Thursday, January 28, 2016

Arcadia by Iain Pears

Publisher description: In 1960s Oxford, Professor Henry Lytten is attempting to write a fantasy novel that forgoes the magic of his predecessors, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. He finds an unlikely confidante in his quick-witted, inquisitive young neighbor Rosie. One day, while chasing Lytten’s cat, Rosie encounters a doorway in his cellar. She steps through and finds herself in an idyllic, pastoral land where Storytellers are revered above all others. There she meets a young man who is about to embark on a quest of his own—and may be the one chance Rosie has of returning home. These breathtaking adventures ultimately intertwine with the story of an eccentric psychomathematician whose breakthrough discovery will affect all of these different lives and worlds. Dazzlingly inventive and deeply satisfying, Arcadia tests the boundaries of storytelling and asks: If the past can change the future, then might the future also indelibly alter the past?

I really enjoyed reading Arcadia by Iain Pears. So many things to love! An Oxford don, a cat named Professor Jenkins, a psychomathematician, time travel, the Isle of Mull, intelligent and resourceful strong female  characters (including one who is middle-aged) that did not diminish the intelligent and resourceful strong male characters. All wrapped up in a fantasy wrapper.

There are three settings. A pastoral society of harvesters and students who follow the Story, an ancient narrative that guides their lives. Oxford, England, early 1960. And a grim dystopian future of rigid rules and classes, focused mostly on the Isle of Mull. There are main characters in each reality, and as the novel moves along the connections between them spool out.

I did find it odd that one character’s story, only one, is told in first person. I’d have to say my favorite setting in the book was the Oxford timeline, but as the story went on the lines between all three settings blurred considerably and they could no longer be definitively separated.

I’ve never read any Pears and I enjoyed his writing style. Here is a lovely passage told from the viewpoint of a character from the grim dystopian future who finds himself in 1960s suburban England: “After a while he came to a street. House with little gardens and trees, extraordinary flowers growing everywhere. More birds. Black ones, ones with red patches on their breasts, big fat grey ones. Once he jumped in fright. There was another wild animal on a wall, furry and looking decidedly dangerous. It examined him with pale green eyes and he stopped uncertainly until he noticed that everyone else ignored it as though it was the most normal thing in the world. …And the noise! People talking, different sorts of vehicle in chaotic movement. The wind in the trees, the birding singing. The smells too, floating everywhere, some sweet, most foul, alarming. There was no control to anything, no order, just random movements.” (pp. 35-36 of the ARC.) This really made me appreciate the ordinary sights and sounds of my own environment.

Pears won points from me with a couple of references, the first to Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. (I had gerbils named after characters in Arcadia at one time.) Pears notes that Sidney compensated for not being given a role in the government by Elizabeth I “by writing (or at least starting – he never quite finished anything) the greatest romance in the English language. Almost no one has even heard of it now, which is a pity, because if modern sensibilities are suspended – if you do not care about plot, action, events, morality, structure, or pace, if you are not bothered by absurd coincidence or unlikely motivations, if irrelevant digressions of immense length do not weary you – then his Arcadia has many fine qualities.” (p. 49 of the ARC.) Ha, love it!

The author wins even more points from me with this reference to C.S. Lewis’s Aslan: “The trouble was, of course, that Lewis operated in a simple world where, oddly, the supernatural was banished except for that bloody bore of a lion of his, perhaps the most humorless creation in all of literature. … Lewis tried to invent an entire world, and created only a middle-class English suburb with a few swords.” (pp. 46-47 of the ARC.) I actually said “YES!” out loud when I read that about the bloody bore of a lion.

This is a long book, and you have to become invested in the characters to keep reading.  The characters were interesting, and I enjoyed watching the multiple narratives converge. I liked the language and the literary references. I thought early on that I would probably not understand the ending, and that turned out to be the case. I need someone to explain it to me! But I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

I read an advance reader copy of Arcadia. I understand there is some sort of app that lets you read the book’s chapters in different order, but I have no experience with that. I don’t care for the American cover; I think the U.K. cover captures the book much better.

Arcadia will be available at the Galesburg Public Library in mid-February.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall by Katie Alender

From the publisher: Delia's new house isn't just a house. Long ago, it was the Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females -- an insane asylum nicknamed "Hysteria Hall." However, many of the inmates were not insane, just defiant and strong willed. Kind of like Delia herself. But the house still wants to keep "troubled" girls locked away. So, in the most horrifying way, Delia becomes trapped. And that's when she learns that the house is also haunted. Ghost girls wander the hallways in their old-fashioned nightgowns. A handsome ghost boy named Theo roams the grounds. Delia learns that all the spirits are unsettled and full of dark secrets. The house, too, harbors shocking truths within its walls -- truths that only Delia can uncover, and that may set her free. And she'll need to act quickly -- before the house's power overtakes everything she loves. Katie Alender brings heart-pounding suspense, gorgeous writing, and a feminist twist to this tale of memories and madness.

This month, the GPL Chapter Chompers Teen Lit Book Club read The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall by Katie Alender.  Book club members gave this one mixed reviews, primarily because of dissent over the aforementioned "horrifying way" that the heroine, Delia, becomes trapped in Hysteria Hall. It is nearly impossible to discuss this without including spoilers, but let's just say: some of us felt reeeaaalllly strongly that the book would have benefited from Delia remaining, um, untrapped, while others felt that Delia's trapped state added an additional layer of emotion to the story. Members also felt that perhaps the book could have been scarier, less rushed in the end, and would have been just fine without the addition of the obligatory semi-romance thrown in for good measure. That all being said, though, the group enjoyed that the book was a quick and fun "popcorn" read, and that there were so many interesting female characters (both dead and alive!) to choose from.

The Chapter Chompers 5-point book rating system is as follows:
1 (lowest ranking) = 1 pizza
2 = 2 pizzas
3 = 3 pizzas
4 = breadsticks
5 = legit unitado

The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall received a rating of 2.75 pizzas. It is available now in libraries and bookstores.

Half-Earth by Edward O. Wilson

Publisher description: Half-Earth proposes an achievable plan to save our imperiled biosphere: devote half the surface of the Earth to nature. In order to stave off the mass extinction of species, including our own, we must move swiftly to preserve the biodiversity of our planet, says Edward O. Wilson in his most impassioned book to date. Half-Earth argues that the situation facing us is too large to be solved piecemeal and proposes a solution commensurate with the magnitude of the problem: dedicate fully half the surface of the Earth to nature. If we are to undertake such an ambitious endeavor, we first must understand just what the biosphere is, why it's essential to our survival, and the manifold threats now facing it. 
Edward O. Wilson knows his subject backwards and forwards, and his passion is admirable. This short work covers a lot of ground, meandering about on a large variety of topics. 

Although I agree wholeheartedly with the author’s suggestion to set aside half the planet for nature and am also passionate about the biosphere, I found the book a bit preachy and dull in parts. It was kind of like reading a really long sermon. The text was also a bit repetitive, in the way of people trying to convince others to understand their passion. I found some of the chapter transitions very abrupt. Much of the information in Half-Earth was not new to me; I'd heard or read a lot of it before. As so many environmental works are, it was also downright depressing to read.

On the plus side, Wilson quoted Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of my favorites, who noticed man’s movement away from the natural world over a hundred years ago. Occasional sentences jumped out at me and made me think, like “Keep in mind that every surviving species (including us) is therefore a champion in a club of champions. We are all best of the best, descendants of species that have never turned wrong in the maze, never lost. Not yet.” (p. 117 of the digital advance reader copy) 

Depressing as they are, I feel it is important to read books like this one if we are ever to change the way humans treat the rest of the biosphere. Half-Earth proposes a bold idea and would be a good book for discussion. Short as it is, it would also be a good starter book for someone not already well-read on the subject.

Half-Earth is scheduled to be published March 7. I read a digital advance reader copy.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Publisher description: When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bill Dedman noticed in 2009 a grand home for sale, unoccupied for nearly sixty years, he stumbled through a surprising portal into American history. Empty Mansions is a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the nineteenth century with a twenty-first-century battle over a $300 million inheritance. At its heart is a reclusive heiress named Huguette Clark, a woman so secretive that, at the time of her death at age 104, no new photograph of her had been seen in decades. 

The library's Tuesday/Thursday book clubs will be discussing Empty Mansions this week. I found parts of it quite interesting (the personal information about the life of Huguette Clark) and parts of it a bit dull (the background about her father and his children).

As Dedman notes in the introduction, "The length of history spanned by father and daughter is hard to comprehend. W.A. Clark was born in 1839, during the administration of the eighth president of the United States, Martin Van Buren. W.A. was twenty-two when the Civil War began. When Huguette was born in 1906, Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president, was in the White House. Yet 170 years after W.A.'s birth, his youngest child was still alive at age 103 during the time of the forty-fourth president, Barack Obama." (p. xviii)

Overall I felt sad for Huguette Clark and her legacy. She was painfully shy – so shy, for example, that she declined to prosecute when robbed because she didn’t want her privacy invaded. Because she was so private, now that she is dead people speculate over why she married and divorced so quickly, why she would call people but not give them her phone number so they could call her, why she lived the last 20 years of her life in a hospital when she owned luxury apartments and mansions. Under different circumstances she might have met some kindred spirits to share her passions with.

The author seems a bit conflicted in his attempt to be neutral. He praises her skills at buying art and musical instruments but treats collecting antique dolls as part of her eccentricity. He includes this passage:
Caterina Marsh said that neither Huguette nor her hobbies seemed the least bit odd – once you talked with her.
“We are all taken by customs and culture,” she said. “I have a brother who became fascinated by trains. There’s nothing strange about having a fascination like collecting stamps.” (p. 185)
While I agree with Caterina Marsh, I’m not sure Bill Dedman does. At least in the Epilogue he does acknowledge “Eccentricity is not a psychiatric disorder.” (p. 353) 

I'm glad a family tree was included. There were places where photos were described and I kept wanting to see the photos. Maybe there were reasons they could not be included. There are a fair number of photos scattered throughout. The book seems to have been well researched, and I was led by it to do some further research into what has happened with the battle over her estate since the book was published.

Huguette Clark certainly does seem to have been eccentric, although I don’t think her doll collecting specifically speaks to eccentricity. If you like historical nonfiction about interesting people with secrets that will never be known, you might enjoy Empty Mansions. It is located in the Galesburg Public Library at NFIC 328.73/CLA.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

Helen Simonson’s new novel The Summer Before the War pulled me right in at chapter 1. This book by the author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand opens in England in the summer before the Great War.

The narrative is lovely and lyrical but the plot is very slow moving. Very slow moving. If you are looking for lots of action, this book is not for you. It is very wordy with much narrative explanation. On the other hand, if you like character development, as I do, you might enjoy the book very much. I really felt I came to know not only the main characters (of which there are several) but many of the side characters as well.

Agatha and John are a middle-aged couple with no children. Agatha dotes on her two adult nephews, Hugh and Daniel, who are not brothers but cousins. Hugh is studying to be a doctor; Daniel is a poet. (“No woman can resist having her name rhymed with a flower in iambic pentameter,” he says at one point.  (p. 29 of the advance reader copy))

Agatha is a forward-thinking woman who understands that she can most effectively bring about change by working in small ways to alter village life. One such way is to convince the school board to hire a female Latin teacher for the village school. Beatrice, an independent woman who has recently lost both her widowed father and most of her independence, arrives in the summer to tutor three promising young Latin students before the school year officially begins.

The small details woven into the story seemed very true to life. The politics of the local women’s group certainly ran true as well. The author seems to have done her research about the location and time period. The novel reminded me in a good way of the early days of Brideshead Revisited.

I paused a numbers of times to admire a bit of writing I especially liked, such as this passage: “His eyes watched the curl of smoke from the tip of his cigarette paper as he scratched at the itchy wool of his school uniform. He felt the tightness of the hatband around his head, smelled the dry dirt and green cemetery waxiness of the yew. His neck grew hot and his teeth clenched.” (p. 251 of the ARC)

And this exchange between the cousins:
“Youth’s lost companion may be the measured friend of old age, I hope,” said Daniel. “I may write a poem on the subject.”
“Dear God, it sounds more like a cross-stitched pillow than a poem,” said Hugh. (p. 269 of the ARC)
As a single woman with no children but 10 nieces and nephews, I liked that one of the primary relationships was not that of a mother and her children but of an aunt and her nephews. The plot also deals very subtly with the reality of gay couples at a time when same sex love could not be acknowledged.

I cried on and off for the last 30 pages, hoping for certain outcomes but knowing others would be more reflective of real life and would therefore make it a better book. Is the subject matter covered here original? No, but Simonson has covered the topic in a compelling way.

I highly recommend The Summer Before the War for readers who like realistic historical fiction heavy on character development. If you are a fan of Major Pettigrew, you may or may not enjoy this book as well, depending on what drew you to Major Pettigrew. The Summer Before the War contains heartbreak and loss, but handled in a manner that feels truthful.

The Summer Before the War comes out on March 22. The Galesburg Public Library will have copies in large print and regular print.