Anna Karenina (review)

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Anna KareninaAnna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished reading Anna Karenina—that 140-year-old tome by Leo Tolstoy. I read it on the recommendation of another old book—If You Want to Write (first published in 1938) by Barbara Ueland. (By the way, Ueland’s book is one of the most inspirational books on writing you’ll find anywhere.)

I did read Anna Karenina many years ago while trekking through Europe. But I must have absorbed very little because it felt like a brand new book to me.

What a read!

It’s a story set in Russia before the Communist Revolution (first published as a serial from 1873-1877, as a complete book in 1878). The characters belong to the nobility class. Anna Karenina of St. Petersburg is married to statesman Count Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin. While visiting her brother Stepan Oblonsky in Moscow she meets the dashing Vronsky (an army man) at a party. Vronsky is immediately smitten by her beauty.

A parallel story is that of Levin, a friend of Stepan’s. Levin owns a rural estate and comes to Moscow only occasionally. But he is lonely and the story opens with him summoning his courage to ask Kitty, whom he has courted sporadically and shyly, to marry him. (Kitty is the younger sister of Stepan’s wife Dolly).

However, before he meets Anna, Vronsky has been paying a lot of attention to Kitty. Though she is fond of Levin, Vronsky—who Kitty and her family expect will pop the question any day now—is a better catch. So Levin’s proposal to Kitty comes at a bad time while Vronsky meeting and falling in love with Anna permanently dashes Kitty’s hopes of marrying him.  That’s the beginning…

Some of the things I loved about this book:

  • The psychological understanding and depth with which Tolstoy portrays his characters. He captures nuances of feeling and motivation that are quite remarkable. A passage late in the book where Anna descends into madness is one I thought particularly brilliant.
  • There are large chunks of prose I found poetic and beautiful, for example the peasant life seen through Levin’s eyes and Levin’s wedding.
  • The insights the book gives into the social life of the nobility in Russia at the time (I think of Tolstoy as Russia’s Jane Austen in that way). He addresses themes of religion, the position of peasants, and status women in society documenting particularly society’s double standard regarding acceptable morals of men and women.
  • The plot is, for the most part, captivating.

Some things that put me off:

  • All the Russian names, diminutives and variants. Confusing!
  • Long passages where Levin and his friends discuss the place of the peasants in society and religion. I got the feeling that Tolstoy was working out his own thoughts and positions on these things through Levin. (Others who comment on the book describe Levin as the most autobiographical of Tolstoy’s characters in Anna Karenina.)

If you haven’t read what some describe as”the greatest book ever written,” you owe it to yourself to do so. Plus it is such a fat volume (paperback = 752 pages) you won’t be needing another book for a long time with this one. (I got mine as an e-book, though, so no hand strain with that edition!)

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The Antioch Testament (review)

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The Antioch TestamentThe Antioch Testament by Donald Joiner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When a wounded Syrian Christian refugee entrusts Chaplain Charles Monroe with a heavy and ancient-looking manuscript, Monroe is sure he’s in possession of something precious. Sending it to his brother Ken in the States for its preservation proves wise. Monks in a U.S. Eastern Orthodox monastery recognize the manuscript’s ancient language and, on translation, it turns out to be the letter of an early Christian, Ignatius, written to Dorothea, the daughter of Theophilus (the man to whom Luke addressed Luke and Acts).

When the Syrians discover the manuscript has left the country, official Amir orders Sentry in the U.S. to get the manuscript back no matter what it takes.

An injured Charles Monroe soon returns home from war. Author Donald Joiner unfolds The Antioch Testament in an epistolary style, having the monastery translators read the letter chapter by chapter to the Monroe brothers. In this way he tells the post-resurrection story of Jesus’ disciples (devoting a chapter to each). He tells where they traveled and to whom they preached, names their prominent converts, and relates how they died.

These readings are interspersed with conversations between Amir and his henchman as they work on a plan to steal the manuscript and return it to Syrian soil.

Joiner has done a good job of digging through ancient Roman and church history to give us a version of what might have been the fate of the twelve apostles. (I was impressed by the fierce opposition those first Christians faced from both Jews and Romans, and how steadfast and loyal the disciples were.) Joiner uses the discussion between the Monroe’s and the translators at the end of each chapter of letter-reading to introduce alternate versions of the story from tradition and underline what he feels are important points (like the Apostle Peter’s leadership of the early church).

Though successful as a work of history, The Antioch Testament is, in my opinion, not as successful as a work of fiction. The story starts out strong, with some great battlefront scenes. But once we get into it, the characters are never explored and remain one-dimensional. The dialogue is stilted, with large chunks of “teaching” delivered under the guise of conversation. Even the sub-plot of the attempt to steal the manuscript feels slow-moving and wooden.

However, readers who are mostly interested in ancient church history as it relates to the fate of the disciples will find The Antioch Testament rewarding.

I received The Antioch Testimony as a gift from a publicist for the purpose of writing a review.

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The Silver Locket (review)

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The Silver LocketThe Silver Locket by Sophia Bar-Lev
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“ ‘I think that there’s something special happening here—a kind of “hashgacha pratis” like the Rabbi talks about. … Oh, that’s Hebrew for “an intervention of divine providence” ’ ”The Silver Locket, p. 23.

The “something special” Rosalie Lapkin refers to in the above quote (taken from a conversation with her, Sarah Rosenfeld and the Rabbi’s wife) plays out over the next 20+ years of Sophia Bar-Lev’s novel The Silver Locket. In it Rosalie’s and Sarah’s lives intertwine at the most basic level—a shared child.

The story, that is set on opposite sides of the U.S. (Massachusetts and California), encompasses the time from the conception to the marriage of Rebecca Lapkin Silver (1941 to 1965). In it we experience the minefield of mother-love, adoption, and abortion—particularly from the mothers’ points of view. We witness the powerful aftermaths of both deceit and honesty. We see how kept secrets can sap energy and steal joy. And we watch the goodness of God playing out in mercy, love, forgiveness, and second chances.

I really enjoyed the Jewish cultural setting of this book with its emphasis on family and faith, and its distinctive holidays and ceremonies.

The background material to the book states that the story is based on a true one and its plot often had he feel of actual events to me. I liked that the location and date of the action heads most chapters—helping me to keep my bearings. In lots of ways the story also felt like a time capsule with its mention of U.S. political events and the cultural trends of the time:

August 1960 – California: “By now they were on their way stopping enroute for lunch at a relatively new restaurant that was garnering a great deal of attention in 1960 with their year long advertising campaign: ‘Look for the Golden Arches’ ” p. 167.

1960 – Massachusetts: “The key turning point of the campaign was the four Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first presidential debates ever held” – p. 182.

November 1960 – California: “Swiss Family Robinson was playing in theaters nationwide. It was the first wide screen Disney film shot with a new technology called Panavision lenses” – p. 198.

But more than these interesting historical tidbits, the book delivers some wonderful wisdom. Listen to what Sarah says when she counsels her friend who is struggling with guilt over the two abortions she’s attempted (one of them successful):

“God always forgives when we turn to Him; and He expects us to forgive ourselves as well. … we have to learn to forgive ourselves.”

and

“Has it occurred to you that maybe God didn’t let it work? That perhaps He was protecting you from yourself? … It’s about an unborn life that has a purpose and a destiny and I want you to consider that your baby’s destiny may just be more important than your emotions” – p. 92,93.

And this bit by Rabbi Lowenstein:

“It’s time to be done with secrets. Just tell the plain truth” – p. 236.

This is a beautiful, positive, and life-affirming story that renews faith in God and people.

I received The Silver Locket as a gift for the purpose of writing a review.

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Threaten to Undo Us (review)

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Threaten to Undo UsThreaten to Undo Us by Rose Seiler Scott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin meet in Yalta in 1945 to carve up the WWII German-conquered lands, someone suggests that German-occupied Prussia and Pomerania should be part of the new Poland. While Churchill demurs, fearing that this will lead to more bloodshed, Stalin’s cavalier “Most have fled the region” wins the day. This scene in the Introduction sets the stage for what happens to the main character Liesel Hoffman and her five children in Rose Seilor Scott’s WW II historical, Threaten to Undo Us.

In the book, Scott tells the story of WWII through a German point of view. Liesel and her husband Ernst live peacefully alongside their Polish-speaking neighbors in a village near Lodz, Poland until Hitler begins flexing his muscles. Ernst’s brother Gunter is the first family member to be lured by the spell of Third Reich. He pressures Ernst to join the army, even though Ernst and Liesel are uncomfortable with the expulsion of their Jewish neighbors and the expropriation of Polish properties for the resettlement of German people.

As Scott takes us through the war, we experience the long separations of the family as Ernst goes to the front while Liesel is left to care for their young family of five and her aging parents. After the brutal Russian winter of the German siege when the German army is defeated and forced to retreat, the tide also turns in the village. Poles seeking revenge and retribution for what the Germans have done to them force Liesel and her little ones to flee the family farm. Brutalized by drunken Russian soldiers, Liesel is eventually separated from her children and forced into hard labor in a prison camp. After five years of not hearing from Ernst she fears he too has perished. Is her life even worth living any more?

The telling is not strictly chronological but jumps around in time. However the time shifts are mentioned in the chapter titles so one is never lost. I enjoyed the factual historical touches that head some chapters, like quoted excerpts from treaties, giving a sense of what is happening on the world scene that relates to this area of Europe.

This is a grueling story, realistically yet tastefully told. Though often dark and difficult, it illustrates the strength of the human spirit, the tenacity of a mother’s love, and how faith in God can be an anchor even in the worst situations.

I think this is the first WWII story told from a German point-of-view that I’ve read. Though after the war ended the world vilified Germany and the German people en masse, this tale points to a subtler reality. Thousands, perhaps millions of Germans were victims of Hitler too, conscripted into his army, brainwashed with lies about racial superiority, forced to go along with his treatment of the Jews, and pressured to enroll their children into his youth movement. When the war ended, the tables were turned when Germans outside of Germany were arrested, accused of being war criminals, spies etc., and tortured in the same way the Nazis had tortured them.

I found this a thoroughly engrossing and well-plotted read with my interest high until the last page. I’d recommend it to all lovers of historical fiction and especially those interested in the story of World War II.

I received Threaten to Undo Us as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review.

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An Untamed Land (review)

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An Untamed Land (Red River of the North, #1)An Untamed Land by Lauraine Snelling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An Untamed Land by Lauraine Snelling begins in Norway with a prologue dated 1877. Then Far (father Gustaf Bjorklund) and his family begin planning for the immigration of several of his sons from Norway to America. Roald, married to Anna with 21-month Thorliff and pregnant with a new baby will be joined by 19-year-old Carl and Kaaren, whom he plans to marry.

The actual story begins three years later in 1880. But there is no more Anna. Ingeborg is now by Roald’s side and we discover Anna and the babe she was carrying have died. We join the six (Karl, Kaaren, their newborn Gunny, Roald, Ingeborg and five-year-old Thorliff) as they are about to disembark from the ship after an arduous transatlantic voyage.

Ingeborg and Roald are still adjusting to each other. Ingeborg chafes under Roald’s protective, take-charge ways. Roald, missing his childhood sweetheart Anna and traumatized by her death, is trying to understand Ingeborg’s impulsiveness and curb her independent tendencies.

We follow them as they make their cumbersome way from America’s eastern seaboard to the Dokota Territory by covered wagon and live with them in the day-to-day hardships of homesteading. Especially grueling are the long and desperately cold winters with their isolating storms.

I found main characters Ingeborg and Roald interesting and complex. Snelling has a way of showing us their faults and at the same time arousing sympathy for them as we enter their points of view. A major subplot of the story is the evolution of their relationship.

Snelling also handles the setting masterfully with enough description of the wild Dakota lands for me to see, hear, and feel the elements that are almost like another character. Living with these young moms as they keep house in covered wagons and then little soddies, cook over open fires, rejoice over a couple of cows, a team of oxen, some sheep, scrabble in the dirt to plant vegetables, even some flowers gave me a new admiration for North America’s pioneers.

Things go along relatively well till about two thirds through the book when tragedy strikes. Though the end is satisfying, Snelling leaves enough plot bits unresolved to make us want to find out what happens in the books that follow.

An Untamed Land is a strong beginning to what has proven to be a popular series of six Red River of the North books. If you enjoy pioneering stories that major on studying human nature, and minor on a little sweet romance, you’ll love this book.

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Other Side of the River (review)

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other side of the riverOther Side of the River by Janice L. Dick.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Luise Letkemann and Daniel Martens have been sweethearts for almost as long as they can remember. Luise expects they will marry soon. But the spring of 1926 is not a time life goes along according to expectation for the lovers or anyone else in the Mennonite village of Alexandrovka, part of the Slovgorod Colony in Western Siberia.

As the Soviet officials begin to interfere increasingly in the life of the enterprising farmers and craftspeople, demanding ever more tax and confiscating machinery and livestock, many villagers decide it’s time to leave. While some are allowed to emigrate to America, Luise’s chronically ill stepmother fails to pass her medical exam. So the family ends up planning to join others on a long train ride east. There is farmland and they have official permits to settle near the border of China on the banks of the Amur River.

Meanwhile a winter of hard work up north for Daniel separates the lovers. He returns shortly before her family is set to leave and Luise makes peace with the fact that she will be apart from her family when she and Daniel settle as newlyweds in the farmhouse Daniel has been building.

Of course, that doesn’t work out quite as planned either in Janice L. Dick’s Mennonite historical Other Side of the River. It’s a story through which we experience the day to day life of these God-fearing, peace-loving and industrious people during a time in Russian history when expressions of faith were not allowed, personal initiative was frowned on, and even speaking German could be cause for arrest.

Lovable and hated characters populate the pages with Luise’s great-aunt Tante Manya taking the prize as my favourite, Senior Major Leonard Dubrowsky and Ivan Mironenko tied for the ones I most disliked and feared. The way Dick portrays the everyday circumstances, struggles, and growth of main characters is realistic and kept me right there, experiencing their challenges with them.

The period and setting are depicted in satisfying detail. I loved all the homey touches—the roasted zwieback and other home baking, the Germanisms like “Nah jah,” and Luise’s and Daniel’s close-knit, intergenerational families.

The story, though lengthy, had enough twists and turns that it rarely sagged. The only time it felt a bit draggy was very near the end, but then it picked up again to the harrowing finish.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book—both the day-to-day life of its characters and the big story aspect of it—for I too am descended from them, a Mennonite, not from those that stayed in Russia, but from forbears that emigrated to North America before Communism and the era of the Soviet Union. Witnessing the faith of these people through testing was an inspiration. This book left me with a great appreciation of the fire-proved faith of my ancestors.

Apparently Dick is working on a sequel (according to this Blog Talk Radio interview). I hope so. I’ll definitely pick it up when it comes out!

Read Chapter One of Other Side of the River.

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Consider the Sunflowers (review)

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Consider the Sunflowers - Elma SchemenauerTina Janz feels torn between her parents’ wishes that she marry an upstanding (but boring) Mennonite boy and her desire for the man she loves—Frank Warkentin, the son of a Mennonite father and Gypsy mother. But the tug-of-war in Elma Schemenauer’s novel Consider the Sunflowers is more than between just Tina and her parents. For handsome, dashing, funny Frank doesn’t share Tina’s Mennonite faith. She soon discovers he has a violent temper. And his farm is far from town—something that doesn’t suit Tina well at all.

Schemenauer takes us on a literary journey that spans the years from 1940-1947 in the lives of Tina and Frank. The place is Coyote, Saskatchewan—a fictional town near Outlook, populated by a Mennonite and non-Mennonite mix. Frank is attracted to other Mennonite outcasts like Dorrie Harms and hangs out with Scandinavian friends Thor and Leif while Tina feels torn between both worlds.

Schemenauer’s familiarity with the Mennonite lifestyle, ways of thinking, and speech mannerisms is evident throughout the book (she is of Mennonite extraction). Thus from the opening words I felt I was in an authentic world. All the Na yo’s (p. 28), sentences ending in yet (“In Saskatoon yet” – p. 128), already, and nicht (“We should have your wedding on Saturday nicht?” p. 153) rang true for me, as someone who grew up in the same people group.

The story, told through Tina and Frank’s points of view, follows the ups and downs of their relationship all the while exploring many themes: how we’re molded by early experiences, what comprises love, aspects of marriage including the importance of honesty and transparency, how choices we make have consequences, what it’s like to be a Mennonite, what it’s like to be a Mennonite on the fringes, how religion and faith differ, and the overarching importance of forgiveness and trust in God no matter what the fine points of one’s creed might be.

Tina’s realization of this comes after a long crisis of faith. Told in Schemenauer’s understated yet picturesque style, it is one of my favorite passages in the book:

“Can you hear me?” she asked.

A coyote howled in the pasture. A gust of wind ruffled Slim’s coat. As it lifted Tina’s hair off her forehead, Jesus seemed to speak to her. Not in words. More like flowers opening in her heart. I love you, he said. Do you believe that?

Her reaction after she senses her brief conversation with Jesus is over is similarly subtle but full of wisdom that resonates with truth:

“…she expected to feel something like holy fireworks in her heart. Instead she felt only a new orderliness, like her thoughts were sorting themselves into new file folders. She crossed the silent kitchen, climbed the stairs, and eased herself into bed” – p. 157.

“Consider the lilies…” Jesus said, as He pointed out the necessity of a simple day-to-day faith in God to counter the fears and anxieties of life. In Consider the Sunflowers Schemenauer draws our attention, through Tina and Frank, to the God who still longs to be trusted with the minutiae of ordinary existence.

The story is supplemented by a Mennonite timeline explaining the origin and migrations of this ethnic and religious minority. Study questions at the end of the book will be helpful for reading clubs and home school study.

Author Elma Schemenauer

Author Elma Schemenauer

Title: Consider the Sunflowers
Author: Elma Schemenauer
Publisher: Borealis Press, November 10, 2014, Paperback 299 pages
ISBN 978-0-88887-575-4,

 

AVAILABLE FROM THE PUBLISHER, Borealis Press – $19.95

Also available online at Chapters Indigo  by about November 15.

E-book coming in 2015.

For more information, please visit http://elmams.wix.com/sflwrs