What Should You Read Next? Six Mini-Reviews to Help You Decide

The past four weeks have brought with them flu, fever, and a heavy workload, but they’ve also brought with them some really wonderful books! So this week, instead of one long book review, I’ve written six mini-reviews: Three books released in 2012, two due for release later in 2013, and one tried-and-true classic. I hope you will enjoy these books as much as I have, and that you’ll share your thoughts with me in the comments.

Books Reviewed in this Post
Glaciers by Alexis Smith
Arcadia by Lauren Groff
The Innocents by Francesca Segal
The Third Son by Julie Wu
A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon
The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Happy Reading!

Glaciers by Alexis Smith
This was a perfect gem of a book, a story (and an author) to fall in love with! Perfectly encapsulated in one single day, this book nevertheless takes us back into the narrator Isabel’s childhood, launches us into her sweet hopes for the future, and ends in the bittersweet reality of the present. Glaciers is somewhat like Joyce’s Ulysses in its ability to make one day the embodiment of all days, but with a decidedly feminine twist. Smith’s writing is simply beautiful: It is poetic, vulnerable, dreamy and insightful—a perfect representation of the narrator herself. The story is deceptively simple; a shy girl who loves vintage clothing, the postcards of strangers, and the quiet ex-military man who works with her. But there’s so much more to Isabel, and to the novel, than seems at first glance—it’s all (as the title suggests) just underneath the surface. This book is not to be missed!

Publisher: Tin House Books
Release Date: January 17, 2012

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

In Arcadia Lauren Groff tells the story of Bit, a young boy born into a hippie commune in the 60’s. He lives a life of loving neglect as the community struggles to set down roots and survive, but still be true to their freedom-loving ideals. The book follows Bit as he grows to (and through) adulthood, chronicles the effect that the commune of Arcadia has had on him, and shows—through his eyes—the effect it has had on the other people in his life. In Arcadia Groff faithfully represents the defining philosophies of decades past and her characters’ decisions to isolate themselves (either geographically or emotionally) but her true achievement is when she convincingly prophesies a future of forced isolation, caused by our own societal selfishness. The writing in this novel is lovely, and perfectly understated. The storytelling is excellent. Bit is a sympathetic and interesting narrator, who gives us an insider’s view of a disappearing way of life, and a philosophy that sometimes seems as if it’s almost on the verge of extinction.

Publisher: Voice
Release Date: March 13, 2012

The Innocents by Francesca Segal
From the very first page to the final chapter of the book, the reader knows that Francesca Segal’s The Innocents is a deft modern retelling of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. Adam Newman and Newland Archer are two peas in a pod: both trapped within the social constraints of their communities; blindly at first, then angrily and resentfully later in the story. Both are engaged to sweet, innocent, and somewhat bland women; and both have their eyes opened to the harsh, messy, beautiful and electrifying possibilities of the world by “ruined” and unsuitable cousins. Segal does a lovely job of updating the cultural circumstances of the story. The Innocents is set in a close-knit Jewish community in London, where conservative elders are still shocked and disapproving of promiscuity and scandal. In our world divorce is so common that it’s almost expected, but the reader has no trouble believing that Adam is trapped in an engagement, with the responsibility for the happiness and well-being of an entire community resting on his shoulders. This isn’t to say that Segal’s book is an exact replica of Wharton’s. Segal’s characters are more self-aware than Wharton’s, and the reader gets the impression that these modern characters are trapped more by their own indecision than by any vulnerability to social rise or ruin. Also (not to give anything away) Segal chooses to end her story somewhat differently than Wharton did. In conclusion, fans of The Age of Innocence should enjoy the parallels, while Wharton newbies will look forward to every new plot twist Segal brings to the page.

Publisher: Voice
Release Date: June 5, 2012

The Third Son by Julie Wu
This book has all the right ingredients: Strong characters, compelling story, good writing, romance, and fascinating descriptions of foreign customs and history. In spite of all this, it always felt like there was something holding me back from losing myself in the tale of Saburo and his family. Saburo is the third son of the title, unloved and abused by his family, but with an innate intelligence and strength of character that keeps him from falling into despair. Growing up in Japanese occupied Taiwan during WWII, he is able (with the help of his compassionate uncle) to grow into a smart young man, determined to win the hand of his first love, as well as freedom from his family by earning a place at an American University. For a Western reader this book was a journey through the corrupt Taiwanese political structure of the time, the disturbing dynamics of a cruel and heartbroken family, and the persistent personality required to transcend all that.

Publisher: Algonquin Books
Release Date: April 30, 2013

A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon
This book was one of my favorites of the past four weeks. Very grand in scope, but intimate in execution, A Dual Inheritance spans two families, three continents, and five decades, but it always manages to feel immediate and personal. It tells the story of Ed Cantowitz and Hugh Shipley, two very different young men who meet in college and become unlikely friends; the story then follows Ed and Hugh (and eventually each of their daughters) through the next 50 years as they chase very different dreams, meet with great success, terrible ruin, and discover—after each trying to abandon the legacy of their family and their past—that family is, after all is said and done, the only constant, and the only relief we have. A Dual Inheritance is a love story of epic proportions. Hershon’s prose is perfectly suited to the story, and her characters are a perfect and refreshing balance of good intentions and human frailty.

Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release Date: May 7, 2013

The Inferno by Dante Alighieri
After a run of new novels it can be refreshing to throw oneself into a classic. The five books reviewed above were satisfying (in some cases more than satisfying!) but it was something of a relief to delve into something with a meaty history—and Dante’s Inferno definitely has a meaty history! The Inferno is one of those books that you can’t read without feeling that you’re part of something. It references so many works of literature, and has itself been referenced by so many later works, that just reading it makes you feel a part of something. (It also makes you somehow feel both inadequate and incredibly intelligent all at the same time.) The New American Library version that I read contains a plethora of distracting but helpful footnotes, and John Ciardi’s translation is lyrical and accessible. The book was not nearly as daunting as I thought it would be. The political references are impossible to completely wrap your head around (even with the footnotes,) but once you get past those the story itself is enlightening, disturbing, thought-provoking, and amazingly easy to understand.

Publisher: New American Library
Translator: John Ciardi
2003 Edition


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