The House at Riverton by Kate Morton Sunday, Oct 7 2012 

When teenager Grace Reeves comes to Riverton House as the new housemaid in 1914, she is reminded often of how fortunate she is to work for such an excellent family. What Grace does not know when she arrives at Riverton is how caught up she will become in the lives and dramas of the Hartford family, particularly sisters Hannah and Emmeline. Over the years, Grace remains devoted to Hannah, who trusts and confides in her. Then, in 1924, life for the family is shattered when a handsome young poet shoots himself at a Riverton House summer party, and only Hannah, Emmeline, and Grace witness the tragedy.

Decades later, Grace is in her late nineties and living out her final days in an English nursing home. She has remained largely silent about her life in service and that terrible summer night for decades, but when a young director making a film about the poet’s death contacts her, memories come rushing back. Finally, as she nears death, Grace confronts the secrets of the Hartford family that have haunted her for a lifetime.

The House at Riverton is almost as addictive as Downton Abbey and a must-read for fans of the acclaimed British series. While the characters are all fairly conventional for a novel like this, they are still interesting and have complicated relationships with one another. It’s a suspenseful read with more than a few surprises, and Kate Morton is subtle enough to plant certain ideas in the reader’s mind without making the book too predictable. The housing and fashion details of the early 20th century are rich and a lot of fun, but they never overwhelm the novel. The focus is very definitely on the characters and the events that shape them.

This is mostly a light, escapist read, and the drama and suspense are what will catch your interest and keep you reading. However, The House at Riverton does shed some light on issues that are explored more deeply in some other works about the era. World War I is featured prominently, with soldiers’ “shell shock” (better known today as post-traumatic stress disorder) coming to the fore through the character of Alfred, a footman at Riverton House. One thing that becomes very clear in the novel, much as it does in Downton Abbey, is how exacting the standards of those in service could be. Servants, especially those of high rank and considerable experience, were sometimes just as pretentious as their employers, if not more so. Disdainful comments about other servants and even an employer’s family and associates were quite common, albeit risky.

When it comes to life in service, though, the book has the most to say about the devotion many servants felt toward their employers and the challenges that loyalty presented. Grace is so loyal to Hannah that she feels a familial obligation toward her, and it becomes impossible for Grace to imagine leaving her position even when it is perhaps no longer the right place for her to be. Hannah’s troubles and secrets become Grace’s own, and they haunt the former housemaid for the rest of her life. While Grace is both thrilled and honored by Hannah’s trust in her, their closeness doesn’t change the reality of the huge class difference between them. Hannah does seem to care sincerely about Grace, but she also always has the upper hand in their relationship, and there is little Grace can do if her employer becomes angry and no longer wishes to trust or be kind to her.  This highlights something discussed in other books, TV shows, and movies about life in service: no matter how dedicated and close servants became to their employers, there was always going to be a distance between them. While it was understandable that servants would come to see employers as their own family (those who worked in service were prohibited, or at least strongly discouraged, from marrying and having children), such feelings could be very dangerous, both practically and emotionally. It’s hard not to wonder whether Grace could have saved herself much heartache and stress over the course of her life if she had been somewhat more detached from the Hartford sisters.

The House at Riverton offers a great escape into another era and offers plenty of insight into life upstairs and downstairs. If there’s a Downton Abbey shaped hole in your heart right now, this book will help fill it, though it may also make you all the more anxious for next season to hurry up and get to America already!


Arcadia by Lauren Groff Tuesday, Sep 25 2012 

In the early 1970s, a small, idealistic group forms a commune on the land surrounding an abandoned mansion in rural New York State. They call the commune Arcadia, and here they plan to live off the land and free themselves of the greed, inequality, and complexities of the outside world. Ridley Sorrel “Bit” Stone is the first child born in the commune, and it is through his eyes that we see Arcadia. Bit is a quiet child always considered small for his age, but from early on he is smart and observant. No detail of the world of Arcadia escapes his notice, including his mother Hannah’s depression and his father Abe’s disagreements with Handy, the commune’s charismatic leader. Despite its flaws and failing ideals, Bit loves this world in which he grew up and can’t imagine ever living outside it.

When Bit is a teenager, however, conflict and tragedy tear Arcadia apart, and he is thrust into the outside world for the first time. The rest of the novel is about Bit’s adulthood in a world completely unlike the one of his childhood. He certainly adjusts to urban life as best he can, but for better or worse, Bit is never completely free of the influence of Arcadia—and especially not the influence of Helle, Handy’s charming but unstable daughter.

Arcadia is a short yet somewhat slow novel, though Lauren Groff wisely highlights important periods of Bit’s life rather than detailing every single year and event. While the measured pace might make you anxious for something more to be happening, it makes a lot of sense. This is a novel about seeing and appreciating the world around you and keeping your connections to loved ones strong, and in order to do these things, you often need to slow down everything else in your life. It is meditative and driven much more by characters and themes than by plot. While the plot occasionally stretched my suspension of disbelief, I never stopped enjoying the vivid details of the Arcadia, its inhabitants, and its aftermath. I found Bit Stone to be an insightful and sympathetic protagonist and liked the big cast of characters, though they did sometimes become difficult to keep straight in my mind.

I think what pleased me most about Arcadia and what says the most about Lauren Groff’s writing is that while there is certainly a somewhat whimsical tone to the book, I never found it overdone. While I criticized Vaclav & Lena last year for being too “cute” and self-consciously quirky even as its plot became more serious, Lauren Groff manages to avoid that trap in Arcadia. She consistently writes in the present-tense and uses very descriptive language from beginning to end, but she also knows when to employ a more fanciful voice and when to use a more realistic one. As a result, she is able to keep a magical, otherworldly atmosphere in the novel without sacrificing believable characters and relationships.

Arcadia never comes to a definite conclusion as to whether one should choose a life in the country communing with nature or a city life more connected to the “real world.” Such a conclusion is unnecessary, though, and would take away from the point of the book. Bit’s lives in the country and the city both have their problems; neither one is free of arguments or disappointments. What his story demonstrates is that life can be difficult no matter where you live, but it can also be beautiful, whether you’re a hippie on a rural commune or a resident of the nation’s biggest city. There will always be fascinating details to discover, new people to meet, and relationships to build and rebuild. It’s a lovely message from an equally lovely novel.


The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood Thursday, Sep 13 2012 

It is the near future, and the United States no longer exists. The country is now the Republic of Gilead, and the democratically elected government has been overthrown and replaced with a totalitarian theocracy. First Amendment freedoms no longer exist, and anyone considered “undesirable” is banished to the outskirts of civilization, where they are certain to die within a few years—if the leadership of Gilead doesn’t execute them first.

One of Gilead’s most prominent characteristics is its subjugation of women, and that is the focus of The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, the story’s narrator, was once a woman with a husband, a daughter, and a job in a library. Now, she is separated from everyone she cares about and is no longer allowed to use her real name, have her own money, or even read. In the strict, highly stratified society of Gilead, Offred is a Handmaid, one of a class of women whose sole purpose is to have babies for the Commanders of the Faithful and their wives. Once every month, Offred is subjected to “The Ceremony” that she must hope will result in a pregnancy; every month that she does not get pregnant brings her another month closer to life being over, literally and figuratively. In between these ceremonies, Offred copes with a world where women cannot pursue knowledge, where sex is no longer about pleasure or love, and where spies and secret police may overhear anything a person says. Like the other Handmaids, Offred is no longer an individual, but a piece of property deemed interchangeable with any other woman of her rank.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not a fun read (which you probably already concluded from that plot introduction), but it is riveting and terrifyingly relevant. Atwood’s prose is beautiful and descriptive, but never flowery. There is a sparse, dispassionate quality to it that makes Offred’s world seem all the more frightening and full of despair. Atwood writes in the voice of a miserable woman unable to express her misery openly or do anything to change it.

Even though it was published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale feels very timely now. It serves as a grim reminder that the progress made for women’s rights over the last century cannot and must not be taken for granted; the same is true for the freedoms of speech and religion guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. The dystopia in this novel is not an outrageous speculation that could never happen; it is what reality might look like if some of the more extreme views in our society were able to take hold and become the law of the land. For women especially, it is an important cautionary tale. In her earlier life in the United States, Offred was often indifferent to or even uncomfortable with the feminist activism of her mother, and she took her freedoms as a given, a guarantee that would always be there. Now, in Gilead, her body and mind are no longer her own to control, and she remains complacent because she fears retaliation, both against herself and against her lost family. She misses that former life, even the most mundane and unpleasant things about it; she had never taken the time to appreciate them before. At the same time, however, it is suggested that some of the more extreme feminist attitudes of the pre-Gilead era may have helped the religious right gain a foothold and to manipulate women into thinking that theocratic rule would protect them and improve their lives. Nevertheless, Atwood’s main criticism is of the right-wing extremists who took away women’s rights, and her warning is that the freedoms women have gained must continue to be appreciated and fought for every single day.

Brilliant and engrossing as it is, this is definitely a depressing novel. What makes it so disheartening is that it is not a story of democracy triumphing over totalitarianism or feminism overcoming patriarchy. Instead, it is a story that demonstrates how people become complacent under an oppressive regime and questions whether resistance would be at all successful. Danger and uncertainty are constants, especially for Handmaids like Offred, making her reluctant to join the small group of risk-takers who hope to take Gilead down.

The sharp social critique and beautifully haunting prose of The Handmaid’s Tale make it a modern classic and one of the most important novels of our time. Its harsh message and unhappy tone make it difficult to stomach sometimes, but I consider it essential reading for young women like myself—and maybe even for everyone else. It is a novel of a world we do not want but could possibly see, and a reminder that we must embrace our freedoms and fight back when anyone tries to take them away.

1876 by Gore Vidal Wednesday, Sep 5 2012 

Before beginning my discussion of 1876, I very strongly recommend that you read Burr—also by Gore Vidal—before you read this novel. Not only is Burr a great read, but it also features the same protagonist, Charles Schuyler. Many of the references made in 1876 will make much more sense if you have already read Burr. With that suggestion out of the way, here’s my review.

1876 is the journal of Charles Schuyler, a renowned writer returning to his native United States after living in Europe for over thirty years. Accompanying him on the journey is his beautiful daughter Emma, a widowed European princess.  As Schuyler takes in the many changes in his hometown of New York and the U.S. at large, he is determined to secure a new marriage for his daughter and rebuild at least some of the fortune he lost in the Panic of 1873. While Emma charms American high society, Schuyler keeps busy as a newspaper writer, covering American politics, the Centennial Exposition celebrating the country’s 100th year, and his impressions of America as a returning expatriate. Soon, he finds himself caught up in the political intrigue and corruption of the era, culminating in one of the most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history. As usual, Gore Vidal places his fictional central characters right alongside real-life figures, including Mrs. William Astor, President Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, rival Republican senators Roscoe Conkling and James G. Blaine,  Democratic presidential nominee Samuel J. Tilden, and more. (Be prepared for an irreverent perspective on some of these historical figures, especially Grant and Twain.)

For history buffs and political enthusiasts, this is an especially great novel to read during an election year. It brilliantly details the chaos of the 1876 presidential race and the corrupt practices that were the norm for both major parties, from the stealing of public funds to civil service patronage to the buying of elected office. One thing that really stands out in 1876 is just how much has changed in the political process since that time. Unlike today, political parties’ conventions were about selecting a presidential nominee, not just officially nominating one, so the events were often extremely unpredictable and competitive. Campaigns were often just as vicious, if not more so, and shocking rumors about the candidates were common (this novel includes one about Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes having once shot his own mother). And even the contested 2000 presidential election cannot compare to the one in 1876, which involved questionable returns in numerous states and went unresolved for months. You may find yourself wondering if today’s political scene is as bad as you thought.

For less politically minded readers, 1876 still offers plenty of great material. I always enjoy reading about historical New York City, and it is especially amusing to think that Fifth Avenue was once a newly stylish place to live and that building a mansion near Central Park was considered a strange idea. The most fun, though, comes from the viciously witty commentary on America’s 19th century high society, especially in New York. Through the narration of Charles Schuyler, Vidal not so gently mocks the conventions and pretensions of the era and the rivalry between the “old money” and the “nouveau riche.” I often found myself laughing at Schuyler’s thoughts about the wealthy families and their friends, especially Mrs. William Astor and her overly devoted, social climbing companion Ward McAllister.

Reading 1876 feels a lot like reading delicious political and societal gossip from another era, all while remaining historically accurate and informative. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie Sunday, Aug 12 2012 

Saleem Sinai is born at a very exciting time—the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, to be exact, the very moment that India becomes an independent nation after decades of British rule. As he grows up, Saleem finds out that being born at such an important and historic moment has its consequences. From birth to adulthood, his hopes, dreams, personal tragedies, and even physical health are linked to and reflected in national events, to the point that Saleem even feels personally responsible for much of India’s postcolonial history. As if that were not enough, he also learns that he has telepathic powers that connect him with the other “midnight’s children,” all born within that first hour of Indian independence and possessing magical gifts of their own. Among those children is an enemy who will haunt Saleem for years to come.

Midnight’s Children was one of the more challenging ones I’ve read in a while; I was struck while reading it by just how little I knew about India. That limited knowledge, I am guessing, is why it took me some time to understand many of the symbols and themes present in the book. However, the challenge was well worth it. This is a fascinating and imaginative work, and not quite like anything else I have ever read.

The magical realism that Salman Rushdie is known for is perfect for a novel about 20th century India. As Saleem Sinai tells not only his own story, but also the stories of his parents and grandparents, the reader is presented with a picture of a nation that faces an ever-present conflict between its own ancient traditions and the British forces of modernization. Rushdie also perfectly presents two very common views of India (at least among Westerners): India as a magical land filled with mysteries and mysticism, and India as a real country facing real social, political, and military problems. The India in Midnight’s Children isn’t one or the other; it’s fully, definitely both.

What I consider to be best reflected in the magical realist elements and the saga of Saleem and his family is the fact that India is incredibly diverse and complex. For outsiders who don’t know much about it, it can be easy to forget that India is anything but a monolithic society. The country is one of the most populous in the world, and its citizens speak many different languages and practice numerous religions. That diversity and the challenges it presents shine through brilliantly in Midnight’s Children, and it is not very hard to see why Saleem often feels so overwhelmed by the moment of his birth and his inescapable connection to his homeland’s history.

While the history of postcolonial India is a huge part of the novel, it was hardly the only thing that stood out to me. I always enjoy novels that are fictional or fictionalized characters’ autobiographies, and what makes this one especially distinctive is that Saleem willingly acknowledges that he is not a reliable narrator. He is aware that he doesn’t always remember historical events and dates accurately, and he even admits that not every aspect of his story is completely true. As a result, Midnight’s Children becomes an interesting reflection on memory and whether how we remember things is more real to us than what actually happened. As with any fictional memoir I read, of course, I also find myself questioning how much we can believe the stories real people tell about their lives—not so much, in this case, because I think they’re being intentionally dishonest, but because they may be telling what they want to or can remember rather than what really happened.

Along with its strong thematic content, Midnight’s Children is an incredibly vibrant, gorgeously written novel filled with compelling characters and a few twists in the story that I did not expect. It is not one of the easier novels I’ve read in my life, but any effort I had to put into reading it was more than worth it, and I think it would be for anyone who chooses to read it.

Midnight’s Children covers so many decades and is so loaded with history, personalities, and details both realistic and magical that it almost feels impossible that a film adaptation is being released this year. I hope I get a chance to see this film and find out if it’s anywhere as captivating as its source material.

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin Tuesday, May 8 2012 

Downton Abbey fans who miss the hit period drama as much as I do will want to give Daisy Goodwin’s The American Heiress a try. This novel will at least partially fill the void until the Crawleys and their servants return in late 2012 or early 2013 (depending on which side of the Atlantic you reside).  A review blurb on the front cover of my paperback edition said as much, so needless to say, I was intrigued right away.

Originally published in the UK as My Last Duchess, The American Heiress takes place in the 1890s and tells the story of Cora Cash, heiress to a vast flour fortune. Cora is a beautiful, charming young woman who is the belle of New York and Newport, and she is widely believed to be the richest girl in America. However, Cora’s domineering mother wants a title for her daughter, and such a thing cannot be found in the United States, even for the wealthiest people. So, Cora travels to England to join the growing number of American heiresses seeking husbands among Britain’s titled aristocracy. Early on in her stay in England, Cora meets the handsome, mysterious Ivo Maltravers, Duke of Wareham. The two are soon engaged and married in a lavish New York wedding.

Of course, Cora’s marriage to Ivo is no fairy tale. Cora finds her new husband mercurial and difficult to understand, and it is hard not to wonder if he loves Cora or just her money. To make matters worse, Cora is irritated by her new mother-in-law and overwhelmed by the traditions and rules of England’s centuries-old aristocracy, where the servants can be as snooty as their employers. As more secrets and traps emerge, Cora often feels lonely and confused, sometimes even longing to return to America. If she is ever to be happy in her new life, she must become stronger than the shallow young woman she was when she first arrived in England.

The American Heiress is not a great literary work that offers in-depth analysis of the class systems of the late 19th century. However, it is a very entertaining novel, and I think it might offer a better understanding of women like the Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey (whose name, incidentally, is also Cora) and what they went through early on in their marriages to British dukes and earls. As any good historical fiction book should be, it is full of vivid detail of the clothes, houses, and social lives of those lucky enough to be rich in the 1890s. I loved reading about the incredible gowns the women wore and the lavishness of the Newport parties. Those details alone make the book a worthwhile read if you’re just looking for something fun. I can only imagine how magnificent a film adaptation of this book would look.

The characters, though not particularly multidimensional, are well drawn and interesting enough to keep readers’ attention. While I would have liked to see some more significant development in Cora herself, I found her to be likable and was rooting for her as life in England got more and more frustrating. The most compelling character, I thought, was Cora’s African-American maid, Bertha Jackson, who faces challenges that neither Cora nor most of the other characters can truly understand. Bertha’s subplot is a bit sloppy at times, but Goodwin does a good job of conveying how isolated Bertha often feels; it’s clear that even Cora, who feels like a shut-out foreigner through much of the book, cannot fully grasp what life must be like for her maid. As for the Duke, Cora’s new husband, he is an intriguing but often irritating figure. While I pitied him for the difficulties he had faced in his life, I was also constantly wary of him and sometimes even wishing ill on him. I think Goodwin may have been trying to channel some of the romantic or Byronic heroes of British literature when she wrote this character, but Ivo is no Mr. Rochester, and he’s certainly no Mr. Darcy. Nevertheless, he is a very suitable central male character for a novel like this one.

I believe this book will prove a fun, escapist read for historical fiction fans. It takes place earlier than Downton Abbey and doesn’t have nearly as many characters, but anyone who enjoys the show’s beautiful sets and costumes and its captivating drama will find much of the same to appreciate in The American Heiress. Don’t be surprised if, like me, you start casting that hypothetical movie adaptation in your mind before you finish reading it.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson Friday, Apr 13 2012 

This third and final novel in the Millennium trilogy is an immediate continuation of the story begun in The Girl Who Played with Fire. Lisbeth Salander is in the hospital, fighting for her life after a gunshot to the head. After her recovery, she faces another battle, this time against charges of aggravated assault and attempted murder, not to mention forces within the Swedish government that have been trying to keep her silent on a secret matter for years. With the help of the few supporters and friends she has left in the world, including Millennium publisher Mikael Blomkvist, Salander must fight back against the terrible injustices that have plagued her since childhood. Of course, considering what they’re up against, they are in almost as much danger as Salander herself.

I have to admit that after thoroughly enjoying the first two books in this trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was a bit of a letdown. The plot was overly complicated yet lacking in suspense, with much more setup than actual story. There were also far too many characters to keep track of easily. The subplot about Erika Berger, while somewhat interesting, often felt awkward and unnecessary, like Larsson was trying too hard to add substance to a secondary character. The romance (if it can be called that) between Blomkvist and Monica Figuerola was cliché and unworthy of the other, far more interesting relationships that have populated the trilogy. While Lisbeth Salander is, as always, a powerful presence, I thought that her viewpoint got put aside a little too much in favor of other characters, whether heroes or villains.

For me, though, perhaps the biggest fault in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is that the social commentary is not as well integrated as it was in the other two novels. Here, the text comes off as more of a diatribe against Sweden’s flaws than it does as a thriller that confronts social issues. As a result, there are some very long, dull passages in the text that I would have liked to skip over, but did not feel I could.

The last 100 pages or so of the book are, fortunately, a big improvement, with gripping courtroom drama and some of the thrilling kinds of moments that made the first two books so great. The conclusion is fairly satisfying, though a bit predictable, and written in such a way that one cannot help but join in the speculation as to whether Stieg Larsson was planning any more books in the series before his sudden death in 2004.

Whether Larsson intended to write more books or not, I can honestly say that, despite the flaws of the last book, the Millennium trilogy is a strong thriller series that both challenged me and kept me on the edge of my seat. Skeptical as I was at first, I understood why these books were so successful well before I finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Larsson’s greatest accomplishment, of course, was the character of Lisbeth Salander, whose toughness, intelligence, and complexity defy the usual standards for thriller characters, especially female ones. Even if I don’t remember every single detail of this series, I will certainly never forget her.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht Tuesday, Apr 3 2012 

Natalia is a young doctor in an unnamed, fictionalized Balkan country. As she travels to a remote area to assist in inoculating children at an orphanage, she is coping with the recent death of her beloved grandfather, who was also a doctor. She tries to learn more about her grandfather and his life through the fantastical stories he left behind, namely the tale of the “deathless man,” whom Natalia’s grandfather encountered several times throughout his life, and one about “the tiger’s wife,” a mysterious young woman who befriended a tiger in the grandfather’s village when he was a child. In the midst of all this, Natalia is also confronted with the bizarre, morbid secrets of the area surrounding the orphanage where she is working.

Obreht certainly has an amazing way with words and the style of magical realism, and many passages in the novel are quite stunning as a result. The fables interwoven into Natalia’s story are especially captivating for their blending of magic into the real world. Unfortunately, this style gets in the way of the book having much substance. The Tiger’s Wife comes dangerously close to not having any plot. I wouldn’t expect such a meditative novel to be action-packed, but the book goes a little too far in the opposite direction. It felt as if absolutely nothing happened over the course of the novel, at least as far as Natalia was concerned. I did not believe that Natalia developed as a person or even learned anything important over the course of the novel; to be frank, I was never entirely sure what she was trying to learn or understand about her grandfather in the first place.

Nearly everything in the novel is connected by the theme of dealing with death and loss, especially in a war-torn region where these things are always present. However, Obreht never seems to have any deep insights about this theme, and the prose, beautiful though it may be, becomes so obscure and convoluted that I found it difficult to draw any conclusions about death, loss, and the author’s thoughts on those matters myself. This thematic hollowness is yet another example of nothing really happening in The Tiger’s Wife, albeit in a more theoretical way. Perhaps this is a characteristic of magical realism that I have yet to understand, but I found it disconcerting and disappointing. Even if a novel is not full of action, I like to learn something or have some more insight after reading it, and that simply did not happen with this book.

I wonder if I might have enjoyed The Tiger’s Wife more if it had been written as a series of loosely connected short stories. The fables of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife were very interesting and beautifully written, but the novel faltered when it shifted to the present and Natalia tried to connect these stories to learning more about her grandfather. The whole idea felt thinly stretched and completely unresolved by the end of the book. While Obreht definitely has a wonderful way with words and imagery, and a lot of potential, her debut novel definitely has the same major flaw I’ve seen with other young writers, and with a lot of so-called literary fiction in general. There is so much focus on the style that the plot is underdeveloped, and even the themes the author means to discuss get lost. In this particular case, I also thought that, for a novel so obviously intended to be “literary,” the characters were very one-dimensional and bland. As mentioned before, I saw practically no development on Natalia’s part over the course of the novel, and all her relationships appeared very superficial, even with the grandfather she claims to have loved and admired so much. Even the grandfather himself remains overly distant and undeveloped by the end of the book, when I’d expected that Natalia would have learned some deeper truths and understood him better at that point.

Basically, this is a book that had a lot of promise when I picked it up, but the potential was simply never fulfilled, at least not for me. I realize that this book has gotten many sparkling reviews and that I am somewhat of a contrary naysayer here. I do feel inspired now to read more established magical realism authors like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez, if for no other reason than to see what my overall response is to that style of writing. Still, even not having read much in this style, I think it’s way too soon to start counting Obreht as one of its great writers. Her use of language is impressive, but there isn’t quite enough depth to it yet. She’s got the style down, so I hope her future books will focus a little more on substance.

Julian by Gore Vidal Sunday, Apr 1 2012 

I love historical fiction, and in my opinion, Gore Vidal is a master of the genre. Having read Burr and Lincoln, which are both excellent, I decided to check out a Vidal novel that explores something outside American history. That brought me to Julian, his 1964 novel about the Roman Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus, often known as Julian the Apostate.

Twenty years after Julian’s death, Libanius and Priscus, two philosophers who had been Julian’s confidantes, have decided to attempt to have Julian’s memoir published. Once the process of doing so is agreed upon, the novel consists primarily of the manuscript of the memoir, along with the two philosophers’ marginal notes regarding their own memories of the events in Julian’s narrative—and often providing a more truthful, detailed account of what actually happened. Julian’s memoir details his early life and education, his ascent to becoming Caesar in the West, and eventually, his time as emperor. Much of the focus is on his transition from a student-prince only interested in philosophy to an ambitious military leader. Most prominent, though, is Julian’s contempt for Christianity and his interest in Mithraism and the ancient Roman gods, culminating in his efforts as emperor to restore the old Roman religion and eliminate the influence of Christianity altogether—efforts that would lead to his assassination in 363.

As I’ve noticed with the other Gore Vidal novels I’ve read, Julian has a brilliantly crafted structure that presents some worthwhile ideas. The comments on Julian’s memoir, especially from Priscus, frequently mention details that Julian chose not to include, either to make himself look more impressive to future generations or to avoid thinking about unpleasant memories. The notes between Priscus and Libanius throughout the memoir also present a more realistic perspective on some of the people Julian trusted and admired most. By writing the novel in this fashion, rather than simply as a fictional memoir, Vidal demonstrates that even a person’s own words cannot tell their entire story. There will almost always be unflattering details about their lives that they decide—consciously or unconsciously—not to discuss, and it will be up to other people to fill in those blanks. The structure of the novel also suggests that other people can often see the truth about our lives better than we can ourselves, especially when it comes to our closest friends. This is most obvious in Julian regarding the philosopher Maximus, whom Julian depends on for years for spiritual guidance and admires greatly. Priscus, on the other hand, can see that Maximus is more showmanship than spirituality, and that everything he says and does is carefully calculated to keep Julian’s favor.

The religious conflict of the era proves to be the most interesting aspect of the novel. Unsurprisingly from an author like Gore Vidal, the critique of Christianity is quite harsh, and the religion is presented as a serious detriment to tolerance and intellectual endeavors in the Roman Empire. However, it also seems to me that Vidal views Julian’s attempts to revive the “old gods” with some skepticism as well, especially regarding animal sacrifices and their use as some sort of indicator of future events. Though the novel is not exactly objective about this conflict, I did learn a lot about early Christianity and other practices of the era from it. I always appreciate an entertaining novel that also teaches me something and encourages me to learn more about a subject.

It is clear that Gore Vidal did meticulous research for this book, and Julian is a very accurate depiction of Julian the Apostate and the time in which he lived. It has a lot of the same qualities that I enjoyed so much about Burr and Lincoln, but also gave me the opportunity to find out more about a time in history about which I do not know very much. This is historical fiction at its very best, and I definitely recommend it to any fan of the genre.

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson Sunday, Mar 4 2012 

At the beginning of The Girl Who Played with Fire, Lisbeth Salander is now independently wealthy, thanks to her involvement with bringing down corrupt businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström. Returning to Sweden after a year of traveling the world, she starts thinking about her future.

Mikael Blomkvist has triumphantly returned to his position at Millennium, but remains baffled by Salander’s cutting him off from her life after their return from Hedestad the year before.  He is working with promising young journalist Dag Svensson and Svensson’s girlfriend, Mia Johansson, on a book and an edition of Millennium dedicated to sex trafficking in Sweden—a project that promises to be a shocking, unprecedented exposé. Dag and Mia are killed in their apartment shortly before the magazine’s publication, and much to Blomkvist’s horror, Lisbeth Salander’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon. Matters only become worse when Salander’s guardian, Nils Bjurman, is also found dead. Even as the Swedish public vilifies Salander and shocking secrets about her early life are exposed, Blomkvist remains determined to prove that his one-time friend and collaborator did not kill anyone. As Blomkvist struggles to make the authorities reconsider Salander’s guilt, Salander herself is forced to deal with the demons of her past, and her own connection to the story Dag Svensson , Mia Johansson, and Blomkvist were determined to tell.

This is an even more complicated thriller than its predecessor, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and while it did occasionally get a bit overwhelming, it was almost impossible to put down. The plot is, as is the case with many thrillers, a bit far-fetched, but it is exciting and engrossing nonetheless; I stayed up much later than I should have several nights because I was so anxious to see what happened next. There are quite a few surprises along the way, including some revelations about Salander that were very different from what I expected. The social commentary is even more scathing than in the previous novel, yet it still feels organic to the plot. I expect the same from The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the final installment in the trilogy, which I just began reading.

Once again, though, Lisbeth Salander is what stands out more than anything or anyone else in this book. She only became more remarkable as I learned more about her. She’s one of the most morally complex, antisocial characters I’ve ever encountered, but also one of the strongest and smartest. It’s impossible not to root for her, even if almost none of the other characters do.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest picks up right where The Girl Who Played with Fire leaves off. Considering how this book ended, I’m expecting to stay up way too late a few more nights, unable to stop reading.

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