Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A human being should be able to... (Wednesday Quotation)

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. ~ Robert A. Heinlein

(Remember, it’s a quotation, not a quote)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Really Big Books - NOVA this week (June, 25, 2016)

Observations from my weekly wanderings, usually in Northern Virginia (NOVA).

I finished War and Peace a week ago. It took me two months and change. Meanwhile, some of my fellow book bloggers read 4, or 5, or 6, or 10, or more books.

Ordinarily, I am quite fond of these bookish friends, but recently each time they post a book review, I feel certain they are mocking me.

To which I reply, ***raspberries***

This is a REALLY BIG BOOK (RBB). And what’s more – I’ve got more RBBs, ahead on my reading schedule. Some call them chunksters (somehow, that name makes me cringe a little), or tomes, or opus, but I am coining the acronym RBB.

Starting with Tom Jones (2 books back) and then among the next 10 books, I have the following RBBs.

TomJones – 346,000 words
War and Peace – 580,000 words
The Count of Monte Cristo – 460,000 words
Les Misérables – 655,000 words
The Fountainhead – 311,000 words
Atlas Shrugged – 645,000 words

Which is a rough equivalent of 30 regular sized books. So yeah, ***raspberries***

Oh and, I’m also reading through the Bible – 788,000 words.

Feeling a bit guilty about the raspberries now though ;-) Just tongue in cheek.

Oh by the way – interesting bit of coincidence. This wasn’t planned in my reading schedule, but The Count of Monte Cristo is almost like a sequel to War and Peace. Historically, CofMC follows W&P, and the historical person Napoleon plays a secondary, though significant role in each.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Quotation - happiness is like the enchanted palaces...

Man does not appear to me to be intended to enjoy felicity so unmixed; happiness is like the enchanted palaces we read of in our childhood, where fierce, fiery dragons defend the entrance and approach; and monsters of all shapes and kinds, requiring to be overcome ere victory is ours. ~ Edmond Dantes

Excerpt from my current read: The Count of Monte Cristo

(remember, it's a quotation, not a quote)

Friday, June 17, 2016

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (69 down, 31 to go)

(translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude)


“O Lord, my Creator, Thou has heard our payer”…”Russia is saved. I think Thee, O Lord!” and he wept. ~ Supreme commander of the Russian Army, Prince Kutuzov

This is the first time I’ve read War and Peace and the second novel I’ve read by Tolstoy. War and Peace is a realist novel, historical fiction, third-person narrative set in Russia from 1805-1820, or during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. It relates the intertwined lives of five Russian aristocratic families. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This novel satisfied category six: an Adventure Classic from the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.


War and Peace is one of the longest novels ever written, though not the longest as is sometimes asserted. It is curious how it could ever be given such a distinction, as it is not a matter of opinion. I will surmise that it may be because War and Peace may be considered: The greatest long novel and the longest great novel ever written.


At any rate, it is long – 560,000 to 580,000 words depending on translation. It took me a bit more than two months to read and I feel it is quite an accomplishment, something of a literary bucket list item. I probably would have been intimidated, had I not previously read and enjoyed Anna Karenina.


Contrary to what you may have heard, War and Peace was not originally titled War: What’s it Good For, but it was originally titled War and Society. This a more descriptive title as it is two tales: the tale of war, and the tale of Russian society.


It is challenging to review such a lengthy and complex story. It touches on nearly every theme imaginable. If I must summarize Tolstoy’s half-million words, I’d summarize it thus:


War – Russia wins (apologies for the spoiler)

Society – The best man in the tale marries the best woman. The most complex man in the tale marries the simplest woman.


To be fair, there are a few other things going on. To do more justice to the “simple” woman, she is not dim-witted. She is simply without avarice; it nearly ruins her.


And although War and Society is more descriptive, I prefer the later title War and Peace for its poetic quality.


War and Peace is divided into four books, 15 parts, varying number of chapters per part, and two epilogues. The 15 parts switch between accounts of the war and the personal affairs of the five families. A number of the characters join the army, so the war parts are not entirely without family drama.


The war sections use the fictional characters to describe historical battles, maneuvers, tactics, and strategies of the war. They also include numerous historical persons, most notably and most obviously, Napoleon and Alexander I.


The society sections center on the fictional families of:

  • Bezukhov – really just one character Count Pyotr (Pierre) Kirillovich Bezukhov: an illegitimate son, but made rightful heir. He is deeply philosophical and Tolstoy’s alter ego.
  • Bolkonsky – Prince Andrei (Andrew) Nikolayevich Bolkonsky: proud and honorable. His sister, Princess Maria (Mary) Nikolayevna Bolkonskaya: pious and generous.
  • Rostov – I would call the Rostovs the main family, the one the reader empathizes with most. The Count is loving and kindly, but inept at managing the family fortune. There are four children and an orphaned cousin. The story deals mostly with the eldest son Count Nikolai Ilyich (Nicholas) Rostov and his younger sister Countess Natalya (Natasha) Ilyinichna Rostova. 


These three are the main families. All made up of mostly likeable, but definitely flawed individuals. Of lesser importance are the families:

  • Kuragina – These are pretty awful people from the patriarch on down.
  • Drubetskoy – Friends of the Rostovs.



Of course, there are many, many other characters – nearly 600.


Throughout the book, and particularly in the first epilogue, Tolstoy offers philosophical insight and his opinion of the distortion historians have made of the war and personages. I wouldn’t dare try and summarize his views on this complex issue. It’s worth a read though. He makes some very good points, and I believe Tolstoy to be reliable. As a Russian, he did not vilify Napoleon, though he is certainly not his apologist. Tolstoy seems to approve of Tsar Alexander, but is a much firmer defender of Prince Mikhail Illarionovich Golenishchev-Kutuzov, the supreme commander of the Russian Army. Kutuzov is a Russian hero, but some historians blame him for the fall of Moscow. Tolstoy portrays most of the Russian military leadership as motivated by ambition, whereas he portrays the aged, discerning, ambitionless Kutuzov as driven by only one goal: to expel the invading army. Kutuzov was thoughtful and patient, sacrificing even sacred Moscow, that the army would live to fight another day. He was of course, ultimately successful.


It is truly overwhelming to attempt anything more in this review. I find War and Peace is an astonishing literary accomplishment, though not quite the pleasure as Anna Karenina.


At one point, the narrator Tolstoy quotes a favorite Bible verse of mine: "The King’s heart is in the hands of the Lord".  It is from Proverbs 21:1 and continues with…"as rivers of water, he turneth it withersoever he will."


Other excerpts:


Every general and every soldier was conscious of his own insignificance, aware of being but a drop in that ocean of men, and yet at the same time was conscious of his strength as part of that enormous whole.


Just as in a clock, the result of the complicated motion of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely a slow and regular movement of the hands which show the time, so the result of all the complicated human activities of one hundred and sixty thousand Russians and French – all their passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm – was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called battle of the three emperors – that is to say a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history.


His head was burning, he felt himself bleeding to death, and he saw above him the remote, lofty, and everlasting sky. ~ Prince Andrew Bolkonsky


To know Him is hard….For ages, from our forefather Adam to our own day, we labor to attain that knowledge and are still infinitely far from our aim; but in our lack of understanding we see only our weakness and His greatness. ~ a teacher of Count Pierre Buzukhov’s


Natasha was happier than she had ever been in her life. She was at that height of bliss when one becomes completely kind and good and does not believe in the possibility of evil, unhappiness, or sorrow.


Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity.


This is a long excerpt, but I found it a telling glimpse of the prejudice of Tolstoy, an extraordinary writer whom I ordinarily find fair and objective: 

Pfuel was one of those hopelessly and immutably self-confident men, self-confident to the point of martyrdom as only Germans are, because only Germans are self-confident on the basis of an abstract notion – science, that is, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth. A Frenchman is self-assured because he regards himself personally, both in mind and body, as irresistibly attractive to men and women. An Englishman is self-assured, as being a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore as an Englishman always knows what he should do and knows that he does as an Englishman is undoubtedly correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and other people. A Russian is self-assured just because he knowns nothing and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe that anything can be known. The German’s self-assurance is worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth – science – which he himself has invented but which is for him the absolute truth.


But what is war? What is needed for success in warfare? What are the habits of the military? The aim of war is murder; the methods of war are spying, treachery, and their encouragement, the ruin of a country’s inhabitants, robbing them or stealing to provision the army, and fraud and falsehood termed military craft. The habits of the military class are the absence of freedom, that is, discipline, idleness, ignorance, cruelty, debauchery, and drunkenness. And in spite of all this it is the highest class, respected by everyone.


…he knew that the result of a battle is decided not by the orders of a commander-in-chief, nor the place where the troops are stationed, nor by the number of cannon or of slaughtered men, but by that intangible force called the spirit of the army… ~ Supreme Commander Kutuzov


Never to the end of his life could he understand goodness, beauty, or truth, or the significance of his actions which were too contrary to goodness and truth, too remote from everything human, for him ever to be able to grasp their meaning. He could not disavow his actions, belauded as they were by half the world, and so he had to repudiate truth, goodness and all humanity. ~ Napoleon


Man’s mind cannot grasp the causes of events in their completeness, but the desire to find those causes is implanted in man’s soul.


O Lord, my Creator, Thou has heard our payer…Russia is saved. I think Thee, O Lord! and he wept. ~ Supreme Commander Kutuzov


For us with the standard of good and evil given us by Christ, no human actions are incommensurable. And there is no greatness where simplicity, goodness, and truth are absent.



Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Quotation - There is no greatness...

...there is no greatness where simplicity, goodness, and truth are absent.

Narrative from my current read:  War and Peace

(and remember – it’s a quotation, not a quote)

Monday, June 13, 2016

Guest book review by my Grandson Andrew of Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien

It has been quite a while since any of my grandsons submitted a book review, and Andrew apologizes that this one is so late. We actually read this some months ago, but Andrew’s schedule has been rather hectic with potty training and learning to speak.

Andrew decided to step out of his comfort zone and try a new author, but one he knows is a favorite of Dad and Grandpa.

Andrew feels, Mr. Bliss is written in the modernist style, though it definitely belongs to the magical realism genre. It is the third person narrative of Mr. Bliss. The setting is not explicit, though Andrew believes it is certainly set in Jolly Ole England, mid 20th century. Andrew is aware of Professor Tolkien’s disdain for allegory, but he, Andrew that is, believes there are elements that are so clearly allegorical as to not be denied.

Mr. Bliss is a country gentleman who wears very tall hats. One day he decides to buy a motorcar. His only stipulation is that it be yellow with red wheels. Andrew thought these were excellent choices, particularly yellow, as that is the first color he could recognize and say. Andrew did feel however, that Mr. Bliss was a bit careless not to consider other criteria. Andrew wondered: diesel or petrol, fuel injected or carbureted, front wheel drive or rear wheel, automatic or standard etc. Andrew also felt that Mr. Bliss might have inquired about emissions and considered a hybrid, as he, Andrew, is planning on being around a bit, and is concerned about air quality. Andrew realizes it is fiction, and cannot therefore affect air quality, but he felt that by mentioning this concern, Prof Tolkien might have inspired an increased environmental conscience in his considerable fan base.

At any rate, Mr. Bliss sets off on a drive and has numerous comical adventures. He runs into Mr. Day, upsetting his cabbage cart, and then runs into the widow Mrs. Knight (widow…bit of foreshadowing, the two are eventually married and open a stand called Day & Knights Vegetables), upsetting her banana cart. Bliss takes Knight and Day along for the ride to visit the Dorkinses, but on the way, they run into three bears. Not THE three bears, but a trio of Ursa nonetheless: Archie, Teddy, and Bruno.

Andrew observes that Prof Tolkien likes to make wordplay with names. The bears want the cabbages, bananas, and motor car and threaten to eat Mr. Bliss and company if they fail to acquiesce. The omnipotent narrator reveals the threat was only a bluff.

The party eventually makes it way to the Dorkinses which is a family of healthy eaters, that is they are all quite fat. There is Albert, Herbert, Egbert, and the fattest known only as Fatty. Andrew felt this was unnecessarily unkind. He also notes that one of the quartet could be known as Fat Albert. Andrew thought the Tolkien estate might be able to bring a plagiarism suit if they were so inclined.

As the tale progresses, Mr. Bliss’ actions lead to some rather costly damages around town, and he is presented with a bill of £3 16. 7½ (three pounds, 16 shillings, 7 ½ pence) if Andrew is not mistaken (one of the clues that it all takes place in Jolly Ole England). Andrew loves to refer to England as Jolly Ole England, because – well it seems so jolly.

Constable Sergeant Boffin is called to ensure Mr. B pays. Andrew thought Boffin sounds rather like a Dwarfish name. One minor character in town is identified as Gaffer Gamgee. Andrew had an indistinct feeling that the Gaffer might figure into another Tolkien tale, but he could not say precisely which, having not read any others.

Andrew has thus far intentionally omitted the most fantastic personage of this tale, saving the best for last, as it is. Mr. Bliss keeps a girabbit: a cross between a giraffe and rabbit. The unnamed girabbit has a telescopic neck, fur of macintosh, and is quite blind. Andrew thought making the girabbit blind was a brave bit of writing for a children’s tale, and although it made Andrew a bit sad, the girabbit manages quite well, and quite contentedly. Andrew recognizes the value of including such a feature, as venue to prepare children that people have such distinctions, and they are nothing at all alarming.

Andrew opines that Mr. Bliss is an aptronym, as Mr B seems blissfully unaware of the consequences of his actions. At this observation, Andrew realizes it may be fair to call this a picaresque story as well.

Andrew enjoyed the illustrations by Professor Tolkien, especially the bears and girabbit. Andrew was a little scared of the bears at first, and their threats to eat people. They are not at all like the Berenstain Bears that he is previously acquainted with. But the illustrations made them appear less frightening. Oh and Andrew adds, he liked the picture of the yellow car with red wheels. He wants one.

Andrew gives it 4 of 5 stars

But feels this may not be Professor Tolkien’s greatest work.

Click HERE for more book reviews by my Grandsons and Granddaughters.