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 na├»ve 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.