War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

“Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes …..”

I am very hesitant to even attempt to review this book.  How can one do even the slightest bit of justice to an epic like this? How can one even touch on the depth of the myriad of characters, not to mention communicate the complexities of a war that even the participants had difficulty distinguishing?  And how do you review such an epic tale without producing an epic review?

War and Peace follows the lives of five families of Tsarist Russia:  the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Bezukhovs, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys, their interactions and struggles, and the afflictions suffered by each set among the events leading up to and during Napoleon’s invasive campaign in the year of 1812.  Pierre Bezukhov is the illegitimate son of a nobleman and, through a series of circumstances, inherits a great  fortune.  His new position in society chafes against his natural character of simplicity, naiveté, and introspection. The Rostov family is a well-respected family, yet are in financial difficulties. The son, Nikolai, joins the Russian army, his brother, Petya, will soon follow, and their daughter, Natasha, a joyful free-spirit, becomes attached to a number of men throughout the story.  Sophia, an orphaned niece, is raised by the Rostovs, and shows a steady and loyal character as she pledges her love to Nikolai early in the novel.  Bolkonsky senior is a crochety old count who attempts to control his son, Andrei, and terrorizes his daughter, Maria.

Natasha Rostova (c. 1914)
Elisabeth Bohm
source Wikipedia

And so begins the dance between the cast of characters, sometimes a smooth waltz, and at others a frenzied tango.  There is contrast between generations, between old and new ideas, between life and its purpose, yet Tolstoy is adept as showing the gray tones overshadowing the blacks and whites; that situations are not always as they appear.

Tolstoy’s highest attribute is his ability to peel off the layers of each person and look into his soul.  His characters are crafted with such depth and such human motivations that the reader can only marvel at his skill.  And not only can he give birth to such characters, he understands them.  The scenes involving the Russian peasantry, who act completely contrary to reason, yet with such humanness, are evidence of Tolstoys profound comprehension of human nature and the human condition.

Count Leo Tolstoy, 1908
from Wikipedia

I love how Tolstoy lets humanity and compassion show through the animosity and the bloodletting of war.  One of my favourite characters of the novel was Ramballe, the French officer whom Pierre met in Bazdeev’s house and who showed brotherhood and goodwill despite that fact that, given the circumstances, they should have been pitted against each other as sworn enemies. Originally, Pierre is portrayed somewhat as a bumbling oaf, a man of a lower class who, by luck and circumstances has managed to rise to a position of prestige yet has never been able to cast aside his peasant-like origins. However by his actions in the novel, he becomes admirable, echoing a segment of humanity that shows kindness, goodness, bravery and integrity that shines out from the avariciousness and shallowness of high society.

Tolstoy himself was very ambiguous about his masterpiece stating that it was, “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” He believed that if the work was masterful, it could not conform to accepted standards and therefore could not be labelled.

The Battle of Borodino by Louise-Françoise, Baron Lejeune, 1822
from Wikipedia 

“It is natural for us who were not living in those days to imagine that when half Russia had been conquered and the inhabitants were fleeing to distant provinces, and one levy after another was being raised for the desense of the fatherland, all Russians from the greatest to the least were solely engaged in sacrificing themselves, saving their fatherland, or weeping over its downfall.  The tales and descriptions speak only of the self-sacrifice, patriotic devotion, despair, grief, and the heroism of the Russians.  But it was not really so.  It appears so to us because we see only the general historic interest of that time and do not see all the personal human interests that people had.  Yet in reality those personal interest of the moment so much transcend the general interests that they always prevent the public interest from being felt or even noticed.  Most of the people at that time paid not attention to the general progress of events but were guided by their own private interests, and they were the very people whose activities at that period were most useful. Those who tried to understand the general course of events and to take part in it by self-sacrifice and heroism were the most useless members of society, they saw everything upside-down, and all they did for the common good turned out to be useless and foolish …….. Even those, fond of intellectual talk and of expressing their feelings, who discussed Russia’s position at the time involuntarily introduced into their conversation either a shade of pre tense and falsehood or useless condemnation and anger directed against people accused of actions no one could possibly be guilty of.  ………  Only unconscious action bears fruit, and he who plays a part in an historic event never understands its significance.  If he tries to realize it his efforts are fruitless. The more closely a man was engaged in the events then taking place in Russia the less did he realize their significance ……….”

Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow
Adolf Northern
source Wikipedia

Perhaps Tolstoy is showing us that people are imperfect, with human vice and human foibles and that, in spite of trying to find heroics in war, the actions are only the actions of people trying to survive.  It is history looking backwards that make the heroes, but in reality, the characters in these trials of life are all people acting out their parts in a very human way.  There is no glory in war, only people trying to deal with the circumstances as best they can, and to get by with a little human dignity.  Success can be more a matter of chance than planning, and it is often luck or misfortune that places people in either the bright spotlight of fame, or the dark dungeons of villainy.

I know that many people shy away from War and Peace because of its length, and I did too for a long time.  Another criticism is that Tolstoy’s “war” parts are monotonous.  It certainly is a lengthy novel but by doing some cursive research on this period of Russian history, the reader can gain enough of a base to allow him to relax and be pulled into the story.  And by viewing the wars scenes, not only as history, but as a chance to learn from people’s reactions in situations of stress and conflict, I think they can give us more of an insight into human motivations.  So pick it up and let yourself be swept away into the Russia Empire of the early 1800s.  You won’t be disappointed!

(translated by Aylmer & Louise Maude)

The Apology of Socrates by Plato

The time is 399 B.C. and Socrates has been charged with the corruption of youth and for believing in gods other than the gods of Athens.  His defence?  He was told by Chaerophon, a companion of his, that the gods at Delphi had declared that no one was wiser than Socrates, and Socrates, knowing that he was neither great nor wise, set out to find a wiser man than he.  But ….. surprise! …… with each man, or segment of society Socrates questioned, he discovered that, while most men had knowledge, they were lacking wisdom and, as of the date of the trial, it does not appear that he has found one wise man.

So what made these respectable men of Athens so enraged that they demanded Socrates’ death?  Perhaps the problem was that Socrates didn’t merely question men …… he grilled them, he roasted them, he flambéd them, he broiled them and he probably verbally flogged them, before going on his merry way.  Is it any wonder that a large segment of Greek society was out for his blood?  Yet Socrates was not ignorant of his unfortunate affect on people.  He was aware of the brooding animosity of the enemies he had left scattered in his wake, but he proclaimed that his duty to God, nay, his responsibility to God, was to answer the question that was set before him:  Is Socrates the wisest man?

“Strange, indeed, would be my conduct, O men of Athens, if I who, when I was ordered by the generals whom you chose to command me at Potidea and Amphipolis and Delium, remained where they placed me like any other man, facing death —- if, I say, now, when, as I conceive and imagine, God ordered me to fulfil the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death, or any other fear; that would indeed be strange, and I might justly be arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods, if I disobeyed the oracle because I was afraid of death: then I should be fancying that I was wise when I was not wise.  For this fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.  Is there not here conceit of knowledge, which is a disgraceful sort of ignorance?”

And to the possibility of being freed on the condition that he agreed to no longer attempt to influence the people (or to tell the truth, as Socrates would term it), he responds:

” ……. if this was the condition on which you let me go, I should reply:  Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?  Are you not ashamed of this? …….”

As far as Socrates was concerned, he had a duty to God and to truth to fulfill his purpose and nothing was going to sway him from this quest.  His rhetoric is brilliant but he really makes no effort to placate his accusers.  Though his life is important, which is evidenced by his attempt to refute the charges, there is something he places in much higher esteem:  the truth and his obligation to it.

“….. I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living …..”  

The Death of Socrates
by Jacques-Louis David

Sadly, the verdict was death for Socrates, his final words a moving epitaph:

“The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways — I to die, and you to live.  Which is better, God only knows.”

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

“My uncle – high ideals inspire him;
but when past joking he fell sick,,
he really forced one to admire him –
and never played a shrewder trick.”

Eugene Onegin is a fun-loving, rakish young man who lives carelessly among fashionable society and cares nothing for any of the responsibilities of life.  Yet soon his wild living becomes stale and, desperately bored, he moves to an estate in the country inherited from his uncle, to recapture the zest in life.  Onegin’s lack of growth and a stable character causes him to return to his constant feelings of ennui and he passes his days in careless endeavours.  Enter, Tatyana, a sheltered girl who falls passionately in love with Onegin.  Finally, amid her torments of love, she composes a letter to Onegin, confessing her devotion.  Giving her a surprisingly gentlemanly refusal, he then, on a whim, proceeds to seduce his friend, Vladimir Lensky’s, future wife, Olga, who is the sister of Tatyana.  Lensky, in a fit of poetic rage, challenges Onegin to a duel, where Lensky is shot through the heart.  A number of years later, Onegin spies a married Tatyana at a party and is immediately drawn to her.  He pursues her to the point of exhaustion and finally writes her a letter acknowledging his love and eternal devotion.  Tatyana, in spite of still harbouring tender feelings for Onegin, spurns him from the outset, and eventually declares that she would never be unfaithful to her husband.  Because Onegin has never made any effort to develop into anything other than an empty man, he is left with a bleak future ahead of him.

I’ve hear it mentioned that Tatyana is the true hero of this novel, and her strength and effect is certainly evident.  While she shows a naivety and a juvenile infatuation with Eugene when she first meets him, years later when they meet again, she exhibits the poise and maturity of a sophisticated and experienced young woman.  In the magnificent finale, she admits her love for him but says, “… but I’ve become another’s wife — and I’ll be true to him for life.”   Onegin has spent his whole life blowing around like a leaf in the wind, consumed by ennui, driven by precipitate decisions and self-absorption, while Tatyana grows and blossoms into a strong woman with firm convictions.  She became a truly admirable character.

One wonders at the commonalities between this work and Pushkin’s life story.  Pushkin, himself, was no stranger to duelling.  He was involved in many contests before being killed in a duel while defending his wife’s honour, echoing his poet Lensky’s fate in an ironic prophesy. And, of course, there was the question of Pushkin’s wife being unfaithful, as Olga was untrue to Lensky, which one can also contrast with Tatyana remaining true to her vows of marriage at the end of the tale.

In one way, the poem is an eerie premonition of future events, while on the surface it takes many forms; playful, romantic, humorous, mocking, tragic.  It’s a tribute to Pushkin’s genius that he was able to artfully blend a myriad of themes and emotions into a introspective classic that examines the human condition and began a Russian literary tradition.

(translated by Sir Charles Johnston)

The Pilgrim’s Regress by C.S. Lewis

“I dreamed of a boy who was born in the land of Puritania and his name was John.”

In The Pilgrim’s Regress, John is a boy who lives in Puritania and is given a rather legalistic view of the Landlord of his country by the overseer or Steward.  When he sees a shimmering Island in a vision through a crack in a wall, he experiences such an intense longing that he leaves Puritania, setting out on a journey to discover its location.  With this incredible longing (Sehensucht) throbbing inside him, he tries to assuage it by a number of worldly means.  The basic gist of the story is that John starts out, running from something he doesn’t truly understand and running to something he doesn’t truly understand.  Through his numerous adventures, many with his friend Vertue, he discovers that he has run right back to where he had begun, Puritania, but thanks to the enlightenment he has received on his travels from Mr. Halfway & son, the Clevers, Mr. Mammon, the Giant, Reason, Mother Kirk, Three Pale Men, Mr. Savage, Mr. Broad, Wisdom, Contemplation, the Hermit, and Silkisteinsauga, he finds the answers to his questions and is able to pass over the brook and into the light.

One of the many strengths of this book lies in the fact that John didn’t simply learn from the “good” people he met along his journey.  Each of his encounters taught him something about life and his beliefs, which helped him to grow into the person he became at the end of the story.

This was one of the hardest reviews I have written so far.  You begin with what appears to be a simple allegory of C.S. Lewis’ own journey to faith, yet the reader is soon made aware that embedded in this simple story is a plethora of incredibly complex material and ideas.  Lewis incorporated numerous ideologies such as Romanticism, Neo-Romanticism, Communism, Freudianism, Facism, etc. along with imagery, metaphors, and a host of allusions and quotes that is mind-boggling.  The fact that he wrote this book while on vacation at his friend Arthur Greeves’ house in a mere two weeks, and was able to incorporate the wide-ranging scope of material that he did, is astounding!

In talking about his book years later, Lewis appeared almost embarrassed by it:  “On re-reading this book ten years after I wrote it, I find its chief faults to be those two which I myself least easily forgive in the books of other men: needless obscurity, and an uncharitable temper.”  He blames his youthful idealism on failing to give the reader the guidance to understand his personal journey.  I, for one, can forgive him this minor fault.  To mine The Pilgrim’s Regress of its treasures is a difficult task, but one that is well worth the effort.

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

“On a certain afternoon, in the late springtime, the bell upon Tunstall Moat House was heard ringing at an unaccustomed hour.”

On my goodness, where do I start?

The Black Arrow is set during the War of the Roses and follows Dick (Richard) Shelton, a young man who discovers that his guardian, Sir Daniel Brackley, is actually responsible for his father’s death.  Dick sets out, not only to seek revenge, but to rescue the beautiful Joanna Sedley from his guardian’s clutches.  In his quest, he gets embroiled in “The War of the Roses,” the battle between the House of York and the House of Lancaster for the English throne and poor Dick must decide which side deserves his loyalty.  An interesting cast of characters assist or impede him on his journeys until he is able to overcome his struggles: win his bride, gain justice for his father and receive a knightship in the bargain.

On one hand, the novel is ripe with the promise of a wonderful adventure: a handsome young man, a romance, an historical battle, power struggles, revenge, trust, loyalty, and betrayal.  However, the manner in which Stevenson crafted this novel is rather bumbling.  There is little introduction to the setting; the characters are plunked into the story with a very brief background; perilous situation after perilous situation is fired rapidly at the reader with sketchy development; and the characters’ actions are contrived to move the plot along rather than with the intent to build strong, plausible characters.

For example, in one particular scene, on the drop of a coin, Dick decides to steal a ship (which no one really knows how to sail), attacks a well-fortified castle, with the result that he barely escapes with his life and ends up shipwrecked.  The skipper from whom he stole the ship is ruined, and it is only when Dick sees the culmination of his actions that he feels any remorse.  A matter of the ends justifying the means, which never sits well with me.

Stevenson himself disliked the book, describing it as “tushery” or the affected use of archaic language. The fact that he wrote it while in the grip of a debilitating case of influenza might act as an excuse for his sub-par creation:

The influenza has busted me a good deal; I have no spring, and am headachy. So, as my good Red Lion Counter begged me for another Butcher’s Boy-I turned me to-what thinkest ‘ou?-to Tushery, by the mass! Ay, friend, a whole tale of tushery. And every tusher tushes me so free, that may I be tushed if the whole thing is worth a tush. The Black Arrow: A Tale of Tunstall Forest is his name: tush! a poor thing!”

Personally I did not have a huge issue with his use of language, it was more the fact that Stevenson’s prose took the appearance of a run-away train and left the reader little time to breathe, as well as the lack of a guide for the readers by giving them merely the faint whiff of background for the story and the characters.  It is worth a read but read it with no expectations; if you anticipate another Treasure Island, this isn’t it.  Sorry, Robert!

An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor

A nice read about a young Irish doctor, Barry Laverty, who travels to the small village of Ballybucklebo to apprentice under an old curmudgeon of a doctor, Dr. Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly.  O’Reilly’s brash manner and unorthodox medical treatments at first unsettle the young doctor, but as he realizes the care and the shrewd understanding that O’Reilly has for the villagers, he begins to see medicine not only as a science to treat the body, but as a philosophy to cure the soul.

While I enjoyed many of the situations in the novel, it didn’t completely enrapture me.  The characters were lively and interesting but somehow they never touched my heart.  At times, the author appeared to manhandle them in a certain way to enhance a laugh or situation, which took away from their natural development.  This book reminded me of the TV series, Doctor Finlay (based on the books by A.J. Cronin) which follows the life and cases of a doctor in post-WWII Scotland, although it lacks some of the warmth of the characters in the show.

All in all, this was a satisfactory light read and it was nice to escape from the city, and into the wild simplicity of Ballybucklebo.

Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories by M.R. James

“By what means the papers out of which I have made a connected story came into my hands is the last point which the reader will learn from these pages.”  (from Count Magnus)

I first must say that horror genre isn’t really my thing, even if the book is a classic.  So, despite the fact that I decided to read at least one scary story for the month of October, I was not approaching this read with much joy or interest.  How fortunate that I decided to choose M.R. James, who has perhaps changed my opinion of ghost stories forever.

The back of my Penguin Classic, “Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories” says:  “M.R. James, referred to by H.P. Lovecraft as ‘one of the few really creative masters in his darksome province,’ was a pioneer in the history of the English ghost story, transforming the ghost from a wispy, ethereal figure into an aggressive, malevolent, and all too palpable force of evil ……”

My favourite story in this compilation was “Casting the Runes.”  Eerie and terrifying, it gave the main character some power over the dark force and, instead of becoming a victim, he emerges as triumphant over his spectral foe.  This story was apparently the basis for a classic horror film, “Curse of the Demon” (which I’ve never seen).

I also enjoyed, “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” where blowing a whistle has very unexpected repercussions, “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book,” “The Ash Tree“, which, for me, was one of the scariest in the book, “Number 13,” a creepy tale about a haunted hotel room, and “Count Magnus,” where the reader learns to be careful what you ask for.

Montague Rhodes James specialized in medieval illuminated manuscripts and was the provost of both Kings College, Cambridge, and Eton College.  He is known for redefining the ghost story by “using contemporary settings and abandoning trite Gothic clichés.”  He was highly articulate, extroverted and sociable and, though he never married, was known for having a great number of treasured friendships.

His introduction to ghosts came at a young, and perhaps impressionable, age:  “What first interested me in ghosts? This I can tell you quite definitely. In my childhood I chanced to see a toy Punch and Judy set, with figures cut out in cardboard.One of these was The Ghost. It was a tall figure habited in white with an unnaturally long and narrow head, also surrounded with white, and a dismal visage.  Upon this my conceptions of a ghost were based, and for years it permeated my dreams.”

What was particularly refreshing about James’ stories was that his treatment of his subject was very subtle.  His stories were full of shadows and dark blots, old trees personified and deaths with no concrete explanation.  He gives the reader just enough for a rough outline, then leaves them to use their imagination to formulate even more terrifying surmises based on his carefully crafted descriptions. One feels that these malevolent spirits should never have been disturbed.  Brrr!

I have The Haunted Doll’s House and other Ghost Stories sitting on my bookshelf and I can’t wait to pick it up and fade into the supernatural world of James’ ghostly tales.

The Beast by Faye Kellerman

There’s not much I can say about this one.  The Kellermans are my brain candy that I indulge in about once per year.  The writing isn’t stellar and the plots are formulaic but I’ve been reading them long enough to get interested in the characters and, since they are readable in less than 24 hours, they don’t cramp my classical style!  The content, however, is not something that I would want to expose myself to on a regular basis.

I enjoy the addition of their foster son, Gabe, to the Decker/Lazarus household.  The Beast is a better-than-average book in the series.

Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott


“Rose sat all alone in the big best parlor, with her little handkerchief laid ready to catch the first tear, for she was thinking of her troubles, and a shower was expected.”
And so the reader is introduced to Rose Campbell, who has recently lost her only remaining parent, her father, and who is left to the care of six obtrusive aunts and their families who live on “The Aunt Hill”.  Then, in walks her guardian, Uncle Alec, and her life is changed forever.  Uncle Alec makes certain that Rose does not give in to despair, mitigates the influence of Aunt Myra’s hypochondriac tendencies, and Rose meets her seven boy cousins who turn out to be much more pleasant than expected.
The book follows Rose as she grows from a nervous, delicate, serious child to blossom under her uncle’s moral guidance into a healthy, selfless, admirable, young lady, who sets a good example for her mischievous cousins.  While I usually really enjoy books with a moral lesson, I found Alcott would often get in the way of her characters.  Instead of allowing them to show the correct way to behave, she would interject long moral or societal monologues that detracted from the essence of the message; at times I felt like I was being whacked on the back of the head with a moral baguette.  Even so, her ideas were ahead of their time and interesting to read.  In effect, Rose teaches us to to take care of ourselves, to think of others, and to stay loyal to family.  Eight Cousins is a wonderfully timeless read!

New Grub Street by George Gissing

“As the Milvains sat down to breakfast the clock of Wattleborough parish church struck eight; it was two miles away, but the strokes were borne very distinctly on the west wind this autumn morning.”

I wanted to like New Grub Street more than I actually did.  Gissing obviously wanted to show the struggle which writers faced where they were required to produce a product that would “sell” rather than write something they considered art.

Jasper Milvain is presented as a middle-class man who is rather lazy but has a talent for finding his place in the literary business because of his aptitude for targeting publishers with a product that the public wants.  He has no real standards and no true feeling and his only aim is to know the right people, make an advantageous marriage and grow richer.

Edwin Reardon is a writer who has had mild success with a novel and is attempting to write another, however his marriage to Amy Yule, a woman slightly higher in social status, puts pressure on him to perform and he suffers from writer’s block.  We experience his slow spiral into poverty, culminating in his death.

Other characters populate the novel, such as Marian Yule, who falls in love with Jasper, only to learn through his disloyalty, that he is a money-grasping swine.  Jasper’s two sisters play important roles and the lesser characters of Alfred Yule, Marian’s father, and the writers Whelpdale and Biffen (who sticks to writing for art) add depth to the story.

On one hand, the story was excellent but I had issues with Gissing’s handling of the characters.  Often I found they acted in ways particularly to get a point of Gissing’s across and not because they would naturally act in that manner.  This took away from the plot and diminished the issues the story was meant to bring to light.  In fact it bothered me so much, I really lost focus during a few points in the novel.  Overall it was a good read but I felt that the characters struggled to maintain integrity and plausibility.  I would give it 3.5 stars.