Wednesday, January 26, 2011

War And Peace Shoes

This is a picture of modern bast shoes like the peasants wore. They made the shoes themselves.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Eighteen - War And Peace - Part Five

Tolstoy as soldier, 1856
 War And Peace is part story, part history, part math, part science, part philosophy and part religion. Tolstoy rambles quite a bit and that is how he works all this stuff in. Sometimes the story feels secondary to his assertions about history and historians. Since I set out to read a novel I was obviously looking for a story. I also got contention - what is history? It’s not this! It should be that! Tolstoy could have written a treatise on the art of writing history and left out the story altogether; then he could have written a novel about this same time period. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book very much. Many passages resonated with me. He and Dickens share the tendency to write about members of the privileged class coming to appreciate the poor/serfs. (Also, if you're a shipper you are so going to be surprised!)

Book 11 begins with a philosophical study of history and mathematics. To those armchair generals, Tolstoy says –
A commander in chief is never dealing with the beginning of any event – the position from which we always contemplate it. The commander in chief is always in the midst of a series of shifting events and so he never can at any moment consider the whole import of an event that is occurring. Moment by moment the event is imperceptibly shaping itself…
Isn’t this true of our lives, as well? We never know when a trial or a joy is beginning or ending. We know only what we live moment to moment.
… watching the movement of history, we see that every year and with each new writer, opinion as to what is good for mankind changes; so that what once seemed good, ten years later seems bad, and vice versa.

Tolstoy speaks of death a great deal – well, it is a book about war, but he speaks of it so tenderly that it is obvious he has witnessed the deaths of loved ones. I’m deleting the names in the next passage so as not to spoil it -

Both ______ and _____, who did not leave him, felt this. They did not weep or shudder and during these last days they themselves felt that they were not attending on him (he was no longer there, he had left them) but on what reminded them most closely of him—his body.
Witnessing the illness and death of a loved one is both a terrible and a beautiful thing. It provides perspective. It teaches that all the hurrying and scurrying we do in an attempt to be in control of our lives mean nothing. We cannot forever be kept safe from illness, war, accidents or random violence. None of us is in control. And once we accept this, it’s quite liberating. I see this as one of Tolstoy’s messages, and I concur.

Tolstoy in 1873, four years after the publication of War And Peace

My assertion is that what we take from a book depends upon who we are when we read it. My feelings about War And Peace would have been different if I had read it a decade ago. So to those participating in either Allie’s or Jillian’s read along and struggling with this book to the point of dreading picking it back up, my advice (which, like all advice, should be taken with a grain of salt) is to put it down for now. Try it again in another decade when you’re a different person.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Eighteen - War And Peace - Part Four

I always take notes when I read and now that I’m halfway through War And Peace there are so many remarkable things about it that I find myself ruthlessly editing this post. I’m also leaving things vague for the benefit of those who haven’t reached this point in the book yet.
At that meeting he was struck for the first time by the endless variety of men's minds, which prevents a truth from ever presenting itself identically to two persons.
I totally get it, Leo. If he were alive today, wouldn’t Tolstoy would be a great stand-up comedian? He’s a master of observational humor.
There was nothing wrong or unseemly in what they said, it was witty and might have been funny, but it lacked just that something which is the salt of mirth, and they were not even aware that such a thing existed.
The salt of mirth! What lovely wordplay.
“Yes, that is true, Prince. In our days,” continued Vera—mentioning “our days” as people of limited intelligence are fond of doing, imagining that they have discovered and appraised the peculiarities of “our days” and that human characteristics change with the times.
This man has a way with words, doesn’t he? And I am so with him on human characteristics not changing with the times.

Following a list all of the “reasons” for the war –
It is natural that these and a countless and infinite quantity of other reasons, the number depending on the endless diversity of points of view, presented themselves to the men of that day; but to us, to posterity who view the thing that happened in all its magnitude and perceive its plain and terrible meaning, these causes seem insufficient.
I believe this is what one would call a universal truth. In War And Peace, Tolstoy is historian, storyteller and philosopher. The man is amazing.

Better quarters could have been found him, but Marshal Davout was one of those men who purposely put themselves in the most depressing conditions to have a justification for being gloomy.
Don’t you know people like that? They seem to revel in misery.

In historical works on the year 1812 French writers are very fond of saying...
Russian authors are still fonder of telling us...
-- pointing to notes, projects, and letters which contain hints of such a line of action. But all these hints at what happened, both from the French side and the Russian, are advanced only because they fit in with the event. Had that event not occurred these hints would have been forgotten, as we have forgotten the thousands and millions of hints and expectations to the contrary which were current then but have now been forgotten because the event falsified them.
Isn’t that always the way? Try to read an unbiased history. It isn’t possible. The story of history is ever-changing, under constant revision by those convinced that they see something no one else in the world has ever seen. Ah, what fools these mortals be.

Random observations:

Sonya and Natasha are like the Dashwood girls – one is Sense and the other Sensibility.

The fervor Pierre feels for Freemasonry is the zeal of the newly converted. When he starts to doubt, he speaks to his mentor to imbibe inspiration. Pierre can never quite hold fast to all of the tenets of the faith, and once he gets involved in the organization’s institutional concerns his doubts resurface. I believe Tolstoy wants to illustrate that, though the primary reason an institution exists is to perpetuate itself, there may yet be good in them. It would be lovely if schools existed solely to teach, governments to serve and churches to worship, but these are institutions and institutions tend to be made up of like, people and stuff. Once the institutional realities set in, we (represented by Pierre) can walk away disillusioned or accept the limitations of an institution. (I know that for the rest of my life my university will find me at fundraising time.)

Whenever there is a war – or for that matter, a ball game – each side prays that they will prevail.

When at war with France, suddenly it’s not so chic to be speaking French, LOL. (Sorry, but in this case it seems to fit the context.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Top Ten Inspirational Characters

I'm participating in the meme from The Broke and the Bookish this week. Here's my list -

1. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald – bequeathed an upside down house by her pirate husband, she cures the bad habits of neighborhood children. For example, one child refuses to bathe so Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle suggests planting seeds on the child’s skin. Guess what happens when the seeds sprout?

2. The tree in The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Unconditional love.

3. Elizabeth Bennett in Pride And Prejudice And Zombies. The same Lizzie we all know and love plus she kills zombies! Indeed, when it comes to killing the undead she has no improper pride.

4. Juliet Ashton in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. She trusts her instincts and goes for what she wants.

5. Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web. Unselfish, practical, loving.

6. Sherlock Holmes – I know he’s like, a druggie and stuff, but he’s just so clever.

7. Matthew from Anne of Green Gables. Impossible not to love this man.

8. The baby bird in Are You My Mother? illustrates the value of persistence.

9. The Wife of Bath is one sassy lady.

10. Julie in Going On Sixteen by Betty Cavanna. She’s a dreamer who finds the courage to do what she must.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book Eighteen - War And Peace - Part Three

I’m totally loving this book. Tolstoy is master of the quotation. I love this one – “When starting on a journey or changing their mode of life, men capable of reflection are generally in a serious frame of mind.” Brilliant. He trusts the reader to complete that sentence for ourselves. He's not so wordy that he doesn't know when to stop.

Here, a soldier is about to see the emperor in person –

He was happy as a lover when the longed-for moment of meeting arrives. Not daring to look round and without looking round, he was ecstatically conscious of his approach. He felt it not only from the sound of the hoofs of the approaching cavalcade, but because as he drew near everything grew brighter, more joyful, more significant, and more festive around him.
I must admit I don’t really get this whole worshipping the leader thing. I’m patriotic, but my loyalty lies with my country and not with her leader. Of course, we change leaders relatively frequently. I suppose if I'd grown up in a different time and place the divine right of kings/tsars would be normal.

Prince Andrew and Pierre have a conversation about living for oneself and having no concern for others vs. living for others and having no concern for oneself. It brought to mind that episode of Friends when Joey tries to convince Phoebe that there is no such thing as an altruistic act. (Just thought I'd share that with you.) The prince is currently undergoing quite a change and I think he may be the character Tolstoy wants the reader to love. He is definitely a complex person. I still think Rostov might be a sort of hero by the end of the book, as well.

Me: Mr. Tolstoy, this book rocks. It's totally epic.

Tolstoy: I am glad you approve, Madam. Awards and accolades mean little next to the reactions of individual readers.

Me: You’re mocking me, aren’t you?

Tolstoy: Not at all. I wrote this book for people, not for critics.

Me: The book probably doesn’t get a wider audience because it is required reading in so many schools. There is no better way to make people hate a book than to force them to read it.

Tolstoy: Don’t I know it. Until next time, Madam.

Me: Peace out, Dawg.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Book Eighteen - War And Peace - Part Two

Random thoughts – 

I’m not sure how Russian society defined the titles “prince” and “princess” during the early 19th century. There are lots of them in this book and they don’t appear to be related to the emperor’s family. I’m afraid to do much Googling because I don’t want to be spoiled.

Neither Pierre nor Mary realizes that they are attractive to the opposite sex (and in Pierre’s case, to society in general) because of their wealth. Seriously? I’m not wealthy but I imagine it would make me wary of a new suitor’s motives. 

And now, a semi-rant on sexual politics --
Anatole was not quick-witted, nor ready or eloquent in conversation, but he had the faculty, so invaluable in society, of composure and imperturbable self-possession.
As a result, he waltzes in and emotionally seduces three women.
As always happens when women lead lonely lives for any length of time without male society, on Anatole's appearance all the three women of Prince Bolkonski's household felt that their life had not been real till then. Their powers of reasoning, feeling, and observing immediately increased tenfold, and their life, which seemed to have been passed in darkness, was suddenly lit up by a new brightness, full of significance.
This guy is good looking and pays attention to these women and suddenly their lives are meaningful! The sky is bluer, the air crisper… he brings new life to Mary, to Lise, the mustachioed princess married to Mary’s brother (and about to have his child) and to Mary’s French “companion.” They’re all so gullible and na├»ve! Did these people not at least read? I mean, they were living in the country so didn’t have many “suitors” but didn’t they read? Granted, there probably weren’t many books illustrating the potential problems of spurious men, especially because most published books were written by men, but still. They all spoke French and surely there were French novels warning them about these matters. How could this one sleazy guy, just because he was charming and good looking, figuratively seduce these women?

Of course, women didn’t have many options at the time. Mary’s father would decide whether she married him and because she is charmed, she convinces herself Anatole is kind when he is not. She sees what she wants to see rather than what he is. The companion is poor yet convinces herself the Prince will marry her because she’s so pretty. Naturally, Prince Anatole hopes when he marries the rich Mary she will bring along the companion so he can have a spot of slap and tickle in the cupboard. Tolstoy is, unfortunately, spot on with all of this. Why do we allow ourselves to be deceived?

There is a plot twist here which makes me very happy, but I’ve already said too much. I’ll say only that Mary is the same self-sacrificing woman as Esther in Bleak House. Women are either completely virtuous or scheming temptresses. It’s the Madonna/whore syndrome – seriously, has our gender ever been that simplistic? Why must we be one or the other? Is there no man prior to the 20th century who saw us as three-dimensional creatures capable of rational thought?

To his credit, it isn’t only the women Tolstoy reduces to stereotypes.  

Prince Vasili  --
"Well, Lelya?" he asked, turning instantly to his daughter and addressing her with the careless tone of habitual tenderness natural to parents who have petted their children from babyhood, but which Prince Vasili had only acquired by imitating other parents.
Vasili is definitely not a good guy, and his son Anatole is an empty-headed pretty boy. If women are either Madonnas or whores, what are men? Devious manipulators or seducers? That was definitely not the case with my man Levin in Anna Karenina. I believe I have found the woman Tolstoy wants me to like, Mary, but I’m not sure I’ve yet found the man he wants me to like. Prince Andrew and Rostov seem likely characters but I don’t believe it is either of them.

Time will tell. 

P.S. I love a book I can sink my teeth into! Thanks, Leo. You're all right, dude.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Book Eighteen - War And Peace - Part One

Since I’ve read Tolstoy previously, I recognize a few things about his writing. I know that there will be many characters and it will take some time to determine which characters are integral to the plot. And one thing about old Leo is that he can sum up a character in just a biting sentence or two. Here are a few examples thus far –
“First of all, dear friend, tell me how you are. Set your friend's mind at rest," said he without altering his tone, beneath the politeness and affected sympathy of which indifference and even irony could be discerned.
The princess smiled as people do who think they know more about the subject under discussion than those they are talking with.
Her pretty little upper lip, on which a delicate dark down was just perceptible, was too short for her teeth, but it lifted all the more sweetly, and was especially charming when she occasionally drew it down to meet the lower lip.
That last is particularly harsh, Leo. She probably just didn't have time to wax her mustache before the party.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cold Comfort Farm - The Movie

Loved it loved it loved it. I saw the 1995 version with Kate Beckinsale (I always think her last name is Beckinsdale for some reason) and it was marvelous. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Book Seventeen - Dune - Part Two

Frank Herbert

Overall, this book was a strange experience. There were times when I raced ahead to discover what happened and times when the plot slowed to a worm’s pace. One of the interesting characters in Dune is the Mentat, defined as a human computer. These people are trained from the time they are very young to absorb and evaluate data. They’re sorta like Mr. Spock only Spock is half human half Vulcan, at least according to David Brent. I’m not sure which came first, the Mentat or the Spock, as Dune was first published in 1965. (The first dozen or so times I read Mentat I thought it should be Mentak because a friend’s predictive text of two phones ago used to write “mentak” when she meant “mental.” Her phone also predicted that “predictive” actually meant “spediatite.” Her texts were always fun.)

Herbert includes minutiae about the world he created and I’m sure the rabid Dune fans loved the minutiae. To me some of it seemed unnecessary to the plot. By the way, if there were/are massive fans of the Dune series, like Star Trek and Star Wars, would they be Duneites? Dunies? Sand Heads?

Since Dune is the story of warring royal factions, there are the usual intrigues of espionage/counterespionage, the form and function of state dinners, jealousies and rivalries, money and power. It made me wonder about the Windsors. I really want to see the new Colin Firth movie, The King’s Speech, about Queen Elizabeth’s father. What if David (the brother who abdicated to marry Mrs. Simpson) has a grandson who decides he is rightfully due the throne? Surely this sort of thing still happens. 

In any case, during all of the political and war-related discussions I wondered when the action would begin. But then the Duke was assassinated and it suddenly got interesting, at least until the next session about tactics. I’m aware that many people enjoy studying military tactics. I am not one of them, but even I will admit that there are interesting twists and turns in this book. However, it doesn’t hold the drama of a Tom Clancey novel or even of the science fiction Ender’s Game.

I won’t get into the stuff about the conservation of water and moisture. Let’s just say that since it is a desert planet, the currency of Dune is water. The humans go to extreme measures to conserve their most precious resource and Herbert goes into extreme detail about how they do all of this. Some of it is icky.

The character of Paul changes significantly throughout the book and it didn’t seem that these changes were well explained. I never really got the sense of who he is. I realize I’ve said this before and wonder if I’m just incredibly particular about character development. That could definitely be true, but the pattern established by Herbert is that the changes in Paul are explained through the narrative and then he acts. Yet his actions don’t seem to match the narrative. How can I trust him? Isn’t the measure of a man what he does? Additionally, the ending felt a bit hollow, as if the author were merely at a stopping point for the next book. However, the great quotes continue throughout -- “What do you despise? By this are you truly known.”

Next up is War and Peace which I’m reading with Allie at A Literary Odyssey. 

Don’t do me wrong, Leo.

Tolstoy: You do know, Madam, that this book has been acclaimed  “one of the most celebrated works of fiction?”

Me: You’ve been reading your Wikipedia page again, haven’t you?