Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book Beginning & GIVEAWAY Reminder: Vacationland by Sarah Stonich

Please join me every Friday to share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires. Please remember to include the title of the book and the author's name.

A book won't stand or fall on the very first line of prose -- the story has got to be there, and that's the real work. And yet a really good first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice -- it's the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there's incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen.   -- Stephen King in The Atlantic

EARLY BIRDS: I am experimenting with getting this post up Thursday evening for those who like to get their posts up and linked early on. We'll try it this way for a couple of months to see if people like the option of early posting. If you have feelings one way or the other, please comment.

TWITTER, ETC: If you are on Twitter, Google+, or other social media, please post using the hash tag #BookBeginnings. I am trying to follow all Book Beginning participants on whatever interweb sites you are on, so please let me know if I have missed any and I will catch up.

MR. LINKY: Please leave a link to your post below. If you don't have a blog, but want to participate, please leave a comment with your Book Beginning.


When Ilsa shakes snow from her ruff, the thing leaves her jaws to skitter across the linoleum.

-- From "Separation," the first story in the interconnected collection, Vacationland by Sarah Stonich.

The first sentence is instantly confusing. But the opening paragraph makes clear that Ilsa is a dog with a frozen something in her jaws.  I had to keep reading to figure out what was going on, and once I did, I was completely sucked into the story. 

Stonich's earlier books, These Granite Islands and The Ice Chorus, which I reviewed here, both showcase her talent as a compelling storyteller.  In Vacationland, you feel like you are right there at Naledi Lodge, an all-but-abandoned former lake resort in northern Minnesota.


Thanks to the author and her publicist, I have a copy of Vacationland to give away to one lucky blogger.  For details and to enter, please go to the GIVEAWAY PAGE.



On a lake in northernmost Minnesota, you might find Naledi Lodge—only two cabins still standing, its pathways now trodden mostly by memories. And there you might meet Meg, or the ghost of the girl she was, growing up under her grandfather’s care in a world apart and a lifetime ago. Now an artist, Meg paints images “reflected across the mirrors of memory and water,” much as the linked stories of Vacationland cast shimmering spells across distance and time.

Those whose paths have crossed at Naledi inhabit Vacationland: a man from nearby Hatchet Inlet who knew Meg back when, a Sarajevo refugee sponsored by two parishes who can’t afford “their own refugee,” aged sisters traveling to fulfill a fateful pact once made at the resort, a philandering ad man, a lonely Ojibwe stonemason, and a haiku-spouting girl rescued from a bog.

Review: The Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy

White Russians, communists, atheists, Catholics, progressives, classicists, English professors, and visiting poets all roam the halls of Jocelyn College and the pages of Mary McCarthy’s 1951 campus novel classic, The Groves of Academe. Jocelyn is an experimental liberal arts college somewhere in New England and prides itself on the academic freedom enjoyed by its professors and students. But when Henry Mulcahy gets a letter from the college president informing him that his contract will not be renewed in the fall, he tries to twist the college’s liberal Zeitgeist to his own advantage.

Mulcahy starts the rumor that he was let go because he was a member of the Communist Party. In the era of McCarthy hearings and Hollywood blacklists, Mulcahy perversely figures that his fellow academics in the English department would rally to support him in his hour of prosecution, championing his cause for political freedom.

What follows is a series of closed-door conspiracies, petty intrigues, and shuffling alliances, as the English department debates Mulcahy’s future and tries to persuade the president to keep him on. Meanwhile, Jocelyn hosts its first-ever poetry conference, introducing a dozen new characters and opportunity for greater mischief.

Freedom is the underlying theme of the story. Debates rage (in the civilized, over-intellectual tones of college professors) around the idea of freedom: freedom in academics, politics, sex, ideology, religion, poetry, movement, and expression. Specific discussions address whether, in a supposed bastion of academic freedom, a card-carrying Communist can be intellectually free or must take orders from the Party? Are Catholics in the same position, bound by the dictates of Rome? Are the students of Jocelyn really academically free to choose their fields of study, as advertised, if the professors, anxious to reduce their own workload, steer the students towards a select syllabus? Are the students, in fact, better off with a little intellectual steering?

Often, McCarthy raises the idea of personal freedom more subtly, in the choices the characters make or descriptions of college life. For instance, the new-found freedom enjoyed by college students sparkles in this gem, describing the professor who always volunteered to chaperone student trips abroad in exchange for free travel:
Whenever, during the summer, he took a party of students abroad under his genial wing, catastrophic event attended him. As he sat sipping his vermouth and introducing himself to tourists at the Flore or the Deux Magots, the boys and girls under his guidance were being robbed, eloping to Italy, losing their passports, slipping off to Monte Carlo, seeking out an abortionist, deciding to turn queer, cabling the decision to their parents, while he took out his watch and wondered why they were late in meeting him for the expedition to Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
With that kind of wit and insight, the story plays out like the best drawing room drama. It is sneakily funny, both as subtle and biting as a gin gimlet. For example, McCarthy deftly captures the character of the college president:
Like all such official types, he specialized in being his own antithesis: strong but understanding, boisterous but grave, pragmatic but speculative when need be. The necessity of encompassing such opposites had left him with a little wobble of uncertainty in the center of his personality, which made other people…feel embarrassed by him.
McCarthy is credited with inventing the “academic novel” with The Groves of Academe. This is satire at its best, finding absurdity in the minutia that drive the characters rather than clownish humor in exaggeration. As Commentary Magazine wrote when Groves was first published, McCarthy annoyed the politically correct before the term was even invented: “There is a particular kind of ‘right-thinking’ mind that is reduced to a frantic rage not only by what she says, but by her tone, her metaphorical habits, the very shape of her sentences.” Many have followed McCarthy’s campus novel template, but no one has exceeded her achievement.


If you would like your review of this or any other Mary McCarthy novel listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.


This review was first published by Cascade Policy Institute as part of its Freedom in Film & Fiction series.

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