You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, is a great book and a lot of fun to read. The only (minor) defect is that it starts out just a little slow, which can be a big problem for some readers who are not willing to slog it through for a big payoff. Not real slow mind you, but it takes a while for things to get from interesting to very interesting, to the point where you think, I've got to keep reading this and find out what this is all about.

The story is about two English magicians trying to restore English magic in the early 19th century. Mr. Norrell is a grumpy older man who wants to make English magic respectable and proper, Mr. Strange is his younger pupil who wants to do great things with magic. Mr. Strange goes abroad to help the English against Napoleon. When he returns to England the two magicians go separate ways (not without some difficulties).

The real fun is with the fairy that Norrell calls to help him resurrect a young woman so that her husband will assist him in getting the government ministers to use his magic for England. This causes no end of trouble. The young woman and her husband's servant end up enchanted and transported to the fairy's castle every night for a dance, but they are unable to do or say anything about their predicament. It's quite funny to see them try to ask someone for help and end up talking about something else completely different.

The story ends up going in unpredictable directions, which is interesting, and it all ends up in a satisfying conclusion. It's great to see Strange try new spells and explore magical paths into fairie. One of the best scenes is when he finds the fairy's castle and who all he finds there. There's a lot of footnotes, some as interesting as the story itself. A lot of attention is paid to the history of magic and the different magicians throughout the ages.

This book is definitely an A. The storytelling and rich language make for a great read.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Anna Karenina

It took me nearly twelve weeks to get through all 30 CDs of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The print version linked to below has 864 pages. That's very long.

It's a good novel, but I wouldn't say a great novel. The main story follows Anna as she falls in love with Vronsky and has an affair with him. Eventually she leaves her husband and her son to live with her lover.

Her story is paralleled by the story of Kitty. Kitty had fallen for Vronsky and was devastated when he dropped her for Anna (Anna is Kitty's sister's husband's sister...Anna had visited and convinced her sister-in-law to stay with her philandering husband Stiva). Kitty spends most of the novel in a funk, keeping to herself, going to a spa. At the spa she cheers up. Eventually she cheers up and meets again with her suitor Levin, who she had turned down when she thought she had a chance for Vronsky.

Levin's story takes up a good bit of the novel. Much space is spent on his ruminations on philosophy, religion, politics, and economics. The final several chapters have him coming to terms with God and his wife's religion.

Anna's fortunes and feelings follow a downward path while Kitty's soar to new heights. Kitty goes from being depressed and lonely to reuniting with Levin, marrying him, and starting a family. Anna goes from having a husband and son to being an outcast, becoming disenchanted with Vronsky, and finally to throwing herself in front of a train. One of the most tender moments is when she finally meets her son again after a long separation.

I had trouble relating to many of the characters. They are all upper class Russians, many nobles, prince this and count that. That didn't bother me so much, but the idea of spending time with your child being optional, that irritated me. There was hardly a mention of the children in the story, as if the kids are an afterthought. And most of the characters only work if they want to. Vronsky takes government posts, but his "work" seems to be useless to society.

The story is a great snapshot of Russian nobility: the balls, the parties, the races, the trips to the country. I also liked listening to all the names (note: find a recording with a British narrator).

There's not a lot of action in the story. Some of the tension comes from Vronsky and Anna's husband each wondering if the other is going to challenge him. The tension is resolved otherwise, mainly by Anna's husband seeking a divorce, then taking Anna back, then Anna leaves him and he acts as if she doesn't exist. It is very interesting to see Karenin (Anna's husband) go through the moral and emotional quandaries. He goes to see a lawyer about a divorce, but then says, hey I'm only checking into it, I'll let you know.

I don't know that I could recommend the book to anyone unless they were really into long Russian novels. It's pretty dry, even the romance scenes are pretty bland. All the conflict is social and emotional. There are long stretches of characters' thoughts and internal dialogues. At times the narrative stops while Levin philosophizes. But, the characters are vivid, and they go through interesting changes.

Grade: B-

I had thought to read War and Peace, but at this point I think I've had enough of Russion novels for a while.