Posted in Fiction

War and Peace: Book 2

The second book of Tolstoy’s War and Peace brings me to page 714 – just about half way through.  While Book 1 only spanned six months, Book 2 takes place over the course of six years.  “War” takes a back seat in Book 2.

(A painting of the Battle of Borodino – this hasn’t taken place in the novel, but I have a feeling it will).

The word “panorama” comes to my mind while I’m reading this novel.  I looked up that word and found it to mean “a continuously passing or changing scene or an unfolding of events”.  That’s a pretty apt description of War and Peace in relation to early 19th century Russian life.  As for a plot, only small story lines weave back and forth between many characters; however, the smaller scenes give the mammoth novel a quaint aspect. Perhaps that is the genius of the novel: so far it’s both “panoramic” and “quaint” at the same time.

Two scenes in Book 2 will remain memorable to me when I think of literature in general, both of them involving the young Countess Natasha Rostov.  After tagging along with her brother, Nicholai, and her cousin, Sonya, on a winter wolf hunting expedition with their Uncle, they end up warming up in a cabin listening to their Uncle play the balalaika – a triangular Russian guitar (see picture below).  Natasha dances an impromptu folk-dance for the hunters and her Uncle’s housekeeper that took the breath away of all who were watching:

Her performance was so perfect, so absolutely perfect, that Anisya  Fiodorovna [the housekeeper], who had at once handed her the kerchief she needed for the dance, had tears in her eyes, though she laughed as she watched the slender, graceful countess, reared in silks and velvets, in another world than hers, who was yet able to understand all that was in Anisya’s father and mother and aunt, and in every Russian man and woman.

Another scene takes place while the Rostov’s visit Moscow and attend an opera.  Tolstoy writes this scene by brilliantly and humorously alternating between Natasha’s observance of the opera, which she finds boring and a little ridiculous, and her realization that she is turning the heads of the young men in the audience, particularly Anatole Kuragin – a “scoundrel” by everyone’s admission, even his friends.

Count Pierre Bezuhov runs from his bad marriage to Helene Kuragin into a spiritual journey within Freemasonry.  Throughout Book 2, Pierre’s journey takes the form of a struggle between helping the poor and socializing with the rich, “enlightened” members of his circles.  At the end of Book 2, Pierre has become enamored with Natasha and drives away from her in a carriage under a starlit night sky.  As he looks at the sky, he sees what is probably a once-in-a-lifetime event:

Almost in the centre of this sky, above the Prichistensky boulevard, surrounded and convoyed on every side by stars but distinguished from them all by its nearness to the earth, its white light and its long uplifted tail, shone the huge, brilliant comet of the  year 1812 – the comet which was said to portend all manner of horrors and the end of the world.

I found this to be a fascinating way to end Book 2.  Having been published one at a time, I think I would be “chomping at the bit” for the next one to be published.  I wonder how long they had to wait in the 1870’s?

(A picture of balalaika)

Posted in Short Stories

“The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe

“The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe is a truly scary story – and gruesome, too.  I shouldn’t be surprised as I’ve read other short stories by Poe – but even for a Poe story, it was shocking.  At the beginning, the narrator describes the story he’s going to tell as a “series of mere household events.”  This could perhaps be the epitome of understatement.

One of the brilliant aspects of the story revolves around the title and the role of the black cats.  I kept waiting for the cats to speak like Linda Blair in The Exorcist or to at least spin their heads all the way around.  For the most part, the cats just remained cats – with only a slight implication that they may have more than just feline ambitions in their relationship with their master (the narrator).  This makes the actions of the narrator that much more surprising and shocking…and just downright scary.

With this kind of story, it’s difficult to say too much without giving away the best (or scariest) parts.  I still consider “The Cask of Amontillado” my favorite Poe story and from a literary standpoint, it probably outranks “The Black Cat”; however, “The Black Cat” has become a new Halloween favorite.

Posted in Fiction

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: “the horror of my other self”

I loved how Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was written even though the premise was familiar to me.  I had to force myself to read it as though I was in the 19th century and had never heard the term Jekyll and Hyde applied to people or had never seen filmed versions of the story.  Trying to read it this way at times required a little more effort than other stories I’ve read, but it was worth it.

The mystery surrounding Dr. Henry Jekyll’s acquaintance, Edward Hyde, unravels slowly in the thoughts of  his lawyer, Mr. Utterson.  It’s this unraveling that Stevenson depicts so well.  The reader is kept in an intense suspense through murder and mayhem.  The last part of the story comes in the form of a letter written by Jekyll explaining his situation from a physical standpoint as well as from a spiritual and mental perspective.  Much of literature will portray the battle of good and evil, but rarely have I read a story where this battle takes place within one individual in such a terrifying manner, as Jekyll writes:

I became, in my own person, a creature eaten up and emptied by one thought:  the horror of my other self.

The wonderful final line poses a question:

Here, then, as I lay down the pen, and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end.

Who won the battle?

Posted in Short Stories

“A Ghost Story” by Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s “A Ghost Story” contains his typical humor and down-to-earth view of the world with a slightly scary twist and a little piece of unknown (at least by me) history.

The narrator takes a room in an old, and apparently abandoned, apartment building in Manhattan.  Twain describes the walk up the stairs with tremendous detail and gives the reader a little chill along the way.  Why the narrator decides to live in an old abandoned building never really matters.

For a brief respite, the narrator feels safe and warm from the outside world.  After drifting into a restful sleep, he suddenly awakes to the sound of “elephant” footsteps.  He even finds giant footprints in the ashes by the fireplace.

At last, he comes face to face with the ghost of the Cardiff Giant, after the ghost clumsily breaks most of the narrator’s furniture.  From my understanding, the Cardiff Giant is known as one of the greatest hoaxes of the 19th century.  The giant was a supposedly “petrified” man found near Cardiff, New York.  Put on display by P. T. Barnum, people from all over paid money to see the giant’s remains.  Eventually, the diplay was exposed as a fraud, whether Barnum was in on it or not, I couldn’t determine.  However, I think Barnum was the one who said “There’s a sucker born every minute”?

(Excavation of the Cardiff Giant)

Twain has his narrator sit down and chat with the ghost and discover the ghost is trying to haunt the museum across the street to get his remains (on display at this museum) returned to Cardiff.  The narrator reveals to the ghost that his remains are really in Albany-much to the ghost’s confusion.  Now the ghost really doesn’t know what he should haunt.

I chose this story by going down the table of contents in my Twain short story collection looking for something that had to do with ghosts.  The title “A Ghost Story” jumped right out.  I didn’t expect the story to be truly creepy, but I was expecting it to be humorous – and it was.

Is anyone else familiar with the history of the Cardiff Giant?  I wasn’t until I read this story.

Posted in Books in General, Libraries

Hearing John Green…

The last time I attended a literary event with Daughter, The Eldest, was in the summer of 2007 when she was eleven and we went to Barnes and Noble at midnight to get  Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows.  She’s now almost 17 and last night we went to hear “rock star” YA novelist John Green speak at The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County for the beginning of Teen Reading Awareness Week.

I read Green’s The Fault In Our Stars earlier this fall and consider it one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.  I’ve heard great things about his novels all over the blogosphere but did not realize exactly how popular he is.  He spoke for about an hour and then at 8:00 pm signed books.  He graciously said he would stay until all books were signed.  They called people by letters of the alphabet.  My daughter had M and it was just after 10:30 pm when she got her book signed.

The crowd intrigued me.  The majority of the audience consisted of teenagers with a few parents (who seemed to also be fans) scattered throughout.  I would definitely describe the teenagers as “bookish” and being bookish myself, I only say this with the best of compliments.  Green mentioned that today’s teenagers read more than past teen generations.  I would probably agree with him after last night.  After he spoke, and everyone was waiting for their letters to be called, the teenagers mingled about, formed groups, socialized – and pulled out books and read!  And it was absolutely socially acceptable!  Where were these kids when I was in high school?

Green was incredibly charasmatic and funny.  One of his topics dealt with why do people read books.  He commented that human beings are really bad at putting themselves in other people’s shoes.  Books give a glimpse into the lives of other people, give insights into how other people think, and put readers into other times and other worlds.  One idea he brought up that I’ve been mulling over ever since is his thought that the reader is just as much a part of the creative process as the author.  The way a reader’s brain processes what they read brings them into something that is bigger than themselves.  As an avid reader, I’ve had similar thoughts over the years, but have never quite been able to put them into words the way Green did.

When asked with what author would he like to collaborate, he first replied with the question “Can he be dead”?  When the audience gave him a collective “yes”, he blurted out Toni Morrison.  He quickly clarified that she was neither dead nor a “he”.

If there was a book that he would read three times in row, it would be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  He mentioned Fitzgerald and Gatsby several times.  He indicated he was not good at writing fantasy or science fiction, even though he has tried.  When asked if he would write screenplays for his novels, he replied that was something at which he was not very adept, either, unlike Steven Chbosky, whose The Perks of Being a Wallflower Green complimented as a “very good book and a very good film”.

While not getting into the nitty-gritty of politics, he stressed the need for everyone to vote if they were old enough.  I was most glad for my daughter to hear his message of teenagers thinking through their life and world and figuring out how to best be a part of it.  The most political statement he made was that he didn’t like Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged or he at least did not like her conclusions to the questions she poses in her novel.  At the same time, he gave kudos to kids he knows who have read this thousand-page novel and thought through the philosophical ideas contained in it.  I haven’t read this novel, myself, but it’s on my Classics Club list.  Ultimately, Green gave a considerable amount of credit, and rightly so from my experience with my daughter and some of her friends, to the ability of teenagers today to be informed, think through problems, and come to their own conclusions.  I’m reminded of the lyrics sung by David Bowie (to whom my kids would say “who”?) in his song Changes:

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

Posted in Short Stories

“The Haunted Doll’s House” by M. R. James

A Mr. Dillet buys from a Mr. Chittenden a fine-looking doll’s house for what most would consider an expensive price.  The doll’s house is so beautiful and exquisitely designed that Mr. Dillet sets it in his bedroom.  At around 1:00 am, he’s awakened by a clock chime and a disturbance coming from the vicinity of the doll’s house.

The title “The Haunted Doll’s House” and M. R. James’ reputation for intellectually chilling ghost stories gives one enough idea of what might occur during Mr. Dillet’s experience that I’m not going to go into much detail.  As this is the second James story I’ve read, I do find one thing in common with this story and “After Dark In The Playing Fields”:  both of the protagonists, while apparently frightened out of their wits, move on from the story, affected by their experience but not adversely,  or so it at least seems.

According to a small note at the end of this story, James uses the same premise in his story “Mezzotint”.  He makes an apology of sort hoping that there is enough difference to make “the repetition tolerable”.  The repetition of beautiful, detailed, atmospheric and just plain scary writing would be more than tolerable for this reader.

Posted in Fiction

“It takes a ‘Graveyard’ to raise a child…”

I’ve seen several bloggers describe Neil Gaiman’s  2009 Newbery Medal-winning The Graveyard Book as “whimsical”.  I’ve heard this word now and again but have never been sure about what it means.  So I looked it up.  It means “quaintly humorous, odd”, the perfect description for this book.

In his afterword, Gaiman gives a nod to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book as some similarities between the two books exist, though differences put each book on its own pedestal.  A baby boy wanders into a graveyard after his family is brutally murdered.  The boy spends his childhood being raised by the ghostly inhabitants.  As the graveyard’s existence reaches back a thousand years, each ghost contributes something different in terms of history and human nature to the unusual education of the boy referred to as Nobody Owens, or Bod for short.

Bod’s guardian, Silas, provides him with the wisdom of someone who is neither dead or alive, who travels by night, who does not eat real food, and who has no reflection in mirrors.  The reader can make a good guess as to what sort of being Silas is, though, in an intelligent move, Gaiman never comes right out and says it.

Each of the eight chapters in the book tells a separate story, though they all come together at the end.  The mystery of Bod’s human family slowly unravels and he learns lessons about revenge and friendship from his dealings with his family’s enemies.  In spite of Bod’s adventures with monsters and scary beings, Gaiman maintains the subtlety and quiet that a whimsical story would provide, right down to its last whimsical line:

But between now and then, there was Life, and Bod walked into it with his eyes and his heart wide open.

Posted in Fiction

War and Peace: Book 1

I’ve completed Book 1 of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace which takes me to page 344, not quite one fourth of the way through the book.

I’m experiencing what I would call a minor phenomenon that I’ve experienced before in a few other books – books that have numerous characters and story lines woven together.  When I attempt to make a concerted effort to keep all the characters and stories straight, I get frustrated; however, when I kick back and just soak it all in, the characters and the stories eventually fall into place.  That’s what’s been happening from my perspective in the first book with the Rostovs, Kuragins and Bolkonskys along with their friends and enemies.  A number of years ago, a co-worker of mine bought J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy at a bookstore.  The clerk at the bookstore told her that The Lord of the Rings was War and Peace with elves.  I could reverse that and say War and Peace is The Lord of the Rings without elves (or hobbits or wizards).

Unlike The Lord of the Rings, however, a character or characters have not jumped out at me as a favorite.  Anatole Kuragin, Prince Vasili’s “wild child” probably comes the closest.  No favorite, though, does not correspond to no enjoyment.  From the conversations in the drawing rooms to the battlefield, the characters manage to quite brilliantly fascinate, intrigue and keep me engaged in the story.

The military storyline provides the most thought-provoking moments and the thoughts of the soldiers, from privates to commanding officers, depict a great paradox not only applicable to war but to life itself:

From general to private, every man was conscious of his own insignificance, aware that he was but a grain of sand in that ocean of humanity, and yet at the same time had a sense of power as a part of that vast whole.

The structure of the novel made me realize that television series were not the first to utilize what is known as a cliffhanger.  If the books of War and Peace were published separately, Book 1 would have left it’s original readers wondering about the marriage of Pierre Bezuhov to Prince Vasili’s daughter, Helene, and the rejection of Anatole by Prince Bolkonsky’s daughter, Maria.  Book 1 involves the bitter defeat of the Russian army by Napoleon’s forces, ending with one of the major characters suffering a life threatening wound as he is captured by the French army.  This character movingly faces his fate with these words:

Nothing, nothing is certain, except the unimportance of every thing within my comprehension and the grandeur of something incomprehensible but all-important.

Does he live or die?  I don’t know yet.  I’m looking forward to reading more to find out.

Posted in Short Stories

After Dark In The Playing Fields by M. R. James

I had not heard of M. R. (Montague Rhodes) James until earlier this year when I read a review of a collection of his ghost stories.  Other ghost story enthusiasts around the blogoshpere gave him a hearty endorsement so I thought I’d give his work a try during the month of October.

I selected “After Dark In The Playing Fields” as my first story.  Somehow, the title jumped out at me when I scanned the table of contents.  I would not consider this story truly scary, but I’d call it intriguing.  A talking owl confronts the narrator during a midnight stroll in the forest.  The owl seems to be bothered not just by the narrator but by other “beings” in the forest that usually make themselves known around midnight.  Theses “beings” like practical jokes and perhaps take them a little too far.  While the reader gets to experience a  few of these jokes from the owl’s perspective, they do not get to see what happens (if anything) to the narrator.

James’ writing is beautiful and the atmosphere of curiosity and intrigue he creates in just a few pages is remarkable.  I think the talking owl brought the “scary” level down just a notch.  However, the omission of details by the narrator bolster the sinister implications of these creatures roaming the forest at night.  In my mind, the creatures appear to be fairies or imps of some sort and while they may have been described as playful, the owl does not seem to enjoy the playfulness.

Based on the narrator’s mention of certain geographical landmarks, the forest is near Eton College where James was employed.  Walking around an English college campus at nighttime seems both inviting and perilous.  Whatever danger the narrator encounters, he comes out of it alive but with the conclusion that he prefers not to roam around the countryside – at least not after midnight.

Next week, I think I’m going to read “The Haunted Dolls’ House”.

Posted in Fiction

Slaughterhouse Five and more ramblings on book banning

I’ve never been a black and white thinker.  Most issues in life seem to fit into gray areas for me.  It’s why I rarely discuss politics with friends.  I’ve come to be perfectly fine with that.  I have a feeling many people who advocate banning books somehow do not see the world in these gray areas.

I wonder if Kurt Vonnegut was a gray thinker.  I saw him once on a talk show where he defended Salman Rushdie at the time when religious zealots were trying to kill Rushdie for a novel he wrote – book banning at it’s extreme.  I also read a letter he wrote to politicians reminding them that the United States (including Vonnegut, himself) has fought wars against countries who burned books.  I probably would not be as much of a book fan if I did not appreciate the power of storytelling and the written word.  At the same time, books seem significantly less threatening than weapons – like guns.  What is there to be afraid of about a book?  Apparently, there’s something.

I finished re-reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five today although it seemed like I had never read it.  I didn’t remember much of it.  I remembered it being a fictional account of Billy Pilgrim, an American POW in Dresden, Germany when the Allied Forces bombed Dresden toward the end of World War II.  I also remember that Vonnegut, himself, had been an American POW in Germany.  I did not remember that Vonnegut makes himself a background character in the novel.  Billy becomes unstuck in time due to an extraterrestrial encounter on the planet Tralfamadore.  He jumps back and forth between childhood, adulthood, parenthood, marriage and soldier.  I recently read a description of Vonnegut by his son who said that his dad was an optimist trying to be a pessimist.  The humor in each paragraph of this book combines with Billy Pilgrim’s depression to provide more than adequate evidence for his son’s observation.  One sentence that struck me as both hilarious and sad describes Billy’s mother when he was a kid during the Great Depression on a trip out west:

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

In regards to books, on Tralfamadore, one of its residents beautifully explains to Billy how they view books:

There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects.  What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.

If I had to explain to someone what I love about books, I would probably use this quote.

Finally, in a hospital conversation between Billy and a retired military professor, Rumfoord, I think Vonnegut gets to the heart of the matter about his views on his war experience which do not seem as black and white as many of his critics would try to paint him:

“It had to be done,” Rumfoord told Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden.

“I know,” said Billy.

“That’s war.”

“I know.  I’m not complaining.”

“It must have been hell on the ground.”

“It was,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“Pity the men who had to do it.”

“I do.”

“You must have had mixed feelings, there on the ground.”

“It was all right,” said Billy.  “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does.  I learned that on Tralfamadore.”