Saturday, November 24, 2012

A SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes can convey the angst of a lifetime in an economy of words.  He is a master at revealing his characters secret selves and insecurities in short novels that another author might spend 400 pages on.  "A Sense of an Ending" won the 2011 Booker Prize, the second novel by Barnes to do so.  This thought provoking book can be read in two sittings; yet I was still thinking of the characters and their complex relationships more than a day later.
The novel begins with the friendship of four boys at their public school in England.  Like many adolescents the seemingly strong bonds that were forged in school did not last into their life beyond.  The main character, Tony, an insecure teen, grew into an insecure adult.  Tony has reached his 60s and is only now beginning to "get it" as his former girlfriend Veronica keeps reminding him.  During his university years Tony lost Veronica to Adrien, a friend he idolized in his school days.  The years go by, Tony marries Margaret, a practical woman, and has a daughter. Tony and Margaret eventually divorce.  Tony is lured back to the past by a surprising legacy and thus lies the mystery that leads to the climax of the novel.  In the end Tony does "get it" as does the reader.
This is a beautifully written novel that exposes the character and hidden feelings of one Englishman and in a broad sense reflects on the culture of his countrymen who came of age in the 60s right before the sexual revolution.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO by Boris Pasternak/WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

During the past year I have read new translations of "Dr. Zhivago" and "War and Peace."  Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, a married couple, have collaborated in translating both books.  I will not presume to review such masterpieces, but if you love these two brilliant novels and have not read them in a number of years, I recommend that you delve into these new translations.  If you have never read them, you cannot do better than these interpreters.  They have faithfully and lovingly conveyed the authors works as clearly as possible for non-speaking readers of Russian literature.
This is my third reading of "War and Peace" and the second of Zhivago. I found that once again, Tolstoy had much to teach me. The humanity and lessons never lose meaning and like Shakespeare's works, I keep returning to find new bits and pieces that I may have overlooked or forgotten.  The richness of Tolstoy's words never diminishes.  His characters are always relevant, no matter that they live in the 19th century.
"Dr. Zhivago" interestingly, seemed dated to me.  I suppose this is because my first reading was done in the midst of the cold war, and as that threat has disappeared it is not of the same import to me.  Also the movie made after the book, kept interfering with my idea of the characters. I am glad I read the book the first time before the movie's release.  There were parts of the book that I found myself wandering and having to reread.  There is no doubt that this is a great work of art and is entirely reflective of the historical era in which it was written. It gives the reader a thought provoking picture of post revolutionary Russia and the dangers of collectivism and the fall of the Russian aristocracy after the Tsar's death and events leading up to the second World War.
There is still much in both novels that speaks to our modern age.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides (fic)

This is the story of three young adults attending Brown University in 1982 where the author went to school.  It is a coming of age story which begins on graduation day, gives us a glimpse of their connectedness on campus, and continues during their post graduate years.
The lives of Madeline Hanna, an aspiring writer; Leonard Bankhead, struggling with mental illness; and Mitchell Grammaticus, searching for spiritual strength are intertwined throughout the book.  This is a book that I did not enjoy, and I had difficulty being interested enough in the characters to care about them. Their backgrounds were never really revealed except in the case of Madeline whose parents play a small role. I found it particularly painful to follow Madeline's struggles with Leonard's mental illness and understand her reasons for marrying him. More than once I wanted to shake some sense into Mitchell. In the end, their lives and problems were unresolved, and though that is often the case in real life, there was still enough missing in the story to make me not recommend this book.
Eugenides also wrote "The Virgin Sucides" which I found much more interesting and "Middlesex' which won a Pulitzer Prize, but again was not a book that I enjoyed.

GEORGE NICOLAS AND WILHELM by Miranda Carter (non-fic)

In the end, what a nasty lot the House of Hanover, the Saxe Coburg Gotha group and European royals in general turned out to be.  All descendants of Victoria and Albert, all began their reigns with such hope and glory.  The royal families of Europe and Russia in the late 19th century and the early 20th were all interrelated and intermarried.  Victoria and Albert's grand idea was that by intermarrying and being related, the royals could keep balance and peace in the world.  Empire building was blatantly and crassly at its height as the triple biography unfolds.  This alone ensured economic rivalries would spell doom for the Victoria's grand plan.  As industrialization and population growth took on a demanding role in Europe, monarchies began to lose control and royals began turning into figureheads without their being aware it was happening.
Victoria was like a fat black beetle, controlling and bullying her numerous descendants into sad marriages of convenience. 
George, Nicholas and Wilhelm all had dominant father figures who marginalized their independence and maturity.  In the case of Wilhelm, it was a domineering mother and grandfather.  Wilhelm was an insecure martinet, strutting and blustering his way through the intricacies of German politics.  He was a loose cannon, whom his minders tried and failed to keep under control.  Nicholas was a frightened, weak ruler, dominated first by his father then by his wife.  George never lived up to the promise of his father, Edward VII or his grandparents.  He was thrust into a life he disliked by the the death of his brother Eddy, heir to the throne.
The most interesting character in the book was the most successful on the world stage, Edward VII, and aging roue, who was everyone's favorite uncle.  He seemed to be the only royal who was diplomatically able to charm all world leaders and smooth over gaffes made by the other family members.
Carter's account of the lives of the three Emperors is fascinating and well written.  By following her account of the events leading to World War I, one begins to understand the complexity of the causes of the Great War. The reader sees how lack of communication, one-upmanship, rivalry and even hatred amongst the royals added to the race for world dominance in England, Russia and Germany.  It is miraculous that the period of peace which began with Victoria lasted into the 20th century as over and over these countries stepped to the abyss.  If you are interested in the history of this period of time in Europe, this is an excellent book to further your understanding.  It is recommended reading.