Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

A Christmas MemoryA Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory is a short, beautifully written story by one of my favorite authors. It's about the relationship between a woman in the latter years of her life and a boy just starting out. It is, according to the book jacket notes, “based on Capote's own boyhood in rural Alabama in the 1930's.” The edition I read was illustrated by Beth Peck. The pictures are as wonderful as the text.

Here is how Capote introduces the relationship between the woman and the boy:

I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other's best friend.

Together they gather ingredients for fruitcakes which they share with people as diverse as President Roosevelt, some missionaries to Borneo, and the little knife grinder who comes through town twice a year. They also go into the woods to find a Christmas tree and later fly kites together. It is their relationship that is important, not what they do. It comes out in the way they speak to each other, dance together, and deal with the other people in the house, who often think they act inappropriately.

The book covers their relationship until the boy goes away. Some people, my wife among them, think the book should have stopped a page or so before it did. But what is happy can't be as beautiful without what is sad and it is all part of the memory. The book only took about an hour to read and it had the power to bring out my own Christmas memories. That was an hour well spent.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Three Girls and Their Brother by Theresa Rebeck

Three Girls and Their BrotherThree Girls and Their Brother by Theresa Rebeck

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was the right book to read in the month when Lindsay Lohan's Playboy pictorial came out. Daria, Polly, and Amelia Heller are, like Lohan, products of dysfunctional parents. Their mother has an out of control fascination with fame and their father, who has serious issues that are revealed later in the story, is an absentee parent with a new family.

Three Girls and Their Brother must have been inspired by the Hemingway sisters. Like Joan, Margaux, and Mariel, the Heller girls are the grandchildren of a major literary figure and are successful models and actresses. The similarities continue as Amelia, the youngest Heller, begins to achieve the most success and becomes involved with a film actor who has a destructive interest in very young girls.

The Heller women, unlike their real life counterparts, have a brother. Philip has a view of what is important in life that runs counter to the view of their mother. He is very protective of Amelia and serves as an anchor to the wild action in the story.

The story is told through the points of view of the three siblings. This is handled very well and works to increase the sense that these young people are the only family they have.

This is a feel good book in the sense that it makes those of us who are not famous, satisfied with our lives. I was disappointed with the ending which had elements that felt as if they were set up and somewhat unbelievable. Also, there were too many issues left open. But overall, it was an excellent read and lots of fun. I listened to the audio version, which was well narrated.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Anna Karenina, the last stop on my Tolstoy mini-marathon

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy ( Classics Series translated by Constance Garnett)Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy by Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If Anna Karenina had been written in the twenty-first century it would have been cut back to about half its length. There are scenes of farming and Russian politics as well as long divergences into philosophical discussions about what is important in life. The modern thought would have been that those scenes do not advance the story. But what's wonderful about nineteenth century literature in general and Anna Karenina specifically is that Tolstoy took the time to explore his characters and topics thoroughly.

Anna sums up her tragic flaw in a brief way when she says, “It is only those two creatures I love (Seryozha, her son, and Alexy, her lover), and one excludes the other.” But her words are much too simplistic. Anna slowly swirls down into her personal disaster because of all the elements around her. When Anna goes to the theater Madame Kartasova reacts by telling her it is a disgrace to sit beside her. It's easy to say society is not important, but incidents like that have to upset Anna. She and Vronsky live in the country because they can be away from occurrences such as that, but life in the country is lonely leaving Anna nothing to dwell on but her situation. She can't sleep, so she resorts to morphine and opium. These drugs are short term solutions that make the long term situation even worse. Her husband doesn't react violently to the revelation that his wife has had an affair, instead, due to his influence by Countess Lidia Ivanova, he acts magnanimously, in a very self-righteous manner. Anna cannot help but be injured by Alexy Alexandrovitch's attitude and by his refusal to allow her to see her son. This sends her even deeper into her downward spiral. In the end the reader can feel and understand the reasons Anna needs to end her life.

Tolstoy starts his book with what has become one of the most famous opening lines in all literature: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But those words are not entirely true. Levin and Kitty's life is the counterpoint to Vronsky and Anna's. Tolstoy examines that life with just as much detail and continues to explain Levin's spiritual state even after Anna's story has run its course. When I first read Anna Karenina over twenty years ago, I was pulled in by Anna's story. This time it was Levin who held my interest the most. I loved his insecurities and his attempts to search for meaning in life. In my opinion his respect and love for Kitty made their love story more powerful than the tragic story of Anna and Vronsky. Perhaps what makes Tolstoy's writing so powerful is his ability to reach out to readers at all stages of their lives.

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Anna Karenina and birth control

There is a section in part six of Anna Karenina where Anna reveals to Dolly that it is impossible for her to have more children.

Anna hasn't received a divorce, causing Vronsky to be concerned that any children they might have will legally belong to Alexey Alexandrovitch.

Anna reacts with this section:

“What children?” Anna said, not looking at Dolly, and half closing her eyes.

“Annie and those to come...”

“He need not trouble on that score; I shall have no more children.”

“How can you tell that you won't?”

“I shall not, because I don't wish it.” And, in spite of all her emotion, Anna smiled, as she caught the naïve expression of curiosity, wonder, and horror on Dolly's face.

“The doctor told me after my illness...”

“Impossible!” said Dolly, opening her eyes wide.

The quick research I did on this section indicates that some readers consider this to be Anna revealing that she uses birth control.

This takes place in the late nineteenth century, so condoms and diaphragms were available. But a diaphragm would have been difficult to use regularly without Vronsky's knowledge and a condom would have been impossible.

The other option Anna had was the most common form of birth control in Russia at that time, abortion. I think Anna is either revealing here that she has had at least one abortion and intends to have others or that she has had a hysterectomy.

Either of those revelations would explain Dolly's reaction, but the two possibilities would give Dolly very different views of Anna. The Christian church existed in Czarist Russia in a number of different forms. Dolly is not presented as a devout follower, but she could have been influenced by what were then the current views of the morality of abortion. If that was the case she might have been appalled at what Anna had done. But Anna does say “The doctor told me after my illness...”, so there is a good chance Anna is talking about an operation that has left her sterile. If so, Dolly is reacting to what has happened to Anna's womanhood, from a nineteenth century perspective. In this case she would have been filled with pity for Anna. When she leaves Anna's home, Dolly seems more appalled than consumed with pity, but either way her reaction is interesting.

Once again, Tolstoy touches on a topic that is very relevant to a modern reader, even though his novel was written and set in the eighteen hundreds.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankel

The Man from BeijingThe Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell is a book that takes some interesting political positions. In the struggle between the followers of Mao Tse Tung and the followers of Deng Xiaoping, it is the Mao disciples who are fighting ruthless corruption in China. Capitalism is not producing positive results for the masses and Mao even gets a pass on the cultural revolution. The heroine of the novel, a Swedish judge, had admired China's red guard during her college years, so the admiration for the old style red communism is not limited to the boundaries of the People's Republic. Combine that perspective with a view on Robert Mugabe that emphasizes the positive and this book presents a perspective I'm not used to hearing.

... Robert Mugabe was a man who in many ways deserved her admiration and respect. Even if not everything he did was good, he was basically convinced that the roots of colonialism grew very deep and needed to be cut away not just once but many times. Not least of the reasons she respected him was she had read how he was constantly and brutally attacked in the Western media.

The Man from Beijing is an action thriller and a good one. I was pleased with the unique story, but disappointed with the ending, which I felt left too many loose ends and was too dependent on information found in diaries. Overall the book was exciting and the characters were well drawn: flawed and real. My wife disagrees with my assessment of the ending. We'll be discussing this book in our next book club meeting, so it will be interesting to hear other people's opinions on this.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tea Party, Occupy Movement, and what we can learn from Tolstoy

As I've mentioned in other blog posts, one of the most interesting aspects of reading literature from another era is the way it gives us a window into the thought of a time with knowledge of what eventually occurred. Anna Karenina was published in serial form from 1873 to 1877. The October revolution in Russia took place in 1917, forty-four years later. Yet in the text of Tolstoy's novel communism is mentioned a few times. It's thought of as a radical, but logical approach to the problems of economic injustice.

Konstantin Levin is the character with a conscience and a tendency toward philosophical thought that Tolstoy uses to present the impressions of what was then a new political philosophy.

Then, too, his brother's talk of communism, which he had treated so lightly at the time, now made him think. He considered a revolution in economic conditions nonsense. But he always felt the injustice of his own abundance in comparison with the poverty of the peasants, and now he determined that so as to feel quite in the right, though he had worked hard and lived by no means luxuriously before, he would now work still harder, and would allow himself even less luxury.

Later Konstantin Levin needs to defend his ideas to his brother Nikolay.

“You've simply borrowed an idea that's not your own, but you've distorted it, and are trying to apply it where it's not applicable.”

“But I tell you it's nothing to do with it. They deny the justice of property, of capital, of inheritance, while I do not deny this chief stimulus.”

I can see parallels with our own time, as our politics becomes more polarized with each election. The trickle down philosophy of the Tea Party and the justice for all philosophy of the Occupy movement both have their points. But just as the communists of Tolstoy's era eventually became the Stalinists of latter years, our right and left wing radicals could lead us down a dangerous path if we're not careful to remain rational.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Hearts and Minds of Tolstoy's Characters

As I make my way through Anna Karenina I am once again amazed at the ability of Tolstoy to understand what's in the hearts and minds of his characters. I've passed the section in the novel where Anna reveals to her husband that she is having an affair. She's been pushed into this admission because she's pregnant. She attributes to herself a love of truth, but that truth was not so important before she was forced to face it.

Despite the fact that the affair occurred because of a mutual attraction between Anna and Vronsky that led to Vronsky pursuing her until she submitted, Anna sees her husband as being at fault. She admits to her own flaws, but passes them over quickly in her mind and concentrates on what annoys her about her husband.

“I'm a wicked woman, a lost woman,” she thought; “but I don't like lying, I can't endure a falsehood, while as for him (her husband) it's the breath of his life—falsehood. He knows all about it, he sees it all; what does he care if he can talk so calmly? If he were to kill me, if he were to kill Vronsky, I might respect him. No, all he wants is falsehood and propriety,” Anna said to herself, not considering exactly what it was she wanted of her husband, and how she would have liked to see him behave. She did not understand either that Alexey Alexandrovitch's peculiar loquacity that day, so exasperating to her, was merely the expression of his inward distress and uneasiness.

As a reader I sympathize with Anna because I see her humanity. I also sympathize with her husband and her lover, because I can understand what they're going through as well. This novel concentrates on what the characters feel rather than what the author feels better than either Resurrection or War and Peace. That's why I consider this the best of the three I've included in my reading list.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Tolstoy mini marathon continues with Anna Karenina

I saved Anna Karenina for the last book in my mini Tolstoy marathon, because I've read it before and, although it was too long ago to remember many details, I do remember that it was a wonderful read. I'm about a fifth of the way through it and it is even better than my memory of it.

I wonder if the readers of War and Peace told Tolstoy that his handling of relationships in that work was great and that he should write another book that focused exclusively on the characters rather than covering history and dwelling on conjecture about the reasons populations follow leaders. If so, they pointed him in the right direction.

Tolstoy's brilliance comes from his observation of human behavior and his ability to put the tiniest details into his writing without ever losing the attention of his readers. The next section is a good example of this. It is written from the point of view of Count Vronsky when he first sees Anna.

With the insight of a man of the world, from one glance at this lady's appearance Vronsky classified her as belonging to the best society. He begged pardon, and was getting into the carriage, but felt he must glance at her once more; not that she was very beautiful, not on account of the elegance and modest grace which were apparent in her whole figure, but because in the expression of her charming face, as she passed close by him there was something peculiarly caressing and soft. As he looked around, she too turned her head. Her shining gray eyes, that looked dark from the thick lashes, rested with friendly attention on his face, as though she were recognizing him, and then promptly turned away to the passing crowd, as though seeking someone. In that brief look Vronsky had time to notice the suppressed eagerness which played over her face, and flitted between the brilliant eyes and the faint smile that curved her red lips. It was as though her nature were so brimming over with something that against her will it showed itself now in the flash of her eyes, and now in her smile. Deliberately she shrouded the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in the faintly perceptible smile.

I believe I could build an entire writing class on the study of that single paragaph.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Lovely in Her Bones by Sharyn McCrumb

Lovely in Her Bones (Elizabeth MacPherson Mystery, #2)Lovely in Her Bones by Sharyn McCrumb

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read a couple of Sharyn McCrumb books in the past. I enjoyed them both, so I thought I'd read a few more. I'm glad I made that decision.

McCrumb wrote her first novel, Sick of Shadows, years ago when we were in a writers' group together. I got to critique that one before it was published and that's something I'm proud of. The other book of hers I read was The Rosewood Casket. I think her writing skills grew over time, but she was always talented and Lovely in Her Bones is a good example of that.

Lovely in Her Bones is one of McCrumb's Elizabeth MacPherson novels, stories of a young amateur detective's adventures. This one is filled with interesting facts about anthropology and about life in the Appalachian mountains. It was first published in 1985, so I'm sure some things have changed over that period. I imagine there are new ways to determine race from bones and I believe hydrofracking is the environmental concern getting the most press today, rather than strip mining. But the human sides of racial issues as well as money vs. pollution issues haven't changed. And the same goes for relationship issues. Sharyn McCrumb's characters are complex and interesting. Milo isn't the perfect boyfriend for Elizabeth. I like the twists that fact caused.

Lovely in Her Bones is a short, fun read. Sharyn McCrumb's sense of humor is wonderful. I plan to read the rest of the series.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

War and Peace by Tolstoy

War and PeaceWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In War and Peace Tolstoy takes three roles. He is a novelist, an historian, and a philosopher. When the role of philosopher is incorporated into the characters it works wonderfully. As an example here is something Pierre says toward the end of the book when explaining his need to go to Petersburg. It expresses a thought that could be the motto for the current Occupy movement. The idea is, at its core, profound, but it is expressed in a simple way.

I only wished to say that ideas that have great results are always simple ones. My whole idea is that if vicious people are united and constitute a power, then honest folk must do the same. Now that's simple enough.

But in the second epilogue Tolstoy drops the story entirely and reflects on the reasons people do what they do. He has interesting ideas about power.

The question: how did individuals make nations act as they wished and by what was the will of these individuals themselves guided?

Tolstoy goes on to reflect on the reasons people do anything, from conducting a war to raising his arm. It can be interesting if the reader is in the right frame of mind, but can drag if he isn't.

The history contained in the novel was fascinating to me because I knew very little about the Napoleonic wars. While reading the book I often went to the internet to compare Tolstoy's view from some other historians. It was an interesting way to learn about that period of world history.

The story within the novel was the reason I read the book. The characters were all well portrayed and unique. We stayed with them long enough to get to know them well. Early on in the book Prince Andrew Bolkonski was my favorite, but as the story went on I found myself more drawn toward Pierre Bezukhov. He was constantly trying to understand the purpose of life throughout the book. He tried a spiritual road, joining the Masons and trying to live according to their disciplines. He wasn't in the military, but went into battle to sit with the troops and try to understand war. He also tried to free his serfs to see if that brought him a feeling of self worth. Toward the end he found value in his relationship with Natash Rostova, but even after he'd settled into that happy marriage, he was still searching for more, through political activism. I also loved the way real people were portrayed as characters including General Kutuzov and Napoleon.

I'm sure it is no surprise that I've rated War and Peace as a five star book given its place in the history of literature. But it isn't only its reputation that makes it well worth the time it takes to read it.

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

The burning of Moscow in War and Peace

One of the great things about reading War and Peace is the way it draws the reader into situations that are a part of history. I believe I mentioned this in a previous blog when I was talking about the scenes that focus on Napoleon and how real he seems in the book. This picture also applies to the big events as well as to the individuals who populate those events.

Prior to reading War and Peace I knew very little about the burning of Moscow in 1812. Apparently the Russians were being invaded by a French army that was stronger than their own. Since they were convinced that they couldn't defeat the French they abandoned the city. Here's where things get a little vague. Tolstoy writes that the fires were accidentally set by the French occupiers who were careless in homes that did not belong to them.

However tempting it might be for the French to blame Rostopchin's ferocity and for Russians to blame the scoundrel Bonaparte, or later on to place an heroic torch in the hands of their own people, it is impossible not to see that there could be no such direct cause of the fire, for Moscow had to burn as every village, factory, or house must burn which is left by its owners and in which strangers are allowed to live and cook their porridge.

When I did a quick web search on the burning of Moscow I found that other historians (I think it is fair to call Tolstoy an historian) had different theories, some believing the city was burned by the Russians to keep its treasures out of the hands of the French and others believing that the French intentionally set the fires as a part of the anger and hatred that always accompanies war. It would be nice to know the truth, but it is the way the French reacted that is the most interesting result of the fire.

At first I thought it was simply the lack of supplies that wrecked havoc on the French, but it was more complex than that. The burning affected the French soldiers psychologically. Napoleon issued proclamations offering the Russians peaceful reentry into their city and declaring severe punishment for French soldiers found looting, but this did no good. He had crossed all of Europe to take over a city that had no people! A month later the French left Moscow and did so in a way that left them vulnerable to Russian attacks.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Tolstoy - War and Peace - The Beehive metaphor

The most striking difference between modern literature and nineteenth century literature is, for me, the way classic authors, such as Tolstoy, explore each concept fully. Modern writers tend to edit until their work says precisely what they want said with as few words as possible. Flash fiction, for example, is a style that could not have succeeded in the eighteen hundreds.

My preference is for the modern, concise style, but both forms have their attractions. I thought about this specifically when I read a section in War and Peace where the mostly deserted city of Moscow was compared to a beehive.

If Tolstoy had been a twenty-first century writer and chosen the beehive metaphor for his work, he would have stopped after the section that reads:

There were still people in it, perhaps a fiftieth part of its former inhabitants had remained, but it was empty. It was empty in the sense that a dying queenless hive is empty.

Instead Tolstoy went on for pages of description about the similarities between the hive and the city. Here are some samples:

1....instead of the former spirituous fragrant smell of honey and venom, and the warm whiffs of crowded life, comes an odor of emptiness and decay mingling with the smell of honey.
2.There is no longer the measure quiet sound of throbbing activity, like the sound of boiling water, but diverse discordant sounds of disorder.
3.Instead of a neatly glued floor, swept by the bees with the fanning of their wings, there is a floor littered with bits of wax, excrement, dying bees scarcely moving their legs, and dead ones that have not been cleared away.

It is amazing to me how carefully he was able to explore each and every detail and see the comparison from hundreds of different perspectives. It is an amazing section to read.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

The Weight of SilenceThe Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Heather Gudenkauf's novel The Weight of Silence is a nearly perfect book with a major flaw. I'm rating this book as five stars because it gives me as much of what I want out of a story as I can get. It's a page turner at times. It has believable and flawed characters. It makes me think about situations from other people's points of view. I can't ask for more than that. Still, I couldn't get my mind off of one problem while I was reading it.

Calli Clark is a young girl, five or six years old, in a troubled family living in Willow Creek, a small, rural town. The trouble in her family comes from her father, Griff, who is abusive and suffers with a serious alcohol problem. Her mother, Toni, is a sweet, loving, woman who is too weak to confront her husband and rationalizes her acceptance of her husband's ways because she wants to keep her family together.

Something has happened to Calli in the past that has caused her to stop speaking. This selective mutism is the reason for the title and it is the force behind everything that happens in this book. It was caused by a family secret that must come out.

Here is where I have trouble with the plot. Calli is an intelligent young girl who can express herself clearly by writing. Gudenkauf makes a point about how many words she can write at an early age. Calli meets with a counselor who gets her to write a journal made up of words and pictures. Clearly, she can express herself with paper and pencil. Yet, except for Mr. Wilson the counselor, no one, not even her mother, gives Calli the opportunity to “speak” on paper. At school she communicates through her friend, Petra, who is so close to Calli she always knows what Calli is thinking.

Calli is taken into the woods behind her home by her father, in a jealous rage. He is convinced that Deputy Sheriff Louis is Calli's biological father because Toni had a relationship with Louis prior to her marriage. At the same time Petra sees something out of her bedroom window and heads into the woods to follow what she saw.

The story is about the search for the two young girls out in the woods. But it is about much more than that. It is a story of human failings and how they affect relationships. It makes me think and keeps me enthralled. For that I can certainly suspend my disbelief about one part of the plot.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

My fourth post on Tolstoy's War and Peace

I've been thinking about the reasons that War and Peace is impressing me so much while Resurrection left me flat. The main idea I've come up with is the different motivation Tolstoy must have had while writing. War and Peace is filled with astute and detailed observations of his characters that bring them to life, while the characters in Resurrection feel as if they have been manipulated into becoming evidence to justify Tolstoy's point of view concerning prison reform. In one case Tolstoy was an observer of humanity. In the other he was trying to change humanity.

General Kutuzov is a good example of the way Tolstoy used his observance of human characteristics to make his portrayal of this, real general into a full bodied character. Here's a paragraph that demonstrates this:

The Russians did not seek out the best position but, on the contrary, during the retreat passed many positions better than Borodino. They did not stop at any one of these positions because Kutuzov did not wish to occupy a position he had not himself chosen, because the popular demand for a battle had not yet expressed itself strongly enough, and because Miloradovich had not yet arrived with the militia, and for many other reasons. The fact is that other positions they had passed were stronger, and that the position at Borodino (the one where the battle was fought), far from being strong, was no more a position than any other spot one might find in the Russian Empire by sticking a pin into the map at hazard.

In this paragraph Tolstoy shows how Kutuzov thought of all aspects, including political strength, before making his decision. Tolstoy didn't pass judgment on this process he simply reported it. Aspects of it might have been true, but it is far more likely to be a scene created in the mind of an great writer of fiction.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

My third post on Tolstoy's War and Peace

I'm continuing to make my way through War and Peace and the trip gets more interesting the further I get into it.

In my last blog entry about Tolstoy's novel I wrote about Prince Andrew Bolkonski and how interesting and tragic his relationship with his wife was. After her death, he went on to an engagement with Natasha Rostova, a much younger woman. This way of "moving on" seemed to lessen his revelation concerning the love for his wife and presented a weaker picture of Bolkonski, especially in his relationship with his father, who disapproved of his engagement.

Tolstoy was brilliant in the way he wove multiple plots into the novel. All the characters seem to know each other and to affect each other's plans, but they all have their own stories.

I'm now at the point of the story where Nicholas Rostov is spurred on by the adrenaline rush of a battle, captures a French officer, and earns the St. George's Cross. What is fascinating about this section is the internal struggles Rostov goes through with his own fears and the way he conquers them. From what I have read about Tolstoy I feel he was very different from Rostov, yet as a writer he was able to go into Rostov's head completely. I've never been in a war, yet I felt I understood what Rostov was feeling.

Tolstoy was born in 1828, seven years after the death of Napoleon. Yet Tolstoy has included Napoleon as one of the characters of War and Peace and has given the readers as complete a study of his emotions as he has with any of his other characters. This makes the novel a historical fiction while providing what is most likely one of the best pictures possible of how the French Emperor thought. Again, so much is happening in this book and it is all fascinating.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bookmarks Festival - Winston Salem - 2011

This year's Bookmarks Festival had great weather and a huge turnout. I was at the Barnhill's Bookstore most of the day. I met a number of interesting people and sold some books. The only reading I had time to attend was a spontaneous poetry reading under a tree by the Press53 booth. I loved watching the authors reading from their books. It felt about as sincere as any reading I've ever attended. I wish I was able to attend some of the official readings. I understand they also went well. It was fun watching the lines of people following the writers to the book signing table. Overall, It was a great day.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

My second post on War and Peace

I'm a little more than a third of the way through War and Peace now and absolutely fascinated by the way the complicated plot weaves about among the many characters. It helps that I'm reading on my Kindle, because if a character comes up who seems to be someone I should know I can search the book to find earlier appearances. I've also discovered a Wikipedia entry for “List of War and Peace characters.” That has helped me keep track of all the counts, countesses, princes, and princesses.


At this point in the book Prince Andrew Bolkonski is the character I find the most interesting. I love the way he was so concerned about making his mark in the service, due primarily to his father's successful career, that he did not listen to the wishes of his wife and even became irritated with her. Then when he is wounded and is lying on a battlefield, on the Pratzen Heights, he looks up at the lofty sky, thinking he is going to die, and has a spiritual awakening. This road to Damascus event changes Prince Andrew's life. Among the other changes he experiences is a new found respect and love for his wife. The French army finds him and because Napoleon instructs them to take care of him, Bolkonski is nursed back to health. He returns to his wife on the day she is giving birth to their son. He has the opportunity to call her “My darling,” something he has never called her before. After that moment she dies. When Andrew looks at his wife's dead body he sees on her face an expression that says, “I love you all, and have done no harm to anyone; and what have you done to me?”

When describing these moments they sound maudlin and too coincidental. But Tolstoy manages to keep that feeling out of his writing by dwelling on the thoughts and emotions of Prince Andrew. It is extremely powerful.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

First reactions to starting War and Peace

I'm now a little under a quarter of the way through War and Peace in my Tolstoy mini marathon. What has impressed me most is the timelessness of Tolstoy's characters. The Russian generals all seem to be faking their skills and playing politics. The choice for the direction of a campaign comes down to my way over your way, rather than a logical decision, much like our current politicians.

Meanwhile, on the home front, women and their fathers are conniving for marriages to wealthy men. There is a little talk of love, but it is mostly position and possessions that drive these affairs. There is a wonderful scene where Helene is using her charms to attract Pierre, a man who has unexpectedly come into an enormous fortune.

Helene stooped forward to make room, and looked round with a smile. She was, as always at evening parties, wearing a dress such as was then fashionable, cut very low at front and back. Her bust, which had always seemed like marble to Pierre, was so close to him that his shortsighted eyes could not but perceive the living charm of her neck and shoulders, so near to his lips that he need only have bent his head a little to have touched them.

What is most wonderful about this scene is the clarity of what Pierre is feeling. He is a naïve man experiencing a mixture of embarrassment and attraction that could have been set in any time period.

At my place in the novel, I am about to ride with Count Rostov into what it appears will be a disastrous confrontation with the French Army under Napoleon. But things don't always go the way I expect in this novel. I'm excited to find out how this battle turns out.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy

ResurrectionResurrection by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was disappointed in Resurrection, but there are aspects of it I liked.

I finished it five days ago and have since started reading War and Peace. Immediately I can see what's missing from Resurrection. The story centers almost entirely around the character of Prince Dmitri Ivanovitch Nekhludoff and his struggle is a philosophical one. He's born with a silver spoon and wants to use it as a tool to build a better world. (This feels autobiographical since Tolstoy apparently wanted to use his skills in a similar way.) In War and Peace I've already been introduced to a scene where someone is drinking rum while sitting on a third story ledge and another where a plot is being conceived to cheat someone out of an inheritance. These type of situations are not in Resurrection. Instead we have Nekhuldoff struggling to come to terms with his wealth and to deal with the people who think he is foolish for wanting to give it away.

The story centers around Nekhludoff and a lower class woman named Katusha Maslova. She had been a servant for Nekhludoff's aunt. As a young man Nekhludoff had found her attractive. He'd chased her until he'd managed to have sex with her then he'd left, giving her a hundred roubles for her favors. Years later he is on a jury judging this same woman for the crime of poisoning someone. She's become a prostitute and the people she associates with have tricked her into the action. She's considered innocent because of the circumstances, but due to a technicality she is convicted. Nekhludoff blames himself for her situation and decides he needs to help her.

The novel is a rant against the prison system in czarist Russia. It is interesting if taken as a snapshot of the problems of that period. There are also some criticisms that can translate into modern systems. In the earlier sections of the book Tolstoy presents a picture of all the prisoners as wonderful people who have been treated in a horrific manner. Only later in the book does he mention that a few of the prisoners are guilty of some terrible crimes. My favorite part of the book is the very end when Tolstoy expresses his take on Christianity. His philosophy is probably closer to what Jesus actually taught than what we hear in many churches today.

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Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage (The Passage, #1)The Passage by Justin Cronin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm putting my Tolstoy mini-marathon on hold for this week to review a book I was reading at the same time as Resurrection.

The Passage draws a wonderful picture of some fascinating characters and it does so within a story that keeps drawing the readers in. I love books that do not sacrifice plot to character and visa versa. This is one of them.

Here's a paragraph where two characters are saying goodbyes because the circumstances are forcing them to separate:

He did; he understood. All that they were to each other seemed cradled within this simple fact. He felt no surprise or even regret but, rather, a deep and sudden gratitude and, with it, a force of clarity, filling him like a breath of winter air. He wondered what this feeling was and then he knew. He was giving her up.

In a vampire story that is filled with action scenes, it is important to remember the importance of emotions we all know. Justin Cronin has done this well.

The Passage is the first book in a series and, for that reason, the ending disappointed me. There are many questions that are still unanswered. Perhaps I'll get those in the next volume, but I don't know.

Warning – There are a couple of SPOILERS in the next paragraph -

The characters of Amy and Peter, especially Amy, have aspects to them that go beyond the premise of the book. The plot is about a weapons experiment conducted by the U.S. Military that goes very wrong, destroying the majority of North America and possibly the world. Amy was changed do to that experiment, but there was something special about Amy prior to the change. This was evident in the reactions of animals to her during a visit to a zoo when she was a child. Why she was different before the experiment was never made clear. There were also hints that there is something special about Peter as well, but we never learn what that is. We know his extraordinary human qualities, but not his supernatural ones.

Overall, I enjoyed The Passage and intend to read the next book in the series.

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Second week of my Tolstoy Mini Marathon

I'm 64% through Resurrection according to my Kindle and I still have the same basic impression of the book I had last weekend. The best word I can think of to describe it so far is didactic. I like to learn things from the stories I read, but when the author sets out to push a specific morality on me, I'm often turned off. It's like the difference between the writing in the Washington Post and the writing for Fox news. With the former an opinion might slip through, but with the latter the opinion is the focus and is forced on the reader.

I believe the best authors are the ones who respect their art form. If the purpose of the novel is not the book itself, then the writing often has the stilted feel of propaganda. When I was in college in the seventies, I took a course entitled Modern Drama from Communist China and read plays such as The Red Lantern by Wong Ou-hung and Ah Chia with an emphasis on the party line and spectacular scenes praising Communism. Resurrection isn't quite that bad, but it has some of the same feel in its criticism of the prison system in Czarist Russia.

Still, I'm enjoying Resurrection. I haven't read Anna Karenina in many years, but I still call it one of my favorite books. I feel that Tolstoy's writing, even his weaker pieces, have some power to them. I'm enjoying what's going on in Prince Dmitri Ivanovitch Nekhludoff's head, especially as his feelings for Katusha Malova are reawakening. I think that's where this story is headed and I'm looking forward to getting there.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Tolstoy mini-marathon

I've started what I'm calling my Tolstoy mini-marathon. I plan to read Resurrection, War and Peace, and Anna Karenina. It's a mini-marathon because I'm not trying for all of Tolstoy's works and I'll be reading some other books at the same time as I'm reading these three. But it still will be an accomplishment when I'm done.

Resurrection is a novel that isn't as famous as the other two. My daughter recommended it and since I'd been meaning to start this project I added it to my list. I'm a little more than a third of the way through and I'm finding it a little preachy, but interesting. Tolstoy was commenting on the prison system in Russia during the late nineteenth century.

His main character Prince Nekhludoff sits on a jury at a trail of a prostitute, Katusha Maslova, who is accused of poisoning someone. Nekhludoff recognizes Maslova as a woman who was once a servant for his aunt. He slept with her then left her. When she became pregnant she lost her position and her life started going downhill. That is how she ended up where he now finds her.

Maslova is innocent, but is found guilty due to a technical problem with the instructions given the jury and is sentenced to penal servitude in Siberia. Nekhludoff is horrified and determined to do right by her, even to the point of marrying her. He makes that offer, which, so far, she's turned down.

As I said, this novel is a little preachy, but that can be fun at time, especially when the subject is a world as distant as nineteenth century Russia. I enjoy when Tolstoy goes off on subjects such as the indifference of authorities in the legal system and the importance of people feeling there is value to their work, even if they are prostitutes.

I'll talk a little more about Resurrection next week. After that I plan to read War and Peace. I'm saving Anna Karenina for last because I've read it previously (twice) and it is one of my favorite books.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Secrets of Eden By Chris Bohjalian

Secrets of EdenSecrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I listened to the audio version of Chris Bohjalian's novel Secrets of Eden and want to recommend it highly. There are multiple readers who all do an excellent job. It's perfect for a long commute, although I found myself driving an extra block or two a couple of times when I couldn't stop listening.

Many writing instructors, especially those who are teaching beginning courses, tell writers to show rather than tell. It's a bit of advice that has always irritated me, because it simplifies the process way too much. Good writers balance their stories with telling and showing, using what is appropriate for each situation. Secrets of Eden is a perfect example of a book where telling is most often the proper choice.

Bohjalian has separated the book into four parts, each narrated by a different character. They tell the story from their point of view in a way that adds to the suspense while painting a full picture of their personalities.

I'm going to recommend this book to my book club, because it's perfect for discussions. The topics include faith crisis, domestic abuse, and the difference between over-the-top spiritual beliefs and conventional religion. I could see us talking for days on any one of those subjects. I've also read and loved The Double Bind and Skeletons at the Feast, but I'm going to choose this one to suggest to our group.

The story is about a murder suicide that occurs in a small Vermont town. The murder victim is a member of a Baptist church. Her death and the circumstances surrounding it deeply affect the minister of that church. I don't want to say much more than that. If you want spoilers you'll have to go to another review.

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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel CantoBel Canto by Ann Patchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've often wondered about the chicken or the egg question when considering the motives of terrorists. In most cases there seems to be a cause each group believes in, sometimes passionately. Yet they also seem to love the control and power that comes with violent action, even when the action will most likely cost them their lives.

In Bel Canto Ann Patchett has given us a different kind of terrorist. These men would rather flourish their guns than use them. These generals treat both their soldiers and their captives with respect, listening to their requests, considering them and often granting them. Having never been a hostage, I can't say if this is an unrealistic picture of the terrorist mindset, but it is certainly far from what I've ever imagined.

And that is what makes the book wonderful!

The takeover of Mr. Hosokawa's birthday party is an excuse for slowing down the lives of powerful people so they can reflect on what is important in life. They think about their relationships, their families, and about the love of art. Roxanne Coss, a great opera soprano, is one of the captives and everyone uses this opportunity to appreciate her talent. Gen, a translator who works for Mr. Hosokawa, becomes a favorite of everyone held because of his talent to communicate. All the characters, soldiers and prisoners, take time to get to know each other and to think. It is as if they have been taken to a monastery and forced to meditate.

There are twists and surprises in the book's plot, but readers are propelled forward more by the relationships that developed than suspense.

I see from some of the other reviews that this plot was inspired by a real event that happened in Peru and I can understand why that can be upsetting to some people. But writers are always inspired by real events. Bel Canto should be appreciated for where it takes us and what it is on its own.

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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Accuracy in fiction

Accuracy in fiction is defined by reality, the reality of the story not the reality of the world we live in. But the lines are blurred. An article I read many years ago, in one of the writers magazines, stated that a story set in Manhattan was ruined because someone turned left on Fifth Avenue and drove uptown. People who have spent any time in New York know that Fifth Avenue is one-way, downtown. Now that the internet is available little facts such as that one are easier to check, but, as the onslaught of political pundits has shown us, people love to speak with authority even when they are unsure of the facts. Writers have to be careful that the information they find is correct.

The context of the story is what matters when determining if a fact is accurate or not. If in that Manhattan story some crime mob had changed the signs on Fifth Avenue so they now pointed uptown, then that left turn might have been acceptable. This is the reason that readers disparaging remarks such as dragons can't fly that fast or aliens can't teleport through a black hole can be legitimate criticism if the story establishes a fact then ignores it. Yet there is more to the context of a story as it relates to accuracy than facts established within its pages. There's also the tone and what the writer has shown to be important.

I'm currently listening to an audio of Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. This is the story of a terrorist takeover of a birthday party in an unnamed third world country. It has a number of events that seem unreasonable or just wrong—air conditioning ducts in a residential home that are big enough for people to crawl through and a telephone call to someone who states he's just come home for lunch when it has already been established that it is late enough to be getting dark outside. Yet this book is not about the portrayal of an accurate terrorist event. It's about love, loyalty, gender relationships, the love of art, and what is valuable in life. The setting is just an event that slows a group of type A people down long enough to allow them to reflect on their lives. Because of that these small facts are insignificant.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin

Unfinished Desires: A NovelUnfinished Desires: A Novel by Gail Godwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Unfinished Desires is an excellent read by Gail Godwin, one of my favorite authors. The characters are wonderfully complex. The story takes place in Mount St. Gabriel's, a Catholic school for girls in western North Carolina. The setting is perfect for raising relationship issues to the forefront and for presenting interesting perspectives on faith.

Mother Suzanne Ravenel is the headmistress of the school. She is a strong leader who has provided her girls with a rich environment that is secure and also stimulating enough to offer a good education. But she is overbearing and suffers from the most common flaw in supervisors from all walks of life, she confuses loyalty to the headmistress with loyalty to the school. For example, Madeline Stratton, one of the most selfless and intelligent characters in the book, was not asked back to the school after something she said insulted Mother Ravenel. There are other, more important examples of this flaw of Ravenel's, but I don't want to put a spoiler in this review so I'll skip them.

I love the way Godwin handles faith in her writing. (Father Melancholy's Daughter and Evensong are great examples of this.) In Unfinished Desires she is covering the Catholic faith rather than the Anglican, but she does so with as much honesty and respect. I found the character of Chloe to be the most interesting in this area because her faith manifests itself in a manner that verges on insane. But at the same time it makes sense in the context of the beliefs of this group of people. Many of the nuns talk to God and God answers.

The other aspect of this book that I love is the way Godwin has centered her plot around small parts of school life that everyone can identify with. She's taken things like book reports and school plays and raised their importance through the points of view of the characters. She's also used those projects to cover issues such as learning disabilities in ways that add to the intensity of the book.

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Character development in fiction

The general definition of a tragic flaw is a flaw in character that causes the defeat of the hero in a tragedy. In my favorite books character flaws exist for all and don't always bring about their defeat.

I've been listening to an audio version of Gail Godwin's Unfinished Desires, so I'm thinking about character development. Godwin does an amazing job of creating people that readers can admire in one sense and find distasteful in another. That is one of the reasons why her books are among my favorites.

I heard a recent interview of Ann Patchett during which she disparaged the statement that many writers, myself included, often make about our characters writing our stories. Patchett said she is always in charge and I can understand her point. When I'm writing I put myself in the heads of my characters and try to feel what they're feeling. Then I let go. That's how my characters write my story, but it is still me. I think all people have the capacity to feel what the most glorious and the most heinous people feel, because we all experience greed and hatred as well as benevolence and love. Good writers can capture both positive and negative feelings and put them on paper in the form of the actions of their characters.

I've heard many writers say that there are only a limited amount of plots. Each time I hear someone make that statement the number seems to change, but the idea is the same. Character development could have the same description, because there are only a limited amount of emotions people can feel towards each other. I suppose writers could use transactional analysis (or some other relationship theory) to figure their characters out. But this generalization about either plotting or character development limits the importance of subtle differences. The best writers pull from an infinite amount of choices for their characters and their plots.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Jude the Obscure (Thrift Edition)Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There may be a powerful ending in Jude the Obscure that I haven't reached yet because at this time I still have about 20% to go. But I've reached what was clearly a climax in the relationship of Jude and Sue and I've certainly read enough to talk about the book.

This novel was published in its entirety in 1895, although it ran as a magazine serial prior to that. According to Wikipedia, Thomas Hardy started working on it in 1887. The work does what I love fiction to do. It presents ideas that are thought provoking. Its ideas were controversial at the time it was released, but there are enough universal themes in the work to make it relevant for today's readers.

Jude is a young man living in Marygreen England in the late nineteenth century. He is living with his aunt and working in her bakery. He is an excellent student at a time when physical skills are more appreciated than scholarship. But he admires his teacher and longs to learn as much as possible with the goal of eventually becoming a member of the clergy.

Jude is seduced by a local woman who tricks him into marriage. Their union lasts a short time and the two go their separate ways. But Jude is now burdened with an attachment that interferes with his desire to marry Sue Bridehead, his cousin with whom he falls in love. The novel follows their relationship as they try to deal with the dictates of nineteenth century England.

The ideas in Jude the Obscure are critical of organized religion and of the institution of marriage as it was in the 1800's. But it is also a story about gossip and people who are not allowed to live their lives the way they've chosen because of the society around them. It's also about insecurity and overreaction, making the characters universally human.

One of the aspects of the book I found most interesting was the way the relationship of cousins was treated in that era. It seems much more complicated than I had realized. Jude and Sue were allowed to marry at that time and no one seemed to frown on that. But they could also be treated as if they were brother and sister, if they wanted to be. It seemed odd that in a time when there was so little acceptance of differences in lifestyles people were allowed to define their relationships with their cousins.

Hardy often tells the reader what his characters are thinking through their dialog rather than showing through their actions. At times that feels a bit stilted, but there are enough subtleties in the story to compensate for that. It's a good read and the Kindle version is free on Project Gutenberg.

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Saturday, June 4, 2011

The sequel to Motherless Soul

Motherless Soul has been out a little more than a year and a half now. The reaction to the book has been great, so I'm working on a sequel. My goal is to have the first draft done by the end of this year. However, the first draft will require quite a bit of revising. The characters have done what they're supposed to do. They've taken over the story. I will have to go back and change some of the earlier chapters so the plot lines they picked out will work. I had a friend call this art of working beginning to end with lots of revisits along the way - “zig-zag” writing.

There are sections of the new novel that will take place in the nineteenth century. So, in addition to traditional means of research, I'm reading some literature for that era. I've read Middlemarch by George Eliot and Nana by Emile Zola and I'm about a third of the way through Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. I like what I pick up from books written during the historical era I'm covering because the authors are writing for the people of that time. They carefully describe the exceptional events, but assume the readers understand the day to day events. It takes a different kind of thought process to appreciate the classics.

The only character I'm bringing over from the first book is the hypnotist. He's moved on to a new project involving all new people. I don't want the second book to be too much like the first so I'm carefully including aspects that work out in a very different manner. I'm also using some ideas from people who enjoyed the first novel. I'm very encouraged by the way it is going, but it's far from done. No matter what happens the process is something I look forward to every day.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Nana by Emile Zola

Nana (Les Rougon-Macquart, #9)Nana by Émile Zola

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nana has one of the worst beginnings of any novel I've read recently, but I ended up liking it very much.

The story starts at a theater where a new production of The Blond Venus is having its opening night. Nana has the lead. She's an actress who has received a great deal of publicity, but has not been seen be the general public. Zola uses this situation to build suspense while presenting all of the book's minor characters. It's the all I have problems with. The opening chapter bounces around from one audience member to another so much it is difficult to keep the characters straight.

Nana can't sing and looks awkward on stage, but she's extremely beautiful. Since she appears nude in the show, her beauty is enough to carry her to a tremendous success. That's believable enough. We certainly have our share of modern actresses who become famous for their beauty rather than their talent.

But the success of the play isn't enough to carry the story for me. The audience moves on to a couple of society parties where they talk about Nana and gossip about each other. Again the point of view is still bouncing around so much I couldn't latch onto a single character enough to care what happens to any of them.

The story starts to take hold when Zola gets into Nana's head and to a theme of competition that runs throughout the novel. Nana competes with women in French society, with other actresses, and even with a streetwalker named Satin, whom she knows from her own time on the streets. But while Nana is competing for men, stage roles, and money to provide her with the most opulent surroundings, she is also the prize for the competing men in the book.

I was thoroughly caught up in the novel as it drew to an end, so when I finished it I went back and reread the beginning. As I suspected, the opening chapters were as enthralling as the latter ones once the characters were familiar to me.

This is the only book I've read by Emile Zola. I plan to try others.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

The Doomsday BookThe Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In honor of the billboards across America that are predicting today as “Judgment Day,” I've decided to review The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

A great portion of this book takes place during a period of history that must have been considered to be the “End Times.” These were the years of the great plague or black death when 30 to 60% of the population of Europe died from disease. The Doomsday Book won the Hugo award in 1993.

Connie Willis is an author who loves to give her readers thoroughly researched facts. Although the book begins in 2054 and is about time travel, the sections that cover the middle ages are written with a great amount of detail and have a feel of accuracy that is remarkable. I checked on the dates mentioned and on some of the facts discussed (such as the three types of plague) and found Willis to be accurate. These details in a story that focuses on the humanity of its characters, provided an exciting way to learn about a period of history I don't know well.

Mr. Dunworthy has a paternal relationship with Kivrin, his student. It is his desire to protect her, along with a sense of guilt, that motivates him to help her at a time when she's stuck in the middle ages and no one else seems to care.

In the 1300's, Lady Eliwys has feelings for Gawyn, one of her servants. Her husband is away, but her mother-in-law, Imeyne, is living with them. The elder woman notices the relationship, creating tension between Eliwys and Imeyne. Eliwys is a person who responds to people and situations based on appearances. She does not like the local priest because he is not attractive and does not always follow ritual in the way she thinks is proper.

Meanwhile, in the twenty-first century, Dunworthy is dealing with Gilchrist, a department head in charge of the “drop” (the session to send Kivrin back in time). Gilchrist's only concern seems to be who gets credit and/or blame for the project. So in both timeframes Willis creates real, personal interactions that keep the human feel in her science fiction.

Another aspect of Connie Willis's writing that I admired in The Doomsday Book is her portrayal of children. These characters are as fully developed as the adults. At times they ignore the instructions they've been given, but Dunworthy and Kivrin come to love them anyway and so do the readers.

I plan to recommend The Doomsday Book to my book club. It may be a little longer than most of our choices, but it reads quickly and is always captivating. It should be an excellent book for a discussion.

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

The Madonnas of Leningrad (P.S.)The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had an interesting conversation recently with a resident of a retirement village where I held a reading and discussion of my book, Motherless Soul. She spoke of the memories of her youth and how those recollections became clearer as she aged. She called this fact a “gift.”

The Madonnas of Leningrad is about this “gift.” Marina, a woman suffering with dementia, is getting ready for a trip to her granddaughter's wedding. But Marina keeps slipping back and forth between her life in the present time and the life she led as a young woman during the World War II Siege of Leningrad.

Although I can understand the definition of these intense memories held by the woman I talked to at the retirement home, the life Marina slipped back to was far from pleasant. The Germans barricaded and bombed the city. During a cold, Russian winter, people were living in the shells of buildings without much to protect them from the environment. Marina was fortunate enough to live with her uncle in the basement of the Hermitage museum where she worked, but they suffered from the cold there as well. The German bombers targeted the warehouses with supplies for the city, so soon starvation was killing many more people than the bombs themselves.

Despite the horrors of dementia and war that are covered by this book, it is ultimately about beauty and that's what makes it such a wonderful story. The art in the Hermitage is removed from the walls of the museum. Some pieces are stored in the basement to protect them from the bombs, but most have been transported out of the city. Marina and Anya, an older friend who is also living in the Hermitage, form a pact to remember the art. They walk through the empty rooms of the museum, talking to each other about the work that once hung on the walls. They are worried that if it is forgotten it will never matter.

There are so many wonderful things going on in this book. It is the story of a love that persists through both war and old age. Marina waits for Dmitri as he fights against the German army, then, when they are older and living in America, Dmitri patiently waits for Marina as she slips in and out of her present life. It is also the story of the beauty of culture. Marina's love for art is great enough to pull her through the horrors of war.

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Saturday, May 7, 2011

1st to Die by James Patterson

1st to Die (Women's Murder Club Series #1)1st to Die by James Patterson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think 1st to Die is the only James Patterson novel I've read, but I'm not certain. His writing is not the type that sticks with me after I'm done reading. I did have certain expectations from hearing others talk about his books and from reading reviews. Those expectations were met without many surprises.

The characters have little depth and when the plot twists take any paths that are unexpected, those paths feel forced and sometimes humorous. The book felt like a satire of its genre. Perhaps it was, but there are still nice things about it that make it worth reading.

The book is a page turner. Patterson knows how to write well enough to keep me on the edge of my seat. Lindsay, the main character, has multiple problems going on in her life, so I didn't have time to get bored with one before the story was back to another. And the action scenes work well.

Even though the characters are not interesting enough for me to think about them when I'm done reading, I still cared enough about them to want good things to happen. I knew most of the troubles they would run into before they happened, but I was interested to see how they were resolved.

There are unbelievable aspects to the plot. In particular a coincidence that is critical to the plot and actions by the criminals that nobody could possibly accept. Yet there are times when I want to see Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger films, even if they are unrealistic. I'll probably read other James Patterson books, but I'll wait until a time when I don't want to think much.

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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

Mennonite in a Little Black DressMennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There's a 1988 Amy Irving movie called Crossing Delancey. When I started to read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress I thought this book would be similar. I pictured a story of Rhoda Janzen's personal conflict between the culture she grew up with and, for lack of a better term, mainstream culture. I imagined I would spend my time with this book watching Janzen come to terms with her background. That isn't at all what this book is about. In fact, there was so little in the book about the Mennonite culture, Janzen needed to add "A Mennonite History Primer" as an Appendix for those of us who "may still have some pressing questions about Mennonites."

The author suffered through some personal hard times. Her marriage ended and she had some health issues. Those problems pushed her back to the home of her parents and gave her a chance to think about the people in her life: her husband, her parents, her sister, and her friends. For the most part this thought process didn't lead Rhoda Janzen to an understanding of the people around her. There were some moments when she expressed an appreciation for them, but she spent most of her time laughing at them. Her father was too cheap. Her mother talked too graphically about bodily functions. She had friends who didn't discipline their children enough. And Nick, her ex husband, left her for "a guy he'd met on"

At one point in the book Jansen mentions that one characteristics she would appreciate most in a man would be a sense of humor like her own. I think she also needs readers who share her sense of humor. For the most part Jansen uses humor that shocks and mocks. I didn't find it particularly funny, but a friend of mine said she found it hilarious. Like any book, this one needs to find the right readers.

Although there were aspects of this memoir that I didn't like (and have already mentioned), there were also parts I found inspiring. I loved the way she dealt with her health issues from a botched operation. She handled them with humor and strength. I was also inspired by the honest way she wrote about her relationship with her abusive husband, who was bipolar and did not stay on his meds.

This book was a selection for my book club. We will be discussing it this Thursday. I'm looking forward particularly to hearing the opinion of one of our members, who was raised as a Mennonite. I think it should be an interesting discussion.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Past Lives as a genre

I'm currently reading two books: The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean. I noticed they shared a plot feature with my own novel Motherless Soul which started me thinking about aspects of a book that connect it with other books. In this case all three novels switch the readers back and forth between multiple plots.

In the case of The Doomsday Book there is a young historian named Kivrin who is sent back in time to observe the middle ages. Things go wrong on both sides of the time divide so readers are left wondering how the team in modern times (2054 AD) will deal with their problems while we're also following Kivrin's adventures in the 1300's.

In The Madonnas of Leningrad Marina, Debra Dean's main character suffers with Alzheimer's so she spends her time switching back and forth between the life going on in the current time and the memories of the life she led during World War II. Nicholas Sparks used a similar device in the The Notebook although he was writing for a very different audience.

In my own novel, Motherless Soul, the characters experience multiple lives through regressions into their past life memories. There is a plot going on during the American Civil War while there is also a plot going on in modern times. Each one of my characters has a presence in both plots, with different roles. The past influences the course of the future.

There are many other cases of novels with this plot feature. The first one that comes to my mind is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain, but there are many others. Sometimes in novels such as The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje the plot exists almost entirely in the second life, but the idea is the same.

Although I like to call my book a “Past Lives Mystery,” there is no official title for this genre. Since most books I enjoy mix mystery, adventure and romance rather than existing exclusively in one category, I believe “plot features” would be a better system for categorizing fiction.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Blue Orchard by Jackson Taylor

The Blue Orchard: A NovelThe Blue Orchard: A Novel by Jackson Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Blue Orchard was a choice by my bookclub. It lead to one of the most interesting discussions we've had with the group. The book is set in Harrisburg, Pa, which is a place a few of our members are familiar with. It deals with race relations and abortion, topics about which people tend to have strong and emotional opinions.

The book spans most of the life of Verna Krone who is the grandmother of the author. Her stories have been documented by Jackson Taylor in his book, which he calls a novel but is probably best described as a cross between a novel and a memoir. Verna was young during the depression and, when she was fourteen, had to give up school to help support her family. Her father was much older than her mother and died very early in the book.

There is a distance that I feel in Taylor's writing, particularly in the way he handles dialogue. But the stories he tells are so fascinating that I still got caught up in them.

Despite the poverty of Verna's background, she managed to get an education and had a career in nursing. She worked in a few positions before ending up with the job where she spent most of her years. She worked for a prominent, African-American doctor named Dr. Crampton whose practice included sports medicine with a local high school and abortions.

Dr. Crampton was wealthy and politically connected. He delivered votes to Harvey Taylor and to the Republican machine that dominated Pennsylvania politics at that time. In exchange for those favors he was able to improve the lives of the African-American residents of Harrisburg by bringing money into their community for projects such as sports teams and a local Y. Sometimes when we look back on race relations from the thirties and forties we forget how complicated the situations were. Dr. Crampton couldn't eat in the same places as the whites, but in many ways he was more powerful than most of the people of all races.

Taylor's characters are intricate and interesting. For example, Verna seems to oppose abortions until the money becomes too difficult to resist. After that she rationalizes what she's doing by telling herself she's keeping the women away from the "butchers." Taylor doesn't seem to take a position on abortion. He tells the story and lets the readers draw their own conclusions.

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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Mortals, Gods, and a Muse by Suzette Vaughn

Mortals, Gods and a MuseMortals, Gods and a Muse by Suzette Vaughn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Suzette Vaughn's Mortals, Gods, and a Muse is the perfect book for readers who are looking for a fun read. The writing is light with an emphasis on dialogue and wit. It feels as informal as emails or journal entries. The characters, especially the narrator, Sherry, are fun, likable, and a little insane. The plot pulls readers along with a comfortable level of predictability that suddenly changes into a wild ride loaded with surprises. It's a romance, a fantasy, and also a page turner that's hard to put down.

The book is written from the point of view of Sherry Duncan, a romance writer who has taken a trip to the virgin islands to give herself a break from her muse. There's a new one in her life, a young woman named Star. Like Cosmo Topper and his ghosts, Sherry is the only one who can see and talk to her muse. The situation is complicated because Star is trying to find a leading man for Sherry's next book and for her life. Star brings Lysander Eros to meet Sherry while she is sunbathing on a picture perfect beach. Lysander is a handsome, blue-eyed Greek with an enormous yacht and an apparent attraction to people with imaginary friends.

The first part of the book is a slow and enticing seduction that draws the readers into the personalities and desires of Sherry and Lysander (or Xander as she calls him). The second half is an adventure that is filled with exciting twists and turns. I enjoyed it all.

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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Motherless Soul Reading

I had a reading at a local retirement village this past week. I won't mention the name of the establishment because I learned that there appears to be a retirement home circuit among writers. Authors attempting to market their books can be a bit overwhelming to some of the staff. The Activity Director told me, “My name must have gotten out there somehow. I get about six calls a day.”

The reading went very well. I had eight people in attendance, which is a perfect amount for the type of reading I like best. We sat in a circle. I read three excerpts and between the readings I talked about some of the concepts in the book and about the process of writing.

My book doesn't appeal to everyone because its plot deals with past lives and that idea conflicts with the religious beliefs of some people. (I've heard that from a couple of reviewers who declined to read it.) At first glance a North Carolina retirement home seems to be a poor choice for an appearance, since most are associated with churches. But my book is a novel and I think the majority of people recognize that novels are places where readers can get lost in fictional lives.

This particular home is Moravian, but that doesn't mean the residents are all members of that church. Retirement homes are no different than any other large groups of people. The residents have a variety of backgrounds and interests. In the group that attended my reading there was a former chaplain, a woman who had once been hypnotized, and a writer who had spent her career as a journalist. The writer had lost her sight, but still enjoyed audio books. She also had a finished novel she had never sent out. I think she liked my reading. Of all the people in attendance she was the most involved in the conversation.

I always enjoy hearing the opinions and stories of the people who attend my readings. The reason I enjoy doing readings is because they are give and take events where I can learn as well as share my experiences.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Ghost Runners by Robert Rubenstein


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I started this book I knew nothing about the 1936 Olympics and the two jewish runners, Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman. I also did not know of Avery Brundage, the US Olympic committee leader who pulled those two atheletes from the American team at the last minute. The speculation is that Avery Brundage made his decision in an attempt to avoid embarrassing the Olympic host country, Nazi Germany. I researched the event while reading Ghost Runners to learn a little more about the event that Robert Rubenstein based his book on. It is a tribute to Rubenstein's that I was not only drawn in by the story, but was motivated to look into the facts behind it.

Robert Rubenstein has written the story of Bobby Gillman and Joshua Sellers who were pulled from this fictional Olympic team by Arian Bandage. Fiction is in many ways truer than non-fiction because writers of fiction are free to speculate about the powerful emotions behind the facts. That's what we readers get in Ghost Runners. Rubenstein has changed the names of some of his main characters so he can show their reality. They have strengths and weaknesses. They have relationships. They love their sport and they take pride in their heritage. By reading this account of the story I didn't just learn the facts, I was consumed by them.

In the book readers are taken from the streets of Brooklyn, New York to Germany via the Manhattan, a renovated cruise ship set up to allow the team to train while traveling. The training had its problems due to politics, partying, and sea sickness. But the team got where they needed to go. Once in Germany the story brings in famous names such as Leni Riefenstahl, who filmed the event, Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, and, of course, Adolf Hitler. On the American side there are athletes such as Jesse Owens and politicians such as FDR and Gerald Ford.

I've been reading a number of WW2 books recently. I'm glad I chose this one to add to that list. It's a wonderful read and a fascinating insight to that time.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Kira-KiraKira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Because of the enormous tragedy brought to Japan by the tsunami and its disastrous affect on one of their nuclear power plants, I, like everyone else I know, have had the people of that country constantly on my mind. I read the updates on line to find out what is happening with the reactors. I listen with awe to the stories of the plant personnel walking into certain death with only the hope that they can do something to help their neighbors. And, of course, I pray.

When I want to know what's going on with any world event I go to our news outlets. But when I want to know how people feel I go to the world of fiction. Because that's where the most powerful emotions and thoughts are documented. This time I wanted to know about the Japanese people, so I chose the book Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata. This may seem like an odd choice, because it is a book about Japanese Americans living first in Iowa then in Georgia and because it is a book intended for young people. But it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.

Kira-Kira is the story of a young Japanese American whose sister suffers with lymphoma. Katie loves her sister. She also looks up to Lynn as a role model and as a parent figure. They live in poverty and their parents have to spend most of their time just trying to put food on their table. That is why Lynn is in many ways the person raising Katie.

I loved the way the book captured many aspects of the Japanese culture, but remained focused on more universal qualities such as family love. Katie's father is strong, yet gentle. He is willing to do anything for his family and is frustrated when some problems are beyond his power.

The book is beautifully written and had me in tears during some of the most emotional scenes. It gave me a sense of how people deal with loss from a Japanese perspective and that's what I wanted. It is a wonderful story.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid - Bill Bryson

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt KidThe Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was born in 1950, so I'm the perfect demographic for this memoir. Bill Bryson has written about growing up in Des Moines, Iowa during the fifties. I can't speak for younger readers, but as one of the people who lived through that time I found the book hysterical.

He talks about comic books, chemistry sets, and crushes on young girls. His early years could have been any of ours, only documented better and much funnier. I loved his descriptions of people pitching brands on old TV shows, like Harry Von Zell on The George Burns and Gracie Allen show. But what I loved the most about the book was the way he captured that innocent, self-centered way of living that I certainly enjoyed as a boy.

I read this book because it was my book club's selection for March. After I finished it, I wasn't convinced that it would lead to much of a discussion. But I was so wrong. Everyone in the group was caught up in the nostalgia and joined in the conversation about the way things were when they were young. It turned out to be one of the best discussions we've had. Everyone had something in the book to identify with. When I read about Bryson's father picking a dentist who didn't use Novocain simply because he charged less, I recognized my own father in the story.

Some of Bryson's lists of things from the fifties went on too long, but that was my only complaint. What excited me about the book was the way I could identify with Bryson and relive my childhood through him. If you like memoirs, this would be a good one to try.

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