Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Madonnas of Lenningrad

When I was kid, there were a lot of books in the house, and when I would get bored I would troll through the bookcases looking for something to read. And it was in this way that at age 16, I came across Harris Salisbury's "The 900 days: The Siege of Leningrad." It was a big. thick book and it was a cold, rainy Saturday morning, so I grabbed it and started reading.

I read about Leningrad, or St. Petersburg, Russia; and, I was simultaneously fascinated and horrified to learn that the Nazi's laid siege to the city for 900 days - 2 1/2 years - after first bombing the food warehouses! It was like a horror movie that slowly, slowly unfolded, and the book profoundly affected me.

Fast forward a few(!) years, and I am walking through Target and somebody has (serendipitously for me) picked up a book and then set it down in the candle section. And, the book is called, "The Madonnas of Leningrad."

"The Madonnas of Leningrad" is about a young woman - a tour guide at the Hermitage - who spends the siege hiding out in the Hermitage basement. To keep her sanity, she MEMORIZES part of the vast art collection! (Hence the title of the book. A lot of the paintings are of the "Madonna and Child' variety.)

(Here is a picture of the Hermitage!)

I will go off on a tangent here and point you toward the website: www.hermitagemuseum.org Take a look! It is fantastic, both the art and the czar's former winter palace, itself. While you are at it, visit the online gift shop. I bought some postcards of both the Winter Palace, and the Madonna paintings for a "Madonnas of Leningrad" gift basket I made for my cousin. The basket also contained a copy of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony - the "Leningrad Symphony." More on the Leningrad Symphony below. But, for now, back to our book!

The book starts in modern times, and Marina and her husband are elderly and living in America. Marina is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Ironic, because this is the same Marina that memorized all of that art work... We spend most of the book inside Marina's head with her as she flashes from the present back to the past, and the war years.

It was interesting seeing the world through the perspective of a person with Alzheimer's. I kept thinking, "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time." That is, of course, a quote from Kurt Vonnegut's, "Slaughter House Five." Billy Pilgrim experiences events repeatedly and out of chronological sequence, and so does Marina. And, both are World War II survivors.

So, between the war and the Alzheimer's, I hope I am not making this sound like an ugly or depressing book. Because it's not. It is beautiful. This is a women who spent a world war focusing on art and beauty. In her old age, she returns to the lovely "memory house" that she created in her youth. And, ever the tour guide, in the last chapter she shares it with someone else, in a very moving scene. Please consider reading this very beautiful book!

And, now, as I promised, back to Shostakovich's Leningrad symphony. Shostakovich was in Leningrad during the siege - though he was evacuated at some point. He wrote the Leningrad symphony about the siege. I was so delighted to stumble on this piece of music - a soundtrack for this book!

The story of how the symphony was played in Leningrad is very moving. Many members of the orchestra were dead or very weak. People had to go around the city and find people who could play the various instruments. But, the symphony was ultimately played in Leningrad during the siege. Another victory for art over war...

The symphony really follows the invasion. In the first movement, you can HEAR the tin soldier-like Nazi's march in. The second and third movements kind of drag - as I am sure the siege did. And the fourth is the best 'triumph over adversity' music I have ever heard. It has actually become my favorite piece of music. This is another example of the literature and music pairings of which I am so fond. Give it a listen! (Of course, it goes much better with the book!)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Curbing My Enthusiasm

I just realized that my book blog makes it appear as though I LOVE (exclamation point, smiley face) every book that I read. This is not the case. I just do not choose to spend time typing information about books that are not that great. Usually I do not even finish those books. For example, Chelsea Handler's body of work...

Saturday, November 5, 2011

War and Peace

Awhile back I read "War and Peace." Some years earlier, I had started it, and gotten a couple chapters in, and then quit. As with a lot of people, those big, three word, eighty letter Russian names did me in! The first time around I tried to keep track of the names by flipping back and forth to a glossary I had that explained names and relationships of characters in the book.

The second (successful) time, I just read the damn thing with no guide. I would read the names as I went but not really dwell on them or the fact that I was not really clear on who was whom, confident that if I plowed ahead, it would all click. And, it did!

I would urge those of you have not read this book to just do it! I always assume that the classics of music, literature, etc., are classic for a reason. They have stood the test of time...because they are GOOD! "War and Peace" has a story line
of intertwining families and relationships worthy of the very best soap opera, all set against the backdrop of Napolean's invasion of Russia.

Now that I have given you all this lovely advise for plunging in and reading the book, I am wondering exactly how i should go about plunging in and writing about
the book - it is HUGE and EPIC!

I will not give you a blow-by-blow of the action, although Wikipedia has a good (long) one if you are interested. Instead, I will tell you what i found most interesting and what I took away from the book.

The book follows several families in the times leading up to the war, through the war, and then into the aftermath of it. My favorite family is the Rostovs, who we meet toward the beginning of
the book. And, I think that one of my favorite characters is Natasha Rostov, who is in her early teens as the story opens. The opening scenes about the family revolve around kind of an open house that the parents are having at their home in Moscow, as the kids and teens run around playing and having crushes on one another. As I write this, a quote comes to mind - the opening line of another Tolstoy book, "Anna Karenina," which - in a Tolstoy frenzy - I read right after "War and Peace" (I also read "The Cossacks," which is kind of Tolstoy-lite, if you would like to start with that one). "Anna Karenina" begins, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

And, I believe that there is truth to this. In the opening scenes, before the war, the Rostov could be the Brady Bunch or the happy family down the street. They seem familiar, and this may be why I particularly cared about them as I read the book.

Natasha Rostov grows to be a beautiful young woman and becomes engaged to Prince Andrei. But, when her father takes her to the opera, she meets the handsome cad, Anatol. I am not going to create a 'spoiler' by telling you what happens next, but I will tell you that her cousin is worried sick that she will be "ruined."

Another aspect of the book that I found really engaging was the information about the war itself. the French army takes Smolensk. The Battle of Borodino ensues and both sides are crippled pretty badly. At this point, the Russian army backs off and the French march to Moscow, but they are weak. Read the book to see what happens next; do not skip the epilogue where Tolstoy talks in essay form about the war and about General Kutuzov. Interestingly, this essay is
one of the things that I found most memorable about the book. Tolstoy explains that the role of a commanding officer is the say 'yes' or 'no' (mostly 'no') to all of the ideas that the eager young lieutenants bring to him. He further asserts that backing off at Moscow and letting the French army play itself out - as opposed to more direct engagement - was a good war strategy on Kutuzov's part. I think that the ideas in Tolstoy's essay could be put to good use for leaders and managers in general.

In my blog about C. J. Sansom's historic fiction, I explain that a good work of this genre always puts me on a "kick" where I read more by the author and try t
o learn more about the time and place in which the book is set. "War and Peace" definitely had this impact on me. In seeking more information about the French invasion of Moscow, I came up with some interesting facts.

First, the dramatic, onion-domed cathedral that you see at the beginning of this article is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. It was commissioned by the czar to thank God for repelling the French. Now, this gets really interesting, Tchaikovski wrote the dedication music for the cathedral. And, the piece was the 1812 Overture! At the risk of sounding silly, I have to admit that I always assumed that the 1812 Overture had something to do with the American War of 1812 - after all, it is played quite often at Fourth of July celebrations. Nope. Wrong war of 1812.

Hit the link and really listen to the music after you read "War and Peace." It is a soundtrack for the book! You can hear the various battles, and the tides turning in the war. At the end, you can hear the church bells ring out in Moscow, and if you have read the book, it may move you to tears.

Here are some more pictures of Russian cathedrals that i am including just because I came across them during my research, and I LOVE them. I would have no trouble believing that these photos were shot in the Land of Oz...

The first cathedral is from this blog, where you can read more about it: http://lemurkatpc.blogspot.com/2010/07/russian-cathedral.html The red one is from:

"Heartstone" and other C. J. Sansom Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mysteries!

I am a big C. J. Sansom fan, and just finished reading his fifth Matthew Shardlake mystery, "Heartstone." Sansom's character, Matthew, is actually a real estate, or 'land,' attorney in the time of Henry VIII. Who knew the profession existed at that time! But, actually, in the first book in the series, "Dissolution," Sansom explains that when Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic Church in England and then divested himself of many of the Church's former properties, there was a LOT of associated work for land attorneys.

Lest the books sound boring, I should hasten to mention that Matthew is constantly dragged into court intrigue and murder investigations. In "Heartstone," the Queen (Catherine Parr) asks him to take a case involving the son of one of her servants.

Matthew heads to the south of England to investigate, and quickly realizes that he has a complicated mystery on his hands. To compound matters, a French invasion fleet is poised to land very near where his investigation has lead him.

One of the things that I love about these books, and other good historical fiction, is that the backdrop is factual and well-researched and the stories of the individuals are fictional, but fit within the framework created by that backdrop.

So, in the case of "Heartstone," the details of Henry VIII's 1544 war with France are factually correct, including the sinking of the ship, "Mary Rose." I cannot write much here about how the "Mary Rose" figures into the aforementioned mystery without creating "spoilers." So, I will merely say that all of the Matthew Shardlake books are stay-up-all-night-reading-even-though-you-have-work-tomorrow books.

My mother once commented when we were discussing another work of historic fiction (by Geraldine Brooks, an author I will discuss in a later blog) that the best sign that a book of this genre is good is if it compels you to further research on the subject. By that yardstick, these are good books, as after reading the first couple, I became intrigued with Tudor England and Henry's wives and started cruising the internet looking for timelines, pictures, and more information.

Read the Matthew Shardlake books! Each stands alone, but they are best read in order, as follows: