Arcadia by Lauren Groff chronicles the rise and fall of a 1970s commune in upstate New York.  While living in makeshift homes, a group of idealists calling themselves The Free People work together to renovate an old mansion where hundreds could coexist in harmony, sharing equally in manual labor and production of food.  Though it was started by people looking for a life of freedom, equality, and communal living, it becomes clear over time that this utopian society isn’t all that was promised and dreamed of.  People are often just cold and starving, but they keep waiting for life in Arcadia to get better at the encouragement of their charismatic but ultimately hypocritical leader.

We learn about Arcadia through the eyes of a five-year-old boy named Bit, the first child born in the commune.  Bit lives in a bread truck with his hard-working father Abe and his deeply depressed mother Hannah, who was a ray of light in Arcadia until her miscarriage caused her to see Arcadia as it really was.  Despite his age Bit is an astute observer of the good times and bad in Arcadia, and so his childlike lens is perfect for introducing this society.  The story moves through the ups and downs of Arcadia’s history, visiting Bit and catching up on his life and the livelihood of the Arcadians when Bit is 5, 15, 35, and 50 years old.

My favorite thing about this book was Lauren Groff’s lovely prose.  She makes it easy to become fully immersed in the world of Arcadia through the lush detail.  Even the parts of the story that could easily come off sounding like cliches (everyone is vegan, the women wear flowing dresses and braids, plenty of illegal drugs are consumed) somehow transcend this because Groff’s rich writing and realistic characters keep this novel from turning into a series 1970s cliches.

Once I really got into this book, I couldn’t put it down.  The characters were so compelling and real that I just had to know what would happen to Bit, Abe, Hannah, and Arcadia itself.  Though I had a good idea of how things would turn out, the last quarter of the book took me to some unexpected places.  Overall I highly recommend this book, especially if you’re interested in historical fiction or 1970s culture.

The popularity of Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games, got me thinking about apocalyptic books I’ve read. Alas, Babylonby Pat Frank was on school reading lists- years ago. Originally published in 1959, the novel is about the survival of a community in Florida after the United States has been hit by  nuclear missiles.

What is satisfying about this books is how the extended family of Randy Bragg gets back to nature in order to survive – using local plants, fruits and trees to eat and to re-build. And eventually they thrive and learn to appreciate their new-found lifestyle.

The story has alot in common with that of  Swiss Family Robinson. Like the Pat Frank book, the characters respond to adversity with ingenuity. Both books take place in tropical settings, which give the families a definite advantage. They don’t have to cope with cold weather and are surrounded by abundant sources of food and fuel.

Shipwrecks, nuclear war and other disasters have always been  catalysts to the imaginations of novelists. How do you think you would fare in those circumstances?

The History of Love is a bittersweet novel that tells the intertwined stories of Alma Singer and Leo Gursky, a teenage girl and an old man whose lives collide under extraordinary circumstances.

When Alma explores her namesake, the main character of the book-within-a-book also titled “The History of Love,” she discovers a dense tapestry of love, heartbreak, and friendship that centers around another Alma, Leo Gursky, her deceased father, her bereft mother, an unknown writer from Poland by way of Chile, and the famous American author Isaac Moritz. Nicole Krauss makes this potentially convoluted tale feel truly magical by illuminating the long, tangled strings of time and events that bring her characters together. There are few detours from the plot and no wasted words, so the story is fully explored and feels deeper than its 272 pages. It’s sweet and sad and thought provoking, but doesn’t carry any depressing baggage to sour your mood. The ending is uplifting without being tidy and perfect.

I selected this book for my book club and I was delighted to see quotations from its pages popping up in my fellow members’ status updates and conversations. There are a lot of beautiful language moments and highly quotable passages (“her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering” – *swoons*), which help make the book such a joy to read.

Krauss is married to author Jonathan Safran Foer, and their novels make lovely companions. If you loved his novels Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or  Everything Is Illuminated, you will fall for The History of Love, and vice versa. Both authors employ lyrical language to explore the topic of Jewish history (to put it broadly) through the eyes of fictional writers. In Everything is Illuminated, the protagonist is a writer who travels throughout eastern Europe looking for the history of his family and their village. In The History of Love, every major character and almost every minor character are writers in one form or another. Both books are so beautiful that it’s hard to decide which one I liked better, but either or both would make a great springtime read.

Little Bee offers a lot to talk about, but without a lot of substance. It exhibits a weird tension between visceral and twee, with its pretty cover, gimmicky blurb, Dickensian coincidences, and gritty portrayal of humanitarian crises in western Africa. It’s a book that doesn’t make you decide between ‘drama of unimaginable cruelty and violence’ and ‘saga of suburban ennui and infidelity’ – it just has both, and by virtue of that uniqueness, it’s already worthy of discussion. Additionally, the sadness of the subject matter and its real-life inspiration make this a heart wrenching book that will absolutely give book clubs fodder for great discussion.

There’s a lot of good in Little Bee; it’s snappy and readable, even beautiful in its language at times. Its setting contrasts the familiarity of London with the unknown of its asylum-seekers and Nigeria’s oil conflict in a surprisingly effective way. But there are lots of negatives too: the plot has turns so contrived you’ll wince, and Little Bee herself is so perfectly perfect that her nobility can be tiresome. Few of the characters are memorable and even fewer are sympathetic.

It also suffers from the plight of Changed Title Syndrome, wherein the publishers change the original title in an attempt to appeal to American audiences (this also famously happened with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – because presumably, American kids would never stoop to read something with a word as dull as ‘philosopher’ in the title). In this case, the wonderfully apt and evocative title “The Other Hand” was rewritten to the rather plain and accessible “Little Bee.” Rather than calling attention to the central metaphor and most vivid scene of the book, the new title simply names the main character, and it’s rather banal by comparison.

“Little Bee” is an unusual, readable book that, while imperfect, would make a great choice for book clubs (provided all members are comfortable with some gritty, violent scenes).

 

From classic literature to modern popular fiction, some works of phenomenal popularity just don’t resonate with every reader. When I tried to read Anna Karenina, it was a 2004 selection of Oprah’s Book Club. The title enjoyed a surge in popularity as people revisited a classic “considered by some to be the greatest novel ever written…tale of love and adultery set against the backdrop of high society in Moscow and Saint Petersburg” (quoted from the back cover blurb of the Main Library’s copy). I was not impressed. After a justly famous opening line, the book bored me to death and I set it aside after only a couple dozen pages. It was boring, it was stilted, it was old and it was stuffy: above all, it was long! Most editions finish somewhere between 850 and 950 pages. If you are like me, intrigued by the novel but unimpressed by it, you might like to read these novels instead.

What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn: This steamy novel re-imagines the plot of Anna Karenina in modern Queens. Much like Tolstoy’s Anna, the titular Anna K. seeks an escape from her lifeless marriage in a reckless affair with a dashing young author. This brisk, enchanting novel compares favorably to the original at 244 pages.

 

Dinner With Anna Karenina by Gloria Goldreich: This tender novel of friendship examines the lives of 6 modern women as their book club reads Anna Karenina. As they discuss the classic, they make individual and group journeys toward improving their own lives.

 

Android Karenina by Ben H. Winters and Leo Tolstoy: In this embroidered version, Winters adds to and alters the original text of Anna Karenina to include cyborgs, space travel, and robots, adding a distinctive and imaginative twist to the story.

 

If you want to give Anna Karenina a go, place a hold on it at any of the three Davenport libraries. If the going gets tough, online reading guides may help you get more out of the text.

Be sure to read Lynn’s first impressions of this book here!

I’d have to say this didn’t sustain it’s promise. Not a short book (436 pages),  To Be Sung Underwater peters out and gets repetitious. The romance between Judith and Willy, Judith’s present-day career problems, her relationship with her husband and daughter…. all these plot strands show promise and you wonder what’s going to happen, but there’s no real payoff for investing so much time in them.

McNeal has a few literary ticks – he repeats adjectives again and again: the “flutish” sound of the wind, as well as portentous phrases such as “she would realize later…” or “she’d always remember such and such later…”

After a while, you realize this isn’t a book about plot; it’s a book about place. The dry, remote landscape of  northwestern Nebraska is what’s really memorable. The people who pass through it are transitory and not that important in the long run, as Willy comes to believe.

That may be true but I still felt like Judith’s story arc wasn’t completed. If you are a reader who likes resolution and closure, this may not be the book for you.

The bestselling author of Sarah’s Key, Tatina de Rosnay, has written another winner.  A Secret Kept literally keeps the reader in suspense, wondering if the secret will ever be totally revealed.

Antoine takes his sister Melanie on a 40th birthday trip to  Noirmoutier Island, a lovely place where they had spent several enjoyable summers as children.   But something about the island also brings back troubling memories for Melanie.  On the return trip home, just as Melanie is about to reveal her fears to Antoine, she loses control of the car.  The book opens with Antoine waiting anxiously in a hospital waiting room, wondering if Melanie will even survive.

Antoine finds himself confronting not only his past, but his present family relationships as well.  Unhappy since his divorce just a year ago, he has difficulty communicating with his children and he has always felt distanced from his father.  He senses the secret revolves around his mother, and he wonders about her sudden death so many years ago.

I really enjoyed this book.  The tension is kept sufficiently tight, and the character development, realistic.  Plus, if you’re a francophile, you’ll appreciate some of the many French references! Incidentally, the author was recently named one of the top ten fiction writers in Europe.

Family politics, secret lovers, mysterious deaths, thwarted love – it’s all here, dressed up in exquisite Edwardian detail, surrounded by the lush beauty of the English countryside of the wealthy. Downton Abbey brings the trials and tribulations of a noble family and their various servants to life in this wonderful new series from the BBC.

Lord Robert Crawley and his family live in quiet luxury in their beautiful Yorkshire estate supported by a fleet of servants. Their leisurely life is shaken when the sinking of the Titanic takes Sir Robert’s heirs. Because he and his American-born wife have only daughters, in accordance to English law when Sir Robert dies, the estate will now pass to a distant male cousin previously unknown to the family. Prepared to despise the new heir (who actually works for a a living as a solicitor), the family instead find themselves becoming fond of Matthew and his strong views of fairness. Can the eldest daughter Sybil admit to her growing feelings for Matthew, or is she only thinking of saving the family estate when she considers marrying him?

Meanwhile, various dramas unfold below stairs. A new valet, who shares a mysterious past with Sir Robert, is hired and Thomas the footman schemes against him. A maid must help Lady Crawley hide a terrible secret and the loyalty of the servants is tested again and again as their lives intertwine irrevocably with the family.

As you would expect from the BBC, the production values of this series are flawless – costumes, sets, writing, photography and acting are all top-notch. The advantage of the DVD set is that while four shows were seen on PBS earlier this year, there are seven shows available on this DVD as well as making-of specials and commentaries. A sensation in England, a second season set during World War I has been filmed. After seeing the first season, you’ll be anxiously awaiting it’s arrival in the US!

Confession:  I am majorly geeking out over George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.  I just finished the first book in the series, called A Game of Thrones, and even though it is very long and very intense, all I want to do is start reading the next book!  I’m really not sure how to briefly summarize a nearly 900 page book in a way that will make sense, but here goes nothing.

In the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, seasons can last for decades, and a long period of summer is about to end and lead into winter.  Lord Eddard Stark has just been paid a visit by the King of the Seven Kingdoms with a request:  he would like Eddard to come to King’s Landing and take a new position as the Hand of the King (sort of a second-in-command).  Though reluctant, Eddard accepts so that he can go to King’s Landing and investigate the death of the previous Hand, his good friend Jon Arryn.   The story involves a lot of mystery and intrigue, as well as romance, violence, adventure, action, direwolves, and swordplay.

The story is told in alternating viewpoints, so the reader gets to hear not just Eddard’s viewpoint, but also those of his illegitimate son Jon Snow, the queen’s sharp-tongued dwarf brother Tyrion, Eddard’s wife Catelyn, their willful daughter Arya, and more.  My favorite character, however, has to be Daenerys Targaryen.  She and her brother are the rightful heirs to the throne, but they have been in hiding ever since the current King usurped the throne from their father.  Daenerys (or Dany) starts off as a meek young girl succumbing to her brother’s every temper-fueled demand, but grows stronger and more confident as the book progresses.  I love seeing her transformation and am eager to find out what happens to her next.

My little summary is really just the tip of the iceberg.  There’s a lot going on in this book, and it’s all done with fantastic world building and engaging character development.  I’m pretty eager to pick up the next book, called A Clash of Kings.  Plus, HBO just made the book into a series, but I haven’t been able to watch it because I unfortunately don’t get that channel.   Have YOU watched the show, and if so, how is it?  Does it live up to the book?

The pleasure in reading a book like Cleaning Nabokov’s House is to enjoy vicariously the survival and ultimate triumph of an average (well, maybe not so average) person.

Barb Barrett is a wife and mother in a small town who loses what she loves most (her father, cousin and children) in relatively quick succession. When she is at her lowest point, she is unemployed and more or less homeless – living out of her car and reduced to watching her children from afar. She lost custody because the judge, lawyers, and social workers in the small, upstate New York town is allied with her husband, a hometown boy. A meal may consist of boiled lettuce; she has one pair of good pants.

Her luck begins to change when she buys a house formerly occupied by Vladimir Nabokov. She finds a manuscript presumably written by the author of Lolita. The reader picks up bits about Nabokov’s life and works and, I, at least, wanted to read more of his actual novels.

Leslie Daniels, in her first novel, creates a character who is endearingly quirky and self-reliant. We root for her success and hope for her former husband’s (the ex-person’s) downfall.