The World in a book

Review:

War and Peace - Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear, Leo Tolstoy

Henry James, not himself known for brevity of written expression, considered War and Peace a “large loose baggy monster, ” but each time I’ve read through Tolstoy’s 1000++ page rendering of the Napoleonic Wars era in Russia I’ve fallen completely under its spell. The first time, when I was in college, I had only four days to get through the book, which turned out to be wonderful because I became so immersed in the story that when I heard steeple bells ringing on Sunday it was as if I had been transported to Moscow with its hundreds and hundreds of churches.

 

It’s an immense, sprawling literary adventure and I love it too much to write rationally about it. In defending War and Peace against its critics, Tolstoy claimed that it’s not a novel, not an epic poem, and not a historical chronicle, but is instead a convention straddling work of artistic prose whose form was dictated by its subject matter.

 

The book has lots (and lots) of main characters–many of my favorites in literature–and it involves readers deeply, even tenderly, in their lives, loves, hopes, struggles, and spiritual odysseys. There are battles, balls, evening soirees, and family estates ruined then resurrected, but the plot is only part of the story. Also included are philosophical digressions on the truths of life and death, discussions on the forces of history, rants about historians (people who subscribe to the “great man theory” will not find support from Tolstoy), and even a little battlefield algebra–but often these metaphysical excursions are made using capacious poetic metaphors and similes that make reading them a pure pleasure.

 

And did I mention that I love the characters? Though I have nothing against romance novels  I never seem to enjoy them, but I swoon over the romances in War and Peace. It’s not a book without flaws. For one thing, now that I’m older, I noticed that in the Epilogue Tolstoy seems to write off  people over sixty, and maybe Tolstoy spends too much time away from the plot while propounding his favorite theories. But having finished the book for the fourth time I’m sorry it’s over, and I know that after a few years go by I’ll be happily lost in its pages once more.

 

Just a note on translation–I think this rendition by husband and wife team Richard Pevear (American) and Larissa Volokhonsky (Russian) is particularly good at capturing the nuances and beauty of Tolstoy’s writing.

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“Things looked different after she had looked at them”

Review:

Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times (Icons) - Anne C. Heller

Short but deeply fascinating, this book about Hannah Arendt  covers both her life and the evolution of her thinking in less than 140 pages. It opens with the controversy surrounding her coverage of  the 1961 trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann in Israel, and her pithy but divisive “banality of evil” observation, then cycles back to her turn of the century childhood in Prussia, where her highly educated, politically liberal, religiously agnostic family had established itself several generations previously after leaving czarist Russia.

 

Even as a child it was obvious Arendt possessed a prodigious intellect, but unsurprisingly that did not make her life easy. Her father died when she was seven and she had to flee Nazi Germany as a young woman, resettling first in Paris and later in the United States. Before leaving Germany she studied and had an affair with the Nazi involved philosopher Martin Heidegger, a relationship she had trouble renouncing even as she embraced her Jewish roots more and more avidly.

 

I was drawn right into this book. It was refreshing to read about someone devoted to the life of the mind rather than the pursuit of fame, political power, or wealth. Even though the book is not long it doesn’t feel slight because it plunges right into the heart of Arendt’s life and intellectual development. I have never read a book so copiously footnoted, all the author’s sources are cited right there in the text, which I appreciate but it did take some initial effort to not be distracted by them.

 

“Things looked different after she had looked at them . . . Thinking was her passion, and thinking for her was a moral activity.” Philosopher Hans Jonas on Hannah Arendt

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Sharply humorous, insightful and stirring account of Lafayette and the American Revolution

Review:

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States - Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell’s acerbic, insightful wit comes through loud and clear in this fascinating account of French General Lafayette and his role in the American Revolution, but it took me a while to adjust to her irreverent banter in print–as well as being an author Vowell is also known for her radio pieces on This American Life. This book runs almost 270 pages without any chapter breaks, and reads like the long-winded but mesmerizing stand-up routine of a highly knowledgeable, history obsessed comedian who knows how to use humor to make a point.

 

Lafayette was still a teenager when he left his young bride behind and snuck out of France to join the American Revolution against the wishes of his family, but he ended up becoming such a key figure in the winning of the war that cities all over the country are named for him. Vowell has a special knack for revealing the personalities of the many historical figures she writes about, their foibles, revealing quirks, and strengths. Since Lafayette had a close relationship with George Washington he features prominently in the book and I really appreciated getting a clearer picture of the man behind the myth. Vowell even manages to make battles and military strategy interesting, in part by keeping her focus on the people involved, and in part  by not overlooking the missteps or ironies of the situations.

 

Vowell finds plenty of opportunities to relate the struggles of the Revolutionary period to American politics today, pointing out that many current ideological divisions and tendencies have an origin, or at least an analog, dating back to the founding of the country. The book also covers the aftereffects of the Revolutionary War in France and Britain, and the America of 1824, which was when John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson competed in a notorious presidential election and the then elderly Lafayette made a return trip to the country that was still so besotted with him that two thirds of the population of New York City welcomed him ashore. While researching the book Vowell visited historic sites in America and France and she takes readers along on those trips too, giving us her impressions of tourist destinations like Williamsburg and Valley Forge while relating what happened there in the past.

 

In this book Vowell manages the neat trick of being both funny and stirring. She clearly loves history, and she makes it very easy to join her in that passion.

 

I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied by the publisher. Review opinions are mine.

 

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Ancient ocean tribes

Review:

Voices in the Ocean: A Journey Into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins - Susan Casey

Susan Casey’s Voices in the Ocean made me fall deeply in love with dolphins, those intelligent, highly social mammals of the sea, then tore my heart out by describing the appalling abuses they receive at the hands of our species. Deeply sad after her father died unexpectedly, Casey was in the middle of a perhaps ill advised solo swim across Honolua Bay when she encountered a large pod, forty or fifty animals, of gently chattering spinner dolphins swimming toward her. Instead of just passing by, they swam with her for a while, lifting her spirits almost like magic and setting her on a worldwide dolphin odyssey.

 

Casey traveled to some wonderfully quirky places, like the new-agey Dolphinville on Hawaii’s Big Island, where 200-some people live, work, meditate, and swim with wild dolphins together. But she also visited marine parks and tourist pleasing “swim with the dolphins” sites, where community-loving dolphins are isolated and kept in slave like conditions, and she connected with dolphin activists in several parts of the world where dolphins are slaughtered in mass numbers, often because it’s believed they eat fish that should be food for people and sometimes, even more horribly, just for spite. Sea pollution and the US Navy’s underwater sonar are other human activities that have had a devastating impact on dolphins.

 

Along the way Casey sought out researchers who’ve studied dolphins, so the book is a mixture of science, history, personal experience, and social commentary. It’s beautifully and movingly written, and I especially loved reading about the evolutionary background of dolphins, the special qualities their large brains endow them with, the eons long and mostly wonderful history of human-dolphin interactions, and the fascinating characteristics of dolphin societies–Casey compares them to an ancient tribe.

 

The abuses were painful to read about, but I’m glad to be better informed. And Casey ends the book on an up note by summarizing what is known about the intriguing, apparently dolphin-loving Minoan civilization and describing her visit to the art-rich Minoan archaeological sites and museums of Santorini and Crete– Minoan art is both colorful and beautiful, and definitely worth Google-imaging.

 

 

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Divided by a common language: Britishisms versus Americanisms and what it all means

Review:

That's Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us - Lynne Truss, Erin Moore

Reading about words is always an irresistible meta-pleasure for me, but Erin Moore’s book about the differences between British and American English adds another layer of fascination by exploring the cultural reasons behind the word use variations–why it is that two nations who share so much, including a common language, still can’t completely understand each other. I considered myself fairly fluent in “British”, I read lots of British novels and love to watch BBC shows, but almost every chapter taught me something I didn’t realize about the variations between the way everyday words are used on either side of the pond, and what the cultural implications of those differences are.

 

For me the word “quite” has always made whatever word it modifiers stronger–“quite pretty” means “very pretty” in my lexicon–but according to Moore adding “quite” to “pretty” in England qualifies “pretty” downward instead, so saying someone is “quite pretty” would be translated to something like the semi-insulting “fairly pretty” in Ameri-speak. Moore uses “quite” to go into amusing and enlightening detail about the well-noted difference between the way Americans tend to express themselves with a lot of enthusiasm, whereas the British are more inclined to understatement.

 

That’s Not English has thirty-some short, entertaining, and informative chapters, each focused on the varied uses or non-uses of one word (including some words I’d never heard of–mufti?), and what those differences of language indicate about the culture and mindset of the two nations. Moore is an American who married into a British family, so she’s learned the differences between the two versions of English firsthand.

 

I read a free advanced review copy of this book supplied to me by the publisher through the website LibaryThing. Review opinions are mine.

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Back before the beginning–a time travel prequel

Review:

The Feline Affair: An Incident Series Novelette - Neve Maslakovic

She’s back! After finishing the third and final novel in Neve Maslakovic’s  Incident trilogy–a brain-tickling, time-traveling, whodunit series–I despaired of ever reading any new stories about unflappable university administrator Julia Olsen again, but she’s back in a new novelette . .  . and back in time because it’s a prequel.

 

Someone in the university’s  biology department is stealing lunches from the common fridge, a minor but awkward crime for a collegial community of learning, and everyone in the time travel department is placing bets on whether or not  physicist Erwin Schrödinger owned a pet cat when he came up with his quantum superposition thought experiment  about  a simultaneously alive and/or dead feline. A professor and two graduate students are heading back to 1935 to discreetly locate Schrödinger and settle the wagers, but Julia herself doesn’t actually leave the present day in this story since it predates her first trip into History, told in The Far Time Incident.

 

Even though Julia is only able to fantasize about time travel in The Feline Affair, this novelette will give new readers a good sense of the writing style and tone of the series. For those of us who’ve already enjoyed three full length books, it’s great to be back at St. Sunniva University, and entertaining  to see earlier versions of characters  we’ve gotten to know well. This series is for readers who like time travel stories peopled with eccentric  academic historian types–it has pervasive but subtle humor, space/time conundrums, adventures in interesting historic eras, and just a light, non-torrid background romance.

 

I read a complimentary ebook copy of this novelette provided by the author with no strings attached. Review opinions are mine.

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A royal wedding at risk, and ghosts in the palace?

Review:

Malice at the Palace - Rhys Bowen

It’s always a pleasure spending a few days with Georgie, aka Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, one of Queen Victoria’s many great-grandchildren and currently (that is in 1934)  thirty-somethingth in line to the throne. Georgie is expected to act Royal, but she doesn’t exactly have the funds to pay for such a lifestyle, which in itself leads her into all sorts of scrapes and awkward situations, but she also seems to be a favorite of Queen Mary, who’s always giving her assignments–like checking out what that Mrs. Simpson woman is up to for instance–which involves Georgie in all  kinds of investigations and adventures.

 

In this book Queen Mary has asked Georgie to act as a companion for Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, who’s the bride-to-be of the Queen’s youngest son Prince George. George is something of a wild child whose escapades include intemperate partying, possible drug use,  and amorous exploits that make his brother, the future  Edward VIII, look like a parent-pleasing Puritan, so the Queen wants to ensure that nothing untoward happens to disrupt the scheduled wedding. But the first night Georgie and Marina spend at Kensington Palace, Georgie spots a body in the courtyard. As it’s someone who’s rumored to be an ex-lover of Prince George the whole thing has to be kept hushed up as much as possible–the princess must not know!–so Georgie and her discreet investigative skills are again put to use.

 

After the last episode in Hollywood it was wonderful to have Georgie back in England, since in this series I prefer class to crass. Georgie’s charming Irish fiancé–the elusive penniless Lord Darcy–is in the midst of a police operation that brings him into the story too (hooray!), but there may be changes in their relationship. Georgie’s savvy best friend Brenda has troubles of her own this time, Georgie’s Cockney, non-royal, ex-police officer grandfather is on hand to give advice, and Georgie’s incompetent but loyal maid Queenie is seeing ghosts. . .

 

There’s some interesting history in the story this time,  and an author’s note at the back of the book fills in more of the real life details. Georgie’s part of the story ends with an exciting cliffhanger–I can’t wait to see what she gets into next.  

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