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.