fuck with Nicholas’ mind/psyche in order to teach him a lesson, help him “grow”, and to get him back together with Alison (who, according to Conchis, is “the one” for Nicholas despite their proven incompatibility).

I almost cannot express my frustration with this book.  To begin with such promise and to descend into some 1960’s psycho-babble mess of an ending creates a feeling of ill will.  It seems as if Fowles was working on a bildungsroman novel with exotic adventure and then suddenly decided to change the direction of the entire book and add in some psychology textbook jargon from a book he just read- like the annoying freshman in college that “discovers” Nietzsche, or Bergman films, or Burrough’s novels and has to talk endlessly about it.  The Magus is certainly the worse for it.


Jude Reprise

I suppose that since there are so many thing that contribute to Jude and Sue’s misery that I needed a second post to touch upon some other points.  Hardy uses his story to make very harsh criticisms against some of nineteenth-century England’s most cherished institutions; marriage, religion, and class.

Marriage in Hardy’s world is thoroughly depressing- metaphorical chains created by a defunct faith that bind two separate spirits irrevocably and devastatingly together.  In both Jude and Sue’s case their first marriages haunt them, and become a powerful influence overshadowing their too-brief happiness.  Jude’s first marriage, to the coarse and grasping Arabella, is based purely on lust.  It ends when Arabella decides to try her fortune in the colonies and, without a thought to her husband, disappears.  It is clear that the sacred institution of marriage meant little to either of them.  Sue, on the other hand, marries the local schoolteacher Phillotson for lofty, philosophical reasons.  She feels that she can make an intellectual connection to Phillotson, and help him in the classroom.  Sue comes to realize that there is no intellectual connection, and indeed a marriage based purely on that principle is doomed to fail.  Both Jude and Sue find more happiness in leaving their legal marriages and living together without.  Society, however, does not accept their choice, and they are shunned.

Religion weighs heavily on the characters.  Jude and Sue begin as complete opposites in their views; Jude  believes in the wise and benevolent higher power, while Sue is an irreverent and modern thinker.  By the end of the novel they have both reversed opinion.  Jude is cynical, and concludes that if there was a creator, that entity was a cruel one, and deserved no devotion. The fact that Jude is a stonemason and often either builds or repairs churches just makes his loss of faith all the more devastating. Sue ends the novel believing that all her misfortunes originated in her refusal to follow religious principals, primarily by leaving her lawful husband and living “in sin” with Jude.  She returns to Phillotson, and a life of misery.

The society of rural Wessex, and even the supposedly cosmopolitan Christchurch, is clearly provincial, both in thought and in attitude.  This is made apparent in how everyone treats Jude and Sue, who live together and have children but are unmarried.  They move from one village to another and Jude struggles to find work and live in poverty.  They slowly descend the social ladder (keeping in mind they were never very high to begin with) because others continually judge them.  Eventually this pressure becomes too much.  Clearly in the view of rural, religious Wessex, it is preferable to be miserable and blameless than the be happy but improper.

Ancient Wessex, modern provincial

Having read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I was pretty sure about what I was getting into with Jude the Obscure.  It is another of Hardy’s Wessex novels; these novels are all set in the fictional county Wessex, named after the ancient English kingdom and consisting of the counties of South-west England.  The Wessex of Hardy’s imagination is almost like its own country, separate from the cosmopolitan metropolis of London and the gentrified South-east of England, it is primarily rural, its people more rugged and earthy, its landscape wilder.  Hardy was born in this area of England, and the stark, rural landscape, provincial villages, and rocky, wave-lashed seacoasts become more than a backdrop for a story- the landscape becomes a part of the narrative.

Long_street,_Sherbourne*Tyndale’s ‘Long Street, Sherborne’*


Our two principal characters Jude and his cousin (whom he happens to be in love with) Sue Bridehead move through Wessex, trying in vain to find a place for themselves.  Their journey towards each other and then their fate makes up most of the story.

Jude in the beginning, is bright, hopeful, and ambitions.  Although a poor orphan he dreams of becoming a scholar and studying at the great university at Christminster, Wessex’s premier university and most modern city.  He teaches himself Greek and Latin despite having to work everyday at a bakery.  When Jude finally does make it to Christminster, we think “here it is!  the moment our hero will be recognized.”.  But, no- Jude is told he cannot study because he is only a poor young man from the country and he should just go back home and “stay within his own sphere”.  This is how Hardy’s world treats its inhabitants-they are under a cloud of harsh realism.  Just because Jude the Obscure is fiction, we will not be able to escape uncaring reality.  Jude will also not escape.

This realism is part of the environment that presses upon Jude and Sue, molding the events that continually beat them down.  Sometimes it seems as if everything bad happens to Jude that Hardy could possibly think of.  I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, but suffice to say, Jude and Sue cannot remain together, all Jude’s ambitions come to nothing, and children die.

This brings me directly to my next point- the character of Sue, one of the most interesting female characters in literature.  Sue is dichotomy; she is at once modern and rustic.  She has thorough and far-thinking ideas on marriage, equality, and philosophy.  She does not believe in an ephemeral God or a strict religion, but rather the power of the mind; that humans have unique thoughts that can change the world.  This assertion of the mind’s gifts also leads Sue to the conclusion that men and women are equal, because their minds are, and women can be as important to society as men.  Events conspire to make her change all of these youthful opinions.  It is made very clear throughout the novel that rural Wessex is not ready for Sue.  Although Jude is our main character it is Sue that makes the reader decry the fate that Hardy has in store for them, to beg for the happy ending that will not arrive.

Romance and Collectibles

The Volcano Lover is the story of William Hamilton, a British ambassador to Naples.  It is about his second wife Emma Hamilton and her infamous affair with Lord Nelson.  It is about the history of Italy, just before it became a unified nation.  It is about art, ancient ruins, and the tourists who admired and collected.  It is about Vesuvius, and the irresistible pull the volcano has on the imagination.

The story begins with Hamilton and his wife Catherine living in Naples.  In the narrative Hamilton is only referred to as ‘the Cavalier”.  They live a quiet life; he spends most of his time searching for and collecting art and antiquities, she is devoted to music.  However, Hamilton’s life is radically altered by the death of his wife.  He is alone and drifting.  Then his nephew asks him a favor; “Could you take in a former mistress that I am trying to get rid of?”.  An unusual request, but Hamilton agrees.  This is how he meets Emma, famous beauty and muse of artists.


*Romney’s Circe*

Everyone knows the story from here- Hamilton marries Emma, she becomes a social sensation, then has a famously scandalous affair with Lord Nelson.  Sontag is gentle with her characters- there is no blame placed, no judgement of their actions.  Indeed, the three principles live in relative harmony, and hold very genuine affection for each other.

The personal drama of the characters is part of a much larger historical tapestry.  Nelson is in Naples because he is leading the British Navy in the war against Napoleon.  The Hamilton’s in Naples host a vast array of famous writers, artists, and nobles all participating in the ubiquitous “Grand Tour”.  While Hamilton is ambassador in Naples the country revolts against their Bourbon king and the Hamilton’s are forced to flee with the royal family to Sicily.  Finally Vesuvius erupts- Sontag juxtaposes this at the climax of both the characters passions and the historical dramas.

The story is told in a stream-of-consciousness style with no quotations used for dialogue and nick-names used for the characters, sometimes making it hard to guess who they are without historical knowledge.  Sontag also interjects “asides” where she discusses history, human nature, and provides observations on characters and scenes; these are often humorous in a dry sort of way.  I personally liked the style- it was unique and engaging, and made a story where all of the basic facts are already known that much more interesting.

A Bookish Update

So its been awhile.  Mostly because I have (finally!) found full-time employment.  I have spent a lot of time buying books at an independent that is, alas, closing in my area- now I just have to actually read all of my new acquisitions.  And I need to re-learn my time management!

This post and the ones that follow will mostly be what the title states- an update of the books I have read, started, and attempted during the last month.

I read Ivanhoe and loved it.  It is not too hard to imagine why- it is a romance set in Medieval England and deals with knights, fair ladies, jousting, and various Plantagenet royals.  And Robin Hood and the Merry Men!

When I write “romance” I do not mean it in the contemporary sense, but rather the chivalric romances- the genre popular during the Middle Ages.  Ivanhoe, our hero, is a mysterious knight and returning Crusader who stands up to the Norman barons who oppress the native Anglo-Saxon English.  In fact Ivanhoe is so mysterious he is either in disguise or is not even present for large parts of the novel.  The character who really shines is Rebecca, the brilliant daughter of a Jewish moneylender. She was by far my favorite.

Walter Scott wrote the novel in the early nineteenth century and it was so popular that it was partly responsible for a revival of Medievalism in art and literature.  But the book is so much more than the adventure- Scott uses Ivanhoe to comment on history, social class, and antisemitism, as well as paralleling the Norman/Saxon relations to more recent events (the creation of the UK).  In short, Ivanhoe has everything I want in a story.


Lamia by J.W. Waterhouse

If I move back further in time, from the Romantic period of Walter Scott to the Gothic I would have discovered the influences found in Joyce Carol Oates’ The Accursed.  This book is good- very good.  I could not stop reading it.  It is historical fiction at its best- with depth, lively characters, and substance far beyond one narrative.  I have only read two Oates works so far- this one and The Falls- and I thoroughly enjoyed them both.  I will certainly be delving into more.

Annabel Slade disappears on her wedding day.  How she disappears, who exactly took her, and if she was kidnapped or a willing participant, are the questions that stir the residents of early 20th century Princeton.  Her prominent family, one by one, is picked off by further tragic events.  Neighbors become entangled.  Some determine it is the presence of an Evil and that they are cursed, but others declare that- in a Modern America- there is a rational explanation for everything.  Even the apparently unexplainable.

Some may complain about the length of the book, but I loved it- the lengthy, flowing, style allowed me to feel truly immersed in the story, the Princetonian culture, the various perspectives of the characters.  Oates has a talent, increasingly rare in contemporary literature, for delving into characters; for showing her readers why they have done or felt something.  Oates mixes her fictional character with real ones- a neurotic Woodrow Wilson is President of Princeton, the retired President Grover Cleveland and his active wife Frances are Society’s shining stars, and Upton Sinclair attempts to live a minimalist life in a cabin in the woods while working on his next great social commentary.  Sometimes, even more than the excellent mystery of the Curse, what really shines in The Accursed is the interactions between all these characters and how Oates makes all of them interesting, compelling, and (most importantly) real.

The story is told as a historical treatise written by a historian and Princeton resident looking back on the mysterious events of years earlier- it is pieced together from found journals, letters, and personal reminisces.  The events build slowly towards the inevitable conclusion- Evil is real, but there are some things that are even more powerful.  However Oats also brings up an interesting point about history and the telling of it with her amateur historian narrator.  History can be buried, can suddenly re-surface, and events can be very easily reinterpreted to suit various tastes and aims.

The bare bones of this story could have conceivably been written by another author, but it is hard to imagine- it would have been a pale shadow of the novel that Oates has crafted.

Visiting the Hotel du Lac

The Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner is deceptively simple.  An author is vacationing in a Swiss hotel.  She observes her fellow guests.  She contemplates her own life.

Dolder-Grand-Hotel-Zurich-in-1902*Idyllic Switzerland*

The novel doesn’t sound very interesting based on the above description, but actually it is.  I found I could not put it down.  It is slowly revealed as the plot moves along just exactly why Edith Hope is staying in a remote Swiss hotel at nearly the end of the season, and why she feels as if she has been exiled.  But more importantly her brief respite from her daily life allows Edith to view both recent events and her life as a whole with fresh eyes.

Edith thought that she was content- she was a successful novelist of romance novels, had her own home, and a circle of friends.  Yes, her daily routine was a bit fixed and dull.  Yes, her friends (especially her neighbor) did fuss over her “lonely” state and try to fix her up.  We find out she is having an affair with a married man, but both seem content with their situation.

Edith (determining that she is just fine, thank you very much) chooses to focus her energies on the other hotel guests.  Her observations of the wealthy widow, her vacant daughter, a lonely old woman, and an exiled wife are sharp, perceptive, and cast with an eye searching for characters.  It is only gradually that Edith’s own character emerges.

The theme of the Hotel du Lac is love.  How important is love in your life- can you live with a lesser love, or perhaps none at all?  How much is love worth to you?  This ties into a secondary question that Edith begins to ask herself- after you have reached a certain age, should you settle?  If the whole passionate love thing doesn’t work out should you just take the lesser/loveless relationship?  Edith questions her legitimacy as a “woman of a certain age” that has not found love- is she complete without it?  Society says “no” (even in this day and age).  But Edith reflects on her own life, and the lives of the other women at the hotel- all “refugees” of one love or another- and decides that she doesn’t have to acquiesce to the demands of arbitrary society rules- she will forge her own path through the mess of love.

Hotel du Lac is sad, uplifting, quiet, brilliant.  Whether a woman is single, in a relationship, or an “its complicated” thing, all have asked themselves, at one time or another, the same questions that Edith asks herself.  Love is universal and questioning it, and ourselves living in its wake, is inevitable.

Science-y Books

Recently I have gone out of my genre-boxes (my personal favorite genres) and have read two “science-y type books” (as the experts would call them).  I found them both informative and in most parts interesting.

Confession time: I am not really a science/math person.  I enjoyed learning about planets and animals when I was younger (who doesn’t, especially the dinosaur sections of class?), but as I got older and things began to get harder I shied away.  I took extra history and art classes to avoid higher level math and physics.  I am sad about this now, although at the time I was massively relieved to be making ceramic bird baths instead of puzzling over laws of motion.  I want to fill in these education gaps, in my own small way.


The first book I read was an excellent intro-type book, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Bryson is not a scientist, and does not write like an academic.  The book is very approachable.  Bryson’s quest is similar to my own- to fill in the gaps in his education.  He gives overviews of a vast array of scientific subjects.  In other words- if you want to impress your friends or look smart at parties, then  read this!

The second science book I read was focused on one subject, geology.  Richard Fortey’s Earth: An Intimate History is about the history of the earth, as told through various examples found in nature.  For example, Fortey uses traveling around Vesuvius and Central Italy to illustrate the power of volcanoes and Newfoundland to illustrate how the collisions of the older continents created our current landscape.

Earth is really good- Fortey’s writing style is flowing and very readable, making this book a lot more entertaining than if it had been written in a someone else.  Now I find myself looking at those pretty pictures that everyone posts of natural wonders and I say to myself “I know how those rocks/mountains/formations got there”!  If you are not a geologist, but have always been interested in the subject like myself, than this book is a great read.

The 1920’s- The End

My entire 1920’s literary journey can be summed up by a line from Point Counter Point.  Philip Quarles laments the current state of education; how children are taught by art and then expect real life to match- but it never quite lives up to the artistic ideal;

“We’re brought up topsy-turvy, ” Philip went on.  “Art before life; Romeo and Juliet and filthy stories before marriage or its equivalents.  Hence all modern literature is disillusioned.  Inevitably.  In the good old days poets began by losing their virginity; and then, with a complete knowledge of the real thing and just where and how it was unpoetical, deliberately set to work to idealize and beautify it.  We start with the poetical and proceed to the unpoetical.”

This was the 1920’s.  Everyone wanted life to be as beautiful and aesthetically pleasing as literature and art, but had found out through bitter experience (usually living through WWI was enough) that this was impossible.  Disillusionment on a national level ensues.  All of the characters in Point Counter Point have their diversions, although most do nothing of significance.  Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise moves from self-absorbed youth to lost-soul wandering the Jazz Age landscape.  In general, people begin to live for the cheaper pleasures that are brought by partying, spending money, and having some intellectualized conversations that they know will come to nothing.

This Side of Paradise- A Romantic View

In the last post I aired my grievances on the character of Amory Blaine (unfortunate man!).  But there is another way of looking at his character- and the book as a whole.  The whole plot of This Side of Paradise is a bildungsroman for the 1920’s- it is the coming of age for both Amory and a new American culture.


Amory is self-centered and has an inflated sense of entitlement- however he eventually realizes this and tries to grow beyond it.  There are many instances where Amory the person glimmers beneath the superficial surface; whether he finally has emerged by the end of the novel as he claims is less certain (to me at least).

But really- can the reader blame Amory?  He is born into a rich family, his mother Beatrice is indulgent and self-centered to a T and young Amory bases his own behavior and outlook on hers.  Everyone around Amory treats him as special because he is wealthy, charming, and attractive.  This is compounded when he comes of age in the high-flying Roaring 20’s.  In an era where people don’t want to think too deeply, but just want to have fun, Amory is a perfect fit.

An example of how jaded the young of the era are is a quote from a conversation between Amory and a friend at Princeton; “We want to believe.  Young students try to believe in older authors, constituents try to believe in their Congressmen, countries try to believe in their statesmen, but they can’t.  Too many voices, too much scattered, illogical, ill-considered criticism….  For two cents the voter buys his politics, prejudices, and philosophy.”

Amory is not pressured to be anything but superficially charming and entertaining, and it is only his own realization that there must be more to life that makes him eventually want to stretch himself to find it.  The two catalysts for this are a friend’s death in a car accident and the failure of a romance (because although Amory did have money it still wasn’t enough).  Amory expresses his frustration at life not working out exactly as he thinks it should; “There were days when [he] resented that life had changed from an even progress along a road stretching ever in sight, with scenery merging and blending, into a succession of quick, unrelated scenes…”

Who has not felt as Amory did?  Fitzgerald captures more than just an era of the remote past, he is talking about every era and everyone’s experience growing up- how we want to be part of the group, but still feel as if we are (secretly of course) the most-est special-est person there.  How we want success, but may not always have the drive to run after it.  How we struggle to connect with others, but so often fail.  How we make up who we are and what we believe in, based on a thousand different ideas, experiences, influences- and how our image of ourselves doesn’t always match reality.  Amory’s frustrations were Fitzgerald’s own, and our own too.