Tag: Leo Tolstoy

A Recommendation for August

Each month I aim to preview two to four books to be released in the next month that I have already read and can recommend. It’s looking thin on the ground for August because two of my most anticipated reads of the year were disappointments, and another August release I left unfinished; I give mini write-ups of these below. However, I’ve very much enjoyed What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, the debut story collection by Lesley Nneka Arimah, which came out in America in April but releases on the 24th over here; I’ll be reviewing it for Shiny New Books shortly. Also, I’m 20% into The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson (releases August 15th), a fascinating set of sometimes gory true crime case studies.

As for the one August book I’m currently able to wholeheartedly recommend, that is…

 

The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson

(Coming from Little, Brown and Company on the 22nd)

One for angsty, bookish types. In 2012 Anne Gisleson, a New Orleans-based creative writing teacher, her husband, sister and some friends formed an Existential Crisis Reading Group (which, for the record, I think would have been a better title). Each month they got together to discuss their lives and their set readings – both expected and off-beat selections, everything from Kafka and Tolstoy to Kingsley Amis and Clarice Lispector – over wine and snacks.

One of their texts, Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, proposed the helpful notion of the Trivial and Tragic Planes. The Trivial is where we live everyday; the Tragic is where we’re transported when something awful happens. Gisleson had plenty of experience with the latter: not just the suicides of her younger twin sisters, a year and a half apart, and her father’s death from leukemia, but also the collective loss of Hurricane Katrina. She returns again and again to these sources of grief in her monthly chapters structured around the book group meetings, elegantly interweaving family stories and literary criticism.

I found the long quotes from the readings a little much – you probably shouldn’t pick this up if you haven’t the least interest in philosophy and aren’t much troubled by life’s big questions – but in general this is a fascinating, personal look at what makes life worth living when it might be shattered any second. I particularly loved the chapter in which the book club members creatively re-enact the Stations of the Cross for Easter and the sections about her father’s pro bono work as an attorney for death row inmates at Angola prison. Sometimes it really is a matter of life and death.

Favorite passage:

“Generations of parents have put their children to bed in this house and even if I haven’t quite figured out the why and the how of living, others have found reasons to keep moving things forward. In quiet moments I can feel the collective push of these ghost-hands on my back, nudging me on.”

My rating:

 


And now for the ones I’m closer to lukewarm on…

(Reviews in the order in which I read the books.)

 

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta

(Coming from Scribner on the 1st)

I enjoy Tom Perrotta’s novels: they’re funny, snappy, current and relatable; it’s no surprise they make great movies. I’ve somehow read seven of his nine books now, without even realizing it. Mrs. Fletcher is more of the same satire on suburban angst, but with an extra layer of raunchiness that struck me as unnecessary. It seemed something like a sexual box-ticking exercise. But for all the deliberately edgy content, this book isn’t really doing anything very groundbreaking; it’s the same old story of temptations and bad decisions, but with everything basically going back to a state of normality by the end. If you haven’t read any Perrotta before and are interested in giving his work a try, let me steer you towards Little Children instead. That’s his best book by far.

My rating:

 

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

(Coming from Lenny Books on the 1st [USA] and Bloomsbury Circus on the 10th [UK])

I read “We Love You Crispina” (13%), about the string of awful hovels a family of Chinese immigrants is forced to move between in early 1990s New York City. You’d think it would be unbearably sad reading about cockroaches and shared mattresses and her father’s mistress, but Zhang’s deadpan litanies are actually very funny: “After Woodside we moved to another floor, this time in my mom’s cousin’s friend’s sister’s apartment in Ocean Hill that would have been perfect except for the nights when rats ran over our faces while we were sleeping and even on the nights they didn’t, we were still being charged twice the cost of a shitty motel.” Perhaps I’m out of practice in reading short story collections, but after I finished this first story I felt absolutely no need to move on to the rest of the book.

My rating:

 

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

(Coming on the 24th from Harper [USA] and Bloomsbury [UK])

Impressive in scope and structure, but rather frustrating. If you’re hoping for another History of Love, you’re likely to come away disappointed: while that book touched the heart; this one is mostly cerebral. Metafiction, the Kabbalah, and some alternative history featuring Kafka are a few of the major elements, so think about whether those topics attract or repel you. Looking a bit deeper, this is a book about Jewish self-invention and reinvention. Now, when I read a novel with a dual narrative, especially when the two strands share a partial setting – here, the Tel Aviv Hilton – I fully expect them to meet up at some point. In Forest Dark that never happens. At least, I don’t think so.* I sometimes found “Nicole” (the author character) insufferably clever and inward-gazing. All told, there’s a lot to think about here: more questions than answers, really. Interesting, for sure, but not the return to form I’d hoped for.

*Hop over to my Goodreads review to read the marked spoilers and chip in with comments!

My rating:

 


What August books do you have on the docket?

Have you already read any that you can recommend?

Review: Darke by Rick Gekoski

Dr. James Darke, the narrator of rare-book dealer Rick Gekoski’s debut novel, is of the same lineage as titular antiheroes like Hendrik Groen and Fredrik Backman’s Ove, or J. Mendelssohn, protagonist of the title novella in Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking: an aging widower and curmudgeon with an unforgettable voice.

As Darke begins, this retired English teacher is literally sealing himself off from the world. He hires a handyman to take out the door’s built-in letterbox, change the locks and install a high-tech peephole; he has all his mail redirected to an old colleague, George; he changes his e-mail address; and he compiles a thorough list of service providers who will come to him – everything from grocery deliveries to a doctor. Now, with any luck, he won’t need to set foot outside his London home while he writes this “coming-of-old-age book.”

img_1152For eight months Darke stays in self-imposed exile, his solitude broken only by visits from Bronya, a Bulgarian cleaner who engages him in discussions of his beloved Dickens. Although he’s only sixty-something, Darke sounds like a much older man, complaining of constipation and vision problems and launching a vendetta against the annoying neighbor dog. Ignoring the pile of adamant letters George guiltily delivers on behalf of Darke’s daughter, Lucy, he keeps up his very particular habits and rituals (I loved the steps of making coffee with an espresso-maker) and gives himself over to memories of life with Suzy.

The novel is tripartite: In Part I we meet Darke and get accustomed to his angry, hypercritical voice. In Part II we descend into a no-holds-barred account of his wife Suzy’s death from lung cancer. She’s another wonderful character: pessimistic, ungraceful and utterly foul-mouthed. Here Darke unleashes the full extent of his bitterness. He mocks the approach, advocated by Joan Didion (“that poor Joan D’Idiot,” he calls her!), of turning to sages of the past for comfort, instead insisting that literature – including W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and all the rest – was of no use to him in the face of his wife’s impending death:

We don’t have God, so we have literature, with its associated proverbs and allegories, its received wisdom. We quote and genuflect and defer and pay homage, as if in a holy sanctuary. But just as God failed us, so too will reading. We will turn against it as certainly, and rightly, as we did against Him. Nobody, and nothing, can explain life for us.

Luckily, Part III is something of a reprieve, as Darke starts to come out of his temporary retreat and resume life. He has a rental car delivered and sets out for Oxford, where he revisits his and Suzy’s old university haunts and hesitantly reopens a connection with Lucy and her young son, Rudy.

Sebastian Barry astutely notes the novel’s debt to Dante, but the component parts of the Divine Comedy are reordered, with the purgatory of the house-bound months broken by the hellish narrative of Suzy’s dying, which is then lifted by Darke’s return to life.

Each section has a different tone and is enjoyable in its own way, but for me there was no getting around the fact that Part I is the most entertaining. I was surprised to read in the Acknowledgments that Gekoski toned down this first dose of Darke considerably, on the advice of his wife and his literary agent; I think he could have hammed him up a fair bit more. Also, Lucy didn’t ring true for me as a character, which detracted from what’s meant to be an alternately volatile and poignant relationship; I preferred Darke’s scenes with Bronya.

In any case, the novel makes great metaphorical use of light and darkness. Not so subtle, maybe, but it works:

witnessing a protracted and horrible death infects the soul, the images implant themselves, root and flourish, you can never look at yourself or others in the innocent light – you are tarnished, uncleanably darkened.

And of course, look to literature and you find nothing but “shitslingers – Kahlil Gibran, Mr Tolstoy, the dreaded Eliot – all of them. Just wandering in the dark with flashlights.”

With lots of memorable scenes and turns of phrase, Darke is a rewarding glance at loss, literature and the sometimes futile search for salvation. It’s inspiring to see Gekoski, an American-born academic and literary critic (he’s been dubbed the Bill Bryson of the book world), turn his hand to fiction at age 71. I knew of him through his nonfiction, including Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir, which I read in 2010, and have also enjoyed a couple of his articles that nicely presage this novel, on the subjects of reading through grief and turning against print books. I hope you’ll give his work a try.


Darke was published in the UK on February 2nd. With thanks to Becca Nice and Jamie Norman of Canongate for the free copy for review.

My rating: 4-star-rating

Tidings by Ruth Padel & Other Christmassy Reading

img_0834Ruth Padel is one of my favorite poets, so I jumped at the chance to read her new book-length holiday poem, Tidings: A Christmas Journey. Set across one Christmas Eve and Christmas day and narrated by Charoum, the Angel of Silence, the poem switches between Holly, a seven-year-old girl excited for Christmas, and Robin, a forty-four-year-old homeless man who follows a fox to a Crisis Centre. Here he gets a hot meal and some human kindness to make up for the usual bleakness of the holidays:

Christmas is the salt mine.

Salt in the wound, a nothing-time.

I was loved once. Who by? Can’t remember.

I especially liked the fragments that juxtapose this contemporary London story with centuries of history:

Up here the evening glides over golden moss

on the flat-top tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft

&

Pagan Christmas fizzes and teems with ghosts,

midwinter fires, mummers and waites, Yule

logs and mistletoe.

The poem also journeys to Jerusalem and Rome to survey a whole world of Christmas traditions, then and now.

img_0837

It’s a lovely little volume, with the red, black and white theme offset by touches of gold. The illustrations are gorgeous, but the story line disappointed me: starting with the character names, it all felt rather clichéd. Padel has treated urban foxes much more successfully in her collection The Soho Leopard, and apart from a very few instances – like the above quotes – the verse struck me as largely undistinguished, even awkward (like the out-of-place clinical vocabulary in “Love, / and the lack of it, can change the limbic brain”). This means that, for me, this book fails to earn a place as a Christmas classic I’ll reread year after year.


Tidings was published in the UK by Chatto & Windus on November 3rd. My thanks to Cat Mitchell of Random House for the free review copy.

My rating: 3-star-rating

 

Other Christmassy Reading

waiting-on-the-wordThis year I’m resuming my place in Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite’s selection of religious-slanted poems to read from the start of Advent through Epiphany. For those who want to explore the history and interpretation of Christmas, I can recommend The First Christmas by the late Marcus Borg, one of my favorite progressive theologians.

As I have for the past several years, I’ll dip into The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Alberto Manguel. My favorites are by Truman Capote, John Cheever, Jane Gardam and Jeanette Winterson (who has a brand-new, full-length Christmas story collection out this year). I’ll also sample some Russian classics via A Very Russian Christmas, which has short stories from Tolstoy, Chekhov and more.

very-russianIn addition, I have Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came for Christmas and The Cat Who Stayed for Christmas out from the library, which should make for some very cozy reading under the cat. I’ll browse the numerous Christmas-themed poems in U.A. Fanthorpe’s Collected Poems, another library book. And I may even deign to try Hogfather, one from my husband’s beloved Discworld series by the late Terry Pratchett.

[See also this wonderful list of Christmas reading suggestions from Heaven Ali.]


Are you reading anything special this Christmas season?

Five Things I Loved about the BBC War & Peace Miniseries

As soon as I got back from the States in January, my husband and I rushed to catch up on the BBC’s War & Peace miniseries. It’s the latest costume drama from screenwriter Andrew Davies, who is behind many favorite literary adaptations, including Bleak House (2005). I enjoyed War & Peace much more than I expected to given my utter unfamiliarity with Russian literature. I can’t comment on how well the miniseries captures Tolstoy’s plot or tone; my response is just that of a literature lover who appreciates gripping television. (My understanding is that this has already shown in North America too, on various networks, but for those who haven’t watched it and still plan to, I’ll avoid spoilers in what follows.)

Natasha Rostova's first ball, Leonid Pasternak [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Natasha Rostova’s First Ball, Leonid Pasternak [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
1. It’s like Jane Austen – but not quite. Although Tolstoy wrote it in 1869, War & Peace is set during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), so the time period crosses over with most of Jane Austen’s novels. That means some of the fashions look familiar, and a major scene takes place at a ball.

2. The superb casting. At first it seemed strange to see Paul Dano, an indie movie favorite, in a TV role, but I quickly saw why he was just right for the part of earnest, indecisive Count Pierre Bezukhov. An illegitimate son who wants to live a meaningful life but keeps falling into dissolute behavior, Pierre unexpectedly inherits his father’s fortune and marries the wrong woman, yet turns personal disappointment to the good when he devotes himself to serving his fellow man through the Masons. With his little smile, deliberate speech and round glasses, Dano is perfect.

Initially Lily James, as Natasha Rostova, seems to be just like her bubbly, flirtatious Downton Abbey character, Lady Rose, but suffering and regret chasten her. I also loved Jim Broadbent as irascible Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky and Adrian Edmondson (especially with his fez and other assorted headgear) as the Micawber-ish Count Ilya Rostov. Callum Turner and Tuppence Middleton as Anatole Kuragin and Hélène Kuragina are a skeevy, scheming brother-and-sister pair worthy of Dangerous Liaisons.

3. The authentic settings. The series was filmed on location in Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia, including at the Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg. It makes a difference to know this wasn’t shot in a London studio; the dachas, Orthodox churches and snowy vistas are all genuine.

4. The action scenes. The CGI crowd shots are unconvincing, but the up-close battle scenes are excellent: bombs, bayonets, amputations and all. Seeing one battle, Borodin, partially from Pierre’s viewpoint is an especially effective way of contrasting civilian life with soldiers’ daily reality.

5. The philosophical depth. I should have known what I was in for from a Russian novel, but I was startled afresh each time a character paused to stare death in the face or to question what his or her life was heading towards and consider how to change course. There are beautifully symbolic moments of forgiveness between separated sweethearts or former rivals. Another highlight is when Pierre, the rich count temporarily laid low, connects with a peasant and his dog. He even learns how to eat mindfully.


Tolstoy in 1868 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Tolstoy in 1868 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Now for something I didn’t like: with the mixture of cut-glass British and toned-down American accents, you’d be forgiven for thinking this takes place in an English-speaking country. It takes characters singing folk songs in Russian, wearing bearskin hats and participating in Orthodox rituals to remind you that, oh yeah, this is Russia. I’m not saying I wish the actors had all spoken in heavy Slavic accents, but especially after an extended period in a refined drawing room, it can be jolting to see onion domes and Cossack uniforms.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever read War & Peace; I have a feeling that, like Moby-Dick (an assigned book I never made it all the way through in college), it could have done with an editor. Even though I adore Tolstoy’s storyline and characters, I don’t think I’d have patience for long passages of historical exposition. Moreover, Philip Hensher (in a Guardian reader’s guide) thinks War & Peace has the worst opening and closing lines in literature. Actually reading the Russian masters can wait for another time.

For now, I’m happy to have seen this top-notch adaptation. In just six hours of television, Davies and director Tom Harper brought an epic world classic into vibrant life, full of romance, betrayal, sacrifice and redemption.

My rating: 4.5 star rating

If you’ve already seen War & Peace and are interested in reading more about it, this appreciation piece by Clive James in the Guardian is great (but spoilers abound). See also this interview with Andrew Davies.


Have you seen the miniseries? If so, what did you think? I’m particularly interested to hear how it matched up to the book if any of you are familiar with both.