Friday, October 24, 2008

Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival by Owen Matthews - 320 pgs

Book CoverStalin's Children is the story of one family's unique experiences amid the changing social and political sphere of Russia. Encompassing Russia's history from the 1920s onwards, Matthews acquaints us with three generations of his family who experienced extreme persecution and overwhelming odds, each bearing witness to pre- and post-Stalinist Russia. The memoir begins with the story of Boris Bibikov, a prominent Russian party member in the 1920s. Bibikov and his small family lived in relative comfort and plenty, taking full advantage that his status afforded him, until, like so many others, he was accused of anti-Party sentiments. After his arrest and imprisonment, his wife and two young daughters were left to fend for themselves. Eventually the girls were taken to a state-run orphanage after their mother was also imprisoned. It is here that the girls, Lyudmilla and Lenina, became separated. Lenina eventually moved in with relatives, and Lyudmilla remained a ward of the state until her adulthood, in essence becoming one of Stalin's many children. After many heartrending circumstances, including the orphans' harrowing escape from the Germans invasion of the city in the early days of WWII, near starvation, and serious disease, the sisters were once again reunited by miracle and chance. Although their years of separation and abandonment left indelible marks upon them for all time, they remained optimistic.

The second section of the book tells of the love affair between Lyudmilla and Mervin, the author's parents. Mervyn, a British russophile, begins a scholarly career in Moscow, living his dream of immersing himself in Russia. When Lyudmilla and Mervyn meet, it is clear to both that they should be together. But after Mervyn rejects the courting of KGB officials in their attempts to recruit him into their organization, he becomes persona non grata to the Russian government and is deported. He must leave Lyudmilla behind in Russia with promises that he will return soon to marry her. What follows is the couple's anguished battle to attain Lyudmilla's right to marry a foreigner and leave the country. Peppered throughout this tale is the author's own story of returning to a Russia in the 1990s that has changed in so many ways, yet in some ways remains the same.

This book was very impressive. From the distinct and eloquent nature of the author's ability to express his family's story, to the staunch and ardent persistence of the players involved, I found myself completely captivated by this memoir. Not only were the stories of his family very moving, the author has a very encompassing and instructive way of conveying the politics of Russia from the early 1900s until today. The book was informative and dealt with a vast amount of history, but it was not sluggish or boring. Each era of political change in the country was illustrated not only in terms of what was going on in the government, but also in how these changes affected the people living amongst the tumult of their oppression. In addition, the shifts in the narrative melding the past and present were deftly handled, blending the stories of each of these generations into a panoramic view of life in Soviet Russia. Although at times the author's sentiments appear somewhat dark and maudlin, I would argue that his attitude fits perfectly with the story he tells. Although there are small triumphs and large victories, there is also a sense of grim strife throughout the story. In particular, I found the hardships that Lyudmilla endured as a ward of the state to be very tragic and distressing, but I truly marveled at her optimism and perseverance. She had a quintessentially hardy spirit that I found remarkable. In addition, the struggles that Lyudmilla and Mervin face in their efforts to be married were by turns bitter and poignant. I admired the strength and conviction of these two lovers, fighting with indomitable resoluteness for their relationship. I read with mixed emotions the joys and disappointments of the couple, and felt that the inclusion of pieces of actual love letters between the two was a a brilliant touch that gave Lyudmilla and Mervyn a real sense of humanity. I liked this book for so many reasons. From the soulfulness of the characters, to the conversational style of the history, I found much here to be impressed with. This is not only a story of history and politics, but a story of people. People with hopes and fears and dreams that were expertly captured by the author.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has a curiosity about Russia. It is easily the best and most concise history of the times and people that I have ever read. The bonus of reading this for the history is that you will also get the very wonderfully rendered story of the people inside this country, and the sacrifices and joys that shaped their lives. Filled with unforgettable characters and relateable history, this book was a great read. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Shadow of Colossus by by T.L Highley - 400 pgs

Book CoverTessa is a hetaera, a courtesan paid to provide company, advice, and favors to the patron who pays her handler the highest price. Though Tessa is a paid companion, she has a unique position in Grecian society. As she is partnered with powerful men, she becomes a sounding board and confidant to them, subtly influencing their opinions on society and the area's politics. Although Tessa has a powerful voice in the community, which is rare for a woman, she doesn't have what she desires most: her freedom. Living with the churlish and abusive Glaucus, her current patron, Tessa's life is filled with bitterness and anger. After a particularly troubling evening with Glaucus that ends in a violent argument, Tessa is witness to an accident that leaves him dead. Now she must find a way to escape the blame for his death and keep it a secret from the powerful men who rely on him. As she maneuvers these intrigues, she meets Nicos, a servant recently hired by the now-dead Glaucus. As Nikos moves into the household, Tessa finds that she can't hide her secret from him and must decide if Nikos will eventually be a help or a hindrance. But all is not what it seems, as many of the people Tessa must deal with have hidden agendas, malevolent plans, and secret identities. Tessa must navigate a dangerous backdrop of deception and naked ambition to find her way to freedom and a new life. While doing this, she must also learn to free herself from the emotional chains that her profession has placed upon her.

Although the first few pages of the story seemed pretty intriguing, I quickly lost patience with this book. One of the reasons was the unrealistically shallow character portrayals. All of the characters were one-dimensional and simplistic. There just wasn't a lot going on with any of these people mentally or verbally, and it felt like I was reading about really rough stock characters instead of people who I was supposed to sympathize with or feel for in any way. Though the story itself was interesting, I never really cared for any of the players.

Another thing I wasn't prepared for were the traditional Christian messages and values throughout the book. I read this book not knowing much about it other than the premise, and was a little put off by some of the sentiments expressed throughout the story. Although it wasn't annoying, there was some blatant proselytizing in addition to some very irksome opinions scattered along the story. In one instance, it was posited that it was a woman's highest imperative to produce offspring; if she didn't, her life didn't amount to very much. I found that passage alone left me feeling really uncharitable towards the book. Had I known that this book was a kind of religious platform, I would have probably had a different opinion of it, because I would have been prepared for it. As it was, the religious messages weren't pervasive or preachy, but they still felt cumbersome and stood out blatantly from the rest of the story.

Lastly, I thought that the writing style was somewhat unvarnished and simple. The sentence construction in most of the book was very basic and unchallenging. I think a little more weight and artfulness in the prose would have shifted the narrative onto a more complex level. Lacking this, some elements that could have been powerful seemed trivial and lacked depth. Overall, though, I found the plot the most interesting thing about the book. Although it only covered a few days, there was much intrigue and imagination in that respect. Despite my other problems with the story, I found myself drawn to the outcome of the personal and political situations that the characters faced. The author's ability to involve fantastically dramatic elements in the story kept me engrossed with the story itself, despite the other drawbacks. The book had a great premise and the possibility of rich characters, but the mechanics of the writing defeated all that.

I think this book would be a good choice for those who enjoy Christian themed historical fiction, or for a young adult audience. As long as the reader doesn't expect too much from the story and can appreciate it for what it is, I think that they can avoid the disappointment that I had with the book. This is supposedly the first book in a planned series called the Seven Wonders. I can't really say that I will be reading any of the others, though the author does include a sneak peek into the first chapter of the next book in the end of Shadow of Colossus. For those who aren't sure about reading the book, perhaps a brief read through of this section might give you an idea of whether you would like the book or the series.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh - 368 pgs

Book CoverWhen Charles Ryder arrives at Brideshead after an absence of many years, he loses himself in reminiscences of the once grand home and residence of the intriguing Flyte family. Charles shares the story of his all-encompassing and complex relationship with the Flytes, which germinates with his college relationship with the eldest son, Sebastian, at Oxford. While sharing his opulent college days with Sebastian, the two become connoisseurs of fine food, good conversation, and especially in Sebastian's case, alcohol. Charles becomes unwittingly seduced by the luxurious lifestyle Sebastian leads, and although Sebastian tries to avoid the intrusion of his family into the friendship, Charles becomes enmeshed with them, growing increasingly entangled with their religious proclivities and emotional adversities. Eventually Charles moves past his friendship with Sebastian, who is on a course of self-destruction. Although he tries to leave Sebastian behind, his ties with the stifling family remain strong, and his ardor focuses on more accessible targets. As the glamor and artifice of the Flytes begins to fall away, Charles discovers his own moral awakenings, leaving him to reconcile the differences between himself and the Flytes as well as the similarities.

This book is a stunning piece of literature. From the rich language to the captivating story it tells, it is easy to understand why this book remains a classic today. Though the story is arguably about one young man's immersion in a very unique family, there exists, parallel to the plot, the subject of divine grace and the examination of Catholicism as a moral compass which may shape even those who are not of the faith. The book also deals with the nostalgia for the British nobility, the disillusionment at the passage of youth, and speaks specifically about the many forms of love that assail us as human beings throughout life. The remarkable thing about all of this is that it is not done in a heavy-handed and cardboard way. It is not pounded into you with antiquated and stuffy language or sentimental observations that render the story artificially affected. Instead, there is a constant pushing and pulling of ideas, and a honest portrayal of relationships, religion, and youth that is not afraid to show the entire truth, warts and all. Aside from liking this book for the story that it told, I found it was engaging and entertaining in other aspects. The prose was lyrical while still being a little snarky and standoffish, giving it an offbeat charm and a knowing voice. When I had finished reading and closed the book, I found that there was so much more to think about and explore within the world presented to me. I looked back at scenes that were poignant, and was able to see that besides the obvious emotional impact there was a great deal more hiding within the narrative. Later, I found concepts that hadn't initially occurred to me, and I mused about the authors intentions with the direction of the story, and if indeed there was a subtle agenda. The book had a wonderful mood about it as well. The atmosphere was one of somberness, but it was not overwhelmingly dark and depressive. Things seemed to have the perfect gravity, neither too comedic nor too dismal. This is not to say that this was an entirely dark book; there were some perfectly comedic and witty moments, but overall the tone of this book was more serious, lending it the ability to become profound. This may give the perception that this is a deep book. Yes and no. I would say that on one hand it is a very deep book, but it depends entirely on how you read it. If you are reading it for the pleasure of an interesting story, that is what you will get. If on the other hand you are reading it for a deeper meaning, that is there as well. What I find interesting is that these elements exist completely in harmony with each other, while also remaining separate entities.

I think the true measure of the success of this book is the fact that, although I have moved on to other books, I still find myself thinking about it. In quiet moments, I find myself plundering the depths of the story, eager to make more connections and relishing the moments and situations I found within the covers. The book had a powerful voice and message, and it was the ability of the author to show, not tell, his message that impressed and amazed me. The mechanics and eloquence of his ideas were equally impressive. Though the author's opinions may not be popular with every reader, and may even be contrary to those who are not particularly religious, the story and the execution are truly brilliant. This book was an exceptional and unexpected prize. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Guernica by Dave Boling - 384 pgs

Book CoverGuernica is an epic story of love, destruction and survival set amid the Spanish Civil War. It is the story of two families and three generations intertwined by love, honor and duty. It is the story of Justo Ansotegui, the strongest and most virile man in the village of Guernica. Justo rises from a young hardscrabble existence raising his brothers after the disappearance of his father, becoming a ranch owner and father in his early teens. After a touching courtship and wedding to the beautiful Mariangeles, Justo becomes the father of the spirited and vivacious Miren. Rolling through the years, we are privy to the love and devotion of Justo's family towards each other and their community, including the life and sacrifices of Justo's younger brother, Xabier, a man of the cloth. Here also are the Navarro brothers, both fishermen, who will leave their home to become very different, yet equally honorable men. As Francisco Franco, with assistance from the Germans, begins his takeover of Guernica with the intent of abolishing the Basque people and culture, life in the town become fraught with scarcity, fear and rumors. Each of the people we come to meet must adapt to a life filled with hardships among the menacing influences taking over their town. When the unthinkable happens and the German Luftwaffe bombs the town, life is forever changed and the survivors of the brutal attack must learn to endure and rebuild, gaining strength and shedding their weaknesses with only the help of one another. Peppered within this tale we get a glimpse of the famous painter Picasso and his artistic reaction to the bombing of Guernica, as well as the haunting account of commanding officer Wolfram von Richthofen, one of the men directly responsible for the bombing. Mixing the fictional with the tangible, Guernica tells the tragic story of one of the most terrible events in history, taking the reader on a moving ride of loss and redemption.

This book really started off with a bang. Reading the first section, I found myself curious at the plight of Justo, and wondering what led him to the place he inhabited in the opening of this story. I enjoyed the detail of the family interactions and the concise yet revealing way that the author wove so much of the history of the town and its inhabitants within the story.The many viewpoints and distinct characters made the plot very involving. Some of the best sections in the book were the reflections and reactions involving Xabier, the town's priest and Justo's brother. From his viewpoint I was able to really envision the carnage inflicted on that terrible day and see the heartrending atrocity that was inflicted upon those unfortunate townspeople. The drama of the aftermath wasn't harped upon or made morbid; instead it was explained with subtlety and a depth of feeling that made the characters and their reactions very plausible and human. Though I thought this was a tale well told, the stories told from the perspectives of Picasso and von Richthofen were a bit jarring and not well integrated. I believe that the author had something important to say with the inclusion of these passages, but the voice and message was somewhat dampened by the almost mechanical embedding of these elements. I think it is always hard to add real historical figures into a work that is primarily fiction and have them blend in seamlessly. In this case, I didn't feel that it was very successful. Adding to this, the lack of information regarding the politics of the bombing of Guernica left me with many unanswered questions, and it hampered my understanding of the event. I felt that a little more exposition on the causes and strategies of the war that precluded the bombing would have been helpful to understand the full impact of what happened in the town. For this reason, I felt that the sections regarding the family were more connecting and emotionally charged, while the other parts of the book were a bit less interesting to read.

Although there were components of this story that didn't really work for me, overall I was very moved by this book and thought it was a success. The author mentions in an afterword that the politics had been deliberately left out in order to give the reader an idea of how this bombing would have appeared to the townspeople, who had no idea of why it happened. Looking at it in that framework, this becomes a story of a town and a story of individuals dealing with the unthinkable and the unexpected. As a reader though, I wanted more. I really wanted to understand why this happened and to see the play unfold behind the curtain. But ultimately, I did care for the characters and wonder in what direction in life they were heading, and how they would get there. I got so involved with them, that in the end, I could overlook the difficulties I had with the story, and value my time with them.
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