Top Ten Tuesday: Dark Academia

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

June 1: Freebie (choose any past topic, or come up with you own)

Lately I’ve been really into what I’d call “dark academia” as a literary subgenre. I love academic settings. I love gloomy gothic trappings. I love weirdness. So it’s really no surprise that I’d love literary mashups of all of that!

1.The Secret History by Donna Tartt-This is sort of a definitive cornerstone of the genre. It follows Richard, a student at a New England college. He wants to study Greek, and Julian, the enigmatic professor eventually allows Richard into his selective tutorial of only six students. Richard is slowly drawn into the world of the other students. But it’s a world that goes beyond the boundaries of morality and even legality. As Richard finds himself privy to the group’s secrets, he also learns that some members of the group will stop at nothing, including murder. I read this in my senior year of high school, and it just so happened that we were reading Crime and Punishment at the same time in one of my classes. I’m glad that was the case, because I think that it allowed me to get more out of The Secret History, since Dostoyevsky’s work is clearly a strong influence. I’m actually sort of surprised that Hollywood hasn’t tackled this book yet. But I think it would be a hard book to translate to film in a way that worked.

2. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro– This has all the elements of dark academic setting with a bit of a sci-fi twist. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are all students at Hailsham, an isolated boarding school in the English countryside. The atmosphere of the school is very cliquey and the teachers always remind the students how “special” they are. Years later, with the knowledge and understanding of how and why they were “special,” Ruth reflects on her time and Hailsham, and the friendships she formed there. There’s a film version of the book, and while it’s a pretty good adaptation, it tells the viewer what makes the students at Haimsham special in the first ten minutes or so. In the book it’s sort of a gradual, growing realization for the reader. As I started to understand, I was sort of hoping I was wrong. I think that experience is a part of what makes this book special, and it’s definitely why I’d recommend reading the book before seeing the film.

3. The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman– Actually a lot of Goodman’s work, including the Fairwick trilogy (a romantic fantasy series that she initially wrote under the name “Juliet Black,”) and her YA fantasy Blythewood series, qualifies for this list. I chose this book to feature mostly because it doesn’t incorporate as many other genres. A week before her high school graduation, Jane Hudson fled the Heart Lake School For Girls after three of her classmates committed suicide. Jane was the only one who knew the truth about their fates, and she carried that knowledge with her for the next twenty years, When she returns to the school as a Latin teacher, troubled students once again begin to die, and the memories that Jane repressed for so long, begin to surface.

4. Villette by Charlotte BronteJane Eyre comes to mind first of course, and there is a notably dark school setting early in that book, but the setting also changes very early in the book. This book, on the other hand, has all of the gothic-ness that we expect from Bronte, and it’s set almost entirely in a boarding school in Belgium. The heroine, Lucy Snow, travels there to teach after a family disaster, and becomes involved in romance, intrigue and adventure. I do think Jane Eyre is a “easier read,” and it also features a dark aesthetic with academic plot points, so I’d recommend readers unfamiliar with Bronte start there. But Villette is an enjoyable next step in the Bronte journey through dark academia.

5. The Broken Girls by Simone St. James– Idlewild Hall is a Vermont boarding school for girls that’s reputed to be haunted. In the 1950’s four students at the school became good friends, until one of them disappears. More than 60 years later, journalist, Fiona Sheridan’s sister’s body is found near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. Her boyfriend was convicted of the murder, but Fiona has her doubts. When she learns that the school is being restored by a mysterious benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But what she learns involves a horrifying secret that connects her sisters murder to the disappearance so long ago.

6. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray – The whole Gemma Doyle trilogy is a lovely mix of Victorian Gothic and fantasy with a boarding school setting. Gemma Doyle is sent from the life she knew in India, in 1895, to Spence, an English boarding school, following the death of her mother. Gemma is initially lonely. She’s haunted by her mother’s death and visions that have a tendency to come true. But things get really crazy when Gemma is drawn into a clique of girls who are dipping their toes into the world of spirits. What they learn will change them forever.

7. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss– I was a bit iffy about whether to include this one, because it’s not set in a “traditional” academic setting. Silvie and her family live in modern England, but they live as if they’re ancient Britons, with the tools and knowledge of the Iron Age. One summer, Silvie’s father takes the family to join an anthropology course that is reenacting life in the Iron Age. But mixing with these students gives Sylvie a chance to see the prospect of a life away from her father’s obsession with the ancient Britons. As the group gets closer to the lifestyle of their subjects, things take a darker turn. The push and pull between the modern life that intrigues Sylvie, and the ancient life that obsesses her father, becomes a tug of war. Even though it’s not set in a school, the fact that it’s set amongst students in a practical exercise gives it that “academic” feeling.

8. Red Leaves by Paullina Simons– Kristina, Jim, Conni and Albert are all students at Dartmouth College. They have a close friendship, and one Thanksgiving weekend they all decide to stay on campus. When Kristina’s body is found in a snowbank shortly after, detective, Spencer O’Malley is on the case. As he learns about the groups dynamics, questions arise. Why did Kristina’s friends fail to report her missing? Their answers to his questions reveal a web of jealousy, secrets, deceptions, and possibly murder.

9. Down A Dark Hall by Lois Duncan- A ghost story set in a mysterious gothic boarding school. Pretty much made for this list! Actually Duncan’s Daughters of Eve also fits it pretty well, but I’ll go with this, since it’s the first one I thought of. Kit Gordy is sent to Blackwood Academy when her mother remarries. She’s not happy about it. She’s even more disturbed when she learns that she’s one of only four students accepted this term. When Blackwood’s students begin to show amazing talents in the arts and sciences, Kit can’t help but notice that it’s taking a toll on their health. She often wakes up with sore arms and fingers. The headmistress is quick to explain everything away, until Kit learns something that puts her and her classmates in terrible danger. I devoured this book when I was eleven or twelve. I don’t know how well it holds up, but I did recently see the film adaptation which wasn’t bad.

10. The Magus by John Fowles– Nicholas Urfe is a young Englishman who takes a teaching job on a remote Greek island. There he meets Conchis, the reclusive millionaire who owns the island. Conchis offers Nicholas what seems to be friendship. But he is drawn into a twisted game of betrayal, violence, and psychological traps. Soon Nicholas is unable to tell past from present and fantasy from reality. He finds himself fighting to maintain his sanity and stay alive. Even though this is set at a school on an island, most of the action takes place outside the school. But I’m counting this because I’d call the relationship that Conchis has with Nicolas to be very academic (at least to start off). There’s also a film adaptation, but I haven’t seen it yet.

Top Ten Tuesday: Anti-Travel Books

For That Artsy Reader Girl‘s Top Ten Tuesday, this week’s topic was

June 12: Books That Awaken the Travel Bug In Me

But then I started thinking that books that make me want to stay home might also be kind of fun…

51vkfhy5xal-_ac_us218_1. Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella

Location: Greek Resort

Problem: Lottie is disappointed when her boyfriend doesn’t propose. When her ex-shows up they impulsively decide to elope. After the ceremony, it’s a quick flight to Greece. But Lottie’s sister, Fliss, knows that this marriage is a terrible idea. She also knows the marriage can be easily annulled if it’s not consummated, so she’s on a mission to keep that from happening, getting everyone from the groom’s best friend, to the hotel staff to help her.

41unjbdr4ql-_ac_us218_2. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Location: Italy

Problem: Tom Ripley has been hired by a rich man to get his son Dickie to return to the US. Tom meets up with Dickie and some of his friends in Italy. But instead of getting Dickie to go home, he ends up killing Dickie and assuming his identity.

41yn-xblul-_ac_us218_3. Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier

Location: Venice, Italy

Problem- A young couple is vacationing in Venice while trying to recover from the loss of their daughter. They meet two women who claim to be psychic, and the women give a warning and tell them that their daughter’s spirit is with them. At the same time, a serial killer is stalking the city’s streets and canals…

51zbak-airl-_ac_us218_4. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Location: Scandinavian luxury cruise

Problem: Lo is a travel writer, assigned to cover the maiden voyage of a new cruise line.  Her first night on board, she hears a scream and a splash. Looking out her window she sees something in the water. However, the ship’s officials don’t believe that anything really happened. Lo had been drinking that night, and no passengers are missing.

51mny8nb9il-_ac_us218_5. The Ruins by Scott Smith

Location: Cancun, Mexico

Problem: Four friends are on a beach vacation. When the brother of one of them disappears they decide to look for him where he was last seen, checking out some ancient ruins in the jungle. When they reach the ruins, the locals don’t seem to want to let them go, and once they do make it, they’re not allowed to leave, because an ancient enemy lives in the ruins.

51q4ceca-kl-_ac_us218_6. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Location: Dorset coast, England

Problem: In 1962, Florence and Edward have just gotten married, and are on their honeymoon. But one of them has a secret that may tear them apart.

 

41thlz3l7dl-_ac_us218_7. Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes

Location: Ireland

Problem: Rachael is an Irish ex-pat living in NYC. But when her tendency to overdo things lands her in the emergency room, her family whisks her back to Ireland and sends her to the Cloisters, a rehab. Rachel thinks it might be kind of nice: a little vacation, some spa treatments, maybe a celebrity roommate… What she finds are a lot of group therapy and some unwelcome self-knowledge.

51c7vwzpjhl-_ac_us218_8. Sleeping Arrangements by Madeline Wickam (aka Sophie Kinsella)

Location: Spain

Problem: Hugh feels alienated from his wife and kids. He hopes that a trip to a friend’s luxury villa in Spain will help the family reconnect. Meanwhile, Chloe and her family are facing similar problems and their friend offers them the same solution. But it turns out that their friend booked both families in the villa for the same week. And Chloe and Hugh have a history, and before the week is out old ghosts will be put to rest, new tensions will erupt, and the families may or may not make it out intact.

51ohnm-86zl-_ac_us218_9. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Location: North Africa

Problem: Port and Kit travel to Africa believing that it’s one of the last “unspoiled” places in the world. They’re soon joined by several annoying, parasitic travelers. To escape they head into the Sahara without plans or directions. It does not go well.

51yxivihhl-_ac_us218_10. The Magus by John Fowles

Location: Greek Island

Problem: Nicholas Urfe is a recent grad who has accepted a job teaching on a Greek island. He befriends the owner of an estate on the island, who plays elaborate mind games with him until he can’t tell what is and isn’t real.

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Settings I’d Love To Visit

For the Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday:

December 5: Ten Bookish Settings I’d Love to Visit

I decided to keep this list to bookish settings that actually exist. So much as I’d like to visit Narnia, or Hogwarts, these can all be found on a map or globe. Also I decided it to limit to places where I’ve never been (yet).

1. Prince Edward Island, Canada as seen in the work of LM Montgomery– I’ve loved the work on LM Mongomery since I was a child and Prince Edward Island is a character that is consistent in her work. It sounds beautiful. It looks beautiful based on the pictures that I’ve seen. It’s definitely on my literary travel list!

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“…the Lake of Shining Waters was blue — blue — blue; not the changeful blue of spring, nor the pale azure of summer, but a clear, steadfast, serene blue, as if the water were past all modes and tenses of emotion and had settled down to a tranquillity unbroken by fickle dreams.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island

2. Scotland as seen in the work of Diana Gabaldon, The Lymond Chronicles by  Dorothy Dunnett, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, Lady of the Glen by Jennifer Roberson,  the  Too Deep for Tears trilogy by Katheryn Lynne Davis, Island of the Swans by Ciji Ware- I’ve read a lot of books set in Scotland, that draw on the rich history and beautiful landscape. My third grade teacher was Scottish and had what sounded like the coolest accent to me at the time. In some ways it seems that Scotland is an enchanted fairy land more than a real place to me! But I do know people who have been there and assure me it’s real, and that while there are certainly the fantasy places that are described in books, there are many normal places too.

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“The sigh of all the seas breaking in measure round the isles soothed them; the night wrapped them; nothing broke their sleep, until, the birds beginning and the dawn weaving their thin voices in to its whiteness”
― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

3. Cornwall, England as seen in the work of Daphne DuMaurier– The cliff-side mansion in Rebecca. The smugglers hideout in Jamaica Inn, the pirates of Frenchman’s Creek. Cornwall is a place of mystery, danger and romance in my eyes, thanks in large part to Daphne DuMaurier.

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“The peace of Manderley. The quietude and the grace. Whoever lived within its walls, whatever trouble there was and strife, however much uneasiness and pain, no matter what tears were shed, what sorrows borne, the peace of Manderley could not be broken or the loveliness destroyed. The flowers that died would bloom again another year, the same birds build their nests, the same trees blossom. That old quiet moss smell would linger in the air, and the bees would come, and crickets, the herons build their nests in the deep dark woods. The butterflies would dance their merry jug across the lawns, and spiders spin foggy webs, and small startled rabbits who had no business to come trespassing poke their faces through the crowded shrubs. There would be lilac, and honeysuckle still, and the white magnolia buds unfolding slow and tight beneath the dining-room window. No one would ever hurt Manderley. It would lie always in its hollow like an enchanted thing, guarded by the woods, safe, secure, while the sea broke and ran and came again in the little shingle bays below.”

4. The Yorkshire Moors, England as seen in the work of the Bronte sisters, and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgden Burnett

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‘And what are those golden rocks like when you stand under them?’ she once asked.

The abrupt descent of Penistone Crags particularly attracted her notice; especially when the setting sun shone on it and the topmost heights, and the whole extent of landscape besides lay in shadow. I explained that they were bare masses of stone, with hardly enough earth in their clefts to nourish a stunted tree.

‘And why are they bright so long after it is evening here?’ she pursued.

‘Because they are a great deal higher up than we are,’ replied I; ‘you could not climb them, they are too high and steep. In winter the frost is always there before it comes to us; and deep into summer I have found snow under that black hollow on the north-east side!’

-Wuthering Heights- Emily Bronte

“Listen to th’ wind wutherin’ round the house,” she said. “You could bare stand up on the moor if you was out on it tonight.”
Mary did not know what “wutherin'” meant until she listened, and then she understood. It must mean that hollow shuddering sort of roar which rushed round and round the house, as if the giant no one could see were buffeting it and beating at the walls and windows to try to break in. But one knew he could not get in, and somehow it made one feel very safe and warm inside a room with a red coal fire.”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

5. Paris, France as seen in Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens- Yes, I am very aware that these are books that depict very different era’s in Paris’ history. Of the three the Paris in The Elegance of the Hedgehog is probably most like the Paris I’d visit today. But I also know that the Cathedral de Notre Dame , still stands, with it’s gargoyles even if Quasimodo isn’t hiding among them. And there are still shades of the reign of terror that Dickens depicted.  I’ve read about Paris in a lot of other books too. Books set in occupied Paris during WWII. Books depicting la belle epoque. In some ways that convergence of beauty and violence is what makes the city seem so appealing to me.

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“Admirable, however, as the Paris of the present day appears to you, build up and put together again in imagination the Paris of the fifteenth century; look at the light through that surprising host of steeples, towers, and belfries; pour forth amid the immense city, break against the points of its islands, compress within the arches of the bridges, the current of the Seine, with its large patches of green and yellow, more changeable than a serpent’s skin; define clearly the Gothic profile of this old Paris upon an horizon of azure, make its contour float in a wintry fog which clings to its innumerable chimneys; drown it in deep night, and observe the extraordinary play of darkness and light in this sombre labyrinth of buildings; throw into it a ray of moonlight, which shall show its faint outline and cause the huge heads of the towers to stand forth from amid the mist; or revert to that dark picture, touch up with shade the thousand acute angles of the spires and gables, and make them stand out, more jagged than a shark’s jaw, upon the copper-coloured sky of evening. Now compare the two.”

-Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out…”
― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

6. Barcelona, Spain as seen in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon- The Barcelona seen in this novel is a twisty, Gothic place full of hidden secrets. In other words, it’s the kind of place I could really go for! Sure Zafon claims that some locations from the novel such as the rambling Hospice of Santa Lucia or the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books are fictional, but it seems like the kind of place where one might turn a corner and unexpectedly find something strange and beautiful.gothic-quarter-barcelona

“Before we knew it, we were walking along the breakwater until the whole city, shining with silence, speak out at our feet like the greatest mirage in the universe, emerging from the pool of the harbor waters. We sat on the edge of the jetty to gaze at the sight.

“This city is a sorceress, you know, Daniel? It gets under your skin and steals your soul without you knowing it.”

-The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

7. The Greek Islands as seen in The Magus by John Fowles- The book’s setting, the island of Phraxos, is technically fictional. But the author based it on his time on the real Greek island of Spetses, so I think it still counts for this list. The island that Fowles describes is beautiful and mysterious and isolated. It’s the kind of place where it’s easy to be overwhelmed and see menace hidden in the beauty. That’s certainly what happens to our narrator, Nicholas Urfe, in the novel. But since his sanity is open to debate, I think it’s also the kind of place where I might enjoy going and getting away from it all.

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“The lifeless sea was ruffled here and there by a lost zephyr, by a stippling shoal of sardines, dark ash-blue lines that snaked, broad then narrow, in slow motion across the shimmering mirageous surface, as if the water was breeding corruption.”

-The Magus by John Fowles

8. India as seen in The Far Pavillions by MM Kaye- Actually, I think that parts of this novel also take place in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. While it’s set in the 19th century the beautiful mountains stand out to me as a strong setting. It’s what I remember most about the book, and what I’d most love to see if I ever visit that part of the world. 10717253

“They rode out together from the shadows of the trees, leaving the Bala Hissar and the glowing torch of the burning Residency behind them, and spurred away across the flat lands towards the mountains…
And it may even be that they found their Kingdom.”
― M.M. Kaye, The Far Pavilions

9. Egypt as seen in The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif- When I was a kid I think I imagined Egypt as being desert, pyramids, sphinxes, and mummies walking around wrapped in toilet paper (in retrospect I think my childhood perception of Egypt might have been largely based on an episode of Scooby Doo). The Egypt that this book depicts has none of that. Well, we do see desert and pyramids, but  we also see cities and the Nile. It makes Egypt seem like a vivid place that’s almost breathes and has a pulse.

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“Fields and more fields on either side of the road.From where they are it looks as if the whole world were green.But from higher up,from a hill-if there were a hill in this flat country-or from a pyramid(one of the many that two thousand years ago lined this route from Thebes to Memphis,from the Delta to the Cataract)or from an aeroplane today,you would be able to see how narrow the strip green was,how closely it clung to the winding river.The river like a lifeline thrown across the desert, the villages and the town hanging on to it, clustering together, glancing over their shoulders at the desert always behind them.Appeasing it,finally,by making it the dwelling of their head.”
― Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love

10. Ireland as seen in the novels of Maeve Binchy, Cecelia Ahern, Marian Keyes, the Exit Unicorn series by Cindy Brandner, The Mermaid’s Singing by Lisa Carey- In some ways I think if Ireland in a way similar to Scotland; full of myths and lore. But I’ve also read enough Irish work set in contemporary times to have a better sense of what it is today. I’d still like to go, because I think that the richness of the lore pervades a place.

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But the sea, despite its allure, is not our destination. For we seek land- a land of myth and madness, of poets and politicians, rebels and raconteurs, of blood and brotherhood. A land unlike any other, half legend, half truth, wholly and terribly beautiful.

We fly through the night, until we see a line on the horizon, and we feel the relief of homecoming after such a very long voyage, after the faceless ocean undulating eternally beneath us. And so here we arrive, to the edge of a country of limestone cliffs, soft-faced with moss and nesting gulls . In we fly across a patchwork quilt of a thousand shades of green and low stone walls, with sheep dotting the dawn’s landscape. But do not let this enchantment fool you, for this is a land that has known much pain, whose fields are watered well and deep with blood. This is an old land, and our people have lived here long, some saying we were the small dark ones that dwelled in the trees, before the coming of the Celts, but we are older even than them. We knew this land before man, before God, before light.

-Flights of Angels by Cindy Brandner

11. Florence, Italy as seen in The Light in the Piazza by Elizabeth Spencer, A Room with a View by EM Forster- Florence in these books seems more alive than other places. It’s a place where people are able to get away from social notions of respectability, and really get in touch with their feelings.

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“It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not; with a painted ceiling whereon pink griffins and blue amorini sport in a forest of yellow violins and bassoons. It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and, close below, Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.”

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Books I Struggled to Get Into But Ended Up Being Worth the Effort

For The Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday:

September 5Ten Books I Struggled to Get Into But Ended Up Being Worth the Effort

These are all books that I considered putting down at one point (though in several chases they were assigned for school, but if they hadn’t been I may have considered it!) but I ended up being glad that I didn’t.

41cqtfv5hpl-_ac_us218_1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky- This was a book that I read with my AP Lit class in high school. I read it again in a 19th Century Novel class in college. It’s not easy going because a lot of what occurs takes place in the mind of Raskolnikov, the main character. Raskolnikov is an impoverished ex student living in St. Petersberg. He believes that there are some people who are a drain on society, who take advantage of the little guys, and who the world is ultimately better without. Surely we’d all be better off if these people would be put to death…. After a lot of deliberation, he kills Alyona Ivanovna, a greedy pawnbroker. In the process he also ends up killing her sister, Lizaveta, who happened to witness the crime. Once he makes his escape, Raskolnikov can’t get a moment’s peace. He worries obsessively over the details of the murder. Raskolnikov isn’t what you’d call psychologically sound. So spending a lot of time in his head can get confusing, and occasionally frustrating. But it’s worth it overall, to watch this feverish, tortured man, do the inexcusable, while truly believing it to be the best thing for society overall. It’s interesting to see him begin to realize the horror of what he’s done and wonder if redemption is possible.

418rxncl2rl-_ac_us218_2. The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski– At first it feels like there’s too much happening here. We begin with the story of Johnny Truant, a tattoo artist who confesses to being “an unreliable narrator”. He’s looking for an apartment and his friend tells him about the apartment of Zampano, a recently deceased old man. In Zampano’s apartment, Truant finds a manuscript called “The Navidson Record” which is an academic study of a documentary film, which may or may not actually exist. So we have Zampano’s study of the film, Truant’s autobiographical asides, a transcript of part of the film, interviews with people involved in “The Navidson Record” and masses of footnotes. We also get some narration from Truant’s mother through a self contained set of letters. It gets overwhelming! But as we read, we discover that there are small cues to keep the narratives straight, and that eventually they all come together to create a whole.

61eiooixctl-_ac_us218_3. Middlemarch by George Eliot– I read this for a college class and initially it seemed like a huge chore. We had what seemed to be endless descriptions of this town. The subtitle of the book is “A Study of Provincial Life” and for the first few chapters it seemed more like an academic study than a novel. Fortunately, as time went on, we become more involved in the lives of the town people. To a large extent, the focus is on the life of Dorothea Brooks, and the career of Tertius Lydgate and how the two intersect. But significant attention is also given to the courtship of two townspeople, and one man’s disgrace. I was surprised to go from dreading reading about dry facts, to slowly becoming involved in the lives of these characters.

61hyvemt7ol-_ac_us218_4. Possession by AS Byatt– Byatt says that she wrote it in response to author John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman:

Fowles has said that the nineteenth-century narrator was assuming the omniscience of a god. I think rather the opposite is the case—this kind of fictive narrator can creep closer to the feelings and inner life of characters—as well as providing a Greek chorus—than any first-person mimicry. In ‘Possession’ I used this kind of narrator deliberately three times in the historical narrative—always to tell what the historians and biographers of my fiction never discovered, always to heighten the reader’s imaginative entry into the world of the text

The novel portrays two present day academics, Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, who investigate the life and relationship of two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash (based on Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson) and Christabelle LaMotte (based on Christina Rosetti). They follow a trail of clues hidden in letters and journals,  to find out about the true nature of the Ash-LaMotte relationship, before rival colleagues do. The extensive diaries, poetry, and letters of the main characters are presented in the book as is the fictional poetry of Ash and LaMotte. All of this, and the academic way that Roland and Maud think, can initially make this feel dense and inapproachable. It takes some patience and getting used to.

51vp6vchi4l-_ac_us218_5. A  Little Life by Hana Yanagihara– This isn’t a book that hard to read because anything about the text itself is difficult. Rather it’s hard because it’s is so sad, and deals with so many difficult and taboo subjects. Four friends graduate an elite college and begin their lives in NYC. Willem is a kind hearted aspiring actor. JB is a painter of Hatian descent.  Malcom is an architect from a biracial family, who still lives at home. Jude is a lawyer of unknown ethnicity. Though the narration is omniscient and we meet all the characters, the bulk of the focus falls on Jude. We’re first told of an “accident” when he was a child that wasn’t really an accident, but left him permanently disabled and in a lot of pain. Then we learn that the orphaned Jude has a tendency to cut himself. We also learn that he hates sex, and that he doesn’t believe that he deserves any of the devoted friends and family that he has. It’s some time before we learn the truth of Jude’s life before he met his friends at college. When we do learn about it, it’s more horrific than anything we imagined. Some reviewers called the book “melodrama” or even “torture porn”. But it doesn’t embrace the elements to shock the reader, but rather to access an emotional truth. When Jude finally tells a loved one the truth, this person tells him that it wasn’t his fault. He was a child. He was the victim of people who preyed on his innocence and desperation, and that none of what he experienced has made him unworthy of love. Jude struggles to believe that, and to live a good life- one that he has earned through his own hard work. He loves other people and he tries to let them love him in return. For most of us these things aren’t a struggle at all. But for Jude they are a constant battle. But there’s tremendous beauty in that effort.

51zpob-ijil-_ac_us218_6. Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett- Frances Crawford of Lymond is a Scottish nobleman accused of deceit, treachery, treason, rape, and murder. He’s only guilty of a few of those things. He returns to Scotland in 1547 after several years in exile for reasons that won’t be revealed for some time. His own brother has vowed to kill him. But for rather complicated reasons, Lymond, accused of treason, may be the only person who can save his country from an English invasion.  I think the series is definitely worth reading (based on the first two books) but they’re not easy reads. We don’t really get inside the character’s thoughts much, so it’s often a while before we understand what’s going on and why.  The main character is a brilliantly educated polygot who often makes references that I don’t get right away. So it takes some effort to get into. Another author would have told us early on what’s happening, what Lymond is accused of and what accusations were false, where he’s been for the past few years and why he’d return to Scotland. In that case, the action of the book, would be front and center. The fact that Dunnett leaves the character’s motives so unknown makes this an interesting, sometimes confusing take on the historical fiction genre.

 

51j8xsssd0l-_ac_us218_7. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber -In 1870’s London, Sugar is a prostitute in a brothel. Like many in her profession, she longs for a better life. William Rackham is a well-to-do businessman takes Sugar on as a mistress, and she’s draws herself into his life; his mentally fragile wife, Agnes; their deceitful housekeeper Clara, their mysterious daughter Sophie…. The characters aren’t easy to classify. Is Sugar a bad woman scheming to manipulate a wealthy man and get his money? Or is she a woman who was dealt a bad had, doing what she can to make her way in a world that’s not very kind?  At times the author suggests the answer to this question, but never outright answers it. But it’s not an easy read. At 922 pages it’s a long haul and we really see the ugly side of Victorian London, in a way that Dickens spared us.

51yxivihhl-_ac_us218_8. The Magus by John Fowles– Nicholas is an Oxford grad who takes a job as a teacher at a school on a remote Greek island. Over the summer, he becomes bored, depressed and lonely. Then he meets Maurice Conchis, a wealthy recluse who lives on the island.  Nicholas is gradually drawn into Conchis’ psychological games. At first he sees these games as a sort of a joke. But as they grow more elaborate and intense, Nicholas reaches a point where he isn’t able to tell what’s real and what isn’t. The reader can’t tell either and it gets kind of trippy. Several portions of the book have a “what the heck was that?” quality to them. But that ambiguity is also what makes it interesting.

51656aeukhl-_ac_us218_9. East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood– Lady Isabel Carlyle leaves her husband an babies to elope with Frances Levison. She bears Levison’s illegitmate child before she realizes that he has no intention of marrying her. He deserts Isabel, who is then disfigured in a train accident, and her child is killed (because apparently bad things really do happen in threes!) Lady Isabel gets a job as a governess in the household of her former husband and his new wife. This allows her to be close to the children she abandoned. But the pressure of keeping up the facade becomes too much for her. I read this because I was interested in Victorian “sensation” novels. I enjoyed it, in spite of, and at times because of, its rather implausible plot. But it’s also tough going at times because of the various shifting and double identities.

414n0roja3l-_ac_us218_10. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard– This play shifts between modern day Sidley Park and the same locations in the early 19th century. In the past, Thomasina, the daughter of the house, and Septimus Hodge, her tutor. The present day story concerns Hannah and Bernard, two academic researchers investigating a scandal caused by Lord Byron when he stayed at Sidley Park. The two story lines interweave math, physics, literature, philosophy,  architecture, and philosophy. I was assigned to read this in the summer before I started college before my freshman seminar. It made me very nervous about not being smart enough for college, because I felt like a lot of it went right over my head! But when we started to go through it in class and analyze it, I realized how clever, funny, and enjoyable this really was.

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Summer Books

The Broke and the Bookish are taking a break from their Top Ten Tuesday for the summer, but there’s no reason that I have to do the same. This week, I decided to look at ten books that are set in the summer and evoke the season somehow.

1. Atonement by Ian McEwan– In the summer of 1935, thirteen year old Briony Tallis sees a moment of sexual tension between her sister, and the housekeeper’s son, but doesn’t quite understand it. This misunderstanding leads her to tell a lie that will haunt the three of them for decades to come.

 “Dearest Cecilia, You’d be forgiven for thinking me mad, the way I acted this afternoon. The truth is I feel rather light headed and foolish in your presence, Cee, and I don’t think I can blame the heat.”

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2. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver– This novel features three interconnected plots that take place over a hot, humid, Appalachian summer. 

“Solitude is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot, a tug of impalpable thread on the web pulling mate to mate and predator to prey, a beginning or an end.”

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3. Summer by Edith Wharton– This book, about a bored 18 year old who has an affair with a neighbor and gets pregnant, caused a bit of a scandal when it was first released in 1917. A century later it’s not as shocking, but Wharton is, as always, a beautiful writer.

“She was blind and insensible to many things, and dimly knew it; but to all that was light and air, perfume and colour, every drop of blood in her responded. She loved the roughness of the dry mountain grass under her palms, the smell of the thyme into which she crushed her face, the fingering of the wind in her hair and through her cotton blouse, and the creak of the larches as they swayed to it.”

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4. The Magus by John Fowles– Nicholas is an Oxford grad who takes a job as a teacher on a remote Greek island. Over the summer, he becomes bored, depressed and lonely. Then he meets Maurice Conchis, a wealthy recluse who lives on the island.  Nicholas is gradually drawn into Conchis’ psychological games to the point where he isn’t able to tell what’s real and what isn’t. 

“I knew that on that island one was driven back into the past. There was so much space, so much silence, so few meetings that one too easily saw out of the present, and then the past seemed ten times closer than it was.”

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5. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer- This books follows the lives of several kids who met at a summer arts camp in the 1970s as they grow up. They circle one another over the year, coming together and apart. 

“But here was where the question of talent became slippery, for who could say whether Spirit-in-the-Woods had ever pulled incipient talent out of a kid and activated it, or whether the talent had been there all along and would have come out even without this place.”

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6.  Evening by Susan Minot– A dying old woman remembers a wedding in Maine, one summer in the 1950’s. It was the summer she found and lost the love of her life. This novel is as bittersweet as a summer romance.

“Who ever said that one got what one wanted. It was a small thing compared to… well, to a lot of things. She’d gotten over things before none like this she’d left things behind this was more she couldn’t speak of it this was the first thing only hers she would have to forget. It was too great it was her heart. She couldn’t explain and to try and to fail would be worse. It pressed in her. Life simply went on. He was not the only man. Her heart did not believe it. There were other men in the world. There was only one. She would try to live a life he would be proud of. She could not imagine it. She would always have him with her. He would go he would disappear he was already disappearing already he was gone. He had given her a great thing. He has gone, said her heart. She would not let this defeat her. Her heart swam on ahead. She would keep going, she would never speak of it. Her heart went on without her. No one would know. She swam through the cold water and let cold reason take over and the heart which had asked for too much left her behind and when she emerged from the water on the rocky beach she had let go of it and there was a new version in her, a sort of second heart. She went in with one heart and came out with a second heart inside.”

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7. Joyland by Stephen King- This isn’t King’s best known work by any means, but it does evoke a summer feel. It’s about a 21 year old by who spends his summer working at a North Carolina amusement park. At first there’s a sense of innocence that’s shattered as our narrator encounters an murder and a haunting.

“When you’re twenty-one, life is a roadmap. It’s only when you get to be twenty-five or so that you begin to suspect you’ve been looking at the map upside down, and not until you’re forty are you entirely sure.”

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8. Summer Sisters by Judy Blume- Caitlin and Vix are best friends who spend every summer together. As they grow up, they find their relationship strained. Just a note, Blume is known for children’s and YA fiction. While the coming of age story might sound like it’s child friendly this novel is clearly intended for adults.

“Some people never get over their first loves. They spend their whole lives trying to recapture the thrill. Sometimes, after fifty years they get back together. They meet at some reunion or other and realize they were meant to be together.”

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9. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf- The Ramsey family spend their summers in the Hebrides on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.  Woolf’s depiction of the emotions and ideas can be so overwhelming that it’s easy to forget that this is really a book about family, about “getting away from it all” with the people who mean the most to you but also annoy you the most.

“She felt… how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.”

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10. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith– Tom Ripley is hired by a rich man to go to Europe and convince the man’s son, Dickie, to come home. Tom befriends Dickie, and grows attached to the extravagant lifestyle he enjoys with Dickie. But when Dickie begins to tire of him, Tom takes drastic measures. This book is set mostly in sunny vacation spots in Italy and Greece that seem to evoke the smell of citrus and sunblock.

“Why should Dickie want to come back to subways and taxis and starched collars and a nine-to- five job? Or even a chauffeured car and vacations in Florida and Maine? It wasn’t as much fun as sailing a boat in old clothes and being answerable to nobody for the way”

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