Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

“They took me in my nightgown.”

Like Moby Dick’s “Call me Ishmael,” a book’s opening line sets more than just the tone of the story. It humanizes a character, as it is the first introduction of the reader into a new world. And Sepetys demonstrates the striking quality of a few words in the first line of Between Shades of Gray. She narrates the fragile account of a persecuted 15-year-old Lithuanian girl and the story of an unmendable world falling apart.

Lina Vilkas was preparing to attend art school. In an already dark world, Lina looked up to the iconic Edvard Munch for inspiration in her sketches. She, alongside her mother and younger brother, was taken by the Soviet secret police and is introduced to the never-ending gruesome reality of a world ruled by the Stalinist administration. As Lina, her mother, and her brother struggle to survive in the cold labor camp, the syntax of writing seemingly wavers as well. Slowly, pictures of their previous lives in Lithuania appear across the pages, in italicized flashbacks.

Sepetys’ writing intertwines the feeling of a coming-of-age story, though constantly in juxtaposition to perpetual starvation, sickness, and loss. Well deserving of recognition as a #1 New York Times Bestselling author, Sepetys artistically crafts each anecdote, putting indescribable meaning to trivial occurrences, like the gaze from a loved one. It was reminiscent of the timeless Don McLean song, “Vincent” (“Starry Starry Night”). Between Sepetys’ use of language and Lina’s connection to Edward Munch, I found myself constantly paralleling the song to the story. As Vincent Van Gogh painted from his cell in a mental hospital in his final days, he tried to see the beauty in the bitter world. Similarly, I feel as though Lina would also find solace in this song, as the only way she can express herself is through her sketches in the snow, on the tree bark, or on the final pages in her notebook.

Ruta Sepetys composes a devastatingly realistic through the pages of “Between Shades of Gray.” I highly recommend the read, and I look forward to exploring more of her works, especially in the era of the Second World War.

-Maya S.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded from Overdrive.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Amazon.com: War and Peace (Vintage Classics) (9781400079988 ...

This book centers on the Great Patriotic War of 1812 and reflects major historical events from 1805 to 1820. Taking the experience of Bezuhov, Rostov, and Kuragin as the mainline, it connects many events and characters in the alternating description of war and peace. The author cross-described the two lives and two threads of “war” and “peace”, forming an encyclopedic magnificent epic. The basic theme of “War and Peace” is to recognize the just resistance actions of the Russian people during the war, and to praise the patriotic enthusiasm and heroism of the Russian people during the war. But the tone of his work is one of religious benevolence and humanitarianism. He opposes war and sympathizes deeply with the suffering of all sides.

Andrei, Pierre, and others have experienced a tortuous and dialectical development process in their pursuit of ideals and truth. The different mental manifestations of the Russian troops in different battles, such as panic, calmness, and passion, combined with the distinctive individual psychological motivations of each bearing in the specific war, melted and formed the spiritual atmosphere in every corner of the battlefield. Morale is the key to win or lose in a war. The novel War and Peace has both the magnificent color of epic novels and the depth of expression in its insight into the psychology of characters and even the entire nation. The work focuses on a panoramic overview of social life, realizing the epic aesthetic ideal of the creative subject and transcending the work itself. War and Peace powerfully exposes and criticizes the decadence of the upper-class society. In the critical autumn of their motherland, they are still fighting for power and wealth, leading a life of luxury and dissipation and shamelessness.

-Coreen C.

Book Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Amazon.com: Anna Karenina (Barnes & Noble Classics) (9781593080273): Leo  Tolstoy, George Stade, Constance Garnett, Amy Mandelker: Books

An excellent psychological description is the essence of the artistic charm of Anna Karenina. The psychological description of the characters is an important part of the whole work. Anna’s choice shows human error. In order to realize the narrow personal love, she did not mind leaving her family as a slave to her own lust. Leo Tolstoy profoundly reveals the origin of Anna’s tragic fate through this magnificent work, that is, the incomplete emotional personality determines Anna’s tragic fate. Although her life exploration is aimed at realizing the spiritual self-pursuit, her life force lacks rational coordination, support and control, resulting in a tragic ending of drifting with passion.

Anna vigorously pursues the extension of perceptual life, strives to explore the original existence mode of life, and earnestly calls for the return of human nature. This behavior mode and understanding of life are understandable, but it does not mean that we should completely abandon even a little bit of rational constraints. Anna in the pursuit of spiritual freedom and practice of the liberation of human nature at the same time fell into the sensual error of indulgence. The freedom she sought to cast off the shackles of society was a selfish freedom, a freedom without scruples, a satisfaction of emotional and possessive desires.

Freedom is not a simple sense of doing whatever you want to do, but a rational sense of active life stretch. If we abandon the principle of reason and only recognize the freedom of the individual, then the freedom of the individual can easily constitute a violation of the freedom of another person, harm the interests of the surrounding groups, lead to contradictions and conflicts, and ultimately make the freedom of the individual insecure and unstable. Just as the pareto principle in economics requires, the realization of individual freedom must be restrained by rationality to ensure the freedom of the whole society is not reduced, that is, the increase of individual freedom must be presupposed by respecting the freedom of other relevant individuals.

It is only under the guidance of reason that each individual seeks his or her own freedom that he or she will be recognized by the social subject. Freedom must be combined with reason to manifest and realize, so as to form a complete concept of moral self-discipline. On the contrary, freedom without reason is at best an empirical self, not a positive extension of life. Only by constraining oneself with the power of reason, realizing the unity of sensibility and rationality, and establishing a sound ideal personality, can we achieve the true state of freedom, which is the highest state that human beings should pursue.

Moreover, Tolstoy saw that in Russia, with the development of urban civilization and material civilization, people’s natural emotions were suppressed, subjectivity gradually lost, and they became the slaves of selfish desires. In the novel, Levin is a man who loses himself in the bureaucratic strife. Through this character, the author shows his reflection on rationality and his deep worry about the alienation of human nature. In the novel, Tolstoy also created two environments, two kinds of aristocrats, through the lives of Levin and Anna. One was the city, where the Karenin, the Oblonsky, and the Vronsky aristocracy lived.

The other was the countryside, where the Levin aristocracy lived. The former is far from nature, for selfish desire to slowly lose the natural emotion of people. In the competition between human beastliness and human nature, they gradually abandon the good self for their own selfish desires. And the latter is in the natural environment, in the real work to exercise the body, purify the mind, get real happiness. Tolstoy shows his opposition to urban civilization through different aristocratic attitudes towards nature. From the cultural point of view, Anna’s tragedy should be the manifestation of Russian cultural tragedy.

Anna struggled between emotional satisfaction and religious repression, lacking a rational regulatory link, a mental defect that showed the fragmentation of Russian culture. Russia is a latecomer to capitalism. It is a millennia-long religious and authoritarian system that keeps the state running. The scientific Enlightenment, which rose slowly in Russia from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century, was often led by the ruling class to serve the autocratic system, which resulted in a lack of real rational spirit and legal consciousness, let alone a sense of democracy.

In Russia, only a small number of intellectuals (such as Pushkin, Belinsky, Turgenev) were affected by western science, democracy and rational spirit. However, most intellectuals have a strong religious consciousness inherent in their minds (such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc., who best represent the characteristics of Russian culture). For the Russian people as a whole, their way of looking at problems and dealing with things is either instinctive desires or moral beliefs, and their instincts and beliefs are in a state of confrontation and division. Hence, Anna embodies the fractured nature of instinct and belief in Russian culture.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky: 9780553211757 |  PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

Raskolnikov, a poor university student, lived in a small five-story apartment in a poor Petersburg slum. He had been forced to drop out of law school because he could not afford his tuition, and now lived off the money his mother and sister had saved from a tight budget. He hasn’t paid his rent for a long time. Of late the landlady had not only stopped feeding him, but was pressing him very hard for rent. Then he met Marmeladov, a junior civil servant. Marmeladov was driven to despair by unemployment, and his eldest daughter Sofia was forced to become a street prostitute. Raskolnikov did not want to be like Marmeladov, but he wanted to do something to prove that he was a very extraordinary man. The proprietress of the pawnshop, not far from where he lived, was a usurer, merciless. One night, while she was alone, Raskolnikov broke into the house and killed her. Raskolnikov, in a panic, killed the landlady’s half-sister, who was returning.

The next morning he received a summons from the police. He was horrified, but was relieved to learn later that he was chasing after the money he owed. As he was leaving, he overheard the officer talking about last night’s murder and passed out to get the officer’s attention. When he regained consciousness, he went home and was bedridden for several days, before recovering. After the murder, Raskolnikov, unable to get rid of his fear because of the painful conflicts in his heart, felt that he had lost all his original good feelings. This was a punishment of conscience more severe than the punishment of law. He was conscious that he had failed. So he came to Sofia in anguish of heart, and, inspired by Sofia’s religious ideas, told her the truth and the motive of the crime. Persuaded by Sonia, he turned himself in to the police. Sentenced to eight years of hard labor, Raskolnikov traveled to Siberia. Sofia was soon there too. The two met early one morning by the river. They are determined to have faith in God, to suffer all kinds of sufferings in a penitent mood and to gain spiritual rebirth.

Suspect Red by L.M. Elliot

Suspect Red, by L.M. Elliot, was one of the most historically accurate books I’ve ever read. It takes place in the 1950’s, which was the time of the Cold War. This book has everything, from psychotic secret agents, to power-hungry communists. I used this book for an English report, and it gave me an abundance of powerful characters and vivid scenery to write about. Another factor that I really enjoyed was the length of the book. It wasn’t too long, nor too short. The book, in my opinion, is a great read for all ages.

The storyline follows the point of view of Richard, a teenage boy who loves reading. However, the nation is thrown into distrust, with communist propaganda around every corner. Hundreds of classic books are being thrown out, their authors accused of being pro-communist. His father, who Richard idolizes, happens to be working under the people responsible for this overexaggeration of fear, the FBI directors.

Overall, this is a great book for anyone looking for a good, well-rounded historical fiction read. If you’re interested in the Cold War, or just think the cover art looked cool, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Thank you for reading my review on Suspect Red, by L.M. Elliot. Definitely take this book into consideration!

-Luke D.

Suspect Red by L. M. Elliot is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library