Arcadia vs The Orchardist


Arcadia and The Orchardist have certain things in common. Both are stories of American history. Each focuses on a dramatic historical movement. The Orchardist is about pioneers settling the west, in this case the far western United States. Arcadia represents the twilight of the Utopian movement that started in the nineteenth century, and besides a few exceptions like the Amish, ended in the hippie communes of the 1960s and 70s where Arcadia is set. 

 Both novels are organized around one main protagonist. Arcadia is tightly bound to Bit Stone, the first child born in Arcadia. Arcadia is seen only through Bit’s point of view. The Orchardist centers its narrative around  the orchard keeper William Talmadge but moves among other viewpoints, most notably that of Della Michaelson, a teen-aged foundling who settles on Talmadge’s property, and her niece Angelene, Talmadge’s foster daughter.

The Orchardist follows Talmadge from childhood, when his restless mother drags him and his sister to a patch of land in Washington state and begins to cultivate the land. Talmadge grows up to become the orchardist, never leaving his land which he has made into a productive fruit farm. His life and his love is the orchard until two pregnant teen-aged sisters, runaways from an abusive brothel-keeper, find shelter with him.

The characters in The Orchardist are larger than life. Talmadge seems almost a force of nature, especially as described in the novel’s opening: “His face was as pitted as the moon…(h)is ears were elephantine…the flesh granular like the rind of some fruit.” (Is this passage overwritten? Yes, especially in the clipped, portentous tone.) The other main characters are similarly huge. Talmadge’s Nez Pearce friend, Clee and his neighbor Caroline, who helps him with the sisters, are all wisdom and kindness; Della is monumentally damaged by her abusive childhood, and her abuser, Michaelson, is monumentally evil. Other characters, like Jane, Della’s sister, figure importantly into the story, but are barely sketched in.

Yet despite this imbalance and stiffness there remains something compelling in the story of the American west, a romance that never wears thin. So in the intensity and bigness of this book, first-time novelist Amanda Copin has contributed something to our communal story.

At first glance Lauren Groff’s Arcadia seems overwritten too. But you come to see that the tone reflects the overheated and naive world view of the Arcadians themselves. “May they rot in their bourgeois capitalist hell” says Bit’s mother, Hannah. Bit imagines the world outside of Arcadia: “Humans out there are grotesque: Scrooges and Jellybys and filthy orphans… a blight called television like tiny Plato’s caves in every room.”  Groff turns out to be a skillful writer, letting us see the overview of Arcadia’s life span as a community at the same time as she brings all of the characters and details to life. The pleasure of reading Arcadia is in Bit’s close observations of himself and his world, given words lacking to the child  by the Bit-omniscient narrator. The narrator’s interpretation of Bit’s consciousness is convincing.

The plot of Arcadia follows the birth and death of the commune. At first everyone, including Bit’s parents Hannah and Abe, embrace the communal ideal under Handy, the charismatic leader of Arcadia. Gradually, over the course of Bit’s growing up, things unravel, drugs suck up a lot of energy, and rebellious newbies make a mess. We leave Bit at the commune in his teens and, in the last sections of the novel we pick up and follow him as an adult as he adjusts to life outside and reconciles with the remnant of the commune that he carries with him. The very last section takes place in the near future when a flu-like epidemic has taken over the United States. Perhaps this goes on too long, and the meaning of the epidemic and how it fits into the novel remain unclear to me.

Despite this last puzzle, and for greater mastery of language, detail, and character the winner of round one is

Arcadia

Arcadia will make it into the second round of judging. The next contest in the first round is Casual Vacancy vs Yellow Birds, judged by Barb P. Look for that tomorrow.
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A riveting and ominous tale of loss, love and heartbreak set in both 1919 and the early 1960s.  The 1919 story involves a past love who most likely perished in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and a woman, Vivian, who cannot get over her loss.  Vivian is “the kept woman” to David, a married man who might or might not leave his wife for her.  The earthquake ends whatever future they might have, but Vivian is determined to find him and she is still hoping for a passionate, heartfelt reunion all the way until 1919, when she finds out the truth. 

Tying in with that is the tale of Claire, a 1960s housewife who sees her love for her husband and the life she has made for herself slipping away.  It’s not that she’s powerless to do anything about it…it’s just that she is unsure whether she wants to stop her sedate, mundane life from slipping out of control.  Her story is set during the inauguration of President Kennedy in early 1961; she looks to Jackie Kennedy as an icon for beauty, stability and class.  As President Kennedy and Jackie’s story sets out, her own story begins to crumble…including her husband walking in on her affair with another married man and then her pregnancy by either her lover or her husband. 

At first, I could not see how these two stories would intersect but as the stories progressed, Hood sets up patterns of misery and disillusionment in each woman that is so compelling that really doesn’t matter.  And then with the connection between 1961 and 1919 is revealed, it is believable and natural.  I’ve read most every novel (she also writes some nonfiction) Hood has written and to the best of my memory, this is the first time she has set a novel in two different time periods (usually, her novels involve one main character (usually female) with her own set of issues and concerns).  Well, for a first time out, the concept works, bringing to life both women, both of their worlds and both of their fully fleshed out emotional struggles.  The vibrancy and passion in the writing helps us to both visualize and sympathize with both ladies’ tales of pain.  A lesser writer would have had trouble creating sympathetic characters out of two adulteresses, but Hood’s careful attention to the character’s inner turmoils allow us to not only sympathize with the two ladies, but possibly even relate to them. 

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    March Madness has hit Niles Public Library, only it’s not basketball we’re excited about, but books. Reader’s Advisory staff at the library has selected, seeded, bracketed, and pitted books against each other in a reading contest that will elevate one book out of a field of 12 as the tournament champion.   

    It all started when library staffers together compiled a list of the best reads among books published last year.  We do this every year, and usually post the results on this blog and in the fiction section of the library. This year, inspired by the online Morning News Tournament of Books (http://www.themorningnews.org/tob/how-it-works.php), we decided to hold a contest to uncover the best of the best. Twelve of us volunteered to judge. We paired the top 12 books into brackets and assigned one judge to determine the winner of each bracket. Each bracket’s winner continues to further judgment. Losers are eliminated, but have a chance to be revived as a Zombie.

 Here are the books being evaluated this year:
Arcadia    Lauren Groff
The Orchardist     Amanda Choplin
Yellow Birds     Kevin Powers
The Casual Vacancy     J. K. Rowling
Lightning Rods     Helen DeWitt
Beginner’s Goodbye     Anne Tyler
A Killing in the Hills     Julia Keller
The Round House     Louise Erdich
Friends Like Us     Lauren Fox
Gone Girl     Gillian Flynn
The Chaperone     Laura Moriarty
The Flight of Gemma Hardy     Margot Livesey 
Check back tomorrow to see the results of the first bracket pairing
Arcadia vs The Orchardist by judge Beverly.

 
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A strong Chicago-based mystery from Chicago-based writer Walker, who has a knack for capturing both the essence of the city and the suspense that fills its streets.  In this novel, Walker, a former Catholic priest, uses his seminary background as the backdrop for this latest, involving a priest who gets caught up in an international quagmire.  One day, out of the blue, Father Paul Clark’s friend is killed right in front of him.  Barely escaping with own life, Clark soon finds out that his friend was involved in some less than savory dealings with the wrong types of people.  Enter a woman who says she is from the government who has a plan to help Clark. Can she be trusted?  Clark spends much of the novel trying to answer that question, a search which leads him all the way to South America.  In the midst of all of this, a young man enters him life and shakes his beliefs to the core. 

As mysteries go, this is quite strong.  The character of Paul Clark is a believable, convincing protagonist.  All throughout the book, no matter what Clark is going through, we feel his pain and can sympathize with his difficult situations.  As a priest, he might appear as unrelatable, but Walker gives Clark such compassion and conscience and even some faith crises that we can understand what Clark is experiencing. And Walker also makes good use out of Chicago.  Through the pages, I was able to visualize the gritty and dank streets of Chicago where Clark was desperately trying to run for his life. 

This is the second mystery I have read by Walker (Saving Paulo was the other one) and though I liked both, I found myself drawn more this Clark and his set of nerve-wrenching circumstances. 

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 In 1981 Nora Roberts published her first novel, Irish Thoroughbred. Some thirty years later Roberts has written her 200th published novel, Witness and it is a ROMANCE WINNER!  Elizabeth Fitch is a sixteen year old daughter of a frigid surgeon mother in Chicago, who fed up with the rigid life style her mother commands, goes to the mall, buys clothes not dictated by her mother and goes to a club with a school acquaintance. She drinks too much, winds up at the home of a member of the Russian mob and witnesses several murders. She runs for her life and calls 911. Ultimately she is in a safe house under the protection of several agents but on her birthday her good guy protectors are killed by fellow agents in league with the mob. Elizabeth escapes and knows she can trust no one.
Fast forward twelve years Elizabeth Fitch is now Abigail Lowery, a computer genius running a profitable security company, hiding out in Bickford Arkansas with her gun collection and well trained dog. The new handsome chief of police, Brooks Gleason is curious and is not shy about trying to unlock the puzzle of Abigail Lowery.
 I stayed way past my bedtime finishing this novel. It is a strong romantic suspense read with good characterization and pacing.   Her computer hacking skills, sharp intelligence and vulnerability make Abigail an interesting study.  Brooks Gleason is kind, handsome, smart and of course the perfect male. Roberts is deft with dialogue and the humor is well spaced with the suspense.  On a cold winter night, Witness provided cozy relaxing comfort.
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Told from the point-of-view of both a stepmother and a teenage girl, this novel really delves deep into what makes a family tick.  The stepmother, Andi, is a woman desperate for a child of her own.  She marries a man with two children…a pre-teen girl who causes little if any trouble and a full-blown teenager who is more than makes up for her sister’s lack of trouble.  Andi’s struggles with her new marriage, her husband and her step-kids seem realistic and not fake in anyway.  Emily, the teenager, comes to life on the page…angst and depression and self-hate all included.  Green lets us watch this family’s troubles play out…never forcing us to feel something that seems unnatural or unrealistic.

This is a heartwarming book about the troubles of one family and how they preserve and overcome.  This is the first Jane Green book that I read all the way through and I would definitely read her again.  She’s not totally “chick lit” (or at least this one wasn’t).  There was a depth to this novel that most Kinsellas and other Chick Lit connoisseurs lack.  I liked the characters and the development of them throughout the story.  There were times when certain parts went on too long, but over-all, this is a good, solid story about family and the troubles they bear. 

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This book begins with Japanese “picture brides” on a boat to early 20th Century America to meet their husbands.  These brides are young girls (some 12 or so) who have been shipped off by their parents with the intention of having them get married, have families and basically have better lives than they would in Japan.  The end of the book covers the heart-wrenching years of the Japanese Internment Camps during the post-Pearl Harbor era in the Western USA. 

I absolutely loved the story, the lyricalness, the lushness and the tone of this novel.  Otsuka has a gift of being able to express series of complex emotions with just a few words.  Her writing style seems natural, fluid, yet filled with power.  She does a fantastic job of creating a scene with as few words as possible.  Less, if definitely more here.  After-all, the novel is around 120 pages.

Saying all of that, I still found myself wanting a little more.  NOT more of the words…more of the individual characters and their own stories.  This novel is told in the first person plural voice (or point of view).  Meaning: WE did this, WE did that. With such powerful stories to tell, I wish Otsuka would have picked one or two women to focus on instead of the global “we.”  This does not mean I did not like the book.  I loved it.  I just would have loved it even more had there been a little more individual detail.

But, I understand why she choose the plural voice to write it.  The subject matter here is highly emotional…and by keeping it in the plural, both Otsuka and the reader are able to keep a fair and appropriate distance.  Either way, a must read for all…

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This is another psychological thriller that keeps the reader riveted from Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn. This, Flynn’s debut novel, tells the story of Camille and the uphill battle she faces as she is forced to confront her past and return her her roots.  Struggling as a cub reporter, Camille gets a prime assignment that just might get her name on the journalism map.  The only problem is the story requires her to head back to her small hometown to cover the murder of two young girls.  Her mother still lives there and Camille has had practically no communication with her since Camille left eight years ago.  There also is a new half-sister, who Camille does not know at all.

Flynn does a fantastic job of interweaving all of Camille’s troubles with the case she’s supposed to be researching and reporting.  And, though Camille is not a perfect character, we do at least begin to like her more and more as the story progresses.  She’s very troubled (at the beginning, we find out one of the reasons she is floundering in her newspaper job is that she just finished a stint in a psych hospital) and heading to her hometown only increases these troubles.  But, Flynn does not take Camille or any of the characters here and send them over the top, as many authors tend to do, especially in thrillers.  The story and the characters here are controlled and methodical.  All in all, this is a a wonderful thriller with a dark, gritty edge. 

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A dark (as the title states), depressing novel with pretty much no sympathetic characters, this is the second novel by Gone Girl author Flynn.  The main character here, Libby Day, was witness to her mother and sisters being murdered when she was a small child.  In court, she identified her brother as the killer.  Over 20 years later, Libby begins to doubt that testimony…did she really see her brother kill three members of her family or did she just believe she had seen it?  Libby begins a quest for self-discovery that will take her life into even more dark places than before.

First of all, Libby is not a nice person.  She’s a thief, she can be violent, and she only begins to question her brother’s innocence after stumbling on a group of true crime addicts who offer her money for trophies from her past.  Aside from Libby, the novel is also told from the point-of-view of the mother and the brother (both of those POVs are set before the murders).  But, like Libby, neither the mother nor the brother are characters the reader will want to relate to.  The brother, Ben, gets involved with Satanism and a VERY bad crowd of friends.  And the mother sits idly by while her family crumbles around her. 

See…it’s a VERY dark story.  But, if you can get past all of that, it is a well-written, edgy piece of fiction that really does keep you reading.  Unlike a lot of contemporary thrillers, this one has a solid foundation, as well as great character development and a pretty decent ending. 

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By far my favorite book of 2012 (even though I read it in 2013).  It is a strong, fierce thriller that combines social commentary and suspense…all in one well-written story.  It is no surprise to me that Ruth Rendell is still writing strong, highly literary pieces of fiction.  She is one of the leaders of the mystery genre, especially British mysteries.  Writing here as Barbara Vine, Rendell writes what I think is one of her best in years…lending truth to the adage that some things improves with age. 

The story here starts off in 2011 with a sister and her brother, Grace and Andrew, sharing a home in London.  They divide the living space of the house equally, a situation which works fine until the brother’s lover, James, comes to live with them.  James sets off a series of events that neither Grace nor Andrew will ever recover from.  While coping, Grace begins reading a long-lost manuscript, never published because its storyline includes unwed mothers and homosexual characters in the 1920s.  That’s when a completely different part of the story takes over.  Or at least we THINK it’s different…because it is set in the post-WWI era.  Soon, correlations between Grace’s modern-day dilemmas and the historical plot become evident. 

The historical storyline revolves around a sister, Maud, the youngest child in a very conservative Bristol family, who gets herself pregnant. After telling her family, they want to send her away.  But, her brother John has a different idea.  He is homosexual and aware that he will never be able to lead a respectable life as a gay man, so he and Maud begin living together as husband and wife…in name only…so that the child does not seem illegitimate. 

Both storylines are interesting and compelling but the historical one just captivates the reader with twists and turns that the reader never expects (or at least I didn’t).  I found both tales together a great commentary on how things regarding sexuality and homosexuality have changed…yet how some things have stayed the same through the centuries. 

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