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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Is it fair to call any novel the “Greatest Novel Ever Written” - it does not seem to be so, but I can't help it. Anna Karenina is quite simply the greatest novel ever written and not just the best novel I've read. I cannot imagine any other novel matching this one as it possesses everything one wants from a novel – it is gripping, philosophical, enthralling, long, and utterly timeless. Long seems to be strange praise but I use it to say that I would have stayed with Tolstoy for as many pages as he needed to tell his story.

What struck me most about this 100+ year old novel was how timeless it is. When an author like Tolstoy sets out to tell a human story the setting is almost irrelevant because what makes us human is universal. The love, betrayal, and fear described are all never changing, it is our emotions that make us human, so that was not surprising but even on the philosophical level things are the same. We are having the same debates about social order, education, gender, and relationships that we were having all those years ago. However, to say that setting is irrelevant is maybe a bit flip because another element of the novel that amazed me was how clearly defined the social conventions were. Tolstoy made me feel late 19th century Russia. I felt that I could really see into this hidden world; it was so fully realized that I was immersed within it.

To get into a discussion about the characters makes me feel as though this is more of a book report than a review of my impressions because there are so many characters and they are all so connected no matter how tenuously. I guess this is because I feel that the novel is bigger than the sum of its parts. No amount of discussion of the romance between Anna and Vronsky or the moralizing of Karenin to Anna or even the subtle awesomeness of Levin will lead you to read this book and it will only serve to spoil you of the virgin delights I experienced upon first encountering the novel. With a novel as “Important” as Anna Karenina I find it best to go in blind, work my way out of the material, wrestle with themes, and then surrender to academia. Upon the completion of a great novel I like to do a little research, discovering all the things I missed within the novel and praising myself over all that I did observe.

The characters within Anna Karenina are both real and not. They are real in that they are full of selfishness, beauty, and contradiction just like the rest of us, yet they stand apart in that they are the vehicles of Tolstoy's ideas. They are there to represent both what is and what is not possible, and the ultimate goal of the tragedy is to expose an unyielding society whose fear of change and difference, seen as depravity, may sink not only one person but a nation. The novel definitely speaks to the changing society in Russia that came to fruition in the years after the novel was published.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of Pi is the story of a boy trapped on a life boat with a Bengal tiger, but of course (as with every simple summary) there is so much more than that. Pi is about religion, storytelling, and understanding oneself. The highest compliment I can pay this novel is that it reminded me of Slaughterhouse Five. In the way that the earlier novel is about WWII and aliens, Life of Pi is about life and tigers, with all the same leanings toward PTSD.

The novel begins in India, where we learn that Pi Patel is a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim. Basically, Pi is a searcher finding meaning where he needs it. The novel is so chock full of symbolism that immediately upon finishing it I wished to go back to the beginning in order to see what would be revealed. Pi's religious leanings and pliant character detailed in the beginning of the story will color the rest of the novel. Once the inevitable shipwreck occurs and he is alone with the animals on the raft it is his adaptable nature that saves him.

Life of Pi is ostensibly a novel that can make someone believe in God. We are introduced to that concept of the story's function in the beginning. But it is not a God that can be named or found easily. Mantel and his characters are interested in a God that is beyond tradition. The young writer transcribing Pi's tale finds God through story, Pi himself found God through curiosity, and the reader is expected to encounter God through the novel in any way they choose – everything is left open to interpretation. With that, I feel it is important to note that Life of Pi is not a religious novel nor even a spiritual one. The idea of God to Mantel seems, to me at least, to be whatever you want it to be. God is what is holy to you, if that is a God of a religious nature then so be it but if it is not then Mantel allows for that as well. This openness is the beauty of Life of Pi.

When I wrote about The Things They Carried, one of the big ideas I was interested in was O'Brien's distinction between story truth and happening truth. Well, Yann Martel took that idea and threw a tiger at it. And it was awesome. I have never read a book quite like Life of Pi and I doubt I will ever read another. Martel works a sort of literary magic with this novel transforming not only the novel but life itself from everything it is to everything it can be.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series about the life and times of Greg Heffley is an international bestseller. Seriously, these books have sold millions of copies and if you are not familiar with them ask any kid you know and I guarantee they will be able to clue you in. The publication of the newest Wimpy Kid book has gotten me curious about this entire phenomenon. Curious enough to go back to the first book in the series and see just what it is all about.

The seminal book the Wimpy Kid series titled Diary of a Wimpy Kid is the introduction into Greg's world. It is immediately clear to the adult reader just what it is that resonates with kids, Greg's world is our world thus their world. It's full of awkwardness with girls, homework, chores, and parents who just don't understand. My sister and I recently had a conversation about middle school and her claim that the middle school years are even more horrifying and cringe worthy than the high schools years really struck me. Middle school is a weird time. You've got sixth graders mingling with eighth graders and between those two is the onset of puberty. It's a veritable breeding ground for awkwardness, misunderstanding, and bullies.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid definitely gets the first two right. Greg is awkward, he thinks he knows much more than he does, and he has trouble relating to those around him because he is so wrapped up in himself. The honesty of Kinney's book might just be what I didn't like about it. Greg is described as being a real kid to the T and that includes all of the selfishness of kids at this difficult age. Greg writes in his diary about the bullies at school and how everyone else gets it wrong all the while the reader (at least the adult reader) perceives him as the biggest bully in the story.

The Wimpy Kid series and its popularity certainly aren't an anomaly. Kids latch on to certain characters for any number of reasons and Jeff Kinney's books are the most recent to really hit home. The fact that they are not really my cup of tea (judging by the first book at least) stems solely from the fact that I did not like Greg. It may be a tad too idealistic of me but I like the kids in children's literature to be role models. Flaws are necessary to building a realistic character, but I see little value in a character like Greg who has little to no redeeming qualities.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid was a cute book and the honesty about how kids navigate this difficult age is an obvious appeal; it just isn't for me.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

It's time to talk about Cloud Atlas, which I have been putting off not for lack of something to say but because I want to say everything. The first thing I've got to tell you is that this novel is staggeringly ambitious. Essentially what David Mitchell has done is written six novellas that work together as variations upon a theme but also tell a greater story. What is most impressive about Cloud Atlas is not the story or the message or the themes but the writing, the language, and the technical skill. Mitchell's craft is so finely honed that he has conquered the voice of not only his characters, but six entirely different authors. Each story nestled within the sextet could be the work of a different writer, yet they are all sprung from the same pen, same mind.

But that's enough gushing about the bones, you're curious about the meat, right? Cloud Atlas begins and ends in the eighteenth century but along the way it traverses the near and distant past and future from seafaring Adam Ewing to intrepid reporter Luisa Rey to clone/model/servant/rebel Sonmi-451. There is something here for everyone and quite a lot for anyone to digest. I know it seems unfair to say this, but I do not want to tell you what Cloud Atlas is about in the sense of the plot. I could hash it out for you, but that's not really what the novel is about anyway and it would take away from your own discoveries.

Instead, I'd rather talk about what the novel is actually about in a “what it all means” sense or at least what it means to me. Cloud Atlas is about freedom and slavery in all of their mental, physical, and spiritual forms. It's about connectivity between people and time and history and stories. It's about the pain we can cause and the healing we can affect. It is about humanity and everything good, bad, and downright scary that it entails. Essentially, what I am saying is that this book is about, in the words of Douglas Adams, life, the universe, and everything.

There are things that I did not love about Cloud Atlas (in particular, the ending is heavy handed and overblown in regards to Mitchell's message). And while I may have enjoyed the construction even more than the stories, because puzzling through the text and finding the connections was such a joy, the themes will stick with me. Mitchell's novel has given me pause to think about the way I perceive my fellow humans in all of their forms, colors, shapes, and sizes. Cloud Atlas is worth reading for Mitchell's ambition and technical skill alone, but those aspects coupled with the warning of our penchant toward evils and praise of our capacities toward good make for an enthralling experience.


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