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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