Book Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Come wintertime, I start to crave Russia. Not Russian food or vodka or anything like that. More like stuff that puts me in a Russia mood. So I listen to a lot of Havalina “Russian Lullabyes”. I want to hear a lot of instrument piano. I stick “Russian Ark” in the DVD player. This month, I had an unbearable craving to read Tolstoy. So I downloaded Anna Karenina.

For all intents, I loved this book because of how showed a very fascinating portrait of two people on a train wreck (pun intended) to ruin, and not just them, but all those who are affected by them. I sort of knew what would happened in the ending because it was spoiled for me in another book I read. But I wanted to know exactly how Anna reached that point of no returned, and Tolstoy did an excellent job of getting inside her head. Vronsky came across to me as a immature brat, and I couldn’t really see why Anna would go for him in the first place. Watching her abandoning her son for him was sad. Watching their relationship cross from love to boredom to petty jealousy, especially when it was obvious that Anna could no longer move freely in her social circles as Vronsky could, was probably the saddest thing of all.

I wish I didn’t read it on a PDA though, because while the parts dealing with Anna and Vronksy were interesting, I had to slog through huge long sections of people disussing philosophy and social commentary. Levin’s character was the greatest offender–personally, I thought him to  to be an idiot. If I was more into Russian history, I think I’d be more interested in Levin’s philosophying questions. But man, it was dull. Dull, dull dull. And unfortunately, because I was reading it on a PDA, I couldn’t really flip through the pages easily.

The other reason that made the story hard to read was the fact that Tolstoy uses third person POV unlimited for everyone. If there’s a character in the scene, they’ll have some thought of what’s going on. It’s a pain to not only hear what Levin and Stepan Oblonsky is thinking (BTW, Oblonsky is a cheerful blockhead), but we also get to hear what their waiter is thinking too. Heck, when Levin goes hunting (and there were pages and pages of that, let me tell you), we even get input from the stupid dog.

The ony thing that redeems Levin for me is Kitty. In fact, Kitty was the only character that I felt any real sympathy for. Interesting, to see the contrast between the relationship between Anna and Vronsky deteriorate while the relationship between Kitty and Levin grow. I don’t know exactly why Kitty went for Levin. My favorite scene was when Kitty gets hit on by a houseguest (while she is pregnant, even), and Levin typically blows up. Not only does Kitty calms him down, they both wind up discussing it late into the night. No fighting. No snapping arguments. Genunine discussion. And that’s the basis of a good marriage.

I plan to watch the movie and the miniseries after this, so I could get a good idea of the storyline without all the philosophizing and the debating. I don’t know how to rate it. When the story stuck to the plot, it was wonderful, but when it got bogged down by Tolstoy’s ideas (and I know it was Tolstoy’s ideology), it really slowed the story down. I give Anna Karenina 2-1/2 vodkas out of 5, and I have to wonder, if this story took place in today’s culture, would it end the same way?

Book Review: Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff

The Wiscon book club I attend nowadays is called “Beer and Marmalade” (if you want to hear a little more about it, a couple of members were on WORT Wisconsin radio. Just scroll down to "Radio Literature" that played on January 8, 2009), and we’ve been reading some good stuff. In January, we chose “Set This House in Order” by Matt Ruff. What a glorious, wonderful read this is! The premise is brilliant, the concept original. A Multiple Personality Disorder guy who’s living a relatively normal life gets asked for help by another MPD, a woman who’s barely aware of her other personalities. The two of them embark on an discovery trek that opens the past.

Ruff does a wonderful job in not only establishing the different personalities of Andrew and Penny/Mouse, but making sure each personality is distinct and unique. There’s a wonderful part where Andrew and Mouse are at a hotel, as we see Andrew watching TV, but immediately we know it’s not him, but the more adolescent Adam, flipping through the channels. Each personality held my interest; in fact, there were several of Mouse’s personalities that I would have liked to know more history; i.e., Drone and the Brain. How did they get that way?

I also really liked how Ruff stated facts nonchalantly, facts that became very important later on. Some ways he did it was done to pull you deeper into the story. I loved the line he does in the middle of the story: "My serenity lasted about twenty hours, until Sunday afternoon, when I killed Warren Lodge." Just that sentence, coming out of the blue after having a hard talk with Penny/Mouse, was enough to make me go, "Huh? He did what?" And then he proceeded to tell what happened, and it had me on needles and pins.

That’s one way he revealed surprises in the story. Other times, he did it so subtly, that when that surprise was revealed, at first I was astonished, but then think back to something a character said, and thought, Hey, that does make sense. And yes, there are a couple of twists in the book that made my jaw drop. For instance, Andrew keeps his mind in order by imagining it as a playhouse that contains all his personalities. In the book, he happens to be talking to a personality named Gideon:

"The first floor of Aaron’s playhouse. How many doors does it have?"
"Three," I said. "Front door and back door."
Gideon nodded. "Front door and back door…and that makes three, does it?"

Brrr! That gave me the chills! Well, okay, out of context it doesn’t. But read the book and don’t tell me that when you get to that part, a tiny ripple goes up your spine.

It was a little hard to read the history of abuse done to Andrew and Penny, perhaps harder on Penny than Andrew, because there was physical violence along with the sexual abuse. But I thought the scenes were effectively done, without going into graphic detail, and it shed light on how Andrew and Penny ended up that way. In fact, Andrew’s delving into his own past as he helps Penny is heart-wrenching as he is forced to confront things he himself had forgotten. How he dealt with that made me stay up past midnight, reading this book in a mere three days.

This is probably the best book about MPD I’ve ever read. Well, it’s the only MPD book I ever read, but I’m glad I did. This gets five different types of breakfast out of five, all served at the same time. And someone will have to invent "Virtual Twister" for real. It sounds like a very interesting game.

New Story: “The Liberation of Roscoe White” published at The Town Drunk

Hot dog! A new story of mine is up and running! I like it when I get my stories published!

“The Liberation of Roscoe White” was among one of the first short stories I workshopped with my writers’ group back in Chicago. It’s also the first story I ever wrote that utilizes the “F-word”, or any amount of swearing, for that matter. An interesting learning process, to say the least. If you’re sensitive to strong language, you’ve been warned.

I had a lot of fun writing it, and I’m grateful for The Town Drunk publishing it. I also find it a tad ironic, seeing that two of my favorite print repositories of fantasy have dried up. Hmm…

Anyway, “The Liberation of Roscoe White” is up. Enjoy!

And another one bites the dust…

Realms of Fantasy will be ending with the April 2009 issue…

I was looking forward to the day when I get published in that too.

Sigh.

Why do I get the feeling that by the time my writing gets good enough for the pro-markets, there won’t be any pro-markets around anymore?

Book Review: Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran

Pomegranate Soup follows in the footsteps of Chocolat, Babbette’s Feast and Like Water for Chocolate by melding food with story. However, this book is understandably darker, with possible exception for LWFC, in particular in dealing with the history of the Iranian sisters.

Three Iranian sisters, Marjan, Bahar, and Layla, take up residence in a small Ireland village to open a restaurant. They find opposition in Tom Maguire, who had hoped to use the restaurant for his own ambitious purposes, but also friendship, such as with their widowed landlady, Estelle Delmonico. Most of the dark action take place in the sisters’ past, and I found myself gripped with what happened there more than the idyllic, slow-life they now live in Ireland.

I think there could’ve been more. The book’s pretty slim at 222 pages, and while it tried to bring in the whimsy of Chocolat in its slow pace of the foreigners fitting into a harsh countryside, the girls’ past broke that idyllic past, making the book more dark than it should. And yet, I found the past story all the more compelling. Granted, it was nice to see all the characters with their own idiosyncrasies, but it felt like they didn’t get enough time to flesh them out. For instance, Estelle could have merited a whole chapter to herself. Why did she, an Italian immigrant wind up in Ireland? Why didn’t she go back when her husband died? What kept her there in the village when she was obviously miserable?

Also, while the girls’ past was compelling, I kept getting the feeling that Mehran was trying to bring in the same intensity with the village, but she couldn’t really push the envelope. She reached a certain level and then…wussed out. Like the entire character of Tom McGuire. He’s portrayed as a bully, but that’s all he really is–all blustery talk, but no real action. And when his son, Tom Junior, attacked Layla towards the end of the story, the story got really intense…then petered out. His actions afterwards was somewhat lame…in fact, he pretty much snuck out of the story altogether without any real resolution or confrontation. I felt somewhat cheated.

Layla’s romance with Malachy was sweet, but somewhat boring after a while. The ending was too neatly wrapped up in a positive way. As for the recipes, I actually found them distracting. At the beginning, it was fun to read them. But as we get to know more about the girls, they just got in the way and by the end, I was skipping over them altogether. They felt redundant because we get the same gist of the recipes within the text itself, with Marjan making most of the recipes.

Despite all this criticism, however, I did like reading it. The descriptions of the food had my mouth watering, and the sisters’  love for each other, despite their different temperaments, were nice to read. I wish that Mehran started the book in Iran instead of Ireland. She didn’t have to hide the girl’s story behind food and a sleepy village.

This gets 2 1/2 bowls of soup out of 5. Tasty, somewhat satisfying, but still leaving me hungry enough for the next course.

Book Reviews: “Beneath a Marble Sky” by John Shors and “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Phillippa Gregory

Two book reviews for the price of one. Today only.

Actually, what happened was this: I started reading Marble Sky back in April, around the same time I was reading Prose’s book on Reading like a writer. I didn’t finish the Marble Sky book until the beginning of June, and by then, my online book club had started reading the Other Boleyn Girl. So I figured I’d play a little catch-up and start reading that book while I got read to review Marble Sky. Well, I got so caught up in reading the Boleyn book, that I decided to put the two reviews together, because, the two are surprisingly similar.

Both deal with politics within royalty. Both have female protagonists that merely wish to live their lives in peace and love. Both have siblings who hunger for the throne, and who win it, but are not happy to hold it. And both are historical fiction.

Marble Sky deals with Princess Jahanara, the daughter of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Being a woman who constantly looks up to her wise mother, Mumtaz Mahal, Jahanara is struggling in helping her brother Dara, more philosopher than ruler, to see the danger of their brother Aurangzeb, who is more cruel bloodthirsty and champing for the throne. After being placed in a loveless marriage, and witnessing her mother’s death in childbirth, she falls in love with the man who is the architect of building the greatest mausoleum in the world, Isa.

Jahanara’s world is full of plotting–scheming to spend time with her lover, scheming to keep Aurangzeb at arm’s length, even putting herself in dangerous situations to alleviate his hatred. She loves her parents tremendously and is heartbroken to see such strife within her own family. When Aurangzeb does grab the throne, Jahanara witnesses the downfall of her family, of Hindustan, of their entire way of life, and though she is powerless to stop it, she takes drastic steps to insure the safety of the man she loves.

Although this is a good book, there are some parts that was hard for me to read. Jahanara’s brother and the husband is quite cruel to her, doing thing that are downright torture. The fact that Jahanara willingly walks into these situations is very hard to watch, but indeed shows the strength of a very enduring woman who will do anything to protect her loved ones.

In contrast, Mary Boleyn is not a strong woman, not initially, anyway. She lives in a cloistered household where her parents see her and her siblings as commodities to do as they pleased. She is also placed in an arranged marriage, but what little love that could have eventually blossomed is squashed when Henry VIII takes an interest in her. Her parents then instruct her to forsake her marriage so she can become a plaything for the king, and enlist her siblings Anne and George to groom her into the right things to do.

Mary’s world is also full of plotting–except others do the plotting for her. She is pretty much a pawn of her family, forced out of duty to pleasure the king. Even her husband has no say, can only watch from the sidelines as his fortunes grow from his own wife being boinked by the king, who is portrayed by Gregory to be an overgrown spoiled brat, always wanting his way. At first, his desires are checked by the Queen, Katherine, who chooses to look the other way at her husband’s indiscretions while praying for his soul. But when Mary bears children, the king starts looking at her more-ambitious sister, Anne. And she isn’t content with just being a plaything. She wants to be Queen.

I have to say that I enjoyed the Other Boleyn Girl much more than Beneath a Marble Sky. Not to say that the latter isn’t a great book: Jahanara’s decisions and sacrifices had me quite enthralled. But you knew how relationships stood: Jahanara is the loving daughter. Isa is the man who loves her. Aurangzeb is the evil brother. Dara is the good brother. The characters and relationships to each other are clear cut. In the Boleyn saga, Gregory is far more subtle with her characters. There is no rape, no torture, no physical pain involved. Rather, all the turmoil in the book is more relational and emotional.

For instance, Mary’s relationship with the queen, two women trapped by the whims of the king. Because she doesn’t outright condemn Mary for taking on the interest of the king, she shows her displeasure through more subtle humiliations: when Mary gives her scarf to the king as a token during a jousting tournament, it is given to the queen by mistake. She holds up the scarf for Mary to see, then drops it to the floor in front of everyone and Mary is forced to pick it up. Yet despite knowing that the Queen dislikes her, Mary continues to serve her, looking up to her in a way that she can’t look up to her own, heartless mother. And when Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting abandon her for the more popular Anne, Mary is the only one who stays behind to serve her, partly from her own love of the queen, partly from guilt, and partly to act as spy for her uncle, who is determined to help Anne push Katherine out of the throne.

Then there is Anne herself. Viewed from her sister’s eyes, she is rival and friend, enemy and sister. Mary at one time is waited upon her, but as Anne’s popularity grows, she turns into caretaker as well, although their brother George is also in. Indeed, the three siblings, having nowhere else to turn, form a familial unit that almost borders on incestuous (and it is interesting how Gregory spins that side of George Boleyn–I came away with more of the impression that he could be another sister in a man’s body, that is until Anne starts getting very weird. But for that you have to read the book). However, the love they share, particularly between Anne and Mary, is always mixed with envy and spite. Gregory does a wonderful job in portraying Anne as a terrifying, catty character, but there is a price for her to act so; juggling her ambitions puts such a weariness in her that she only displays before Mary and George that is almost tender and sad.

Towards the end, Mary does find the strength to disobey her family and search out true love for herself. In fact, I would say that the two books almost mirror each other–both Jahanara and Mary escaping the pit their families had fallen into to find true love for themselves. And both have bitter endings, though Jahanara’s is a little more optimistic. Then again, she hadn’t seen both her siblings put to death as Mary did, and she doesn’t quite have the sense of doom that Mary has in knowing that the king has the power to do anything he wants. But while Jahanara’s ending was pretty much that for me, I hungered to know more on what’s life was like after Mary left, despairing that her sister’s only daughter will “never sit on the throne”. Good thing that Gregory wrote sequels.

So to rate these, I would give three 1/2 thrones out of five for Beneath a Marble Sky, but four 1/2 thrones for the Other Boleyn Girl. And if I ever get the chance to be queen for a day, I think I’ll pass.

“Christmas Eve at the Petite Bouchette” up at Poor Mojo’s Almanac((k)!

And another story is up!

Christmas Eve at the Petite Bouchette” is my first literary story to be published. I got the idea for it when on our way to a relative’s house for Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, we drove by an adult bookstore that had its “OPEN” sign lit up. I wondered, “who would visit such a shop on Thanksgiving Day? Why would the owners have it open?” This story came out of those questions.

Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k) will have the story on their front page for one week, then it will be moved towards the archived section. I’ll put a link there when it does. In the meantime, enjoy!

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