Archive for December, 2013

War And Peace / Leo Tolstoy

While having a vast scope, War and Peace has continued to resonate with contemporary readers because of its minute detail of personal moments, be it on the battlefield or behind high society’s façade.  The novel focuses on the French invasion of Russia in 1812.  In the first half of the book, covering the years 1805-1812, Tolstoy sets up the impending clash of the Napoleonic era with Tsarist Russia.  To do so, he concentrates on the intimate affairs of five aristocratic Russian families, and their overlapping entanglements.  Russian aristocracy during this time was highly influenced by French culture, to the point where the French language was more prevalent than Russian.  As in Anna Karenina, the action takes place primarily in St. Petersburg and Moscow, or on the country estates of the families Tolstoy is profiling.  In the second half of the book, the perspective shifts with France’s invasion of Russia in 1812, and the reader is given a bird’s eye view of the field of battle.  Just as the author is able to capture the nuances of social life among the country’s elite families, so too is he able to portray the stark reality of the conflict between the French and Russian troops.  Tolstoy does not glorify warfare; rather, he shows it to be senseless, bloody, and best avoided if possible.  Nonetheless, the battle scenes he recreates are gripping.  Some modern readers might have difficulty accepting Tolstoy’s editorializing.  Throughout the book, he lapses into philosophical discussions about what is taking place, especially regarding the actions of Kutuzov, the Field Marshall of the Russian army.  Much of the book’s epilogue is a critique of the influence of such individuals as Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I on events occurring during their overlapping reigns.  War and Peace is a daunting read because of its length, but well worth undertaking.  The reader will be rewarded with numerous human-interest stories, romance, heartbreak, a history lesson on the Patriotic War of 1812, and plenty of food for thought.  I had read this classic novel back in my college days, but this second reading deepened my appreciation of the book’s contents and Tolstoy’s gifted presentation.

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This House Of Sky : Landscapes Of A Western Mind / Ivan Doig

This House of Sky pays homage to Doig’s father and grandmother, and to the house of sky he was raised beneath in Montana.  In this loving memoir, he recounts growing up on various cattle and sheep ranches in the years following World War II.  He opens his story following the death of his asthmatic mother when he was six years old and she just thirty-one.  His father, Charles Doig, then forty-four years old and a ranch hand, was determined to keep his only child by his side.  This would not be easy considering the rough living conditions and the demands of his job.  Charles decides that he will need assistance in his parenting duties.  After a failed marriage of short duration, he invites his first wife’s mother, Bessie, to come live in the household.  This is not an easy step for him to take since there had been ill feelings between the pair in the past.  As Doig shows in the book, over time, his father and grandmother develop a grudging friendship that finally ripens into love.  Charlie and Bessie’s portrayals capture their stoic attitudes and close ties to the Montana community.  Despite the constant hard labor and harsh conditions, they never complain about their lot in life.  Doig’s description of the Montana landscape is breathtaking, too.  This is the kind of book in which a reader needs to pause frequently and simply savor the author’s use of the English language.  Thanks to his vivid prose, one is able to fully experience this past era of Montana history.  The arc of the story traces Doig’s boyhood into young adult life, but the focus is mostly on Charlie and Bessie.  The concluding chapters that describe their final years are truly touching.  I can’t imagine anyone not being captivated by this tribute to his family and formative years in Montana.  It has certainly insured that I will be picking up other works by this celebrated American author.

It Has Been Dark Long Enough For A Good Night’s Sleep

Although just an hour after bedtime,
it has been dark long enough for a good night’s sleep.
Cocooned behind closed curtains,
a widow, housebound with grief since early December.
All through these long January evenings
she has listened to the excited voices of unseen children.
In sharpened skates on a nearby pond,
alive with joy, they dare to slice across the crackly ice.

Now, with the rink’s floodlights off
and every child home asleep, she dresses for the chill.
Before leaving, rummaging among cobwebs,
a basement reveals what has not been worn for decades.
Down empty streets, past darkened houses,
except for a glint of carried steel, she is all but invisible.
In blunt blades and widow’s weeds,
cutting figure eights, her heart has begun to resuscitate.

Jewelweed / David Rhodes

Having heard high praise for his previous novel, Driftless, I was excited to pick up Rhodes’ follow-up, Jewelweed.  Both books are set in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin, my home State.  Rhodes does a marvelous job of capturing the rhythm of small town life in this region. There, in the fictional town of Words, an unlikely ensemble crosses paths and budding friendships begin.  There is an ex-con, a minister, a poor single mom struggling to keep her son fed, an overworked contractor, and assorted family members.  The story unfolds over the course of one summer, and Rhodes gives equal time to both his adult and child characters.  He also throws into the quirky mix a pet bat, a ferocious turtle, a hermit, and a Wild Boy.  These additional elements struck me as far-fetched and unnecessary.  But the book’s likeable human cast initially captured my interest.  However, as the story progressed, a bigger problem became obvious: Rhodes’ dialogue is often clumsy, and he resorts to having characters present lectures to carry his point.  Worse still, in order to drive the plot forward, he has his characters perform actions that go against their temperaments.  Jewelweed is a novel about the importance of forgiveness and having the strength to begin again.  It is a shame that Rhodes uses a sledgehammer to deliver his point rather than a subtler empathy.  In the end, despite a charming and interesting cast, there were far too many “eye rolling” moments for me to recommend this book to others.

Class Reunion

Each table wears a corsage of chrysanthemums.
Air conditioning has made the room cool enough for sweaters.
The loud soundtrack is from a common past.
Life histories are hastily exchanged and interest in each other’s
job descriptions feigned.  After twenty-five years,
it’s amazing how little there is to say.  Spouses, brought as proof
of marriage success, have been coerced to
grin and bear.  All embellish the truth to make it worth repeating.
A buffet line never seems to get any shorter.
The people you most hoped to see fail to appear, or rematerialize
so changed as to be almost unrecognizable.
Cash bar traffic grows congested and voices louder as
the evening progresses.  Men are casually attired,
but, formal as a prom, women wear dresses new for the occasion.
Quickly tiring of uncomfortable chitchat,
cliques begin to reassemble as wallflowers slip away unnoticed.
At eleven, the chrysanthemums are awarded
as door prizes and a steady exodus heads for the parking lot.
By midnight, a final chorus to keep in touch is
solemnly sworn.  With that white lie and a wave goodbye,
class is dismissed for another five years.

Brothers At War : The Uneding Conflict In Korea / Sheila Miyoshi Jager

Bookended by World War II and the Vietnam War, the Korean War (1950-1953) has become a forgotten episode in American history.  Jager sets out to rectify this situation by taking a fresh look at the conflict’s origins, its battles, and the global ramifications that followed (and which are still being felt today).  As the author points out, the “Cold War” has never been resolved in Korea.  The possibility of another war on the Korean Peninsula remains strong. She opens the book in mid-World War II, tracing the events that led to two separate countries in Korea.  Jager takes a global approach in discussing this unresolved conflict.  Much time is spent on discussing the roles of America, Russia, and China in Korea’s history, and how it has affected these countries’ responses to events throughout Southeast Asia.  The book does not shy away from detailing the atrocities carried out by both North and South Korea during the conflict.  This includes torture, mass executions, and death camps for prisoners of war.  Her narrative is extremely readable, objective, and well researched.  While hampered by scant documentation of events taking place in North Korea, Jager is still able to provide a glimpse behind its iron curtain.  In the book’s 480 pages, she covers not only the military aspects of the conflict, but also its cultural and political legacies.  Although I was a history major in college, my knowledge about the Korean Peninsula was at best sketchy.  Having read Brothers At War, I now have acquired a clearer understanding and appreciation of the events taking place there these past sixty years.  The book shows why this simmering conflict still remains a danger to global peace.  Unfortunately, the author is not able to provide a resolution to this unending conflict, only the hope that knowledge about Korea’s history will prevent further bloodshed.

Permanent Present Tense : the Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H.M.

As a teenager and young man, Henry Gustave Molaison began to experience epileptic seizures that worsened as he got older.  When medications failed to control them, in 1953 at age twenty-seven, he underwent an experimental psychosurgical procedure—a targeted lobotomy—in the hope that it would alleviate his epilepsy.  The surgery involved removing the front half of the hippocampus in his brain.  While the operation did help to curtail his seizures, the surgery also caused severe memory impairment.  Afterwards, Henry remained trapped in a state of permanent present tense, unable to remember what he had experienced just minutes before.  His only memories were of events that occurred before his procedure.  For the next fifty years, neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted extensive tests on H.M. (as he was referred to in the medical literature).  Corkin was the lead scientist handling Henry’s case, and thanks to the research carried out on him, great advances were made in the study of memory and amnesia.  This included identification of all the separate circuits in the human brain involved in the process of memory creation and retention.  These tests also proved that learning can occur without conscious awareness, and that short-term and long-term memories involve different areas of the brain.  Henry’s story is a fascinating one, but his life story makes up only a small percentage of this book.  Corkin devotes much of it to describing the tests themselves and how they were carried out.  While some of the book is quite technical in its description of the workings of the human brain, she has also written an engaging and insightful account of H.M’s life and the effect of his severe memory loss upon his daily activities.  Her portrayal is a sympathetic one and Henry is someone the reader will not soon forget.