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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