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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews