Wednesday, February 5, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Woe from Wit by Alexander Griboedov

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Woe from Wit by Alexander Griboedov (translated by Betsy Hulick) is a short, fascinating book. The text taken by itself would be a cute and mildly amusing play in verse. But taken together with the introduction, it is much more.

I had never heard of the author, an early nineteenth century Russian playwright and poet who remains a very influential writer in Russia. Apparently lines from his plays, this one in particular, are quoted even today and it’s social commentary is still relevant after a fashion.

The play itself centers on Alexander Adreevich Chatsky, a young man who returns to Moscow after three years abroad, to court the young woman he left behind. The woman, Sophie, has moved on, falling in love with her father’s secretary, Molchalin. She has other suitors as well.  The father wants someone wealthier and higher in rank for his lovely daughter but her mind is made up.

The father throws a party to which numerous friends and acquaintances are invited. Chatsky is there. He has a sharp wit and is quick to criticize what Moscow was and what it has become. Sophie has no patience for his cynicism, especially when he turns it on Molchalin. She starts a rumor that Chatsky has gone mad.

The entertainment picks up as the guests make wilder and wilder claims about Chatsky’s loss of sanity. Eventually the news gets back to him. Shortly, Sophie overhears Molchalin hitting on her maid. She breaks off their affair. Chatsky, furious and disillusioned that she would make up a tale about him, no longer wants anything to do with her. He stomps off after a blistering tirade against everyone of the guests, leaving the father to conclude the rumor must be true.

Like most plays, I imagine this would be much more enjoyable to watch than to read. However, it did leave me wishing I could see it performed. 

Sunday, February 2, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The People's Act of Love by James Meek

I recently skimmed a review of James Meek’s new novel, To Calais, In Ordinary Time.  It sounded intriguing, but daunting, reminding me a bit of The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, which I loved. However, it isn’t released yet in the U.S.  So, while looking up the author in my library, I saw The People’s Act of Love. The superlatives used to describe it on the jacket blurb made it impossible to bypass. (They were so over the top I doubted the book could possibly live up to them.)

Set in Siberia during the Russian Revolution, I expected the book to be gritty and bleak, so I was prepared. Nonetheless, it was a hard book to read.

Told from many viewpoints, the anti-hero of the story is a young radical, intellectual, prison-camp survivor named Samarin. It’s clear from the start that he’s an unreliable narrator, but no one, including the reader, is able to quite put a finger on what parts of his narrative are true and which are false.

He comes upon a small town that is being ruled by the remnant of a Czech Army that knows whatever role it played in the war is no longer significant. The soldiers vary in their loyalties but all want mainly to go home. The leader, a man named Matula, is a sociopath. His lieutenant, a Jewish Czech who mourns the lost German civilization where he felt at home, is a good man, the one truly sympathetic character in the book. He is smart, good to his fellows, and in love with the wrong woman.

The woman, Anna, is a Russian widow who has moved to the town with her son. She’s a photographer, an artist, who claims she needed to get away from the city, but no one knows why she ended up there.

Also within the town is a sect of Christian mystics, castrate, who believe themselves to be angels. They hold all their goods in common, and so are better at being communists than the communists. They just want to be left alone.

Two more strangers have arrived simultaneously with Samarin. One is a local shaman who has lost his ability to “see” and is being held captive by the superstitious Matula. The other, a man no one has yet seen in the town but whose arrival is heralded by Samarin, is the Mohican. This fellow escapee from prison is a brutal thief who helped Samarin escape only so that he could use him as food on the long trek from camp to civilization.

Over the course of the next few days, with the threat of the Red Army about to descend upon the town, the various inhabitants try to come to grips with internal and external threats.

It is a powerful book, difficult to put down, but ultimately disappointing. Most of the people are awful in large or small ways. There is good, but it’s not rewarded. And the themes are muddied by the sense that nothing really matters in the end.

Even so, I will be reading To Calais, In Ordinary Time.

Friday, January 31, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital by David Oshinsky

It might seem a 370+ page book is overkill for a history of a single New York City Hospital, but Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital by David Oshinsky, was a nice surprise. I got the book from my library to see what it had to say about a specific moment in its history, but started reading from the beginning just because, and ended up reading the whole thing.

The book covers the history of the hospital from when it was little more than a pesthouse for yellow fever victims in the Colonial period to a modern-day facility equipped to deal with Ebola.

More than a history of New York’s most resilient public hospital and teaching facility for new physicians and nurses, Bellevue is a history of medicine in America in microcosm. Well-researched, readable, and chock full of interesting anecdotes, this book held my interest from start to finish.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Only Story by Julian Barnes

I pulled another book from my TBR pile: The Only Story by Julian Barnes. I normally love this writer but I thought this book was a bit of a dud.

The narrator is a middle-aged man relating his story, which is a love story. Because he has heard, or believes, that the only story worth telling IS a love story and that everyone has one of their own, he sets out to tell us his. Because everything not directly related to the love story is considered extraneous, the novel is pared down to the essentials. Unfortunately, the story is not unique and brave and ultimately tragic, but rather is commonplace, dull, and sad.

The narrator, Paul, looks back on his life, which begins at age nineteen when he met the love of his life, Susan Macleod. She was forty-eight, married with two grown children, and was assigned to be his tennis partner at his parents’ club. They hang out after tennis, he starts driving her around, bumming around her house, going with her to concerts, and they start sleeping together. Her husband is there in the background, aware of what’s going on, as are her daughters and Paul’s parents. They are all extraneous to the lovers so are no more than sketched in.

Paul is a callow college student with no ambition and a mistaken awe of his own originality. His lover is so much older–how cool is that!. He doesn’t see what they are doing as wrong, since they are in love, and the husband is a jerk. Or if it is wrong, he is thrilled by his scandalous misbehavior. He believes his friends are impressed.

Paul remembers Susan as a quirky original, but the picture he paints of her is also shallow and dull. The relationship plods along. They don’t actually do much. Eventually, it becomes clear that Mr. Macleod is drunk and physically abusive. Susan and Paul move in together.

The relationship lasts years. Divorce is not really an option. Or maybe it is, but not one that Susan is interested in. She gets depressed. She starts drinking. Heavily. He can’t save her. He gives up and moves out. They both age. Neither has another real relationship.

The storyline is realistic. It’s objectively sad. However, I was never drawn in to care about the characters. There was not a lot of depth to them or to the relationship. The narrator likes to meditate on love. In fact, he keeps a notebook of pithy sayings but ends up crossing most of them out. That's kind of how I feel about this book, like it could be crossed out.

Monday, January 27, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff is a riveting read. It’s a chronological account of the events of 9/11 told in bits and pieces by people who were there. Some of the voices are carried though the whole story and others appear only once or twice. The effect is to take you back to that awful day and give the event new immediacy.

The author does an amazing job pacing the story as the day progresses and the focus shifts from New York to the Pentagon to Pennsylvania and back again. We learn exactly what was going on at the Twin Towers,  in the bunkers, and on Air Force One–the confusion, disorganization, and fear, as well as remarkable dedication and bravery.

I wasn’t expecting to find this so readable or so important. No matter your perspective on where the country is now, it’s worthwhile reading and remembering what it was back then.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon is a contemporary mystery set in a home for the elderly in England. The protagonist, Florence Claybourne, is eighty-four years old and has dementia. She is coping, helped along by two other residents: a retired general named Jack and her lifelong best friend, Elsie. And then a new resident enters the home, Gerald Price. Florence recognizes him as Ronnie Butler. But sixty years ago, Ronnie Butler drowned.

The story unfolds in bits and spurts as Florence struggles with memories she can’t quite recall and perhaps doesn’t truly want to recall. But Ronnie Butler is a dangerous man and, even after all these years, he’s out to get Florence. Jack and Elsie are on her side, but no one else believes her.

The Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly is staffed by kindly, well-meaning people who wanted more out of life. Each has an interesting back story, though most are only lightly touched upon.

The most intricate life story belongs to Florence. As the final pieces fall into place, it becomes clear how interconnected all those lives are even if they are unaware of the connections.

It is a well-plotted story with warm characters. The ending is poignant and the mystery solved satisfactorily. The book reminded me strongly of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, which I also enjoyed.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: An Environmental History of the Civil War by Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

An Environmental History of the Civil War by Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver, to be released in mid-April, is the latest contribution to American Civil War history that not only takes into account environmental factors but makes the case that these factors were central to deciding the outcome.

The various chapters discuss illness (particularly infectious diseases), weather, the availability and scarcity of adequate food, terrain, use of animals and the problems associated with their use, and soldiers’ death and disability. These are placed in context more or less chronologically, although their impacts were felt throughout the course of the war.

While many of the big-picture conclusions are not revelations, the book delves into the details supporting the conclusions in a scholarly yet accessible fashion that aids in understanding. The two authors’ combined expertise makes for a wonderful synthesis of a good deal of material. For those interested in Civil War history who are not fluent in environmental history but who would like to see events examined from this angle, this book is a fine choice.