Sunday, January 30, 2011

War and Peace Readalong--Volume II

It's check-in time for the second volume of War and Peace.  I fell behind my reading schedule earlier this week and I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to catch-up.  I had the last 150 pages to read in three days but I ended up almost finishing all of it in one day.  I simply couldn't put it down.

A peace treaty is signed between the sovereign and Napoleon, so the focus shifts to society in Petersburg and Moscow for most of Volume II.  The happenings in society are filled with drama!  There is a duel.  My first ever to read about and it was pretty exciting!  There are also secret engagements, broken promises, an induction into the free masons (random!), thwarted attempts at elopement, and even an attempted suicide.

I'm grateful that I didn't live during this time period where the decision to marry involved so many outside factors.  It's sad that there are couples forced apart because the match is deemed beneath one of the families.  Wealth, and lack thereof, plays an important role in forming marriages.  Those seeking after the wealth feign love and interest in their partner, and that never ends well.  It seems that a marriage based on mutual love is very rare.

So many loose ends right now.  Most of the marriageable individuals fates are still dangling and I'm curious to see how it all plays out.  Tolstoy is sure filling this novel with twists and turns that I don't always see coming.  Off to start Volume III!

On a completely unrelated note, I finished The Corrections last week and I came across a passage that made me chuckle.  One of the characters was taking a lunch break at work and she happened to be reading War and Peace.  She mentioned that she was too embarrassed to read it in public for fear of looking pretentious, so she sat and stared at the sky instead.  I can relate.  Also, it is heavy!

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections

by Jonathan Franzen
published 2001
completed January 2011

I was really hesitant to pick up The Corrections.  Until the controversy over Jonathan Franzen appearing on the cover of Time, I knew nothing about it.  I completely missed the debacle in 2001 over its selection for Oprah's Book Club.  I'm not too surprised since I'm not an Oprah watcher, and I was in the midst of a  grad school vortex.  Sadly, knowing that Jonathan Franzen snubbed Oprah kind of piqued my interest enough for me to pick it up.  I'm so glad that I did.  It was brilliant.

Alfred and Enid Lambert have three adult children--Chip, Gary, and Denise--who have fled their Midwestern home in St. Jude (patron saint of lost causes) and have ventured to the East Coast.  With Alfred deteriorating rapidly from Parkinson's Disease, Enid wants the family to gather for one last Christmas in St. Jude.

I cannot do this book justice.  Every time I sat down to write this I couldn't come up with a coherent thought.  Please forgive me if this becomes a bit rambling.  I started out hating every single character in this book.  We meet them all surrounding the initial talks of gathering for Christmas while the parents are in New York on their way to board a cruise ship.  Each chapter focuses on one of the children and Franzen slowly shares their life experiences that make them who they are at present.  He never tries to justify his characters actions or garner sympathy for them.  He presents facts so that you can understand the characters.

The Lambert Family is about as dysfunction as families get.  It is bad.  On the surface they are congenial, but underneath is festering bitterness, hatred, and blaming.  There are a number of unique uses of the word corrections throughout the novel.  The main reason is that it is set during the stock market boom and ends when the market corrects itself in the late nineties.  Aside from that, it also focuses on the corrections that each character feels they need to make-up for their childhood.  Each child feels scarred in some way by their upbringing, but by the end, they finally come to see their parents and childhood in a better light.

What happens in The Corrections is tragic, but it never feels that way.  Without the humor, The Corrections would have been unbearable.  Chip has a realization towards the end of the book that a script he has been working on should be "tragedy rewritten as a farce."  After this realization
"he bore down with a mental read pencil on his mental reconstruction of these pages, made a little trim here, added emphasis or hyperbole there, and in his mind the scenes became what they'd wanted to be all along: ridiculous." 
I believe Franzen is speaking a little about himself here and his intention to push The Corrections to the point of a farce.  It was a brilliant move.  Toward the end of the book, Chip is trying to make his way to St. Jude for Christmas and is robbed by rogue police in a foreign country that is in upheaval.  During which the following happens.
Chip's sphincter had meanwhile dilated to the degree of unconditional surrender.  It seemed very important to contain himself, however, and so he stood in his socks and underwear and pressed his butt cheeks together as well as he could with his shaking hands.  Pressed and pressed and fought the spasms manually.  He didn't care how ridiculous he looked.
Chip is possibly about to die and not make it back to see his parents for Christmas, but I am laughing out loud because of this ludicrous situation.  Brilliant Mr. Franzen.  Brilliant.

There isn't a lot of plot to The Corrections.  The focus is on the characters.  By the end, I think what I gathered from this is that family really matters.  I could relate to the Lambert children in that used to look back on my childhood with disdain.  I don't agree with some of the choices my parents made in raising me.  I want different for my children, but I've learned to love and respect my parents.  They did the best they could, and I think the Lambert children also came to that conclusion.  The Lambert children ran far away as adults, but they slowly made their way back, not literally, but at least in their hearts.  Our families are never going to be perfect, but they are a part of us regardless.

This book has been so over-hyped that I don't intend to change anyone's mind about it.  I loved it, but even saying that, I can see how this book is disliked by so many.  If you're looking for fast-paced, this is not that kind of book.  It's slow and meandering at times, but I was happy with the journey and the eventual destination.  I feel obligated to warn that there is a generous helping of graphic language and sex.  It wasn't gratuitous and seemed necessary to the understanding of the characters.  I'm sorry this is so long!  I could gush about it all day.  I'm really looking forward to picking up Freedom when I get a chance.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Foodie Challenge January--Zuppa Toscana Soup

I tried my first new recipe of the year tonight--Zuppa Toscana Soup!  This is our third time eating soup this week, but each recipe has been so different that no one in my family has complained.  I love soup when it's chilly outside, and chilly it has been!  This recipe is from the blog Two Peas and Their Pod.  The boys in my house are big meat lovers so I figured I'd give this a try.

Everyone loved it (aside from my six year-old who was throwing a fit over the potatoes).  I would prefer less sausage, but my husband disagrees.  I omitted the red pepper flakes (my kids sometimes use spiciness as an excuse to avoid eating new foods, though they generally love spicy).  I used low sodium broth, and found it plenty salty without adding salt to taste.  This is definitely a recipe I will be making again soon.

1 lb Italian sausage
1.5 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 large white onion, diced
4 slices bacon, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1 cup heavy cream
3 large russet potatoes, peeled and chopped
3 cups kale, washed and roughly chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
1.  In a medium skillet, saute the Italian sausage with the red pepper flakes. Drain excess fat, set aside.
2.  In a large stock pot, saute the bacon.  When the bacon is half-way cooked, add onions and garlic.  Saute until onions are tender--about five minutes.
3.  Add the chicken broth and water.  Bring to a boil.
4.  Add potatoes and cook until soft, about 30 minutes.
5.  Add the heavy cream and sausage and heat through.
6.  Stir in the chopped kale.  Season with salt and pepper.  Serve hot.
Serves 8
You can find recipes from other bloggers participating in the Foodie Challenge here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Before I Fall

by Lauren Oliver
published 2010
completed December 2010

I've seen this book everywhere, and I'm sure you have as well.  Forgive me for adding another review to the already massive amount all over the book blogging community.  I had to run out and grab it once I saw Jenners review.  I think I put it on hold at my library that day.  I'm so glad that I did.  I really loved this book.  It wasn't perfect, but more than anything, I appreciated how introspective Before I Fall made me feel.  It's a YA book, but one people of all ages can find thought-provoking.

Sam dies in a car crash and wakes up only to realize that she is reliving the same day.  She continues to relive that day in a struggle to figure out what she must make right.  She's one of the most popular girls in school, has one of the hottest guys as her boyfriend, and treats everyone outside of her circle like trash.  By cycling through the same day over and again, she changes inside and starts to realize what is actually important in life.

During my reading, I had some uncomfortable feelings.  I think this book is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, leading to self-reflection.  I think all of us have had a little Sam in us at some point in our lives.  Sometimes we're a little self-absorbed and miss what's going on around us.  Sometimes we offend someone and have no idea.  Sometimes our actions have consequences to others that we don't always see.  We may not be the ones bullying, but is it any better if we stand by and do nothing?

Last week my six year old mentioned that he wasn't friends with a boy in his class anymore.  This boy was the first friend he made when school started, so I was a bit surprised.  I asked him if they just played different things during recess so didn't see each other as much.  His response, "He is right.  I am rubbish at football."  As he said this, his little blue eyes were glistening and his voice was shaky.  I felt like I got the wind knocked out of me.  Nothing prepares you as a mother for dealing with the pain of a child.

The mama bear instinct came out, and I wanted to protect my little cub.  The sad thing is--I can't.  I wish I could shelter my kids from this kind of pain, but it's out there all around them.  I had a discussion with my kids about what it means to be a friend.  We also talked about how we don't have to allow people to treat us poorly, but that even if they do, we still treat them with respect.  I'm not saying that I'm a perfect parent.  I'm not.  Far from it.  Before I Fall reminded me of what I can do as a parent.  It's my responsibility to do what I can to help my children not contribute to the problem of bullying, and to teach them to have the strength within themselves to not be torn down by how others treat them.

I wish all of this high school-ish behavior ended upon graduation, but it often continues into adulthood.  Gossiping is so destructive, but it seems to be a common past-time for women.  Cliques didn't end in high school either.  I see them amongst the mothers at school, at church, and in my neighborhood.  Why do we do this to each other?

Sam finally figured out that what really matters are relationships.  Not relationships that make us look good or seem popular, but real relationships with people we care about.  People who love us because of who we are and not because of we are pretty, have a huge house, or have a great job.  Sam also learned that family matters.  When all is said and done, they are usually the ones that are always there for us.  I finally figured this out when I moved away for college, and I wish I hadn't waited so long to realize it.

I love that Before I Fall made me think about what I value most.  It reminded me to seize the day--mend relationships that have weakened, let go of those grudges, and to spend more time with the ones that I love.  Who knows how much time we have?  I certainly don't, but I try to live so that I won't have any regrets.  Before I Fall  was Lauren Oliver's debut novel.  I'm looking forward to reading more of her books.

Friday, January 14, 2011

War and Peace Readalong--Volume I

It is time for the first check-in!  I'm participating the readalong of War and Peace hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey.  I treated myself to an early Christmas present and bought myself this book.  It has been sitting on my bookshelf since the middle of December.  It took serious will power for me to wait until January 1 to start reading.

My first reaction on opening it was surprise at how much French is in this novel.  I am reading the Pevear and Volokhonskly translation and they chose to leave the French in the text and to translate it in the footnotes.  I understand their desire to remain true to the original text, but it makes for an interesting reading experience for those of us who don't speak French.  I'm not complaining; it just takes a little time to get into the groove of switching from the text to the footnotes so frequently.

The actual story is fantastic.  I set a certain number of pages to read each day to make sure I don't fall behind in the readalong.  There are days when I don't want to put it down, and I end up read twice as much as I had planned.  Tolstoy is a master of characterization.  There are numerous characters in this book, but they are so well-drawn and distinct.  The first third of this volume focuses on introducing the three main families--the Rostovs, the Bolkonskys, and Bezukhovs.  The setting moves between St Petersburg and Moscow.  War is in constant discussion at all gatherings, and three men from these families are heading to war.  There are some crazy plot points with betrayals, and secret meetings.  Great fun!

As the narrative shifted to the front lines of the war, I found it a little difficult.  I started to get nervous that the war chapters would be a slog, but after a couple of chapters (chapters are only a few pages each), it picked up, and I found myself flying through them.  The battles scenes are so well-written.  I felt like I was with them.  Battle scenes are not generally something I enjoy, but these were riveting.  Tolstoy maintains a fine balance between the broad action and the individual character's experiences during the battle.  The ability of the war to bring out an individual's true nature is fascinating.  We learn that some are in it for the glory, some are self-sacrificing, and others are cowards and run.

The progression of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Pierre's stories are what I am looking forward to the most.  I'm loving how Tolstoy's allows the reader into each character's mind.  So far, War and Peace is full of high drama, well-crafted characters, and brilliant writing.  I am always a little leery of people who claim to love War and Peace.  Admit it; you are too.  So, shhh...don't tell anyone I like it this much.  Hopefully this level of interest will hold for Volumes II-IV!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Foodie Challenge--Whip Up Something New

I know this is a book blog, but I do love a few things besides books.  Food is one of them.  I enjoy cooking, but sometimes I get in a rut and cook the same things over and over.

I was so excited when I saw that Joanna, a fellow book blogger, is hosting "Foodie Challenge: Whip Up Something New!"  This challenge started as a result of Trish's Sunday Salon post about her Recipe Scrapbook Project.  Most of us have recipes that we've torn out of magazines or printed off the internet but haven't tried yet.  This challenge is to make at least one new recipe each month.  Each month will have a new host.

With three small children and a husband who works late most nights, dinner time is usually chaotic.  I'm lucky if I get dinner on the table, let alone something new.  This challenge will be a great way for me to make sure that we're changing things up.  I can't wait to see what everyone else is cooking.  I think that is the best part.  At the end of each month, there will be more recipes for me to try.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Oliver Twist Readalong at A Literary Odyssey

I've enjoyed everything I've read by Dickens so far, and I've been wanting to read Oliver Twist forever.  I finally bought a copy last month.  So when I saw Allie at A Literary Odyssey post about an Oliver Twist Readalong, I knew I had to join in.  Below are the details from her website.

Here is the reading schedule I have planned out, based on the edition I own (I will be reading from the Penguin cloth bound classic, which has 455 pages divided into three books). I should note that because the book is divided into three "books" I decided to do three posting periods. If there is huge public outcry against this, I will change it.
  • Post 1 will go up on February 10th (Monday) and will cover Book 1 (roughly 180 pages-the longest section)
  • Post 2 will go up on February 19th (Wednesday) and will cover Book 2 (roughly 120 pages)
  • Post 3 will go up on February 28th (Monday) and will cover Book 3 (roughly 140 pages)
That morning I will put up a post with my thoughts and feelings about the section we're posting on. If you are participating, all you have to do is leave a comment with a link to your post so I can link them up here! I do not require participants to go read everyone else's post, but it is always encouraged! After all, the point of a readalong is to see what everyone else makes of the same book and discuss it.

In addition, she is giving away a beautiful clothbound Penguin Edition of Oliver Twist to one individual, selected from those who sign-up for the readalong.  Visit A Literary Odyssey for more of the details.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood
published 1985
completed December 2010

The Handmaid's Tale is a difficult book to summarize without giving too much away.  It is a dystopian novel that deals mostly with the treatment of women in the newly formed Republic of Gilead.  This was my first novel by Margaret Atwood.  I have seen so many wonderful reviews of her books.  My expectations were high and that might have been the reason it fell short for me.  I hate to admit that I didn't love this book.  Yet again, a book that most everyone loves--except for me.

I'll start out with what I liked.  The premise of the story was different than anything I had read before.  As I read, it reminded me of how seemingly harmless ideas, when taken to extremes, can lead to something horrific.  In this instance, the Republic took precautions to protect women and in turn, ended up taking everything from them, including their free will.  I think the book does well at showing the complacency that eventually settles when freedom is lost.  My favorite characters were those who were willing to take risks and fight the system.

Now to the things that I didn't like.  Much has been said in praise of Atwood's writing style, but it didn't suit my personal taste.  I thought it was dry and a bit pretentious at times, especially for a first-person narration.  There are frequent flashbacks thrown in that, to me, broke the flow of the narrative.  It took me 200 pages to get into this book.  Not a good sign.  The pace picked up in the last third of the book.  The ending was ambiguous, which I didn't mind, but the epilogue was pointless.  I will admit that I skimmed it.  I don't think she needed to explain how we got this first-person account, and the way she did it was really lame.

Even though there were parts that I disliked, I'm glad that I read The Handmaid's Tale.  The themes of the book are relevant, but I didn't love the execution.  I really want to give Margaret Atwood another shot.  Any recommendations?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina

by Leo Tolstoy
published 1877
completed January 2011

My first book completed in 2011!  Most of it was read last year, but hey, it still counts.  I've been wanting to read this for years, and I'm so glad that I finally did.  I checked this book out from the library several times and ended up returning it without even opening it.  I was so intimidated by it, but I learned in finally picking it up, that I was entirely wrong.  Anna Karenina is not scary.  At all.  It is long, but it is not difficult.  I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, which I've heard is one of the best.  That probably helped with the readability.  The fact that every character has five names, and some characters have the same name as others (lots of Alexei and Sergei), was a bit overwhelming at first.  After about forty pages, I was able to keep them straight.

Anna Karenina is very character-driven.  Not much happens, but Tolstoy takes the reader into the minds of the different characters.  Based on the title, I assumed that most of the book would revolve around Anna herself, but Levin is an equally important character.  The beauty of this novel, for me, is in the juxtaposition of Levin and Anna's lives.  Levin lives a simple life out in the country, while Anna is the wife of a prominent man in society who is many years older than Anna.  They each have their share of heartache (some self-inflicted), but Tolstoy shows how their personal choices affect the outcome of their lives.

I loved Levin.  It was so easy for me to relate to him, which is kind of sad because I share some of his negative traits.  He and I are both worriers and over-thinkers (it is super annoying--just ask my husband).  He is so compassionate and concerned about others.  Levin is also quick to forgive.  This is in stark contrast to Anna who is selfish and vengeful.

I know many people who hate this book because of Anna.  I agree; she is despicable.  This didn't ruin the book for me though because I felt this was Tolstoy's point.  I don't think he meant for the reader to sympathize with Anna, but set her up as an example of what happens when you fill your life with selfishness and hatred.  Her relationship with Vronksy could never work.  They were both only thinking of themselves, and they didn't trust each other.  Compare this to Levin and his wife.  Their relationship flourished, and they found happiness because of the love and respect they showed each other.

I would be lying if I said that I loved all of this book.  The farming chapters, the election chapters, and the political discussions were a little dry.  Overall, I really enjoyed reading Anna Karenina.  Is it one of my all-time favorite books?  No.  It might be one of my favorites this year, but we'll have to wait and see.  Is this book for everyone?  Probably not.  Because it is more of a character study, I can see many people finding too slow.  It's just a matter of taste.  If you've been wanting to read it, give it a try.  It isn't as scary as it seems.