Friday, September 19, 2008

War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy (Russian)
I came to resent this book – its length consumed so much of my time. It was good for the first third, but I didn’t bother to read the last fifty pages – I cared that little about the characters. Tolstoy didn’t care about them either – he was more concerned with the mechanics of the war, with philosophizing about Life and Death. He had a gift – some scenes are masterful; but, as the book moved on, Tolstoy became detached from his once-vital human creations. By the end he’s moving them about like pawns, and when he tries to generate emotions the results come across as overblown and artificial. The book, initially rich, became flat, mechanical. It was even sloppily done. Great novel? – hardly.

The Bialy Eaters - Mimi Sheraton
In exploring a type of bread (the bialy) the author explores a people – the Jews of Poland. One is struck by their resilience and the richness of their heritage, stubbornly kept alive in memories. It’s an interesting little book. I read an Advance Reading Copy and was surprised at the number of errors. And I wondered if the final, published version might have toned down Sheraton’s critical attitude toward “Polacks.” Even the last paragraph attacks the Poles. Maybe it’s justified and should be stated, but it seems a bit out of place in a book about bread.

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
The author committed suicide at age 27. This book has an introduction and an afterword by two of his creative writing teachers. Though I’m looking at events from the vantage point of hindsight, I wonder why, when they read these bleak, ugly, barren stories, his professors didn’t recognize how troubled Pancake was (his erratic behavior was a further sign). But no one intervened, so we have only this posthumous collection from a very talented writer. Pancake had a labyrinth style of narrative; it’s demanding, but he always leads you somewhere. However, I reached the point where I no longer wanted to go where he was taking me. “Time and Again” and “The Way It Has To Be” are horror stories; though there’s no on-the-page violence, what makes them so disturbing is the matter-of-fact way the author shows a warped mind preparing to commit a horrible act. Pancake had the ability to forcefully express his dark vision of life – a vision which turned out to be too dark for him.

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