From Russia with Love

After almost 8 months (and what seems like an eternity), I’ve finally finished reading War and Peace.

And before you ask, yes, it has periods of both war and peace; it’s not one or the other. Actually, it’s kind of always war and always peace. And sometimes, it seems like the “war” parts are more peaceful than the “peace” parts, and vice versa, so there ya go. Not in an Orwellian “war is peace” doublespeak kind of way, but in a “some find peace in war” kind of way.

The “war” parts were hard for me to follow, primarily because, to the very end, Tolstoy insisted on introducing umpteen-billion new characters in every war section of the novel. (Okay, I’m exaggerating – but you get my point, it was a lot.) These were throw-away characters for the most part, too, or historical figures that Tolstoy wanted to make a point of mentioning once or twice and then NEVER AGAIN. Why do you torture me this way, T? I thought we were friends.

Can we also talk about how Tolstoy originally published W&P between 1865 and 1869 (i.e., over a 5-year period)? These people originally had 5 years to read this tome and I feel like that’s an appropriate amount of time over which to expect people to read this book. I did it in 8 months. Just throwing that out there for all you folks judging how look it took me to read this beast (*cough* it’s me, I’m judging myself *cough*).

Side Bar: I also read 5(ish) books on the side while I was working on W&P so that may have contributed to the time it took me to read it.

Deception and Betrayal: The Tale of the Abridged Version

I started out reading a version of W&P that I thought was unabridged. I had good reason. It said “original version” on the cover and did not say “abridged” anywhere on it. Usually, abridged versions of classics have the common decency to tell you straight-out that they are the cheaters’ version. Well. This was not the case for the print copy I had. It was full of lies and I felt so betrayed, friends.

Thankfully, at the time I discovered its deceit, I had progressed through the book mostly using the audiobook (which was definitely not abridged). That’s actually what helped me figure it out – I had about 80 pages left in my print copy and 20 hours left on the audiobook, which did not add up at all.

As soon as I realized I was being taken for a fool, I ditched the print copy (made beautiful art out of it, actually), downloaded an unabridged ebook version, and continued on.

It made a beautiful wreath, but I was so heartbroken. Will I ever trust a book again?

But did you like it?

At the end of the day (cue Les Mis soundtrack), I don’t think I read this right. I certainly didn’t do myself any favours. For the most part, I read it to get through it, instead of reading it to enjoy it/appreciate it. I think I would have gotten a lot more out of it had I taken the time to slow down (yes, slown down – you heard me – I know it seems like a ridiculous thing to say considering how long it took me to read this book) and look up the historical references and figures Tolstoy took the trouble to incorporate into this book, or really relish the character development, or pull out a map and figure out where the EFF these battles took place and where the troops were moving. Any of those things would have enriched my experience tremendously, and that’s just scratching the surface of what I could have done.

The unfortunate thing, and how I really know that I cheated myself, is that when I dialed myself in and paid attention, I really enjoyed reading W&P. I found it to be interesting, and sometimes surprisingly hilarious, like when the boys tie a police officer to a bear, or when Pierre is trying to insist he’s not a Frenchman but the Frenchman insists that he is one because he’s nice and all Frenchmen are nice therefore he must be a Frenchman, or when Andrei (or Nikolai? It was a long time ago. I forget) throws his gun at an enemy soldier because he doesn’t know how to shoot it – to name a few. I also found it to be smart, and it had all kinds of tangents and rabbit holes I could get lost in. But I had a mission, dammit, and I was going to finish this book – distractions be damned! Onward, I said!

Readers, I think I messed this one up. Do I get a mulligan? Yes. Will I read it again one day, the right way? Maybe. I’d like to. I think what I’d really like to do is break it up in to its orginal 6 volumes and read it over the 5-year period its contemporaries got to take it in. That would give me the time I needed to do the things I really enjoy when I’m reading a book (not to mention finish my character map, which, sadly, I abandoned about 3/4 of the way through – I can’t go back now DON’T MAKE ME PLEASE).

Will I read the Second Epilogue again? No. Never. You can’t make me.

I really wish I had blogged along the way, so that I wasn’t doing one monster here-are-all-the-things-I-thought-about-this-book post, but here we are. It’s hard to know what to leave in and what to take out, so as a happy middle-ground, I thought I would provide my thoughts for you in bullet-point format.

War and Peace: Reactions and Reflections in Bullet-Point Format

  • Natasha is a baby. Why are all these old-ass men throwing themselves at her? It’s even sketchy/gross/pedophelic by historiographic standards, as evidenced by the fact that Mrs. Rostov has to inform Denisov that, oh hey, it’s definitely inappropriate for you (a grown-ass man) to propose to my (prepubescent) daughter, so maybe don’t do that? K thx bye.
  • Pierre is a prisoner of war with the French and walks for DAYS – how does he not lose any weight? If there’s no hope for Pierre, how is there any hope for the rest of us?
  • Hélène suffers from some serious slut-shaming in this book. Poor woman. She was told to marry rich and that’s what she did, and she did it well, multiple times even! The woman could wed. Also she 100% said she was pregnant and then it was never mentioned again and everyone is just okay with that?
  • There was a duel. It was awesome.
  • Pierre is a buffoon who stumbles through life and everything just seems to work out for him. Why? How?
  • Anatole. Oh, Anatole. You are an ass-hat.
  • The ending makes no sense. I legitimately do not understand how Natasha and Pierre end up together. Yes, Pierre’s feelings for her were established early on, but (a) everyone and their brother had feelings for Natasha, so big woop, and (b) Andrei was his best friend and literally just.died. It’s like Tolstoy has some great fear of his female characters becoming spinsters (“Oh no! I’ve left 2 female characters unwed, quick! Who is still single? Let them be married!”).

#Catbookclub

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: having someone read along with you is just the very best. They can relate to the struggle, and when you text them randomly with, “Dude, shit is going down.” They respond with “I know right”, and when you say things like, “Natasha is turning into a real Lydia” and, “Rostov is such a POS”, they just get you, you know? It’s great. Highly recommend. Would read with again. 10/10.

On a more serious note, I’ve been at this thing alone for a long time now. It’s nice to have someone in the trenches with you. Reading is such a solitary sport, it’s easy to forget how communal it can be. How it can be a tool to build community and develop friendships and connect to people. The absolute joy of being able to explain in horror, or excitement, or joy, or whatever, your reactions to the story – the ability to experience a book with someone instead of in solitude – that is magical.

It takes a special person – nay, an acceptional person – to agree to read War and Peace with you. I’m grateful.

And, as a reward for reading W&P with me, I’ve given my reading buddy the honour of picking the next List read from The Bowl. Until such a time as we’re able to arrange for this to happen, I’m free to read what my heart desires. So, I’ve picked up The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Okay – that’s enough for now. I’m sure I’ll think of more things to say later. Stay tuned!

Are You Still There?

Because I wouldn’t blame you if you’d left. Nothing like a snow day (or two) to wear out my excuses for not posting. So here I am!

Since finishing Watership Down (which ended happily ever after; what a twist!), I’ve moved on to War and Peace. So, essentially I went from an adorable, if dull, children’s novel about rabbits to a hilarious, if long, Russian novel about…well…war and peace.

But first – let’s do a post-mortem on WD, shall we?

Side bar: Some people don’t like the term “post-mortem” because it’s too dark. I kind of like it. Alternatively, I could start calling these autopsies. I think that would work, too; systematically (perhaps even clinically) reviewing a book to determine what happened/present a conclusion about its end. Seems about right to me. Except…maybe my post-mortem/autopsies are not so much systematic and/or clinical as they are stream of consciousness…so maybe not. Where were we?

watership down

“Slugs are lucky not to have legs. I think I’ll be a slug.” – Bluebell, Watership Down

I had built WD in my mind to be this insurmountably boring novel. I tried once, couldn’t get past all the droning on about crossing a river, and have since lived in dread of having to revisit it. But, you know what? It really wasn’t that bad. A bit of a blunt instrument in terms of its use of allegory and symbolism, but who among us haven’t fallen into that trap once or twice in our lives? Plus, it’s a Netflix series now, which is kind of neat.

*SPOILERS BELOW*

Moving on to W&P –

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Before I even begin, I have to tell you that the best thing about reading War and Peace is that I have someone joining me this time. They’re calling it the Cat Book Club and it’s like my life’s aspiration to inspire a book club is now complete. I have arrived. But also it’s just great to have someone slogging through this with me – and better than me, might I add! They are tearing through W&P while I am making slow progress. It’s good though, keeps me motivated and stops me from straying from this book to other, easier, tempting young adult books on my bookshelf. Also Jurassic Park. And Jaws. And the Hannibal series.

I have to tell you, W&P may be long-winded, but it is hilarious. Ol’ Tolstoy really knows how to find the humour in social and military politics. And, true to form, it is near impossible to keep track of who everyone is, especially when you factor in all.of.the.military.personel. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? It wouldn’t be so bad if they were introduced with context, but many aren’t – new names are often thrown in off-hand and never returned to again. Or, their relevance/relation to the plot/other characters is never addressed. They’re just kind of…there…

Pro tip for reading Tolstoy: Just because he calls them prince/princess does not mean that person is royalty. Everybody up in here is a prince or a princess. And everyone has 5 versions of their name. And there are at least 3 people being referred to as “the little princess” in any given scene at any given time.

So far, the war is progressing (I would love to give you more information but I am just so confused. The Russians/Prussians/Austrians lost a bridge to the French, then they won another battle, then Rostov got injured and Boris has done nothing but go to military balls and march in parades, someone’s brother had diner with Napoleon and now they’re on their way to war again – does that help?).

There was one scene where Rostov (I think it was Rostov) falls down in battle and a French soldier approaches him. Rostov grabs his gun, but he’s never been in battle before and instead of shooting the soldier, he throws his gun at instead, then runs away in to the woods! Hilarious!

Early on in the book, we are treated to another scene in which a bunch of men are getting drunk and betting each other that they can sit in an open window sill without falling. It’s a high window. It doesn’t sound funny, but it is. Maybe you had to be there…

In terms of the “Peace” part of the book, Lise (little princess) is going to pop any minute now, Bolkonsky’s daughter (the quiet, bookish recluse) was going to marry Anatole (the arrogant bad boy), but turned him down because Bourienne (French hotty) loves him. Pierre (black sheep) went from being a nobody to the richest person in Russia after inheriting his father’s money. He married…someone…for…reasons…

The Rostov daughters are all waiting for their respective love interests to return from war. And…I think that’s about it.

I’m about a third of the way through now. I’m relying heavily on my audiobook to get me through many of the war scenes. This *could* be why I’m finding it so difficult to keep track of it all…Right? Yeah.

Okay, I’m off!

Dear Books: You’ve changed, man.

Books have changed. They used to be these great tomes of philosophical reflection, social commentaries and religious allegories. Now they’re all about getting on that best seller list and being accessible to our short-attention-spans and Level 3 national reading average.

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Literature, it seems to me, used to be a vehicle for something much larger than simply the story which was being told. It was a means by which authors could engage society in a conversation about larger issues, and put their own theories out there too. The story was a Trojan horse for their real agenda, whether that be spiritual, like C.S. Lewis, societal, like George Orwell, or metaphysical, like Tolstoy.

I just finished reading Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, which may be why I’m thinking about this sort of thing at the moment.

The story of Anna Karenina is not at all about Anna herself; for the title character, she doesn’t get as much camera time as you would expect. I found that Anna and her love affair served as the backdrop upon which the character of Levin tries to figure out the meaning of life. As readers, we spend much more time with Levin and his thoughts, than we do with Anna, in her misery. Throughout the book, Levin desperately tries to find purpose and meaning for his life.

It’s a really interesting book, and deserves way more reflection and discussion than I can offer it here. While I was reading it, I found myself fascinated by so many things. Here are a few that I remember:

  • Gender relations and double-standards in the novel – why is Anna ruined by an affair and divorce and not Alexey? Why is her scandal such an unforgiveable scandal, why does it ruin her life and cast her out from society, meanwhile the book opens with Stiva’s affair with his nanny, and he continues to have more affairs through the book, and that is no big deal?
  • Family dynamics and parenting – the book presents us with a view of late 19th century Russian family life, at least that of the upper-class. Though to be fair, Levin does provide us with a peek in to that of the peasants. There seems to be so much distance between parents and their children, especially fathers and their children. Mothers aren’t expected to breast feed, they have wet nurses for that. Fathers are expected to educate their children…I’m not a parent, but I still found the theories on parenting and the way family life was presented in this book to be really interesting.
  • Money – there’s a lot of discussion about how much debt is acceptable, and how much is too much. When we think of these lavish lifestyles of the upper classes of the past, we don’t consider the crippling debt that they also undoubtedly taking on, which Tolstoy treats with consistent transparency throughout the book. It seems that we’ve always had problems living outside of our means.
  • Religion – most of the major characters in the book have a significant relationship or experience with religion as part of their narrative. The most significant are Levin’s and Kitty’s, I would think.
  • The symbolism of farming and nature – we spent an inordinate amount of time on Levin’s farm, which is difficult to get through as a reader because it can feel like you’re getting bogged down in the trivial details of farm life. Why do I care how many trees you cut down, or how your jam is being made, Levin? But it is through farming that Levin is able to express and explore his philosophical ideas, and separate from himself. There’s a purity in his relationship with his land which is enjoyable to read.
  • Love and self-love – everything Anna does is in an attempt to feel loved, but she needs a love that is so strong and overwhelming that it makes up for how little she loves herself. She ends up projecting her own self-hatred on to the men in her life, and that’s what ends up completely destroying her. Tolstoy really crafted such a tragic character with her.

Now that I’ve finished Anna Karenina, I’m switching gears to Isaac Asimov. Foundation, here I come!

Anna Karenina: HIMYM and Early Predictions

As soon as I saw the name Scherbatsky in Anna Karenina I thought to myself “Could it be?” which was almost instantly followed up by a quick Google search, which told me that yes, it could be and yes, it was so. Robin Scherbatsky was indeed named after Kitty Scherbatsky.

I wasn’t the first person to discover this, but it feels good to be right.

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On another note, Anna has just pulled in to the train station in the book, and Vronsky is so instantly infatuated with her he has all but walked in to a wall.

Full disclosure: when the story took a dark turn and it was announced that someone had been run over by the train, I thought it was Levin FOR SURE. Having been so completely shattered by Kitty’s refusal, I thought he had thrown himself in front of the train. It wasn’t him, though. Apparently Tolstoy is not that dramatic.

To those of you who are paying attention and who have read the book before, this is a clear indication that I have not made a ton of progress in AK yet. Kindle says I’m 7% done.

I was sucked in to a black hole of YA Fiction for a little while there. After reading Black City and PheonixI read The Testing series (it was okay) and The Murder Complex (it was less okay). I almost started reading the sequel to the latter, The Death Code, and then half-way through the first page I thought to myself “Catherine, you are better than this.” I put it down and picked up AK again, and here we are.

PREDICTIONS:

Anna and Vronsky

Obviously Anna and Vronsky are going to fall in love and run away together, breaking poor Kitty’s little adolescent heart [serves her right!]. The part of me that enjoys seeing egotistical men taken down a peg or two hopes that Anna rejects him in some kind of cruel way. But this probably won’t happen.

This would leave the loose end of Anna’s husband and son…so let’s take a wild guess here and say that they go back for her son.

Oblonsky

Oblonsky and his wife divorce and he goes off with his mistress. They have to sell the house due to Oblonsky’s crippling debt.

Dolly and Levin

Dolly and Levin end up together, finding comfort in each other’s broken hearts. Dolly and the kids move out to the country with Levin, and having access to so much free labour, Levin becomes wildly productive and successful.

Kitty

And Kitty ends up alone. Or with Oblonsky’s friend with the weird nails. That’ll teach her for breaking a sweet man’s heart.

Now off to find out how far off base I am with these!

I got this.

It turns out that I had incorrectly logged books I’ve read (*cough* or listened to as audiobooks *cough*) this year on Goodreads, and am actually much closer to my goal as previously believed (yay!).

After correctly logging books I have read, and with the help of a recent long driving trip which allowed me to finish two and half audiobooks, I find myself with only three books left to read to reach my goal.

According to Goodreads I am now “on track” to reach my goal. Coming off of months of being ridiculously behind, this made me feel very good, and very confident. In celebration, today I decided to ditch my plan of relying on young adult fiction, Shakespeare (with the exception of Henry IV Part Two, which I’m still working on and will finish soon), and audiobooks, and turned once again to my bowl to pick which book to read next.

My next book will be: Anna Karenina

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True, this is not the most digestible of books, but it is supposed to be very good. It’s on The List after all, right?! Don’t worry, guys, I totally got this…

…I am 62% sure I got this…

…I picked up the first Infernal Devices book and The Five People You Meet in Heaven…just to be safe…Safety first!