Monthly Archives: August 2013

War and Peace (1869), Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy_-_War_and_Peace_-_first_edition,_1869I wonder if there is anyone outside of Russian Literature majors (good luck with that) able to read in its entirety this long-winded vision into the rich, spoiled, and dysfunctional Russian society of the early 1800’s. After numerous attempts, revisiting sections that I unconsciously skimmed over, I was unable to find the energy to finish.

For a time it was a contest of wills, who will win Leo or me, but it became apparent once I entered the Masonic Temple that I was defeated. Russian novelists 1 – Brien 2.

There was one area that I think stood out – Tolstoy’s description of battle, all smoke and chaos, was well done and would seem to presage the modern adventure story.

I understand that War and Peace is considered one of the best novels of all time, and Tolstoy’s prose and point of view are strong, but this book has more historic novelty than modern fascination. War and Peace needs to be placed in a Hall of Fame – to be admired from afar for their historic significance, but not to be brought out and enjoyed, for their greatness is diminished when read.

I wonder if this is due to the serialization of the novel which would seem to lead to rambling verbosity. It could be that these novels (this one at least) are examples of stories that are better in the abridged versions. Perhaps I will revisit in the future.

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Lord of the Flies (1954), William Golding

200px-LordOfTheFliesBookCoverA story of the fine line between friend and enemy, respect and contempt, barbarism and civility – as performed by young boys marooned on a South Pacific island during World War 3.

Golding gives us simple yin-yang characters to play in his sandbox – Piggy, thoughtful and irritating; Ralph, charismatic and ineffectual; and Jack, driven and envious.

Interesting to think that if Ralph could have killed the boar instead of just wounding it or if he could have found a way to punish Jack for the fire going out, perhaps things would have been different. But his authority without consequence coupled with Jack’s ability to hunt meant that Ralph’s leadership role was, in the end, Jack’s for the taking (and thereby showing us the power of crispy bacon).

As the exciting last act unfolded, Jack hunting Ralph across the burning island, I hoped for a rescue.

To my relief and surprise, one appeared.

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Pride and Prejudice (1813), Jane Austen

180px-PrideAndPrejudiceTitlePageI wonder if you were to hold Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in one hand and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in the other and then slowly brought your palms together if you might set off an antimatter chain reaction that would destroy the world.

I might not have liked Austen’s work of love and marriage in English high society so much if not for the fact of my having read Dostoyevsky’s work just prior – Pride and Prejudice was as light as Crime and Punishment was heavy.

Austen’s style is easy reading and I would not have guessed that it was written so early in the 1800’s. In fact, her story has such a strong theme of an intelligent woman finding her own road to happiness (even if happiness does equal being married), that I have to thank Jane for not writing another novel of the period where women were ignorant blanks, supercilious simpletons, or worshipful goddesses.

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Crime and Punishment (1866), Fyodor Dostoyevsky

CrimeandpunishmentcoverRaskolnikov believes he is one in a million, one of those rare humans who are destined to change the course of humanity, a Napoleon, and therefore not constrained by the rules that govern a civilized society. In order to prove this contention, he plans and commits the murder of an old pawn broker and, accidently, her sister. In his mind if he can get away with the crime he has proof of his superiority. But over the course of the story we find that what Raskolnikov does have is a conscience and therefore is not special, is not another Napoleon (and thereby hinting that the people chosen by God for greatness have no conscience.)

This book is twice a long as it needs to be. Someone mentioned Dostoyevsky was paid by the word and, after innumerable rambling dialogues between idiotic drunks, shrewish consumptives, and arrogant murders, I have to agree.

Interestingly enough, a Higher Power seems very supportive of Raskolnikov’s bid for superior-human status. Before, during and after the murder, It steadies his bumbling stumbling plans and then after the deed, showers rewards on Raskolnikov and his family. Is it God trying to get Raskolnikov to embrace his superior God-given talents or the Devil rewarding Raskolnikov for his evil ways?

Raskolnikov is a hateful character and Dostoyevsky does everything in his power to make him and most of the other characters repellant. At the end Raskolnikov finds redemption in the eyes of his lady love, thereby choosing love over the will of God.

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To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Harper Lee

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdAtticus tells Scout that killing a mockingbird is a sin for they do no harm – but go ahead and shoot all the blue jays you want.

Set in the mid-1930’s in small town Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is about life’s blue jay – as shown by the deaths of Mrs. Dubois, Tim Johnson, Tom Robinson, and Bob Ewell amid the racism of the depressed South where two men are caught up and abused by society, white Boo Radley – who is saved and black Tom Robinson – who is not.

Lee utilizes a tight first person point of view throughout with an adult Scout as narrator and paints a vivid picture of the time and place.

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Animal Farm (1945), George Orwell

AnimalFarm_1stEdThe rise and fall of the communist ideal where the sheep are seriously funny and really sad.

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The Stranger (1942), Albert Camus

200px-TheStranger_BookCover3The Stranger is the story of a Frenchman who is executed for not weeping at his mother’s funeral.

Meursault is the title character living in French Algiers. He is arrested for killing an Arab and during the arraignment admits that he is an atheist. This places him on the same status level as the Moors. No, in fact, he is far worse than the Moors, for they believe in God, however misguided their faith. He is far worse than the Moors for he has no soul. And we know that he has no soul because he did not weep at his estranged mother’s funeral. Q.E.D.

But to the pious government officials, this lack of soul has far reaching implications for society. It is the reason Meursault killed the Arab, but it is also the reason others behave badly as well. Evil by osmosis. He is a cancer that must be removed.

Meursault drifts through this story as if dazed. His execution time arrives and he must decide whether perhaps he actually does believe in God after all or die. Happily he chooses the latter.

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