Friday, February 22, 2013

Door Stop: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

For this week's post, I am covering a book that many save for the retirement years. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is definitely the longest book I have ever read, and may well end up holding that title until the day I die. I mean, this book is long...and I mean long enough to where I can't even compare it to another book I have read because it is longer than all of them. The edition pictured to the right clocks in at a staggering 1396 pages. Basically, you get to page 1000, and you still have enough pages left to go that would constitute about the average size of a modern novel. I feel like I should get three times the credit on Goodreads...

The Situation: The story follows the lives of the members of five different Russian aristocratic families as they interweave with each other. The Bezukhov family mainly consists only of Pierre, as he is made the sole heir of his father's fortune after he dies. The Bolkonsky family includes the old Prince, his son Andrey, who is a good friend of Pierre's, and his daughter Mayra.The Rostovs are a once wealthy family that includes the parents and their four children, Vera, Nikolay, Natasha, and Petya, as well as their orphaned but incredibly sweet cousin, Sonia. The two remaining families aren't spoken of as much as the preceding three, but they are Prince Vasily Kuragin and his three children, Anatol, Elena, and Ipolit; and Princess Anna Drubetskaya and her son Boris. There are other characters, many of which are soldiers or officers in the military, that come in and out of the lives of these families. And like every other Russian novel I have read, it is incredibly easy to confuse one name for another one, and some of them even have the same name. And then when the ones that are already hard to keep track of end up having kids or changing their titles...basically, I'll just spare you. These five families are the main focus of the story. However, two other characters that receive heavy mention that aren't part of these families are Napoleon Bonaparte and Tsar Alexander I of Russia.

The Problem: The primary problem throughout the whole novel is that Russia is at war. An incredibly simplistic version of the story is that Napoleon starts killing mass amounts of people and taking their land, so the Tsar declares war on him. Then peace is made, and then the Tsar and Napoleon have a disagreement, and the war is back on. This results in Napoleon entering Russia, but the conquering of Moscow actually leads to him losing the war and being disowned by his own people. And with a war, comes casualties.

But even beyond the war, their are little feuds between these five central families, and within the families themselves.  Both Anna Drubetskaya and Prince Kuragin are greatly concerned about the affect the inheritance will have on Pierre, or more to the point, how it will effect their own families in relation to him, as Anna is trying to have her Boris set up in the best situation possible in the military, and Kuragin desperately wants to marry all three of his children off to wealthy spouses. Andrey is trapped in a marriage in which he is miserable and isn't that upset about having to leave his pregnant wife for the service. His sister Mayra is subject to the temper tantrums of their ornery father as, despite her wealth, her prospects of marriage and escape are slim. And the Rostovs, who are actually lovely people with wonderful and popular children, have managed to squander their entire fortune and their children's inheritance by being generous and social to a fault. Quite surprisingly, there is enough going on here to adequately fill close to 1400 pages. And the dull moments in between that are bound to spring up in a novel of this length don't last very long, and Tolstoy is very quick to get back to the point.

Genre, Themes, History: This would most likely have been considered historical fiction as Tolstoy worked on the novel heavily in the 1860s, but the story covers the events of the early 1800s, leading up the events of 1812 involving Russia's conflict with Napoleon. War is of course a main theme throughout the book, but Tolstoy also discusses religion, philosophy, and social justice, often using Pierre as his mouthpiece, and I suspect he sometimes used Princess Mayra as well. From what little I know about the events surrounding Napoleon's entrance into Russia with the French army, I imagine what Tolstoy has put down in the pages of this book is pretty close to accurate. Granted, I am sure he took some liberties as far as the actual conversations that took place among the soldiers and among Napoleon and Tsar Alexander. But Tolstoy, or I should say the narrator, also makes many comments on what he believes are the errors of historians and other commentators on the events of the war. He seems to differ greatly with others who have presented the events of this war and have offered their own opinions as to what should have been done at what time and who is genuinely at fault. His conclusion appears to be that no one could have possibly done any better considering the circumstances, or possibly known how things were to turn out. While I preferred the parts that were actual story to the parts that were criticizing the historians, some of it was still pretty entertaining.

My Verdict: Even with some books that are only 300 pages long, I find myself wishing they were shorter and can find at least one or two places where the book went on longer than it should have. Given that this book is close to 1400 pages, I was expecting to have many examples of that, but I found only one. Basically, at the very end, after all is said and done and we are done reading about the characters of the book, Tolstoy goes one for another 40 pages or so about the war and history and philosophy, etc. My view is that this should either be put in before everything with the actual characters is wrapped up, or left out completely. But other than that, I don't feel that the book is 1400 pages just for the sake of being 1400 pages. 1350 of those pages are used well and worth reading, and it is good reading. There were characters I loved, characters I didn't like, characters I mourned for when they died, characters I felt satisfaction about when they died, and characters I cheered for when they lived or got married. After 1400 pages, I felt like I went on a journey with some of these people and didn't want to let them go. I watched them grow up, get married, go off to war, have children, and some I had to watch die. There is a reason people pick up this epic book and commit to reading it despite its length, and there is a reason it is still read today. It is just that good.

Favorite Moment: Just one? Oh, alright then. There is a moment when two of the characters meet, and I won't say who so as not to spoil anything, but as soon as he walks in the room and their eyes meet you just know they will end up together, and I could not have been happier. 

Favorite Character: This would have to be a three-way tie between Pierre, Andrey, and Mayra. These were the three characters whose fate I was the most concerned about. Pierre is a socially awkward and unaware fool, but I couldn't help but want him to be safe and happy. Andrey is a brooding and tormented soul who married for looks and regretted it, but he is ultimately a decent man who tries to look after his sister Mayra. And she is all that is good and pure and probably deserves the most to be happy out of everyone in the novel.

Recommended Reading: I will have to recommended Tolstoy's other epic novel Anna Karenina, which clocks in at 900 pages, but that is about 500 pages less than War and Peace, so that is something worth considering. For me it is a very different novel, but still follows families of the Russian aristocracy and how their lives intertwine with each other.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

This weeks choice is one of those books you see on those tables set up in the entryway of a Barnes and Noble and after reading the synopsis, you can't believe you find yourself wanting to buy a book that was recommended by Oprah's Book Club. But what can I say? The description of Ayana Mathis' The Twelve Tribes of Hattie had me hooked and I wanted to know more. The story of an African-American mother and her eleven children told through several different narrative voices sounded too close to William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury for me to pass it up.

The Situation: The story begins in 1925 with Hattie Shepherd as a young African-American girl living in Philadelphia with her husband, August, and their two newborn twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee. The novel then continues to give snapshots into the lives of Hattie's other eleven children and one of her grandchildren over the next 55 years. It isn't specified whether the stories for each of the children come in a random order, or in order by birth. Some siblings even share a chapter, while others have their story told while they are just infants. Hattie raises them all in the way she believes is best, despite being incredibly poor, but still with so many mouths to feed.

The Problem: Aside from being incredibly poor, it doesn't help matters at all when August insists on spending almost every dollar he earns on nights out at the bars and clubs, as well as on other women. Also, because of the tragedy that befalls her two firstborns, and the strain that comes from tolerating August, Hattie because a cold, sometimes cruel, harsh, and often distant mother. This hard upbringing puts many of Hattie's children onto the dark path that Hattie was hoping to keep them from. Hattie hoped to teach them by her example that the world would not treat them with tenderness, would not be kind, would not care for them, would not love them. As a result, at least three children seem to succumb to some type of psychotic delusions; one has fits that either cause him to preach the word of God, or act out violently; one comes dangerously close to death's door after contracting tuberculosis; and yet another doesn't even grow up in the same state as her parents. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie tells twelve different stories of the Shepherd children, and almost all of them are negative. And it is Hattie's granddaughter that causes her to look at the different paths her children have taken, and decide how she'll direct the path of this last Shepherd that has been left in her care.  

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that I have seen categorized as historical fiction, since it begins in 1920s Philadelphia, after Hattie has moved north from Georgia with her mother and sisters in the hope of building a better life outside of the Jim Crow south. It could also be considered a bildungsroman or coming of age story since it begins when Hattie is only 17 and ends when she's 72. The individual stories may be named after and focus on Hattie's children at different stages of their life, but Hattie still remains the central character. Also, with these different stories comes different narrative voices. For the most part, the narrator speaks in the third person. But there are two chapters where we hear from Hattie's children directly, and both times it is to highlight their fragmented thinking and just how close they are to losing it. Motherhood is a major theme - what it means to be a mother, what responsibilities come from starting a family, what some are willing to sacrifice for their kids, and what others refuse to give up.

My Verdict: Don't get me wrong, there is some solid and descriptive writing here. Mathis knows how to set a scene and convey extremely powerful emotions. However, even with the vivid backdrop and raw emotions, many of Mathis' characters just didn't seem believable to me...including Hattie. They just didn't seem fully formed, and it often felt like that character was there just because Mathis needed him/her in order to meet the number twelve. Maybe if the pictures we are given into their lives weren't of such a small moment in history I would feel more connected. Even the bits and pieces I see of Hattie from the children's perspective give me little more than a fragmented view of her. This is of course Mathis' first novel, and I still believe this is an incredibly strong start to her writing career. And while I sometimes felt like the different stories took away from the depth of the novel, the structure was effective in holding my interest.

Favorite Moment: When Hattie is reunited with one of her children whom she hasn't spoken to in quite awhile, and aides in saving her life.

Favorite Character: Hattie's daughter Bell. She is just as damaged as most of Hattie's other children, but her story ends with redemption and hope. It is one of the few stories that ends with a feeling that things might actually get better.

Recommended Reading: Since I brought it up already, I will recommend William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. It is longer, harder to understand, you only have to hear from three brothers and an unknown narrator, and you may have to read it twice before you get it, but it is worth it.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Classic Fiction: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

This was my first attempt with a Ray Bradbury book and I honestly wasn't all that sure what to expect. Fahrenheit 451 is another one of those classic works that I somehow missed when I was younger. It falls in the same camp as Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World with it's pessimistic yet just a little too accurate depiction of the future.

The Situation: Guy Montag is a fireman in a world where firemen start the fires as opposed to putting them out. In the society that Guy lives in, books are outlawed and not only are they burned if they are found, but the house in which they are found is also burned. As a fireman, Guy's job is to respond to the alarm at the fire station and promptly set the house on fire if it is indeed found to contain books. Guy is comfortable with his career as a fireman, and with his vapid wife at home who lives off of television, sea shell radio, and sleeping pills. He only comes to realize that something isn't quite right when he meets the happy and cheerful 17 year-old Clarisse McClellan. Clarisse asks the kind of questions that no one really asks anymore, and she speaks of a past where people read and had real conversations. When Clarisse asks Guy point black if he is happy, it is then that he realizes he is not, and hasn't been for awhile. If he was, he wouldn't have secrets tucked away behind the air vent.

The Problem: Once Guy realizes he is unhappy, it sets off a chain of events that could make him the next target of the firemen. And if the constant threat of having his whole life go up in a fiery inferno isn't enough to keep him in line, then maybe the mechanical hound will be - a robotic dog with an incredible sense of smell that has to inject the needle in its muzzle into your body only once to kill you. But Guy can't seem to stop drawing attention to himself, and his wife isn't exactly on board with his new awakening. With the help of his new friend and his technological advancements, Guy may be able to get society going in the other direction, but it won't be easy, and he is being watched. All it takes to get the firemen out to your home is one call from a suspicious neighbor. And with how Guy is acting, everyone around him has cause for concern.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel set in a dystopian future. Much like 1984 and Brave New World, Guy's society is trying to control its citizens by limiting their access to things that you and I would take for granted, and in Fahrenheit 451, that is mainly books and literature. And what is used to distract the citizens from the lack of books is the increased availability of television, as well as an increase in the advancements that help us enjoy it. Because of television and what they can do with it, the people in Bradbury's novel don't even miss books. And the ones that do and try to obtain and keep them are the ones that have the firemen sent to their houses. It is easy to view this book as a statement about censorship, but Bradbury has asserted that it is more about the effects of television and mass media on literature. However, Bradbury has also written about censorship and its effects, and some of his views on the subject were added to the paperback edition of Fahrenheit 451 that was published in 1979.

My Verdict: Honestly, I was often bored by this book, and it isn't even that long of a book - it hits just short of 200 pages. Especially after reading one of Bradbury's personal essays, I was surprised at how the story lacks a certain amount of passion and conviction, considering what it is about. The plot is interesting enough, but it leaves a lot of unanswered questions in the end. I also don't quite believe Guy's almost too sudden awakening and the way he acts on it.

Favorite Moment: I don't want to give it away, but at one point Guy is basically using his flamethrower on something other than books and the house they are found in. I'll just leave it at that.

Favorite Character: Although she is only in the book for a very short time, my favorite character is Clarisse, because she is the one who initially gets Guy to think for himself and reflect on his life.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, as I think it has more in common with Fahrenheit 451 than does George Orwell's 1984. They are both about dystopian futures that deprive citizens of literature, but ultimately try to keep everyone happy through various forms of mindless entertainment.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Historical Fiction: The Light Betweeen Oceans by M.L. Stedman

M.L. Stedman's The Light Between Oceans was the winner of the 2012 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Historical Fiction, beating out my personal favorite for the category, Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone. It wasn't ever on my list of books to read until I saw it at Half Price Books and decided to take a chance on it.

The Situation: Tom Sherbourne is the newest lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, just a half-days journey by boat from Point Partageuse, off the southwest coast of Australia. Naturally, being a lighthouse keeper is a pretty isolated life, but Tom is okay with that. After what he has been through in the war and with the family he hasn't spoken to in years, Tom is ready for a bit of solitude and welcomes the change. But he didn't expect to meet the young and feisty Isabelle just before he goes off for his first three-year commitment. Just as Tom, a man who relishes rules and order, has gotten used to running the lighthouse alone, he finds himself joined by a wife. And as Janus Rock now starts to receive a more feminine touch, Isabelle starts hoping for the presence of children as well. However, this desire is at first only met with severe disappointments. Three of them, actually. After two miscarriages and one still-birth, Isabelle is a shadow of the feisty woman she once was. But that is until a boat washes onshore with a dead man and a living infant. Isabelle believes this baby is sent to her by a God that wants to make up for her losses, and that she and Tom was sent to the baby to be her saving grace.

The Problem: This baby, whom Isabelle decides to call "Lucy," already has a mother who calls her "Grace." Neither Isabelle nor the rule-abiding Tom knows this, but their decision to keep the baby haunts Tom as they continue going about their lives while not acknowledging the obvious. It is only during a short trip back to Partageuse that they both find out the horrible truth - that their decision to keep the baby has left another woman heart-broken and somewhat insane. Eventually, not only does the real mother find out, but the entire small town of Partageuse hears what has happened. And the day that Tom has always feared, and that Isabelle hoped would never come, has arrived. Will Isabelle be childless once again? And will she be able to live another day if she is? And will the Sherbourne's be made to pay for their crime?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical novel that is set around the 1920s on the southwest coast of Australia. While Tom is a veteran, and the subject of war does often come up, what is discussed even more is how that part of Tom's life lead him to taking care of the lighthouse on Janus Rock, despite the isolation, hard work, and harsh weather. Stedman explores what it takes to be someone who is willing to work almost completely alone out on a tiny island for three years at a time, with only the occasional visit from the supply boat to look forward to. And as it takes a certain sort of man to be a lighthouse keeper, it takes a certain sort of woman to be his wife and agree to share this life with him. Through Isabelle, there is the constant theme of motherhood, and how for some women, the desire to be a mom is so strong that it can become potentially dangerous. How far is too far when someone wants to start a family of their own but can't seem to make it happen? And what kind of affect can multiple miscarriages have on a woman who wants nothing more than to start family? Stedman also asks the question of what lengths human beings are willing to go to in order to keep believing their own lies.

My Verdict: I was so ready to be angry with this book, but Stedman ended it beautifully without making it an all neat and tidy "happily ever after" sort of affair. And while I didn't think I would be saying this, I have to admit that I can see why it beat Moriarty's The Chaperone for Best Historical Fiction in the Goodreads Choice Awards. Stedman takes an unoriginal premise and makes it completely her own. She takes the reader on an emotional journey that makes you angry, makes you worry, makes you question if following the rules is always the right thing to do, and ultimately, it made me reflect on the power of ones own desires. The only thing that kept me from giving this book four out of five stars was that sometimes the story was dragged out a little too much. I honestly think it could have ended about 50 pages sooner. But then, if Stedman did that, the suspense probably would not have been as powerful.

Favorite Moment: When Hannah, after being told her whole life what she should do in marriage, in her family life, etc, finally lashes out and asserts that for once she is going to do what she knows is best for her and decides to stop being goaded into putting everyone else's needs before her own, especially when they don't deserve it.

Favorite Character: I believe my favorite character would have to be Ralph. He is the skipper of the supply boat and a true friend. He doesn't have a huge part in the book, but he shows up for Tom and Isabelle right when they need a kind or wise word from a friend.

Recommended Reading: I know I keep recommending it, but I have to go with Moriarty's The Chaperone once again. It may not be quite up to the standard Stedman sets here, but it is still worth reading and I think anyone who enjoys this type of historical fiction will like Moriarty's book as well.