11/16/2010

THE SECOND KNOT OF THE RED WHEEL

This vast, inordinately ambitious follow-up to Solzhenitsyn's long-aborning magnum opus The Red Wheel (whose first volume August 1914 appeared in English translation in 1972!), published in Russia in 1993, will alternately frustrate, exhaust, and generously reward readers willing to grapple with it. In a polyphonic narrative that sweeps from remote eastern villages to the Western Front of WWI, where grenadiers nervously await the resumption of stalled hostilities, Solzhenitsyn scrupulously juxtaposes the impersonal march of historical events against intimate views of representative individual lives caught up in their momentum. As the European war grinds on, depleting resources and alienating ordinary citizens from Russia's indifferent royal family (Tsar Nikolai II and his "Empress" Aleksandra) and the ineffectual royalist parliament ("Duma"), both the militant Constitutional Democratic Party ("Kadets") and the more narrowly nationalist Bolsheviks plot the destruction of the monarchy. Regimental commander Giorgi Vorotyntsev (a pivotal character in August 1914) sinks into increasing despair over his country's disastrous involvement in an unwinnable war (" . . . people must be made to realize that all things, even Russia, have limits"), as his "betrayal" of his trusting wife foreshadows the overthrow of the Tsar. Other varying attitudes toward military intervention, domestic economic policy, the treatment of Russia's Jews, and several more equally "knotty" topics are embodied in such vividly drawn characters as "liberal"-thinking artillery officer "Sanya" Lazhenitsyn; soldier Blagodarev (whose return home occasions an impassioned depiction of his impoverished village); Cossack-born firebrand journalist Fyodor Kovynev (a caricature of Soviet-approved novelist Mikhail Sholokhov), and the wily Swiss "millionaire revolutionary" Parvus—who conspires with "Lenin in Zurich" (the title under which this long section was published separately in 1976). Inevitably, all this is impressive—even despite the interminable conversations that these and other passionately engaged characters frequently indulge in. If Nobel laureate Solzhenitsyn is a great writer, it's in the same way that Dreiser and Zola are great writers. The Red Wheel sequence is unlike anything else in contemporary fiction (or, indeed, since its obvious inspiration: Tolstoy's War and Peace). Therefore, be warned. But do attempt it.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-374-22314-9

Page Count: 1040

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1998

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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