Wednesday, April 24, 2013

ANNA KARENINA by Leo Tolstoy

Why is this book considered to be great?  It covers a lot of ground, but it should, because, after all, it's over 800 pages.  It basically examines the lives of three couples.  Stiva cheats on his wife Dolly, but, at the urging of Stiva's sister Anna, Dolly forgives him and tries to get past his infidelity in order to keep her family intact.  Dolly's sister Kitty eventually marries Levin—a forward-thinking man who manages a large farm.  Levin seems to me to represent the conscience of the novel, and, I presume, the opinions of the author.  The title character forsakes her stilted husband and beloved son for Vronsky, a handsome count, who charmed Kitty and almost derailed her union with Levin.  Anna's plight is the glue that holds the story together.  She becomes a pariah, stuck in limbo with a baby daughter that she doesn't love.  Her paranoia reaches epic proportions, as she imagines that Vronsky has another woman (or perhaps more than one), and her notion that he will cease to love her becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Her life goes into a downward spiral, as she becomes more and more insecure, despite having had the chutzpah to buck the system in the first place--by leaving her husband to live with her lover.  Tolstoy addresses a variety of political, religious, and social issues of the day, including evolution, divorce, the powerlessness of women, and education of the peasant workers.  Late 19th century Russia was still ruled by noblemen, but many of them were beginning to explore ways in which society could be restructured in order to improve agricultural output.  The version I read was a fairly recent translation (Pevear and Volokhonsky, 2001) and was very readable, but, honestly, 800+ pages is a long time to spend with these people.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

THE LOST WIFE by Alyson Richman

Josef and Lenka, a Czech married couple separated by the Holocaust, reunite many years later in the U.S. at their grandchildren's wedding.  I thought it unusual that the author would reveal this outcome at the beginning, but as I read, I found it heartening to know that they would find each other again eventually.  The bulk of the novel is the story of how they survived but remarried different people, each thinking that the other had died.  Both stories are tragic.  Lenka's story, however, frustrated me, because twice she imperils herself in order to stay with her parents and sister, much to the dismay of her father, who desperately wants at least one of his daughters to survive.  Her stubbornness struck me as foolish, rather than courageous.  The unfortunate truth, though, is that the Jews could not imagine that extermination was Hitler's ultimate goal.  Nothing could have prepared Lenka and her family for this revelation.  They spend several years in a horrific work camp, Terezin, but, unbeknownst to them, their situation could be worse, as it would be in Auschwitz, for example.  Lenka's art school background lands her a job with the drafting group at Terezin, where a few artists are sneaking drawings of the camp's conditions to friends on the outside.  When one of these drawings appears in a Swiss newspaper, Nazi retaliation cannot be far behind.  Was the artists' subterfuge worth the risk?  Probably not, but hope is a powerful aid to survival, and this small successful maneuver gives them hope, and perhaps a sense that they are not totally powerless.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

AFTERWARDS by Rosamund Lupton

A school fire leaves a mother, Grace, and her teenage daughter, Jenny, critically injured.  Previously a victim of an unidentified hate mailer, the daughter may have been an intended casualty of an arsonist.  The author utilizes an unusual device for uncovering the facts: both women's spirits are able to leave their comatose bodies and communicate with each other but no one else.  We know that Grace went into the burning school to get Jenny out, but Jenny's memory of her own actions have some gaps.  As the background story unfolds, an avalanche of possible suspects, including a friend's abusive husband, a teacher who was fired, and Grace's young son, Adam, makes for a fast-paced suspense novel.  Each time I thought I had it figured out, I would realize that, no, my solution was too obvious.  Some reviewers have compared this novel to the work of Jodi Picoult, but I think Lupton deserves more credit than that.  I find Picoult's books to be melodramatic and predictable, whereas this novel is anything but predictable, except perhaps for the ultimate fate of the two main characters.  I found myself on a dizzying merry-go-round, as each new suspect and his or her motive came to light.  Fortunately for all concerned, Grace's sister-in-law, Sarah, is a tenacious police detective who relentlessly follows up on every clue, often unwittingly accompanied by Grace's invisible out-of-body spirit.  I did not find the supernatural angle to be distracting to an otherwise realistic plot.  In fact, I thought the author did an excellent job with this device.  She convincingly conveys Grace's and Jenny's frustration at having an almost omniscient presence, gleaning facts from scenes that they invisibly witness, with no means of sharing these findings with their loved ones.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Lysander Rief's sexual dysfunction draws him to a psychotherapist in Vienna in 1913.  There he meets Hettie Bull, an enigmatic artist who seduces him and then charges him with rape.  A couple of equally sinister British diplomats provide asylum and offer him a chance to escape and return home to London before his case comes to trial.  He later finds that they expect recompense, in the form of espionage, related to breaking a secret code and identifying a mole.  Why Rief?  Well, his career as an actor has rendered him a master of disguise and subterfuge.  His mission begins in the wartime trenches, where he develops another mental issue—insomnia, fueled by guilt when he sees the faces of two men just before his grenade annihilates them.  Once he's out of the trenches, danger lurks in every dark corner, and every character is under suspicion, including Rief's mother.  The plot is twisty and engaging but never feels as serious as its subject matter.  There's no personal conflict here, and Rief's moral compass is murky.  The narration alternates between third person and Rief's first-person journal, called "Autobiographical Investigations."  I thought that the author could have made better use of the third-person sections by offering a little more insight into what makes Rief tick or by doing just the opposite—making him more inscrutable.  Instead, the two types of narration are virtually seamless and therefore not really necessary.  In any case, Rief is the type of spy that could carry a series of books—an everyman with a knack for deception.