Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Catherine The Great

Catherine The Great: Portrait of a Woman
 by Robert K. Massie, Random House, November 2011

Massie really can write history that reads like fiction.

Massie has taken the well know story of Catherine and written a highly readable Russian history. Catherine, whose baptismal name was Sophie was a teenager when she was brought to Russia by Empress Elizabeth to become the wife of Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne. When Sophie arrived she was unable to speak Russian, knew nothing of the customs and was directed to convert to the Orthodox religion from her German Lutheranism. She took the Russian name Caterina. Catherine’s marriage was deeply unhappy and the union remained unconsummated for 10 years. During that time she educated herself in all things Russian and worked to give herself a classical education corresponding with Voltaire, Grimm and Diderot. Catherine did produce a son but no one thought that Peter was the father. Evidently this was an unimportant detail in 18th century Russia. Her son Paul was recognized as a member of the royal family and in line for the throne.

When Peter finally came to the throne his reign was short and dysfunctional. In a coup he was removed from the throne and Catherine declared Empress. In 1762 she began her 35 year rule of Russia. She reigned with compassion and intelligence. She worked to improve medicine in Russia, becoming the first to be inoculated against smallpox and ensuring the vaccine was available in Russia. She amassed a collection of European art that even today is unrivaled. She instituted a legal code and extended the boundaries of the empire to borders that stood until 1991. She built schools and orphanages and developed curricula that provided for a broad education for those lucky enough to get schooling.

Catherine’s personal life was also fascinating. Massie identifies over 10 men who were her lovers. She was passionate in all aspects of her personal life. In addition to ensuring her lovers had a pretty face she looked for intellectual stimulation. She was serially monogamous. Her most serious and long standing relationship was with Gregory Potemkin. Massie postulates but doesn’t prove that Catherine and Potemkin were married. They remained lifelong friends and allies. She enabled him to essentially rule southern Russia, developing the city of Odessa to give Russia a port on the Black Sea.

This 600 page story flew by for me. Massie really can write history that reads like fiction. Strongly recommended for those who love history!

I read a copy of this novel supplied by the Amazon Vine program

Friday, October 21, 2011

Night Circus

Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern, Random House Audio, narrated by Jim Dale, 13hrs, 39 min., September 2011

 What I usually have trouble with in the magical realism genre (all of the descriptions and an unbelievable story) I liked here, it was the characters that fell short for me.

Spoilers ahead
Night Circus is the latest novel aimed at the adult Harry Potter fans. It is the story of two magicians, Celia and Marco, who are engaged in a lifelong challenge. They do not know the rules of the challenge and they do not know how it will end. Their patrons (Prospero and Alexander) have created a circus as a stage for their challenge. Celia travels with the circus, Marco works his magic from afar. The story is told primarily from the two magicians' perspectives but other characters from the circus and the circus supporters (rêveurs) give their views of the story. Against the odds Celia and Marco fall in love. The story continues over a number of years as they enhance the circus with new tents magically produced. There are a number of minor characters; Poppet and Widget twins born on the day the circus opens; Tsukiko the contortionist who can bend her body into a small glass bottle, the Burgess sisters Scottish supporters of the circus and finally Bailey the young man who eventually saves the circus. The conclusion of the novel wraps up in a satisfying way all of the many narratives in this story.

There were things about this novel that I absolutely loved. The quality of the imagery was outstanding, the authors ability to describe the circus was superb, both beautiful and sensory. The plot of this novel was imaginative yet in a strange way quite believable. I had no trouble signing on to believing in this story (often a problem for me in books like this).

What I did not like about this book was the character development or lack thereof. Of the two main characters I found Celia fairly one dimensional and Marco in particular not very likeable. Early in the novel Marco throws over his girlfriend Isobel without even a care to her feelings and then his behavior towards Chandresh, a man who has proved for him most of his life is really despicable in an attempt to achieve his ends. I was happier with some of the character development of the minor characters, the clockmaker is well drawn, the twins also and finally Bailey I found to be the most interesting. He is one of the few characters who seems to express free will and shows growth over time.

So unfortunately I can’t join the chorus of exuberant reviews for this novel. What I usually have trouble with in the magical realism genre (all of the descriptions and an unbelievable story) I liked here, it was the characters that feel short for me.

I think this would make an excellent film. I never read The Wizard of Oz but I believe that it is probably a better movie than a book, I have the same thought here – this story would be a better film experience.

I listened to the audio version of this novel read by Jim Dale of Harry Potter fame. Dale was excellent in his narration. The non sequential timeline made listening instead of reading a challenge. If you missed the date at the beginning of the chapter you struggled a bit to place the events within the story. Perhaps better to read than listened to.

I listened to a copy of this story I bought at

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Girl Who...

by Steif Larrson, Knopf, 2009, 2010

I realize I may be the last person in the western world to read these mysteries. I read the first novel in the trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) when it was published in English. I enjoyed it but was left wondering what the buzz was about this series. I recently read the last two and I have the same reaction. These are good mysteries no doubt, but in my mind not to the level of best stories from P.D.James, Michael Connolly or even Tana French.

Spoilers ahead. The last two books are in reality one story that deals with Lisbeth Salander’s life. In Dragon Tattoo she is introduced as a fairly quirky character but we don't learn much of her life story. In these stories we are told about her KGB defector father and the cruelty of her early life. The kid couldn’t get a break and things aren’t improving for her here. She is wrongly accused of the murders of an investigative journalist and his partner who were in the process of exposing a sex trafficking ring. While most of Sweden believes her guilty she is assisted only by Blomkvist and a loyal group of supporters. In Fire the action centers on the chase to catch Salander and convict her of the murders, ending the story with her shot in the head after a violent confrontation with her father and a previously unknown half brother. Hornet’s Nest picks right up where Fire stopped. The key story line here is the cover-up within the Swedish Secret Police that allowed Salander’s father to operate with impunity as a criminal in Sweden. This story is the weakest of the three. There are pages upon pages that attempt to explain the Swedish government system of checks and balances or lack thereof. There is no end to administrative steps that go on as Blomkvist et al attempt to roll up the Secret Police cabal who are responsible for Salander’s troubles. Within the Secret Police there isn't a strong villian character to focus on.  Salander is in either the hospital or in jail throughout the entire story so there is way less action in this novel. There are some side stories in this one that help a bit with the lack of action in the main event but not enough in my opinion.

So I’d say if you read mysteries and thrillers you should probably read this trilogy. Tattoo was far and away the best, Fire was decent but Hornet’s Nest was a yawner for me. The English language version of Dragon Tattoo (Michael Craig as Blomkvist, Rooney Mara as Salander) will be released by Sony Pictures in December of this year. I bet that only adds to the hype that these books have received. Can’t figure it out!

I read copies of these novels borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Buddha in the Attic

 Buddha in the Attic
by Julie Otsuka, Knopf, August 2011

It is a short book, just over 100 pages but it is both haunting and heartbreaking

This is the story of Japanese mail order brides who came to the US in the first twenty years of the twentieth century. The author has chosen a unique way to tell their story. Instead of concentrating on one or several of these women she has chosen to tell the story in a plural voice. This story is overwhelmingly sad and it wouldn’t take much to push their experience into a sensationalist saga. She conveys the strangeness of the new land, the homesickness felt by these women and the language barriers they faced. Just when these women have formed an attachment to the new land and have raised children who are now strangely to them so American, all of the Japanese are taken to the internment camps. Certainly a unique immigrant story, but must read American history.

Otsuka’s writing style is straightforward and quite elegant in its simplicity. Few characters in the novel are named, I’m sure in an effort to show the anonymity of these women. Many of the paragraphs read like chants which only add to the mystic of the story. It is a short book, just over 100 pages but it is both haunting and heartbreaking. Every immigrant group from the Pilgrims to the present day refugees has their unique story; these women are well served in the telling of theirs.

I read a review copy of this novel provided by the publisher

Saturday, October 1, 2011

When She Woke

When She WokeWhen She Woke by Hillary Jordan, Algonquin Books, October 2011

I believe that people will either love or hate this book

This one had my attention from the first page. It is a dystopian look at a U.S. theocracy in the not too distant future. The lead character Hannah Payne, a young woman devoted to her family and her Christian faith has been convicted of murder. The victim is her unborn child that she has aborted. Hannah had an illicit love affair with an influential minister and bore his child. In these new United States prison is reserved for the only a few hard core inmates, most criminals are punished by chroming. The inmates’ skin is treated so that it is a bright color, red for murders, yellow and green for lesser offenses. The criminals are then released into the general population to fend for themselves. As this story open Hannah wakes to find her skin bright red.

Hannah has chosen not to identify the father of the child so she is left to face her life as a ”red” essentially alone. In this fast paced novel Hannah deals with all of the difficulties of being shunned and ostracized. After a short stint in a dismal, cruel, half way house Hannah and her newly acquired friend Kayla attempt to escape their fate. The story is well conceived and well told. The details about a country where the separation of church and state is no more are credible. As interesting is the journey Hannah takes spiritually trying to reform her beliefs and reconcile herself to the loss of her family, her lover and the life she has known and then embrace a new more independent path.

I believe that people will either love or hate this book. The author does pursue a pro choice agenda that will surely turn off some readers. I found the story fairly balanced though. While there were plenty of right wing Christian zealots, there were also some true Christians – Hannah’s father, and a sensitive Episcopalian minister among them. I am sure many readers will note the similarities to The Scarlet Letter, The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men but I thought the author did a credible job of creating a richly detailed setting for her story. The pacing is excellent and the tension she creates as Hannah attempts to flee is quite good. Maybe not the best book I’ve read recently but I enjoyed it and read it almost straight through without a break.

I read a copy of this book I received through the Amazon Vine program.