Literary Arcadia Literature and other things

Category Archives: Books

A Magical Night Circus

The Night Circus is an engaging work of fun and fanciful fiction.  The premise of the story asks the reader to believe that there is real magic in the world, that some magicians can actually perform fantastical feats, and that they walk amongst ordinary people.

Two magicians agree to a contest.  They each choose their representative and train them according to their own methods.  The stage of the competition is a circus, themed in black and white and only open at night.  The two contestants use the circus as a stage for their increasingly elaborate magical feats.  In some ways this is very sad- the two contestants did not agree to the competition, yet their entire lives are shaped by it.

The Night Circus is another of the novels of magic and magicians based within a historical context within our own reality.  It reminded me a bit of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell- except they could practice magic openly, while one of the main restraints placed upon the circus is that every illusion must be disguised or secret.  I am not quite sure if this is a sort of recently developed sub-genre of fantasy-fiction (supplying literature for those who grew up with Harry Potter), or if it was always there, now begining to move further into the mainstream.  I am not a big reader of the Fantasy genre, so I cannot say.  Nevertheless, The Night Circus is sweet and fun; a fresh look at magic in our lives.

Lists and Stuff

I do not know what to write about today.  This will become abundantly clear as I go on. 

Everyone always wants to make lists of books.  Favorite books, best books, influential books.  I have seen lists for best “geek” books, best feminist books, best not-on-any-other-list books.  The list of book lists could go on forever. 

*Let me just state for the record that I am not immune to the effect of these book lists.  I often reference them (especially ones about classic literature) in order to guide my own choices.*

Why this desire to create (completely subjective) rankings of books?  Can a book not be enjoyed on its own merits, without being on a “best of” list?  On the other hand, as there are far too many books existing in the world to read within a single human lifetime it is useful to have at least a guide or recommendation for books that are worth the time to read.

The Marriage Plot- A Book Not Especially About Marriage

I loved The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  I love his use of language and wanted to read the book slowly, to savor every sentence.  But I was also enjoying it so much that I just had to keep reading and reading, and before I knew it I had finished the entire thing!  This one definitely goes on my “re-read” shelf.  So many books, so little time!

Maybe I connected so well with the book because it described characters that are where I am in my own life right now, as I write this.  As an unemployed college grad, I suppose I can take some small comfort in Eugenides describing a time, 1982, when grads faced similar circumstances (high unemployment, low prospects).  According to my parents, they encountered the same situation in the late ‘70’s, making me question America’s supposed “prosperity”, but that is another discussion…

Eugenides includes a few lines from a song by the Talking Heads; “And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here?…” etc.  And this is a theme throughout the book (and in life!).  How each decision leads you to the next and before you know it you are somewhere you never expected to be perhaps, never dreamed of being, never realizing that decisions made both yesterday and ten years ago have led you, as they led the characters of The Marriage Plot, to “ask themselves”…

The novel follows three young college students in 1982 as they graduate and begin their lives.  All three emerge from an Ivy League university without a job or any firm direction on their future.  Madeline has a degree in English and strives to find a way to reconcile all of her knowledge with her new life.  Leonard struggles to come to terms with himself, his relationship with Madeline, and his future.  Mitchell, in love with Madeline for years, travels through Europe and eventually India, trying to forget his crush while delving into Christian mysticism and world travel.

These three people, while officially “prepared” for the world, stumble through their first year of independence, trying to cope with reality.  Their journey’s parallel our lives; trying not only to find out who they are, but also trying to discover how they can possibly fit within the larger world.

The Keepers of the House

The Keepers of the House is a novel that continually keeps the reader interested.  It is set in rural Alabama, and tells the story of the Howland’s; from their beginnings taming the land to their status as the most powerful family in the county.  The novel was written in 1964, during the Civil Rights Movement, and some of the racial issues brought up by the author, Shirley Ann Grau, made her quite a few enemies, including the KKK.

I personally love a (well written) family saga.  Give me a tale about multiple generations going back through the eras, throw in some history and drama, and I will love it.  This could be a holdover from an addiction I had to Days of Our Lives when I was twelve.  And Keepers has the family saga done right.

The subtle, underlying racism of the people living in and around Wade County (where the Howland’s have their large estate) is disturbing.  It is (usually) not violent, loud, or ever disturbs the lives of either its perpetrators or its victims.  But it is always there, hidden in the background.  It gives an unsettling atmosphere to the latter half of the book.  From the beginning the reader is aware that something explosive is going to happen, but even as it does it is still shocking.

The main protagonist (if you can choose one in a sweeping family saga) is Abigail, the owner of the Howland estate.  She tells her family story, and then follows with her own.  At first I wondered about Abigail; she was very sheltered and a bit flighty.  At the end of the novel none of that remains, and Abigail has become a hardened, some would say bitter, woman.  She truly becomes the keeper of the house; bound by her ancestors to care for the both the family house and the Howland name.  The ending of the novel is grimly satisfying; everyone gets what they deserve, but at what cost?

Ethan Frome’s Gloomy Commentary

Edith Wharton’s slim novel, Ethan Frome, evokes a forbidding, crystal white, and cold New England landscape.  It is also incredibly sad.  I read it in a few short hours and yet it somehow has stayed in the back of my mind for quite some little time.

Ethan Frome is told as a story within a story.  The narrator is living in Starkfield, Massachusetts for the winter and notices Ethan Frome, a silent gentleman-ly type man, partially crippled by an accident the other townspeople will not explain.  The narrator hires Ethan to drive him to and from his work.  Inevitably a severe snowstorm blows in, and Ethan takes our narrator home with him.

Ethan Frome’s history is told in the middle part of the novel as a flashback.  As a young man he is struggling to keep his farm profitable.  Although he had aspirations of a very different life, Ethan had to take care of first his ailing parents and then his (supposedly) sickly wife, Zeena and stay on the family farm.  He has been robbed of the chance to complete college and live an exciting life in the city.  His only joy in life is his wife’s cousin, Mattie, sent to Starkfield to help Ethan’s wife keep house.  Tragic events unfold, one after another.  All of them become trapped in Starkfield, likely for the remainder of their lives, by seemingly unavoidable circumstance.

The mood of the entire novel is dark.  Wharton continually returns to the bleak, dark, and desolate New England in winter; the atmosphere that surrounds the characters.  Even the name of the town, Starkfield, evokes seclusion and privation.  The characters are trapped in that bleak town by circumstance as well as environment.  Wharton shows that one cannot escape their fate anymore than New England can escape its miserable weather.  I wonder whether Ms. Wharton loved New England or hated it.  Perhaps she felt both.

On a completely unrelated note; Oreo cookies are 100 years old this year (although Hydrox cookies are actually older, they became know as a knock-off of Oreo’s because of Nabisco’s far superior marketing).  Oreo has, indeed, made the world a better place and I, for one, will celebrate this anniversary.  By eating cookies.

Main Street, USA- The Land of Repression and Disappointment

One of the reasons that I really like to ocassionally choose works from the Modern Library’s “100 Best” list is that it introduces me to novels I would not normally have picked up, but are well worth reading.  One of those works is the at once lovely, sad, and evocative Main Street by Sinclair Lewis.

The subject of Main Street is in the title; the novel is about “Main Street, USA“.  Specifically, Main Street as viewed by an outsider.  Carol is a college-educated librarian from St. Paul Minnesota.  She marries Dr. Will Kennicott and goes to live in the small town of Gopher Prairie.  Her reaction to the town and its citizens (and their reaction to her) makes up the bulk of the novel.

Carol sees a dreary, provincial Midwestern town and instantly wants to reform and improve it.  The difficulty is that the townspeople see themselves as quite cultured enough, thankyouverymuch, and see Carol as rather odd and snobbish.  The denizens of Gopher Prairie are respectable.  They don’t wish to do anything to change the status quo.  They love gossip, watching and judging their neighbors as much as their rivals.

Carol barges into Gopher Prairie’s carefully maintained little world with youthful conceit, believing that just because she knows life can be more cultured, more exciting, more fun, that the townsfolk will welcome her ideas with open arms.  She is beaten down, forced to let go of one dream after another until one day she realizes that she has begun to conform to the town’s idea of what she should be, not her own.  Although she promises herself she will continue her quest to improve both the town and her own life, the reader is left wondering whether she will actually succeed, or become just another gossiping matron that make up the pillars of the Gopher Prairie community.

It could be difficult for a modern reader to empathize with the small-town predicament; we live in cities and have, in our modern era, placed effective barriers around ourselves (especially over the internet), making our words and actions largely anonymous.  But Lewis can make the reader feels Carol’s frustration, and become as irritated with some of the citizens of Gopher Prairie as she is.

Main Street is in some ways depressing.  Carol’s youthful vigor is crushed by respectable, staid townspeople.  Main Street USA is held up by so many as an ideal; it is supposed to be warm, welcoming, and wholesome.  What Lewis shows it to be is stifling, restrictive, and judgmental.  Far from being the ideal, it is what every thinking, feeling person should fight against.

While Carol is living in Washington she and her set of friends spend days and nights talking.  It is just after the First World War and the beginning of the “Roaring Twenties”.  This group of young intellectuals discuss gender equality, government and socialism, citizens rights, rising artistic movements.  These issues would rise to prominence during the next decade and begin to change the very nature of the country.  Although Carol sees no signs of it when she returns to Gopher Prairie, there will be a time in the near future where the town’s Main Street, and every other Main Street USA, will be irrevocably changed.  Perhaps Sinclair Lewis felt this and, in Main Street, knew he was writing about a people and an environment that would one day be only a memory.

Two Russian Novels

*Yes, I just posted yesterday, but I originally planned to update the site every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  From now I am am going to follow that plan (or at least make a fair attempt).  So, without further ado- my Friday post!*

I am far behind in my reading of Russian novels.  I have only read Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment.  I enjoyed Anna KareninaCrime and Punishment I am not yet sure of.

One thing that always trips me up (and I suspect I am not alone in this) is the Russian names and nicknames and the habits of the characters to use them interchangeably.  I am sometimes not quite sure who is being spoken to or of.

The protagonist of Crime and Punishment is Raskolnikov, a student living in poverty in St. Petersburg.  The crime, the murder of a pawn-broker, occurs within the first 75 pages of the book.  The remaining 300 or so pages of the novel is devoted to Raskolnikov’s guilt, his obsession and reasoning for the crime, and his eventual redemption (although whether he is truly “redeemed” is a subject for debate).

One doesn’t like Raskolnikov, especially as the audience is not even told his reasons for committing the crime until the later part of the novel.  I don’t really see his reasons as credible.  Perhaps I am too law-abiding to understand, although Sonia even when she loves and forgives Raskolnikov, doesn’t understand why he committed the murder either.  Sonia would have more reason than anyone to commit a crime; she has been forced into prostitution because of her family’s poverty.  Yet to her any crime against another person would be unthinkable.

One of the prime elements in both of these works is religion.  In Anna Karenina Levin begins as an agnostic.  He marries the devout Kitty, but still declares himself without faith.  Finally, after he fears the Kitty may die, Levin prays and becomes Christian.  Tolstoy, deeply religious himself, makes this the climax of the Levin/Kitty story.  Further, Levin and Kitty with their religion and “pure” love are supposed to act as counterpoint for the adulterous “impure” love of Anna and Vronsky- the love that eventually destroys both of them.

Religion is also present in Crime and Punishment; Sonia is deeply religious despite her circumstances, and offers to pray for and with Raskolnikov when he confesses his crime to her.  Raskolnikov, despite his agnosticism, asks for Sonia’s cross and eventually he even borrows and reads her bible.  After this the omnicsient narrator indicates that, through Sonia’s love and his new-found interest in religion (which may turn into faith), hope is still possible and that Raskolnikov may eventually be redeemed.

As these are the only two Russian novels I have read so far I cannot be sure that this religious piety and conversions are an overarching theme in Russian literature during the 19th century, or just themes that appear in works by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, or just a coincidence.

Incidentally, the creator of one of my favorite 70’s TV shows Columbo said that the character of Columbo was based on the detective in Crime and Punishment, Porfiry Petrovich, who used psychology alone to divine that Raskolnikov was the murderer.

Oryx and Crake

I have just finished Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. The story is set in a dystopian future, where humanity has been largely wiped out and animals and plants are beginning to reclaim the Earth. The circumstances that led to this are gradually revealed through the flash-backs of the only human left, “Snowman”, our protagonist. Snowman, who used to be Jimmy, describes a rather chilling possible future for humanity. The novel also includes many new creatures brought about by genetic modification, including the human-like but not “Crakers”.

The future, according to Oryx and Crake, is grim. People are rigidly separated into classes- the “haves” are all educated, brilliant, and live in secure compounds. Everyone else is assigned to “Pleeb-land”, a place at once more violent, colorful, and alive than the sterile compounds of the elite. All forms of passive entertainment are exalted. Science is breaking new ground, but it is not for the betterment of mankind, but rather for the benefit and profit of the few. This fiction, or parts of it, could be a reality in our own future.

Eventually the inevitable happens (inevitable because we know from the beginning through Snowman’s flashbacks to his life as Jimmy). A disaster strikes, and humanity is wiped out. The Earth returns to nature, with only Snowman as witness.

Perhaps my favorite small part of the novel involves the description of refrigerator magnets. Jimmy notices his friend Crakes magnets twice. When Crake is a young college grad working at a top research facility the magnets are science quips (“I think, therefore I spam”). When Crake is older the magnets have changed tone; while still little one-liners they are now darker and bitter (“Where God is Man is not”). Snowman thinks that if only he had fully realized what the change in the magnets meant he could have stopped the destruction of mankind. The magnets are one of the unknown incidentals that could have changed history.

This is the first Atwood book I have picked up since I read The Blind Assassin. I feel toward Oryx and Crake the same as I felt eight-ish years ago with The Blind Assassin- Margaret Atwood has an undoubtedly sound technique. She knows how to craft an interesting premise and she knows how to lead the reader though her story.  However, I felt while reading this book that I was “going through the motions” in an odd way.  I finished it, but did not enjoy it.  I didn’t connect with the character(s).  Although addressing a similar topic (humanity’s destruction and future) Oryx and Crake did not appeal to me, as the wonderful Kurt Vonnegut masterpiece Galapagos did.