Wednesday, October 28, 2009

War and Peace

Even more intimidating than picking up Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace is attempting, as an amateur blogger, to review it. This is an amazing book, difficult to put down and enjoyable from start to finish. I chose the 2007 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, a husband and wife team who has done a phenomenal job of translating a number of Russian classics. I don't anticipate ever reading another translator's edition of any Russian novel - they breathe new life into these wonderful books.

At nearly 1300 pages, War and Peace truly defines the epic genre. It is set primarily among Moscow and Petersburg nobility during the period of the Napoleonic wars (1805-1812), and it tells the story of two very different families and one unique man, interwoven with the politics and strategy of the wars themselves. Severe old Prince Bolkonsky has two children, the intelligent and thoughtful Andrei and the religious Marya. The laid back Count Ilya Rostov and his loving wife have four children, Vera, Nikolai, Natasha and Petya, and an orphaned niece Sonya. Count Pierre Bezukhov is the favorite illegitimate son of one of Moscow's richest men, and his inherited fortune throws him into society life for which he is ill prepared.

The beautiful Natasha Rostov is introduced as a 13-year-old girl, the favorite child of both her parents. She is impetuous and charming, and everyone she meets becomes captivated. This only increases as she makes her own debut into society. She has become friendly with Pierre Bezukhov, a frequent visitor to the Rostov household, who introduces her to the handsome soldier Prince Andrei Bolkonsky at her first ball. The evolution of the relationships between Natasha, Pierre and Andrei provide much of the background for the social stories throughout the book. Their families and friends - and members of greater Moscow and Petersburg society - provide a robust cast of characters so well developed and compelling you'll miss them when you finish the book.

Beyond his complex storytelling, Tolstoy uses the book to promote his thoughts on the origins of war, the roles of leaders, the true source of happiness, and other intricate philosophies. He also makes it very clear which generals he felt should be credited with Russian victory, and where the blame should lie when the opposite was true. By using real wars and battles as the backdrop for human dramas, he provides great insight into how the characters lives are shaped, and what drives them to make the decisions they do. This is true not only for the fictional characters he has created, but also for the generals and other historical figures that feature prominently.

I could not have been more thrilled with the experience of reading War and Peace. It is a interesting and exciting and meticulously crafted... I only want to re-read my other favorite Russian novels to fairly assess whether it is the best book I have ever read, or merely one of the best. It is admittedly a massive undertaking, but one that will be well worth it when you have the time to invest.

Up next: Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado, the story of a 21-year-old American woman dropped into 1950s Paris for sexy and boozy adventures. Supposed to be really funny, plus it's got a cool title.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

After my tepid review of Watchmen, Joker suggested that I try Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, as another well-known, groundbreaking graphic novel, and one that he particularly likes. I definitely preferred it to Watchmen, and while I would absolutely recommend it for the medium, I wouldn't list it among the greatest reads of all time.

Dark Knight Returns was my first Batman comic, though I have seen the movies. For the most part I had enough context to understand what was going on: I knew Harvey Dent was Two-Face, I knew who the Joker was, and though I didn't know they were both there, I was aware of Arkham Asylum. The key thing missing for the uninitiated is that Superman and Batman have a long-standing relationship. For the most part they are allies, but they come from such different places their methods are often at odds. Superman is an idealist, the consummate good guy, man of steel, et cetera. Batman is a realist, driven by revenge, and sometimes forced to blur the line between right and wrong. I had no idea that Superman and Batman ever crossed paths, so I found that storyline to be a bit confusing. Oh and the old dude Oliver near the end? He's also a superhero, known as Green Arrow.

The book is a collection of four individual comics under one main arch. Batman has been retired for ten years, following the Joker's (for clarification, not MY Joker) murder of his sidekick Robin. Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon, both now in their 70s, have maintained their friendship as Gotham has become increasingly overrun with criminals. With Gordon finally about to retire, Batman feels he has no choice but to put the bat-suit back on.

But times have changed. The media, the government and the general public don't necessarily embrace Batman's vigilante ways. The case is even made that Batman is the criminal, and that Two-Face and the Joker, who have been locked up in Arkham Asylum, are repentant and ready to be released. While the Batman deals with the fallout of these two being back on the outside, we continue to understand what is driving him and his return to crime-fighting.

The second two books change gears somewhat, with Batman and Superman involved in the US vs. USSR nuclear arms race. Superman saves the earth, but an unfortunate side-effect is that Gotham descends into chaos. When Batman rights the city, it's an embarrassment to the government, which forces a Superman/Batman showdown.

The artwork is very appealing, and I understand how Frank Miller has become such a brand name. The dialogue and inner monologues - especially Batman's and Superman's - provide a depth of character development I wouldn't have suspected possible in a comic book. All in all, it's a very enjoyable read, well worth the short time it takes.

Next up: I've only got 100-150 pages left in War and Peace, so I'm a one-book woman until it's done.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bug: L'artiste

The weather this weekend was pretty crappy, lessened only because it was expected to be worse. Combined with the fact that I'm uncomfortable, achy, and contracting, we were pretty cooped up. Though I desperately needed the time to sort through boxes of baby stuff - and to do endless loads of laundry before sorting the clothes, blankets, bibs, etc. into piles by size (and girl vs. gender-neutral) - the highlight was helping the Bug with her artwork.

She absolutely loves to color and to "do stickers", but the real fun begins when we break out the paints or the markers. I love watching her work - she picks out a color, concentrates very hard on whatever it is she's doing at the moment, and is on to the next color in a matter of seconds. She is very proud of her work, and not afraid to criticize mine when, for example, my flower doesn't look very happy. (For the record, I have no idea what she was talking about - it didn't even have a face. But the Bug seemed satisfied after she added some pink, so there must have been an issue.)

I am most amazed, though, when we talk about it later. I always ask her to tell me about whatever she makes. The narrative currently consists of "this is yellow; this is pink," but I don't think we're far from involved explanations of every detail. And in the evening when we're talking about the day, she will remember not only that we colored together, but that I made a pink cat and then a green one, and that she drew the bodies and added stickers.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pumpkin painting

Even though our neighbors have promised to set up a special night of trick-or-treating for the Bug should the moppet decide to show on Halloween, it'd be a bummer to miss the Bug's first "real" Halloween. Technically, it's her third, but this is the first time she could tell me what she wanted to be (a unicorn, which is harder to find than you'd expect). And she was super excited for our visit to the pumpkin patch (where she was going to find a Bug-sized pumpkin, and I would get a Mommy-sized pumpkin, and Daddy would get a Daddy-sized pumpkin). We even upped the fun quotient by inviting the cousins (and Aunt Katy and Uncle Dave) to join us.

We went to Eden Farms in Stamford - very close to our house, and they put on a good show for the little ones. After two or three trips through the hay bale maze - which the Bug and cousin Chris-Chris absolutely LOVED - we took a hay ride down to the pumpkin patch. Sure enough, the Bug found the tiniest, most perfectly pumpkin-shaped pumpkin I have ever seen. And believe it or not, it we had to defend it at least half a dozen times. After we all found our perfect pumpkins, and cousin Lily went for a pony ride, we went to the cousins' house for the carving.

The carving didn't really materialize - or more precisely, none of the kids paid any attention. But what did materialize was a karaoke machine. So the kids took turns serenading us. They each held the microphone, articulated the lyrics clearly, and it was probably the first time I've really wished we'd had our video camera.

When we got home, the Bug knew exactly what she wanted to do with her pumpkin. So, per her instruction, we got out the paints and she created a beautiful masterpiece:

No idea where she got the idea of pumpkin painting, but this will be our centerpiece until in rots from the inside out.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Arches and Canyonlands

After the incredible success of our Acadia trip, Joker and I have been talking a lot about the National Parks being good destinations for us in the coming years. They're beautiful, there's a lot to do for both kids and adults to enjoy, and we're really not the annual-trek-to-Disneyland kind of people.

Utah has been one place we've talked about: it boasts several stunning parks, and it's relatively close to my parents so we could probably meet there and enjoy a vacation together. It just so happens that Mima and Boppie scoped out the place last weekend!

In one postcard they say that both the Canyonlands and Arches overload the senses. In the other, they mention that lots of kids were having fun climbing on the rock formations. Perhaps next year we will be counted among their number... it certainly sounds like we'd all enjoy it!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


While I haven't been doing much blogging the last couple of weeks, I have been learning (and re-learning) some very important things. So now I'll save you the trouble of having to figure these things out for yourself, and share them with you:

Leading the category of re-learning is Fact #1. The last month of pregnancy sucks. I'm big. I'm uncomfortable. And my temperature is running at about +20 degrees or so compared to normal. I'm tired, but unable to sleep for more than two hours at a stretch. I'm hungry, but so full of baby there is no room for my dinner. Baby's head-down, which means its bony butt is constantly prodding my innards. On the plus side, though, the Bug gives the baby lots of kisses, which is both cute and sweet.

Fact #2. Ice cream is good. I mean, really REALLY good. I have been a sorbet/popsicle girl all my life, but last week dipped into a pint of Cherry Garcia. Holy crap! That stuff is awesome!! What the hell was I thinking?? So what if it's got like a thousand calories and god knows how many grams of fat - it tastes GOOD.

Fact #3. Health insurance sucks. At least, mine does. When I started going to my various pre-natal appointments, Cigna rejected every single claim because they said I had other primary insurance. Which I did not. When I called to speak with someone, they said it's standard procedure. What a totally bullshit standard procedure! And last week I learned that the anesthesia department at Greenwich Hospital doesn't accept Cigna. Anesthesia is important. They don't remove wisdom teeth without anesthesia, and last time I checked a baby is WAY bigger. Needless to say, I was concerned about this one! I reached out to the hospital, which has been incredibly responsive and helpful, and learned that they are in negotiations with Cigna so the anesthesia will be treated pari passu with other out-of-network coverage. Basically, that means Cigna will do little to nothing. Boo, hiss.

Fact #4. The Bug is really excited to be a big sister. However, she has made it known that she really wants a sister. She informed Joker and me the other day that if the baby is a girl, she will take care of her, but if it's a boy, I can take care of him. (In case you are curious, apparently Joker can take care of himself.) The Bug has also told us that she sleeps in her big girl bed, and the baby can sleep in her crib. And I already mentioned that she loves to kiss (and tickle) the baby. I'm still not sure this translates directly to understanding that a real, live baby who lives outside of Mommy's tummy will be joining the family, but it seems to be a very good start!