Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Four - Anna Karenina - Part Four

More from the lovely Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin, from Part 3 Chapter 32--
He felt that if they hadn't both been pretending, but had had what is called a heart-to-heart talk, that is, simply told each other just what they were thinking and feeling, then they would just have looked into each other's eyes, and Konstantine would only have said: "You're dying, dying, dying!"---while Nicholas would simply have replied: "I know I'm dying, but I'm afraid, afraid, afraid!" That's all they would have said if they'd been talking straight from the heart. But it was impossible to live that way, so Levin tried to do what he'd been trying to do all his life without being able to, what a great many people could do so well, as he observed, and without which life was impossible: he tried to say something different from what he thought, and he always felt it came out false, that his brother caught him out and was irritated by it.
Yeah, that Tolstoy was pretty good all right.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Book Four - Anna Karenina - Part Three

Generally there are two ways I become intrigued by a book. Either I'm hooked immediately or I determine to devote several hours in a row to reading it, and in doing so become absorbed in the story. The latter is true in this case, and Levin had a great deal to do with it. He's a nerd and I do love nerds (well, it takes one to know one). I long for the Levin storyline and tolerate everyone else. Levin is such a sweet character. He's a bit naive and quite capricious in moments of fervent passion, and it’s clear Tolstoy wants the reader to love him. Here's a taste of Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin, "... a just idea cannot but be fruitful." 

Aww. That quote is from Part 3 Chapter 30, and I'll wager a few rubles that he changes his mind in the next few hundred pages. Levin is good and kind and decent, and since it’s a Russian novel I fear the decent people shall meet tragic ends. Every time the story gets back to him I love him more, yet I suspect he shall die a violent death--perhaps by scythe at the hand of a peasant. (It would certainly be a lovely bit of literary symmetry if he did.)
I'm not terribly concerned about Anna Karenina. I dislike her, her husband and her lover. Whine whine moan moan poor little old me whatever shall I do? Dude, shut up! That's what you should do.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book Four - Anna Karenina - Part Two

I flew through the first hundred pages but have slowed considerably since. I learned years ago not to read the introduction to a classic (got terribly spoiled once and didn't get over it for weeks) so I was determined not to read the introduction to this one. But I briefly succumbed and allowed myself to read a few sentences from the first page. I discovered two things: 1) Tolstoy set out to write about a married woman who has an affair and portray her "as not guilty but merely pitiful"; 2) He was determined that this novel would not be as wordy as War and Peace.

Seriously, War and Peace is more wordy than this? The descriptions are wonderful, don't get me wrong, but there are so many of them. There are so many characters that I'm not sure who (besides Anna) is the focus of the novel. When I read about a farmer, I got a wonderful description of his farm, the changing seasons, the political issues of the day, the dependable-worker shortage, planting techniques, local birds, and even his faithful bird dog. But then I got a description of a horse race that was almost as detailed, and I'm not interested in horse racing. Plus I can't decide which characters to root for--this one seems like a decent person but then he goes and does something like that!

I'm not enthralled but I'm determined to slog through it and hope there are hidden treasures in store. (Clearly, I'm not a Russian writer. Optimism does not abound in the Russian lit I have previously read.)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Book Four - Anna Karenina - Part One

This one is a classic, I know. But here's the first line of the description on the back of the book. "A magnificient drama of vengeance, infidelity and retribution..."

So it'll be totally upbeat, I'm sure!!!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Three - A Town Like Alice - Part Two

Nevil Shute
Image from The Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

This book touched me in many ways. In a weird piece of déjà vu I discovered that this book wasn't all about what I thought it was. I thought it was a story about the Town Like Alice and the characters in that town, but it was also about someone else. I didn't realize that until the last two pages and when I did I sobbed and sobbed. Without giving too much away, I'll say that I always worry about elderly men who are alone. I never worry about the elderly women, particularly women of previous generations. Once the man is retired, his life's work is done. But the woman's life work was running the home and taking care of people, and her work is never done. Many elderly men have never fended for themselves and are ill prepared to do so. Yet one of the messages of this book is that in helping someone in his professional capacity, one elderly gentleman found what he felt was his life's greatest purpose. 

There are so many things in this book--the resilience of some people, the inability of others to be resilient; the sense of adventure some seem born with and the complacency of others to stay where they were born and to live there quite happily all of their days. This is something I have pondered frequently throughout my life. My father grew up in a small town and left the first chance he got, never to live there again. Yet we frequently went back to that small town where his parents and one of his sisters remained. And now, the eldest child of that sister still lives in that small town while all of her own siblings have left. And that eldest child would never live anywhere else. This has always fascinated me. Some people can "bloom where they're planted" while others need to move on. Some of those that move on don't go very far and then bloom in that new place. Others wander far and wide and are quite happy wherever they land.

Part of this book is about the war--World War II--and it shared some things that I've read in other books about the war but differed in others. I naively assumed that because this book was published in 1950 its tone would be different from the books that I've read lately. I thought that these recent reads (The Book Thief, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, Island Of Saints) wrote about individual German people and/or soldiers as good people who were also victims of their monstrous government only because of the time that has elapsed since the war. This book made me realize I was wrong. Of course the Allied soldiers in WWII knew that their enemy was comprised of scared young men just like themselves. And there must have been German soldiers who knew Hitler was evil.

The main character, Jean, is a woman who did what she had to do to survive--at first. Then she went back to her "normal" life, and then she went to a new place and bloomed where she was planted. Boy, did she bloom! Her early hardships determined how she was to live the rest of her life, and I suppose that's the way it always is. The only way to become a compassionate person is to suffer. 

The one thing about this book that I expected to find and did was the social conventions of 1950 that differ from the conventions of 2010. I got the sense with this book that some of the terms would be considered inappropriate if not downright racist, though I didn’t actually know most of the slang since the book was set in what used to be Malaya and then in Australia. But it is more acceptable to me to read a book set in the past which accurately portrays the use of "non-PC" words than to read one which rewrites history. Besides, the careful words we use today will undoubtedly be scorned by people reading them in 2070.

It's always interesting to me to read about the connection between Britain and one of her former possessions. The British have this connection with Australia and with India... and with us. But we and the Australians and the Indians and all of the others are only former siblings. We haven't retained that sense of connection like the connection between two countries when their daily lives are affected by parents or grandparents who formerly lived in the homeland.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Book Three - A Town Like Alice - Part One

I fell in like with A Town Like Alice on the very first page.  The beginning is set in Scotland, one of my favorite places in the world. The first page mentions Loch Shiel, and I spent a very happy week in Glenshiel several summers ago. Glenshiel is not terribly close to Loch Shiel, but never mind. A Town Like Alice was published in 1950 and I noticed on the copyright page that it includes a quote from Yeats’ “When You Are Old,” which I love. Here is the poem – 

    When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
    And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
    And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
    Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

    How many loved your moments of glad grace,
    And loved your beauty with love false or true,
    But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
    And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

    And bending down beside the glowing bars,
    Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
    And paced upon the mountains overhead
    And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

How lovely is that? The blurb on the back cover told me it’s a World War II story and that immediately reminded me of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, a recent read that I loved. I mean I LOVED it. I can’t wait to reread it but I need my own copy. The one I read belonged to a member of my book club. I was the third person it got passed to, and someone else wanted it when I was finished. It’s that kind of book, the kind that is so easy to love. I really hope A Town Like Alice is at least a little bit like that. I’ve read several WWII era books lately and they hold a special place in my heart. The Book Thief and Last Days Of Summer are two other favorites. Also, Goodnight Mr. Tom and Island Of Saints

The Interim & The Hunger Games

The other day my friend Leanne gently questioned why I didn’t give A Suitable Boy more of a chance. She rightly pointed out that I wasn’t hooked on A Prayer For Owen Meany after 100 pages, either. I suppose I should have provided a better explanation.

I’d heard of John Irving for years though I’d never read one of his books. He came highly recommended and I was fairly certain that if I got to the end of the book (page 543) I’d have found something worth the time it took to read it. A Suitable Boy is 1474 pages. I could have read Owen Meany almost three times in the hours it would have taken to read A Suitable Boy. And A Suitable Boy didn’t grab me. How long would it have taken to get hooked? 200 pages? 800? 1200? I wasn’t willing to spend the time to find out. I don’t want to spend a significant number of hours on a book that I’m not sure I can love. (This would seem to indicate either that I am a discriminating reader or that I have a problem with commitment.)

Before starting the next list book, I read The Hunger Games. Several people (none of my usual sources) said this series is the best they’ve read since Harry Potter. This led me to believe I was in for a real treat. I was skeptical, of course, but willing to give it a go. And while I enjoyed the book, it is certainly not the best thing I’ve read since Harry Potter. Besides, t
here can be nothing like Harry Potter. Harry was a fine seven-course meal filled with all of the things I love and many things I didn’t even know I could love. The Hunger Games was a satisfying snack. The only thing they have in common is that they are in the same genre, and that is no coincidence. The popularity of Harry Potter caused the young adult fantasy genre to explode. But The Hunger Games was a nice little literary snack, like a handful of sweet grapes and a carton of apricot-mango yogurt. Just enough to satisfy but definitely not enough substance for a meal.

Of course, I eat grapes and apricot-mango yogurt frequently, so I'll definitely finish the series. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book Two - A Suitable Boy

Well, that didn't take long. I read 114 pages of A Suitable Boy and decided to put it down. It never grabbed me. I was hopeful when I saw genealogical charts at the beginning of the book--an intergenerational story involving four families! And that's probably what it is, but I never got into it enough to learn much about their lives. I'm invoking rule #2 and moving on.