Wednesday, 29 October 2008

War and Peace

Title: War and Peace

Author: Leo Tolstoy

Number of pages: 1358

Started: 21 September 2008

Finished: 29 October 2008

Opening words:

'Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now nothing more than estates taken over by the Buonaparte family. No, I give you fair warning. If you won't say this means war, if you will allow yourself to condone all the ghastly atrocities perpetrated by that Antichrist - yes, that's what I think he is - I shall disown you. You're no friend of mine - not the "faithful slave" you claim to be... But how are you? How are you keeping? I can see I'm intimidating you. Do sit down and talk to me.'

These words were spoken (in French) one evening in July 1805 by the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honour and confidante of the Empress Maria Fyodorovna, as she welcomed the first person to arrive at her soirée, Prince Vasily Kuragin, a man of high rank and influence.

Plot summary:

Considered by many to the greatest novel ever written, Tolstoy's masterpiece is a story of family life set against the backdrop of war. The novel begins in 1805 in the crowded and gossip-filled rooms of a St Petersburg party and follows the fortunes of the aristocratic Bolkonsky and Rostov families as Napoleon's armies sweep through Europe, culminating in the French invasion of Russia in 1812 and Napoleon's defeat. Tolstoy's vast novel takes in both the epic sweep of national events and the private experience of individuals, from the keen young soldier to Napoleon himself, and at the heart of it all the complicated triangle of affection that binds his central characters.

What I thought:

So War and Peace is no more. All 1358 pages are now read and I am beginning to realise that I have some element of freedom back (that is a terribly amusing War and Peace based joke, but clearly if you haven’t read it, it will pass right over your head. Or it could mean that it’s not funny. Or that it’s a bit obscure even if you have read it. Take your pick).

Did I enjoy it? Sort of. I certainly found it very engaging at times and I wouldn’t have read it at the pace (five and a half weeks) I did if I didn’t get something out of it. I particularly liked Volume 3, which was when the narrator stepped into the story more and gave his views on people’s rile in history and how leaders think that they are somehow in control and yet any event in life (however great or small that life is) in that moment it is the culmination of a whole load of unconnected events that have gone before and people are not able to operate outside of that and take the credit for things that are really ultimately beyond their own control. I thought it was a really interesting idea and one that permeated the whole book.

As a story it would be right to describe it as epic and it brought together all the different parts of human experience and I was surprised at how funny some bits of the book were, but equally some were very tragic. I have to say that at times it was difficult to keep track of the story, but I think I just about managed to keep up.

Would I recommend it to others? Hmm… It was a good read and I liked it far more than I expected. But if someone wants to read it, they have to want to read it for themselves. I don’t think it is a book to take on lightly because it could easily turn into a test of endurance. I think reading it at a good pace is the best way to do it or else it would be quite easy to put it down and never pick it back up again. It is a definitely a more rewarding read if you read a reasonable chunk at a time (and it also helps to remember what happens as well). So, give it a go if you want to, but you do need to want to.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Fahrenheit 451

Title: Fahrenheit 451

Author: Ray Bradbury

Number of pages: 184

Started: 6 October 2008

Finished: 7 October 2008

Opening words:

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror. Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark. It never went away, that smile, it never ever went away, as long as he remembered.

Plot summary:

The hauntingly prophetic classic novel set in a not-too-distant future where books are burned by a special task force of firemen. Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books. The classic novel of a post-literate future, 'Fahrenheit 451' stands alongside Orwell's '1984' and Huxley's 'Brave New World' as a prophetic account of Western civilization's enslavement by the media, drugs and conformity. Bradbury's powerful and poetic prose combines with uncanny insight into the potential of technology to create a novel which over fifty years from first publication, still has the power to dazzle and shock.

Summary taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

When I started this book, I wasn’t too sure about it, but as I read on there were passages in it that I thought were so brilliantly written that you could hear the anger and passion as the characters expressed the words. Ray Bradbury was never certain quite what had driven him to write a book about a society that destroyed the written word, although he recalled the Nazi book-burnings etc, but somehow he feared a society might one day come about that banned books and literacy and instead we received everything through carefully manipulated television that simply kept us happy and unquestioning. His insight was perhaps even greater than he could ever have imagined.

In the Afterword of this book, Ray Bradbury explains some of the origins of the ideas in this book and he refers back to a prediction made by one of the characters that you don’t need to burn books if everyone is so caught up in seeking ‘happiness’ and instant satisfaction. If we are not careful, books simply fall by the wayside and all the potential challenges to our thinking that go along with them. If this book does nothing else for you then let it remind you of the world of books out there and how much there is to learn. If you haven’t read this book then perhaps you should to see a world without them.