Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin by Vladimir Voinovich

This book is one of the only satires I've read, and I really enjoyed it. It was the story of Ivan Chonkin, a private in the Red Army, who is sent to guard a downed plane in an obscure village. He is issued a week's worth of food and promptly forgotten. After marching back and forth in front of the plane for a couple minutes, he notices a pretty girl in the garden next door and introduces himself, and thus begins his relationship with the village postmistress, whom he lives with for a while, forgotten by the army and quite contented. But when suspicion arises about the mysterious soldier hidden away in a village, a few officers are sent to arrest him, and havoc ensues. The rest of the book is packed with humorous misunderstandings and mockery of the government, society and just about everything else.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

In The First Circle was one of my favorite by Solzhenitsyn. The book tells of a few days in the lives of a few prisoners in a special prison, or sharashka. Outside the prison is a man named Innokenty Volodin, who works for the government. He learns of the construction of an atom bomb, and immediately reports it to the American authorities in an attempt to prevent its use. The call is intercepted, but Volodin escapes. The prisoners in a special branch of the sharashka receive orders to find who made the call by the voice.
But, on the whole, the book was less about catching Innokenty, and more, as all great books are, about communicating a deeper meaning to the reader. Solzhenitsyn, himself once a prisoner, causes the reader to feel the emotions felt by prisoners, no matter how green or how seasoned. The hopelessness they feel, the isolation. Against the stark background of the prisons of Soviet Russia, he shows the innate strength that hardship brings out in us all.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Cancer Ward by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn

'On top of everything, the cancer wing was number 13.'  This was the first sentence in Cancer Ward, my second-favorite Solzhenitsyn. I spent the day I finished it reflecting. The ending was surprising as well as. . . well, confusing, but it was, I admit, a fitting ending.
The book begins with a man who might be considered a main character, though not the protagonist, entering the cancer ward. He is an official in the Soviet government of 1955, and a thoroughly annoying, though lovable, character. The rest of the book is mainly the relationships between the people in the ward, as well as the deaths of patients and philosophical and political discussions.
I noticed marked similarities between Kostoglotov, the protagonist, and Vorotyntsev, the protagonist in August 1914, and I believe that these were both very similar characters to the writer himself, as Solzhenitsyn was in a cancer ward for a time.
This was a very deep and moving book, certainly one of my favorites.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

This was one of the best books I have ever read. It was also one of the first short stories I have read. It begins as told by some acquaintances of Ivan Ilych, reading about the news of his death. They all have the same thought: At least it's him and not me. It then moves on to the dead man's life, and finally to his thoughts in his last days. These were incredibly touching. It seems he lived his life contentedly, but as he dies he thinks of it all as going downhill from the bright days of childhood. Death is imminent and he is miserable, but on his last day, he finds what he had never seen before.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment was the first book I have read by Dostoevsky. It is the story of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a Russian student, who murders an old woman in the name of a theory he has formulated after the 'superior man' theories of Georg Wilhelm Frederich Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche. This happens in Part One, and through the rest of the book, Raskolnikov is tormented by guilt. He seems to switch back and forth between sanity and insanity, raving mad at moments and becoming a selfless philanthropist at others. 
This was a very good book on the whole, quite cerebral.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

August 1914 by Alexandr I. Solzhenitsyn

August 1914, as the author says in the beginning, '. . . comprises only the first part, or fascicle, of of a work in many parts. Therefore, it makes no pretense at completeness, even in the development of its characters: except for the operations of Samsonov's army, this is only the initial presentation of a larger work. The whole work, however, may take as long as twenty years, and probably I will not live to finish it. Given the difficulty of retelling history, I need, as the work progresses, the cooperation of readers who still remember the period. That is why I have decided to publish in fascicles, or a series of volumes'. This proves to be true, as it leaves several loose ends with characters and subplots, and I'm not quite sure what book comes next; it may be November 1916.
This book centres on the campaign of the Second Army, in the area of Tannenberg, Prussia, during, as the title indicates, August 1914. The Second Army is led by General Samsonov, a rather pathetic, plodding character from which reality is withheld by those below him in rank. A few characters are introduced near the beginning of the book who have nothing to do with the army, but are mostly peasants on the steppes. These are the loose ends of the book, seemingly forgotten throughout and reintroduced in the last few chapters. 
An officer from General Headquarters is sent to Second Army to assess the situation, a certain Colonel Vorotyntsev, who ties most of the very segregated subplots together. He is young and uncorrupted by rank and achievements, and belongs to a very small group of characters that can actually be related to. 
The campaign is quite complex and would take a more lengthy explanation than I can give, but Solzhenitsyn does it quite clearly, though it takes 622 pages, making August 1914 the second-longest book I have ever read, bested in length only by War and Peace. It is also one of the best I have ever read.
I will also note that my edition had a map of the area of Tannenberg as an insert, without which the plot would have been entirely lost to me. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Little Princesses by Marion Crawford

Don't get deterred by the name; this actually isn't a novel. It was written by a woman who was the governess for seventeen years to the two princesses of England, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose, the former of which is now Queen Elizabeth II. What apparently happened was Marion Crawford didn't get permission to divulge this information and I think they sued her. What I do know is that the royal family refused to have anything more to do with her, even though she was like a mother to the princesses, and didn't even send her family a wreath when she died.
The book itself was written by a ghost writer, but it was an amazing book. I got it for my birthday and read it all in one day. This might have been because Queen Elizabeth II is, to me, a fascinating person, but I think anyone would like it. It includes pictures of the little princesses through the years and has detailed accounts of their personalities. I believe it's out-of-print now, but there are many ways of acquiring it. Definitely a book to be read over and over again.