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.