Friday, August 10, 2012

Book Review - Enchantments

Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison
Random House, March 6, 2012

Format? Ebook on my Kindle

Source? Net Galley - The publisher sent me a complimentary copy of Enchantments for review but the opinions expressed below are completely my own without bias.

Why?  I've been enthralled with the Anastasia legend for as long as I can remember...honestly, that's really all I knew about this portion of history, the Russian revolution, and the Romanov family.  I'm embarrassed to admit that...but it's true.  It's not like me to be satisfied with the "Santa Claus" version of any history, so when I saw Enchantments on other blogs and realized what it was about, I knew it was past time to fill in my gaps.  

What now?  Even while I was finishing the book, I started googling...Rasputin, Maria Rasputin, the Romanov family, Alexai Romanov, the Russian revolution, etc.  You name it; I wanted to see it...mostly I was trying to piece together which parts of the novel were factual and which were fiction.   I was surprised to find out how much was fact...the Romanovs are one of the most documented royal families because of their love of photography and journaling.  I've already ordered Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K Massie to build my foundation even more.  I can see myself having a shelf full of Romanov literature right next to my Tudor literature very soon :) 

Golden Lines

For the rest of that terrible winter, the last of the Romanovs' rule, St. Petersburg shuddered under one riot after another, and her citizens' blood remained on the ice under the Petrovsky Bridge.

It wasn't fair to blame Alyosha, and I didn't.  Still, I had to push the thought away: if it weren't for his everlasting illness, my father would never have been murdered.

Tsar Nikolay didn't talk politics.  He had four uncles filled with opinions and would have been, by everyone's account, happy to hand them the empire.

Only those who lived at Tsarskoe Selo, within the walls of the Romanovs' carefully guarded privacy, could understand how suffocating was the pall of dread that descended in the wake of one of Alyosha's injuries.

I knew I couldn't help him as my father had done, couldn't whisper to the clamoring blood and stop its flow.  Couldn't lay a hand on an injury and make it disappear.  But I could tell stories, and they were, most of them, true.

The tsarevich understood the destiny he meant to fulfill, but the official history of Russia didn't include the lives of the tsar's subjects, and Alyosha had never been told the real story of his birthplace.

Within a year they'd all be dead, all except one of the dogs, the one named Joy, of all things.  

Here in the "House of Special Purpose," no one escapes humiliation.


Told from the perspective of Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin's daughter Masha (Maria in real life), Enchantments is the story of her father Rasputin, his murder and the undoing of the Romanov family, including Masha's close relationship with the tsar's only son Aloysha (Alexai in real life).
After Rasputin's murder, Masha and her sister go to live at Tsarskoe Selo with the Romanovs in hopes that Masha has inherited at least some semblance of her father's healing powers.  Aloysha is a hemophiliac and has grown to depend on Rasputin to overcome his many illnesses, including tremendous pain and suffering throughout his young life.  Masha takes her father's place, telling Aloysha stories that she heard from her father, about his life, the life of Aloysha and his parents and the history of their families, spun creatively into cultural stories with fantastic elements and details as well as fact.  

What I Liked

The details - while the details were sometimes hard to read (the assassination, Rasputin's murder, burial, and unburial, Aloysha's bleeding, etc.) they made the story real.  I think that's important for a story like this one where a lot of people think they know the story...when they really don't.

Another side to Rasputin - I always believed that he was an evil charlatan who was in some way responsible for the deaths of the Romanovs.  In short, I accepted the "legend" of Rasputin without question, something I teach my students not to do :( Through Harrison's story I now see that there is another side (as there always is) this tragedy.  We may never know the exact truth behind Rasputin's relationship with the Romanovs, but it certainly wasn't the clear cut version we've grown to believe.  The facts lead me to believe that he was certainly a man who suffered from some kind of mental illness (maybe schizophrenia?) but he was incredibly intelligent at the same time...there usually is a fine line.  I will definitely be reading more about this character.

A new vision of "monarchy" - we tend to put the monarchy up above the rest of the world...when they are just families...unfortunately, though they are families with greater expectations than the rest of us will ever know...with a country as their child.
I realized this when the tsar's supporters reached out to his other family members across the world for political asylum and no one came to their aid for fear of consequences within their own realms.  Very sad indeed.

The facts - there is enough mixture of fact and fantasy to stir my curiosity to the point of literary/historical obsession as usual...I "need" to find out more.  I "need" to tease out what we know from speculation.   I also am intrigued by what we don't know and how as time goes on, we are still learning and putting the pieces of the historical puzzle together.

What I Didn't Like

The treatment of the Romanovs while under arrest - I realize this was a revolution, and I realize that the Romanovs were considered prisoners of war...BUT they were a FAMILY...4 young women and a young boy, their mother and father, including some of their most trusted aids.  The soldiers who murdered the Romanovs kept detailed records of how they killed the does a human being walk up to an injured 13 year old boy, put his pistol on the side of his face and shoot twice to finish him off.
I know this sounds naive of me, but I just don't understand.

The more I learn about the matter which country...the Cinderella story is a lie.  The Romanovs looked for places to go...for political asylum...but even their relatives in England, Germany, and other European countries wouldn't/couldn't take them in, probably more for political reasons than a monarch, the fate of your country and the safety of your subjects is always on your shoulders.  If one family must be sacrificed for the whole country, then so be it. 
Nope, no thanks, not me.

The yarns and legends woven into the stories - I think if I had more of a background in Russian literature/history/storytelling, I might have appreciated and understood these more.  As the story moved on, I sometimes found myself skimming through some of the more colorful stories Masha told Aloysha (flying carpets and such).

The Romanovs were doomed from the beginning...every choice they made seemed to be misconstrued...For example, after their son, the heir to the Russian monarchy (the savior of Russia) was born a hemophiliac, they moved away from the public eye to protect him and keep his sickness as much a secret as possible.  A move made to protect their son was falsely interpreted as conceited, and after living away from the city so long, they missed many of the early warning signs of turmoil that might have saved them.  As much as I liked this novel, by halfway through I found myself wanting it to be over.  I almost think I felt the symbolic cloud (which must have been some form of depression?) that followed Alexandra around.  I was trying to explain this to my oldest daughter and she said, "It's sounds like how you feel when you're reading Anne Frank."  Yep, exactly.

The "romance" between Alyosha and Masha.  I don't know if I'd call this a romance or Alyosha trying to lose his virginity.  I'm anxious to find out where this part of the story came from.

Overall Recommendation

As one who only knew the fairy tale version of this story up to this point, I'm assuming that this is a story for those, like me, who aren't already steeped in Russian history. You certainly need to be a lover of historical fiction for this one as well.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Book Review - Following Atticus

Following Atticus by Tom Ryan
HarperCollins, August 7, 2012

Format - oversized paperback

Source - TLC Book Tours - ***While I was provided a complimentary copy of Following Atticus from the publisher via TLC Book Tours, the opinions expressed below are my own.
Why? If you've been around my blog even just a time or two, you can't have missed the fact that I love animals.  I've been around animals all my life and truly enjoy their companionship, variety of personalities and the experiences they have all added to my life.  Two dogs have affected my life more than any others, Honey (Chow Chow) and Layla (German Shepherd).  "Saving" them actually "saved" me more.  Offer me a story about an animal who touches a person's life so deeply and I'm all over it.

What Now?  Boy, is this one ever a keeper...not just for the story but also the writing.  Tom Ryan embeds classical literature and naturalistic poetry of Twain, Frost, Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman and others within his descriptive narrative of his life changing adventures with his little dog with the big spirit, Atticus.  I'll also be joining Tom and Atticus's Facebook page so that I can keep up with them even more :)

Golden Lines

I knew the moment I looked from Atticus to the surrounding mountains that I'd never forget that day.  My life had changed.

The basic process of climbing a moutain was therapeutic, almost cathartic.  There was the simple act of walking into the woods and away from the world.  Then there was the climb itself, where the body worked: muscles flexed and released, lungs rose and fell, the heart beat.  It was as if the complications of my life were breaking down and the only thing I cared about was the next place I'd put my foot or finding something to hold to pull myself up.

There is a point in climbing when you get quiet and are enveloped by the solitude.  The hike turns into a walking meditation and becomes Zen-like.  You stop trying so hard, and your stride falls into place with your heart and lungs.  Your mind follows suit.

As much as people worried about me, the way I saw it, I had an advantage over most.  There were many days where I might have hiked if I were on my own, but I wouldn't expose Atticus to storms, high winds, frigid temperatures, or trailes that were icy or too deep with new snow to make our way through.   Be refusing to subject Atticus to less-than-favorable conditions, I kept myself safe.

The journey across the Carters and the 'Cats was more than fifteen miles long, with six thousand feet of elevation gain - at truly rugged test.  In the end, however, it didn't seem like that big of a deal considering all those people we were walking for, the people who loved them, the battles fought, lost, and won, and what they'd been through.

Life is funny.  I set out to be nothing like the man I both loved and disliked, but I ended up becoming a newspaperman, reading the same authors he admired, becoming a big political fish in a little pond, and even climbing his mountains.  Somewhere in my efforts to get as far away from my father as possible, I had adopted his dreams as my own.  I had become his son.

 It's the natural world that heals the soul.

As editor of the indpendently owned newspaper, the Undertoad, Tom Ryan exposed small town politics for what it truly was, underhanded and sneaky.  In  Newburyport, Massachusetts his editorial style won him many friends but also some pretty serious enemies. 
Floundering alone in life, trying to come to terms with a less than ideal childhood, the premature death of his mother, a loveless relationship with his father, and the death of a close friend from cancer, Tom Ryan accidentally begins to discover himself and the joys in life through first an aged and homeless Miniature Schnauzer named Max, later his own puppy Atticus and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

What I Liked

While Tom Ryan's journey is a spiritual one, he doesn't leave anyone out by pinpointing a specific religious belief as the impetus for his journey.  Ryan is still working some of his beliefs out, but the way he handles faith opens his story up to many, including those with strong beliefs already intact as well as those who are searching or don't even realize they are searching.

Atticus wears Muttluks and a K9 Top Coat while hiking higher up in the mountains once the temperature dropped.  While I'm well aware of companies that keep our dogs in gear for camping and traveling, the idea that there is enough need for heavy hiking gear for dogs made me smile.  I know people who don't like dogs and/or afraid of them...Atticus's adventures and the venues, vets, friends who look after him simply reinforce for me the love dogs bring us.  I'm even more convinced that those who don't have dogs are really missing out on something special.

Of course, there's dog stuff to learn in Ryan's book.  One of the most interesting tidbits happened when Tom and Atticus plowed through some serious wind and snow.  Instead of just hunkering down and waiting things out, Tom had to keep going...while Tom's body could keep itself warm for a while, Atticus's small body would freeze if he sat still for too bout that for an impetus for peseverence?  I also liked the fact that Atticus's breeder recommended that Tom take Atticus everywhere he went during the first month.  I liked this for the simple fact that some people believe that dogs are either good or bad, and while Atticus is indeed a very special dog, Tom Ryan devoted some serious time to him in the beginning, took time to understand him, didn't try to turn him into something he was not, and worked WITH him consistently and lovingly.  It's important for readers to understand that they can't just go get a Miniature Schnauzer or any other kind of dog and expect him to be an Atticus.

The photos of Atticus are a perfect addition to Tom Ryan's written descriptions of his "Little Buddha." Atticus always seemed to know the way, never questioned whether or not to press on and always remembered to stop at the summit and take in the breathtaking views from the top.

Both Atticus and Tom Ryan experience trials throughout the narrative...things are never "hunky dory" nor made to seem that way.  Thank goodness for that because a life that has no challenges or turns out all rosy with a few quick fixes is a lie. 

I'm not a mountain climber, but I never felt left out on Tom and Atticus's hikes.  The descriptions of the various mountains, their trails, the markers, the ground cover, the weather, the equipment, the adjustments and eventually the summits made me feel as if I was right there with them. 

Not only does Tom discover his own self through hiking with Atticus, but he also learns to give back.  Through his Winter Quest for a cure and the 2nd Winter Quest for Angell Animal Medical Center, Tom and Atticus are able to share their joy

What I Didn't Like
Honestly, there wasn't really anything I disliked about this book.  If I had to choose one thing, one time that I was confused a little, it would be the first chapter.  The first chapter is about Atticus's predecessor, Max.  I didn't really see the connections of Max at first and wondered why the author spent the first couple of chapters writing about a dog that wasn't the focus of the book.  Once I finished, however, I realized that it's necessary for the reader to connect with Tom Ryan, where he was in his life when he accidentally got Max, Max's effect on his life and his subsequent decision to get Atticus in order to bring the story full swing.

Atticus has a couple of pretty serious challenges...and these parts are sad and made my heartbeat speed up as if I was climbing the mountains myself...I won't say more about these bc of spoilers but both Tom and Atticus's attitudes toward serious setbacks are enough on their own to make readers think twice about giving up when the going gets rough.

Overall Recommendation

While dog lovers will certainly appreciate this books as much as I did, I believe nature lovers, particularly those who love the woods, mountains, etc, including walkers, hikers, and runners will appreciate Ryan's spiritual journey as he hikes the peaks of the White Mountains with his best buddy Atticus.

Author Info

Tom Ryan's blog, Facebook and Twitter links.

Other Stops on the Tour

Wednesday, August 8th: Peppermint PhD
Thursday, August 9th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf
Tuesday, August 14th: BookNAround
Thursday, August 16th: The Book Garden
Monday, August 20th: Wordsmithonia
Tuesday, August 21st: My Tail Hurts From Wagging So Much
Wednesday, August 22nd: Miss Remmers’ Review
Thursday, August 23rd: Book Dilettante
Monday, August 27th: 4 The Love of Animals
Tuesday, August 28th: Champion of My Heart
Wednesday, August 29th: My Bookshelf
Thursday, August 30th: Something Wagging This Way Comes
Thursday, August 30th: StephTheBookworm
Monday, September 3rd: No Dog About It
Tuesday, September 4th: Book Club Classics
Wednesday, September 5th: Crazy For Books
TBD: A Musing Reviews

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sunday Salon

Tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. Summer officially ends at our house :(
The youngest returns to school in the morning, and I return to my office to begin making preparations for the buttload of students coming my way in another week and a half.  
Yes, "buttload."
The economy has hit schools just as hard as the rest of the world, and our class sizes continue to grow.  Keep in mind that I teach English and specifically Composition, a land where Scantron tests do not exist.  
Yes, I have a job, and for that I am ever grateful because I know there are many right now who do not, but I also know the upcoming semester will be stressful, to say the least.  However, I'm going to prepare for it this time rather than get knocked off my feet by it like I did during our Spring semester (the reason I decided to take the summer off for the first time ever).  

1.  The youngest and I both do better on a schedule and with plenty of sleep.  We will be going to bed early, and rising early enough for breakfast so that we are not rushing around in the mornings.  

2.  Dog walking keeps our brains calm - I'll walk them in the mornings before the youngest gets up, and we'll walk them together once the sun isn't beating us over the head.  We owe it to ourselves and to our dogs.

3.  Flex time is one of the benefits our admin at school has offered us since things are so rotten right now.  I will continue to take my time getting there in the mornings (I've had no problems doing this so far), but will LEAVE after my classes are over.   I've created myself a little comfy home office, and I am much more relaxed there than in my school office.  I can grade papers at home electronically just as easily but with less stress at home rather than at school.

4.  I will continue to take care of MYSELF - While I still haven't met my fitness goals, I feel good.  My new eating plan is the sole reason for this, and that in itself is enough motivation to keep on what I've started.  I've found that I can let my hair down a little (as I did at the husband's 50th birthday party Friday night) and then pick right back up the next morning.  I don't feel like I've missed out on anything or that I'm being punished.  There were many things at the party I wasn't even tempted to eat.  The new Ruffles loaded baked potato chips and cream cheese with pepper jelly and Wheat Thins, however, were irresistible as was the ice cream cake :p (oh yeah, and 2 beers :)
The leftovers of all that goodness are still in my house, people, and I haven't even been tempted...well, except the ice cream cake did start calling my name last night for some reason...but I didn't answer it.  A month ago I wouldn't have had that willpower.  Seriously.

5.  For the first time ever I'm going to shut my office door while I'm there.  This doesn't mean I'm going to be unavailable to my students (truthfully, as a whole, they are not the cause of my extra stress at work; generally I am happiest when I'm in my classroom with them); the closed door will help me stay focused and keep out some of the extraneous drama and happenings that inevitably begin trickling in my door, much of which has nothing to do with me and does not need my input nor my worry.

6.  Blogging/reading will not fall by the wayside and will remain a part of my daily schedule.  I enjoy my time here and with my books.  There is no reason in the world to let something that makes me so happy get pushed away.  Realistically I know I won't be able to spend as much time online as I have been this summer, but that's ok too...I needed the marathon blogging, reading times that I've taken full advantage of over the break.  In order to keep my workload under control, I will have to cut back on some of the time I spend online.  But, that's ok.
That's what I've come up with so far...I'll let you know how tomorrow goes.

I've got several reviews on tap, and many more to come.  My TBR stacks don't stress me out anymore; they make me happy...there's a lot of good stuff coming up :) 

I'm still working on The Stand...a chapter a night is about all I can accomplish and still keep all the characters in place in my head.  The suspense is ratcheting up we'll see if I'll be able to keep up that slow pace.  
Ben Affleck has signed on for the remake of The Stand...Natalie over @ Coffee and a Book Chick came up with an open letter to Affleck so that he will do a much better job of casting this epic than the original version did.  I haven't seen the original yet but have heard lots of negatives about it.  

Up next for me is Following Atticus for TLC Book Tours (review up Wednesday).   

On the blog last week:

Media Monday - Rizzoli and Isles

Since I failed at posting a Wordless Wednesday or a Snapshot Saturday this past week, I'll leave you today with a photo of the husband who jumped out of a perfectly good airplane to celebrate his 50th birthday last week.

My 50th is 7 years away, but I can promise you one will never see a photo like this of me :p
He had a blast though...and that's all that matters. 
Life is good :)