Saturday, June 23, 2012

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Napoleon invades Russia and Natasha is exceptionally charming

Wow. This was the final book in my Rereading the Classics project and it turned out to be the best, though I was reluctant to put this one on the list, reluctant to read it. The book was so very thick and the typeface was so very small. Did I really have a whole month to devote to a single book?

But rereading War and Peace turned out to be quite a moving experience. This is a historical novel, with actual people, such as Napoleon and Alexander I, interwoven with the fictional characters. The three main characters, whose struggles with life and love and the invading French Army provide the plot structure, are: Pierre, the once illegitimate and now astonishingly rich nobleman; Andrei, the intelligent Army officer who turns influential people off with his hard edged sense of superiority; and Natasha, the black eyed beautiful singing darling of the happy Rostov clan. The reader cares deeply about these three flawed people.  Tolstoy had such compassion for his characters. He was a keen observer of human nature.

There are scores of minor characters as well. Figuring out who is who among all these similarly named Russian characters is a problem at first, but soon the reader pieces it out. Some of the cynical villains are sentimentalists at heart and some of our noble heroes have a despicable weak streak. What is bravery? What is nobility? What is innocence? They are a lot of successful society frauds in this book who believe themselves dependeable honest people. Society is hypocritical, and morality is something recognized only in the soul, not in society at large.

And there is Napoleon, of course, a key figure obsessing all the characters. Napoleon had quite an influence on European consciousness, didn’t he? Maybe his competence frightened the old relaxed elite, although virtually every engagement of the war on both the Russian and the French sides is a series of miscommunications and botched executions. The war scenes and the chain of command reminded me so much of the business world.   Russia defeats Napoleon, not because of a grand strategy, but because of bull headed inertia.

Tolstoy had an equal understanding of both male and female characters. How does he know what it feels like to breast feed an infant? How does he know what it feels like to charge into battle?  The key thing is that Tolstoy made the characters sympathetic, irresistible. You root for them. I wanted to call up Natasha on a nonexistent cell phone to warn her off Anatole. (Although this is yet another novel with a key plot point being the subjugation of women – women as untouched property.)

I sobbed a couple of times, the first time when the grouchy old prince died. 

The novel wraps up with only a few convenient plot twists. Pierre's wife’s opportune illness, Prince Andrei ending up in the Rostov's house just as Napoleon rolls into town. It's a little like a telenovela, but it works. The only thing that doesn’t work is that dreadful second epilogue.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Signal by Ron Carlson

A man, a woman, the American wilderness

This novella is about hiking in the woods but apparently hiking in the woods is an insufficient hook so two unlikely plots are clumsily glued to the core story, with a heavy thumbed reliance on unrealistically evil villains. The real villain of this novel is civilization, the real estate development causing the end of the rancher’s influence. This story is similar to Galveston, the good guy who screws up trying to redeem himself.  Our hero, Mack, a flawed suffering macho man, is paired with his ex wifeVonnie, the innocent woman that he has failed to protect. Can he protect her now, now that their hike in the woods is interrupted by a pair of grungy rapists as well as a black ops CIA technician? However, the story was definitely gripping, and near the end, I couldn’t put it down. A story has power when you care about the main character.

Initially, I wasn’t crazy about the prose style - Hemingwayesque, with lots of description of nature. But it started to grow on me. The images of nature were very memorable. In some ways, this was a prose poem about camping.  It really didn't need the action movie plotting.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous

A young American woman experiences rural Japanese culture

This novel is about a recent college graduate, Marina, who, on a whim, and in an attempt to escape her feelings after her father’s suicide, follows her lesbian girlfriend, Carolyn, to a rural Japanese teaching assignment. Only it’s always freezing there, and her girlfriend starts to dislike her, and she just has lots of trouble fitting into this odd culture. But the harshness and the sadness and the isolation force her to grow up.

In addition to being a work of fiction, it’s also a semi journalistic view of Japan. A grouchy old neighbor harasses her about not sorting her gomi or trash correctly. The letters her handler, Miyoshi, sends to counsel her about the trash are truly hilarious, and Watrous was right to open the novel with a sample letter.

The first person narration was open and honest and very readable. The main conflict was not between the two lovers, as one would expect from the title, but between Marina’s freewheeling American ways and the Japanese rule driven conformist culture. That provided the narrative momentum, for a while anyway. Then the story went on for a bit too long and had to be forcibly wrapped up with characters screaming at each other on a beach. 

What worked was Marina’s analysis of this alien culture. What didn’t quite work was depicting the motivations behind the different relationships, or even introducting a romantic angle at all. I’m not sure why this got nominated for a Lambda award as Marina’s same sex attraction was almost presented as something she would grow out of. A phase.

Overall, this was enjoyable to read.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard

A girl and her best friend grow up and grow apart

This novel is the story of narrator Jo (apparently that is her name) and her early teenage years in a quiet little town. Jo has a drunken failure for a father, a hardworking mother, and a mischievous best friend Flea (though the two of them are certainly not bad girls). Once boys, hesitantly, at the edges, enter the picture, the bond between the two girls gets frayed. Will the friendship survive? Nothing really much happens in this novel, which bothered me at first, and then didn’t. The girls rescue some kittens and they go to a wake. A lot of time is spent in angst over whether the cheerleaders like them or not. It's probably a triumph that such an unassuming book got published and at first I wondered if this was a young adult book.

The sometimes hilarious details reminded me of my seventies girlhood but the meandering story line also reminded me that my seventies girlhood was so dull I ran away to Hollywood. Does a novel require an imaginative architecture, that is, a plot? When you eschew a plot, you eschew plot missteps, but the stakes stay small. Or do they? Isn’t this novel about small town girlhood also about life itself? Nothing seems to happen in Zanesville, but then perhaps everything happens.