On Finishing War and Peace

The idea of writing a review on War and Peace is almost as daunting as reading the novel itself.

So I’m not going to. Instead, here are some bullet-point thoughts (probably spoilers in here) now that I’m done and not just a 1/3 of the way through:

  • The title is apt. The book flips between battlefields and domestic scenes as the Russian men go off to fight against Napoleon’s army and the women deal with things at home: mainly men woes and money woes. I preferred the domestic scenes.
  • The book also flips between the epic and the miniature: the grandeur of war, history, human action juxtaposed with the beautiful simplicity of staring at a night sky, a glance that reveals someone in a new way, a conversation that changes how you love people. In my opinion, Tolstoy is best at the latter.
  • It took me a while to figure out the main characters: Pierre Bezukhov, Prince Andrei, and Natasha Rostov, and that’s mostly because their names are listed in the description on the back of the book. I guess this shows 1) there are so many characters and 2) not a clear plot line to determine the main players.
  • I didn’t like Pierre Bezukhov (apparently modeled after Tolstoy) as much as I thought I would, except near the end. It seems like he functions similarly to Levin in Anna Karenina, but I found Levin far more winsome.
  • Speaking of Anna Karenina (the only other Tolstoy novel I’ve read), overall I preferred it to War and Peace (for plot and characters).
  • I’d rather have characters grow on me as I get to know them, rather than the other way around where I initially like them but grow to dislike them. That’s how I felt with Rostov, Princess Marya, and even Natasha somewhat. Prince Andrei was the most intriguing character, and perhaps the most honest: “I said that a fallen woman should be forgiven, but I did not say that I could forgive. I cannot.”
  • There was a section in the middle that I absolutely loved and might be my favourite chapter of any book. Maybe I loved it so much because that’s the last time we really see the Rostov children as “children” before innocence gives way to experience.
  • The last 1/4 was the hardest to get through. The burning of Moscow went on forever, and Tolstoy gave far more attention to describing this historical event than wrapping up the plot on the domestic front with the characters’ fates that I was far more interested in. And when he did wrap them up, he did so hastily. The character I ended up caring about most (Sonya) essentially disappeared from the narrative in a very unresolved way.
  • The ending (if you can even call it that) was a philosophical treatise of Tolstoy’s thoughts on how history unfolds, and whether human’s actions are predestined or done freely. He should have published this separately; it felt like it didn’t belong.
  • Am I glad I read it? Yes. Would I read it again? Hell no.
IMG_4548

Yes, I’m showing off the thickness of this monster. 1225 pages.

What I enjoyed most in reading War and Peace was Tolstoy’s language (translated by the excellent duo of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). His power of observation is unrivalled. Here are some passages that stand out (it’s really hard to choose just a few!):

When Princess Marya came back from her father, the little princess was sitting over her work, and she looked at Princess Marya with that special expression of an inward and happily serene gaze that only pregnant women have. It was clear that she did not see Princess Marya, but was looking deep inside herself–into something happy and mysterious that was being accomplished in her.

Prince Andrei smiled, looking at his sister, as we smile listening to people whom we think we can see through.

Rostov kept thinking, not believing his eyes. “Can they be Frenchmen?” He looked at the approaching Frenchmen and, though a moment before he had been galloping only in order to meet these Frenchmen and cut them to pieces, their closeness now seemed so terrible to him that he could not believe his eyes. “Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they’re running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?” He remembered his mother’s love for him, his family’s, his friends’, and the enemy’s intention to kill him seemed impossible

Boris told them about his Schongraben action in just the way that those who take part in battles usually tell about them, that is, in the way they would like it to have been, the way they have heard others tell it, the way it could be told more beautifully, but not at all the way it had been.

At that time there was a special atmosphere of amorousness in the Rostovs’ house, as happens in a house where there are very nice and very young girls.

When Pierre left and all the members of the family came together, they began to discuss him, as always happens after the departure of a new person, and, as rarely happens, they all said only good things about him.

For him, Moscow was comfortable, warm, habitual, and dirty, like an old dressing gown.

It was too frightening to be under the burden of all the insoluble questions of life, and he gave himself to the first amusements that came along, only so as to forget them.

She valued the society of the people to whom, disheveled, in a dressing gown, she could come striding out of the nursery with a joyful face and show a diaper with a yellow instead of a green stain, and hear comforting words that the baby was now much better.

Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.

Have you read this book? If yes, I want to hear from you and what you thought about it!

Advertisements

Who is the Nightingale?

We meet an old woman reflecting on her past in Chapter 1 of The Nightingale. It is either Vianne or Isabelle, the sisters and main characters in this book by Kristin Hannah.

img_4541

We are slowly given more clues about this character. She survived the war. She is dying of cancer. Her husband is already dead. She has a son. It is 1995 and she lives in Oregon. In her attic, she has une carte d’identité, an identity card, bearing the name of Juliette Gervaise.

The second chapter plunges us into France in August 1939 where we meet Vianne Mauriac, her eight-year-old daughter Sophie, and her husband Antoine before he is quickly conscripted for the war.

This book of literary fiction, after all, tells the women’s stories during WWII—their sacrifices, impossible decisions, acts of resistance, courage, and love.

Vianne loves her husband and daughter. She is a little naive about war but who knew how many years it would last? She is hopeful for her daughter’s sake.

I assume the old woman at the beginning is Vianne because she is the first character we meet.

In Chapter 4 we are introduced to her younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol, impulsive and rebellious. She gets expelled from a finishing school (her fourth time), and goes to live with her father in Paris, who doesn’t want her. After the girls’ mother died, Julien Rossignol left his daughters in the charge of a nurse.

The two sisters couldn’t be more different. And they don’t get along. Isabelle felt ignored by Vianne growing up, and Vianne found Isabelle annoying and impetuous. Vianne got married young and Isabelle was sent off to school.

When the war comes, the sisters take very different journeys. True to her youthful and brazen personality, Isabelle joins the Resistance, risking her life time and time again to distribute mail, shelter downed Allied airman, and lead them over the Pyrenees into Spain where they could reach the British consulate and be sent home. She is the mastermind behind this operation and her code name becomes The Nightingale, or Le Rossignol in French (also her last name).

Vianne, on the other hand, stays put with her daughter in their beautiful home near an airfield in the fictional Loire Valley town of Carriveau. When the Germans occupy France, Vianne can’t pretend the war isn’t happening. A German officer billets in her home while she and Sophie continue to live there.

The author skillfully weaves between the sisters’ stories during a five-year time span, showing us how their paths diverge and how they intersect. I loved it when they intersected because as panoramic and historically researched as this novel is, it is also a very intimate story of family and friendship and the unthinkable scenarios that bring people together.

The sisters’ stories are interrupted only a few times to flash to the present, where we have the old woman speaking again. Her son is taking her to scope out a nursing home and she says, “I know these modern seat belts are a good thing, but they make me feel claustrophobic. I belong to a generation that didn’t expect to be protected from every danger.”

And now I am not sure who this old narrator is. Her comment sounds more like Isabelle and her flair for danger. I am convinced it is Isabelle when she thinks to herself, How can I possibly go without remembering all of it—the terrible things I have done, the secret I kept, the man I killed . . . and the one I should have?

Vianne could never have it in her to kill someone. Isabelle is disgusted with her sister for failing to do more in the war, like standing up to the soldier who lives in her home. And Vianne assumes her beautiful sister is away seeing a secret lover in Paris.

The sisters misunderstand each other, of course. And they also grow more alike. The longer the war drags on, the tougher decisions Vianne must make to survive. Isabelle hears about something brave Vianne has done and says that doesn’t sound like her sister.

I really cared for Vianne and Isabelle, hoping they would both survive though I had a feeling that wasn’t going to happen. Isabelle’s work as The Nightingale constantly puts her in harm’s way, but because I knew the old woman at the beginning was now Isabelle, I could breathe a little easier knowing she survived. As you reach the mid to last third of the book, each chapter ends with one punch in the gut after another. But I also couldn’t put it down.

It’s not until nearly the end that we find out who the old woman is for certain. It’s Vianne.

This was perhaps the biggest shock of all. At first I thought the author hadn’t done a great job of keeping Vianne’s voice consistent as an old woman, but after reflecting on this more, it’s quite brilliant actually. Vianne does sound more and more like Isabelle the longer the war drags out. My confusion over their voices indicates how alike the sisters actually are, or at least become because of the war.

This reading also makes more sense because when we discover Isabelle is The Nightingale and whom the book is named after, I feel like Vianne is shortchanged because she did very different but equally brave things. The author doesn’t give more emphasis to either sister, so Vianne is just as much The Nightingale as Isabelle.

This revelation added another rich layer onto this beautiful albeit difficult story whose sisters I will not soon forget.

Late to Hogwarts: On Reading Harry Potter in my 20s

2016 was the year I read the Harry Potter series for the first time. I’m 29. The Artist had read them multiple times before and we thought it would be fun to share in the story together so we read to each other in the evenings after work, on road trips to Alberta, and on rainy Saturday afternoons.

img_2705

I loved them. Here are some thoughts on why and what/who stood out for me.

I had no idea what was going to happen.

When you show up 10+ years late to a party, this can work in your favour. If people had spoiled the books when they first came out, I had no memory of it. And it also helped that I hadn’t seen the movies. (But I’m about to give away some spoilers. Just wanted to warn the few people in the world who don’t know what happens).

The discovery of Sirius as a friend instead of a villain was delightful. So often the transformation is from a seemingly “good” guy gone bad (like Professor Quirrell or Peter Pettigrew), so I greatly enjoyed the reverse in Book 3.

I thought Harry and Cho were going to get back together after they had broken up, so I was not expecting Ginny’s entrance into Harry’s affections.

When Dumbledore died at the hands of Snape, my mouth hung open for a good five minutes. I probably asked my husband several times if his death was for real—surely this was some joke? Some special magic could undo it? I cried like I had lost a friend. When we find out Snape and Dumbledore had planned his death all along, my world turned upside-down again, but in a much more welcomed way.

harry-potter-fans-are-freaking-out-over-a-theory-about-dumbledore-that-makes-a-lot-of-sense

Everybody had a chance to shine.

Harry’s not the only hero. He couldn’t have defeated Voldemort without Ron and Hermione. Or Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix obviously. Heck, he couldn’t have done it without Dobby, Kreacher, Neville, Ginny, Luna, even Griphook. Everyone had a role to play, even minor characters and those with mixed motives.

I love that Ron and Neville both destroyed Horcruxes. Their transformations from awkward kids with low self-esteem to brave teenagers overcoming their own doubts and taking leadership at crucial moments were awesome to witness.

neville

Humour makes a difference.

Apart from the trio at the centre of these books, Fred and George Weasley are my next favourite characters because they are so unlike me. In super tense moments preparing for battle at Hogwarts, would I be cracking jokes about winging the battle plan? No, I would be panicking. Or when George loses an ear, would I joke about feeling saint-like because I’m so holy/holey? When Fred and George fly out of Hogwarts in spectacular fashion from Dolores Umbridge’s totalitarian rule, it’s like they’re raising a middle finger to her and all the evil she represents.

Not only did J.K. Rowling include the twins for comic relief in otherwise intense scenes, but I also think she wanted to show the power of humour. Good versus evil is obviously a huge theme in the books and Rowling intimates there is perhaps more than one way to fight evil. Harry does it with strength and sacrifice and the Weasley twins do it with humour. Not because evil is funny (quite the opposite), but because humour is like a lightning bolt that breaks through darkness. It’s unforeseen, and people steeped in darkness don’t know what to do with it. Think of Umbridge again.

As Frederick Buechner explains in The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale:

As much as tears do, [laughter] comes out of the darkness of the world where God is of all missing persons the most missed, except that it comes not as an ally of darkness but as its adversary, not as a symptom of darkness but as its antidote.

twin-escape

Snape

Hands down, Snape wins my vote for the most interesting character. The morally grey characters always do. This man took me on such an emotional ride that I am still processing my feelings about him. I couldn’t get over him killing Dumbledore and helping the Death Eaters. I so wanted to believe he had changed—that he was working for the good even though he was still a bully to Harry. When we find out his secret near the end of Book 7, I wanted to reread all the books knowing what I now knew about him. But what a shame that “the best of him,” as Dumbledore calls it, was kept hidden all those years.

He is the only one who could have played the demanding double secret agent role that brought about the end of Voldemort, but what toll did it have on him? Here was a man whom no one, apart from Dumbledore, knew the good he was doing behind the scenes. When Dumbledore died, he was utterly alone. The Order unsurprisingly turned against him and he didn’t have any confidants unlike Harry who always had Ron and Hermione. He is the unsung hero who lived and died alone. We think about Harry willingly sacrificing his life at the end to meet Voldemort but Snape did this throughout his entire adult life. Was it necessary?

severus-snape

Draco and Dudley

I never thought I would have any sympathy for Draco but that changed in Book 6. Ever since he lowered his wand from Dumbledore’s face, he became less cocky and more confused. And that made him more likeable. Sure, he still tried capturing Harry to give to Voldemort at the end, but Harry, Ron, and Hermione saved his life twice and I have a feeling Draco won’t forget that, much like Peter Pettigrew didn’t. (Look at me writing as if they’re real!)

Even Dudley extended his arm to Harry when they parted ways and had a hard time saying goodbye. That was a surprisingly tender scene and I was a little sad that the Dursleys didn’t reappear again after that. There is so much they could have said to each other.

draco.jpg

I don’t know if a book series has captivated my attention and imagination in the way these ones have. I’m going to miss spending another year with the characters, but I’m sure Harry and company will be friends I will visit again and again.

4e9b9a85-e72b-40ed-8f65-9f5b95a20e69

This is Where I Leave You

Book titles like this always intrigue me. Who’s speaking? Where is “this”? Who’s being left? Who does the leaving? (don’t worry, no spoilers in this review!)

img_4046

I’m glad I read this book by Jonathan Tropper even though it’s quite different from my norm. It’s crass, comic, and tragic all at the same time. And so wryly observant.

Judd Foxman is a recently cuckolded husband, 34 years old. He catches his beautiful wife of ten years cheating on him with his macho boss. We meet him at rock bottom, sleeping on a couch in a friend’s basement, when he learns from his older sister Wendy that their dad died. The Foxmans are Jewish and though their dad didn’t believe in God, he wanted the family to sit shiva.

So Judd, Wendy, and their other brothers Paul and Phillip reconvene at their mother’s home with their partners to mourn for seven days.

Judd, of course, goes alone. He says in one of his acute one-liners that are scattered throughout the book, “You get married to have an ally against your family, and now I’m heading into the trenches alone.”

Even though it’s apparent that their dad’s dying request for them to sit shiva is a plot device to get all the members of this highly dysfunctional family together for seven days to sort through their crap, it works. Or you don’t care if it really works because getting such damaged, emotionally repressed, and large personalities all in one room leads to some hilarious and healing moments. And also a lot of sex, brawls, and reopened wounds (both literally and figuratively).

Here’s an example of a passage that had me laughing out loud:

Serena, Wendy’s baby girl, screams like she’s been stabbed. We can all hear her in amplified stereo as we eat lunch, thanks to the high-tech baby monitor Wendy has set up on the table in the front hall, but Wendy doesn’t seem at all inclined to go upstairs and quiet the baby. “We’re Letting Her Cry,” she announces, like it’s a movement they’ve joined. If they’re letting her cry anyway, I don’t really see the point of the baby monitor, but that’s just one of those questions I’ve learned not to ask, because I’ll just get that condescending look all parents reserve for non-parents, to remind you that you’re not yet a complete person.

There are times I laughed even though I didn’t really want to because the comedy in the book comes from a sad place. Each of the Foxman children is mourning, not so much their dad,  but where their own lives have (or haven’t) taken them—bad decisions they made, accidents they had no control over, love that feels “completely useless,” or just the relentless passing of time that takes you from the innocence of childhood to the murky quagmire of adulthood, ready or not.

There’s something about coming home that digs all of this up. At the end of the seven days, which equals the end of the book, each character leaves the Foxman home with varying degrees of difference to how they entered it. (As an aside, I think the book’s title works in a number of ways, including the narrator talking to the reader).

I enjoy stories of families and I think that’s why I liked This is Where I Leave You so much. All the Foxmans were so believably messed up and so believably human. And you really want everything to turn out okay for them.

In an interview on The Hollywood Reporter, the journalist asks author Jonathan Tropper, “What do you hope viewers take away from This is Where I Leave You?”

Tropper responds:

It’s funny, because I never write with any intention of a lesson, I just want to tell a story. But to me, the takeaway from the book and film is that family will save you, whether you want them to or not.

I’m looking forward to watching the movie.

Ten Stories, One Outline

The opening sentence of Anna Karenina goes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That sentence very much came to mind when reading Outline by Rachel Cusk, one of the five books shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize.

Outline

The novel is a series of ten conversations that the almost invisible narrator (who remains nameless until very late in the book) has with friends and strangers when she’s in Athens to teach a summer writing course.

The ten conversations (one for each chapter) consist of all eloquent and loquacious speakers who tell the narrator the outline of their life story. She rarely interjects, rarely gets asked questions in response, rarely reveals much of her story.

All we know is she is a divorced writer with two sons who lives in London:

I said that I lived in London, having recently moved from the house in the countryside where I had lived alone with my children for the past three years, and where for the seven years before that we had lived together with their father. It had been, in other words, our family home, and I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion.

That quote gives you an example of Cusk’s sparse yet penetrating prose that hits you with a melancholic punch to the gut. And that’s just one sample. While there are some funny moments in the novel (usually in the form of wry observations), overall, it’s quite a depressing book.

Each conversation discusses a relationship and, most of the time, it’s a failed marital one. I’m wracking my brain trying to think of one conversation that depicts two people content in marriage. Nope. Ryan, a fellow teacher at the summer school, is the only character who is currently married, and even the way he describes his relationship sounds less than inspiring, to say the least:

They shared the work of the kids and the house—his wife was no martyr, as his mother had been. She went off on her own holidays with her girlfriends and expected him to take care of everything in her absence: when they gave one another freedoms, it was on the understanding that they would claim those same freedoms themselves. If it sounds a little bit calculated, Ryan said, that doesn’t worry me at all. There’s a business aspect to running a household. It’s best if everyone’s honest right at the start about what they’re going to need, to be able to stay in it.

Elaine Blair, referring to the book as “autobiographical fiction” in the New Yorker, sums up the author’s attitude towards relationships well when she writes: “Lovers may find reasonably comfortable arrangements together, Cusk suggests, but in one way or another each will be diminished by them.”

I was impressed with Cusk’s ability to put a cast of characters down on the page so quickly and effectively, and then even more impressed at how many different ways she told their unhappiness (that’s when the Tolstoy quote came to mind). Yet after about the third conversation that barely raised its head above cynical water, I started feeling sad for the author. I remember thinking as I was reading it, “This book could have only been written by someone who’s divorced.”

I admit that because I’m still a newlywed, my view of marriage isn’t as nuanced as someone in their mid-forties. But the way relationships are portrayed in the book implies there is no beauty or flourishing or amplification in marriage, which I don’t think is accurate.

What we get in Outline are ten monologues. You can’t really call them conversations if only one person is doing the talking. The same thing could be said of this book. All these monologues can be summarized with some variant of “relationships are disappointing.” Where’s the other side to the story?

What was so fascinating for me about the novel is the psychological/sociological undertones about how we tell stories. Each character is obviously selective and subjective with the outline they offer of their lives. And so the reader is also playing detective as we go along—is what we’re hearing true? Especially when it’s filtered indirectly through the voice of a detached and depressed narrator?

Perhaps the biggest revelation I came to at the end of the book is that I didn’t particularly care for the narrator. Her story was so faintly sketched there was no substance there to hold on to. When she summarized her response to an elderly Greek bachelor who made a pass at her, saying, “I was not interested in a relationship with any man, not now and probably not ever again” and that she’s “trying to find a different way of living in the world,” one that’s “unmarked by self-will,” I either didn’t believe her or didn’t get the sense that she was any happier for her efforts. Even though we know little about her, it becomes more and more evident that she is grieving the aftermath of her marriage but is she grieving it well?

She does need to talk and process what’s happened, it’s just too bad the people she chose (or chose her) reinforce her own disappointment.

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

I would probably never have read this book if it hadn’t been voted on by the majority of people in my book club.

Jacob_Sleepwalkers-Guide

The description didn’t particularly grab me, but if I had “judged the book by its cover” as the saying goes, then I would have never discovered this excellent work of literary fiction that is the best thing I’ve read since All the Light We Cannot See.

There’s not too many times where I read contemporary fiction and elevate it to a modern classic, but I would with Mira Jacob‘s brilliant and lengthy debut that took her 10 years to write.

The main character, Amina Eapen, is the same age as me, and I think that had something to do with why I liked it so much. I could relate to her, even though my family is not Indian, I haven’t suffered a heartbreaking family tragedy, I am not a photographer, and I am no longer single and getting questioned about boys.

It didn’t matter because at the heart of this novel is a story about family and relationships, of holding on and letting go and living in the delicate balance between those two doors that we can all identify with.

The novel is epic in the sense of its length (about 500 pages), scope (taking place in 1970s India, 1980s New Mexico, and 1990s Seattle), and structure: two alternating storylines that hinge on two members of the Eapen family: one concerning her rebellious older brother Akhil, the other concerning her father Thomas, a brain surgeon. Despite the palpable grief that lives in this novel, it didn’t feel weighed down by it. And even though medical conditions come into play,  it didn’t ever strike me as a “disease”-type book in the way Still Alice is, where a medical diagnosis drives the plot.

No, this was a book rich in family dynamics that made me laugh out loud numerous times, that made me reread phrases because of the deft and beautiful way Jacob described some everyday thing, and that made me poke my nose out of the book and tell my husband to listen to this line so he could agree with me that “That’s exactly what it’s like!”

As a lover of similes and metaphors, Jacob’s prose is full of them. Here are some of my favourites:

She could feel her need to get off the boat as sharply as a full bladder.

Their parents, turning and returning to the dining room table to huddle over the old photo albums like caged parrots clutching at a shared axis.

“My parents. It’s weird. They go everywhere together now. The garden, the porch, probably the bathroom for all I know. It’s like they’re dating or something.”

“That’s sweet.”

“No it’s not. It’s like having the sun set on the wrong fucking side of the sky.”

And listen to this description of something I would never think to give this kind of attention to but as soon as Jacob says it, yes. I have seen my father be that mythical beast.

“Amina?” Her father opened her bedroom door on the last school night of the year. “Can I come in?”

Why do fathers always look ungainly in their daughter’s bedrooms? Like mythical beasts wandered in from the forest of another world?

And the dialogue is a bang-on, too. I especially loved all the repartees between Amina and her mother, Kamala, (or really Kamala with anybody) whose character comes to life so much based on the way she speaks.

“Wait just one minute, Mr. Big Horses!” Kamala yelled at Chacko. “Don’t you sit there yak-yakking for me!”

Or:

“I’d love to have dinner, Mrs. Eapen, as long as I don’t put you out.”

“Not out! In. I’m cooking.”

This is a book that, for lack of a better phrase, felt very true.

And the ending, just right.