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)

“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.

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?

“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.

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

“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.

“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.