The Blame Game

Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

President Barack Obama

 

To us it is inconceivable that millions of men should have killed and tortured each other, because Napoleon was ambitious, Alexander firm, English policy crafty, and the Duke of Oldenburg hardly treated . . . And the war would not have been had there been no intrigues on the part of England, no Duke of Oldenburg, no resentment on the part of Alexander; nor had there been no autocracy in Russia, no French Revolution and consequent dictatorship and empire, nor all that had led to the French Revolution, and so on further back: without any one of those causes, nothing could have happened. And consequently nothing was the exclusive cause of the war, and the war was bound to happen simply because it was bound to happen.   

The acts of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words it seemed to depend whether this should be done or not, were as little voluntary as the act of each soldier, forced to march out by the drawing of a lot or by conscription . . . for in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (on whom the whole decision appeared to rest) should be effective, a combination of innumerable circumstances was essential, without any one of which the effect could not have followed. It was essential that the millions of men in whose hands the real power lay – the soldiers who fired guns and transported provisions and cannons – should consent to carry out the will of those feeble and isolated persons.   

And so, Napoleon played his part as the representative of supreme power . . . He did nothing likely to hinder the progress of the battle; he yielded to the most sensible advice; he was not confused, did not contradict himself, did not lose his presence of mind, nor run away from the field of battle, but with his great tact and military experience, he performed calmly and with dignity his role of appearing to be in supreme control of it all.  

Throughout War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy expounds on his philosophy of the origins of historical events and the importance, or lack of importance, that the recognized leaders had in shaping the events. Above, I quote pieces of his philosophy which, unfortunately, are lacking because they are not in context or with the benefit of full (rather lengthy) explanation. But Tolstoy firmly believes that these men, Emperor Napoleon, Tsar Alexander, and their military commanders, had only as much to do with the events and their outcomes as any single soldier holding a bayonet on the front lines of a given battle. Essentially, the credit or blame of any particular event is a sum of the entire history of every man who went before it, and although every man personally has free will, the momentum of history is affected in only the minutest way by the actions of a single man, regardless of his position in the world.  

In my reading this past week, this particular idea has struck a chord in me because of the state of contemporary politics, the upcoming mid-term elections, and the blame that has, of late, been heaped upon the current President. Rather than making this a political dissertation and drawing conclusions for you, I leave Tolstoy’s words for you to recognize the parallels and perhaps to gain an interesting 150-year-old perspective on a contemporary quandary . . . the credit or blame that is deserved by President Obama (or any past president as an individual, for that matter.)  

Oh, and I’m almost to page 1000, so only 400 to go . . . almost as much as a whole other book, but I’m closing in on it!  

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On the virtues of a hardback . . . book

Napoleon in the Battle of Moskowa in 1812. Thr...

Napoleon in the Battle of Moskowa in 1812 . . . haven't gotten to this yet.

 

Well, as I slog my way through War and Peace, I thought I should try to write a bit on my blog so as not to lose the interest of the many, many fans I have acquired (Hi, Mom!)    

As far as my current read goes, I really am pleasantly surprised.  It’s not difficult to read at all.  The language is very accessible and almost conversational at times, though granted, a conversation from a different century.  Being an epic, the cast of characters is vast, and I am having some problems remembering who all of the people are between their appearances.  The action flips back and forth from Moscow to St. Petersburg to various battlefields in Austria, and there are a number of individual story lines that occasionally cross paths in order to keep the story united.  And let’s keep in mind that after a week of reading I am not even 300 pages into this tome of almost 1400 pages, so these are preliminary observations at best.    

One special note:  Tolstoy has quite a way with his description of battle.  It’s interesting and surprising, particularly having never been under fire myself and hoping to never have the pleasure.  It’s a different kind of battling than the modern warfare of heat seeking missiles and drones, or even the early 20th century battles of bombs dropped from airplanes and every soldier with a gun.  Communications during Tolstoy’s clashes are slow or non-existent between various regiments.  There are horses and swords and guns that require packing and flint before firing.  Death tended to be slow and painful, brought about by simple infections, exhaustion and hunger, and not necessarily from the immediate result of battle wounds.  Today, people say that things seem to move in slow motion during traumatic events like car accidents or bomb explosions, but events really were in slow motion in those battles considering how instantaneously we can now transmit messages and even death.  Tolstoy’s battle scenes are an insightful peek into a different way of war.    

And speaking of technology and communication, we now live in a time where you don’t even have to own a book in order to read a literary work.  As a bibliophile, you would think that I am opposed to this sort of thing, but I actually embrace it.  In spite of my advanced age, I have had computers in my house since I was a tween . . . a word that I don’t think existed when I was a tween, by the way.  This was thanks to my father who had a fascination with gadgets and was what marketers today call a “first adopter”.  I still remember that huge Apple computer with the floppy disk drives, the tiny monitor with the glowing, monochromatic typeface on the black background.  It was fascinating to me at the time, but I had absolutely no idea how it was going to literally change the world.  Now I have more processing power in my cell phone than in that old Apple II computer, and I don’t even use a smart phone!    

I have yet to purchase a tablet reader, but I have a number of friends who use them, and I imagine that they are nearly indispensable to today’s college students.  The iPad is high up on my “to be purchased” list, along with a smart phone (sorry, Apple, I don’t have AT&T and refuse to switch) and a new pair of red high heels.  I’d really rather wait to make my tablet purchase until after it is sand and water proof . . . or at least resistant.  After all, I live at the beach, and I don’t want to destroy such a stylish and expensive piece of technology by dropping it in a sand dune, but I might have break down and buy it sooner just because.    

I foresee myself using the tablet to read periodicals and using it to replace the multiple books I usually carry when I travel.  I can’t possibly run the risk of being caught without reading materials, and an Internet connected reader will make it possible to decide at the very last minute what I would like to read next . . . an amazing convenience!  However, I can’t see entirely giving up on the printed word.  Perhaps it’s just simple nostalgia that will be eventually overcome by the progression of time and technology, but, to echo a common refrain out there, there’s just something about holding the weight of a book in your hand as you read, turning the pages, feeling your progress through the story by the location of the bookmark.    

Most recently, I have also realized the distinct difference between reading a paperback book and a hardback book, and how truly wonderful the nearly lost art of reading an old-fashioned hardback book is.  The smell of the leather cover and the crisp stiff pages, the relatively substantial heft of the book, the silk lined cover, the gilt-edged paper, the smooth gold ribbon book mark, the embossed design and lettering on the binding . . . an overall richness that lends significance and gravity to the work within before you have even read page one.  I read Crime and Punishment in a red leather-bound edition like this and it made me want to curl up by a fire with a cup of hot tea.  Granted, I am currently enduring the dog days of summer and tea is not my normal drink of choice, but I compensated by turning up the AC and drinking hot chocolate.  The mechanics of reading a hardback book make it difficult to read while lying in bed, but this too seems to add to the importance of the work.  One cannot lounge while reading, but must sit up and give full attention in order to succeed.    

I think that often I read too casually, much in the manner that I digest sitcoms or fast food:  skimming with only partial attention and very little of merit left behind when it is over.  I am the first to admit that there is a certain pleasure in French fries, but it cannot be the only food you eat and they are certainly not the building blocks that will sustain you and make you a better person.  I know that the world is headed the way of the Matrix where you shove a plug into the back of your head and upload everything you need to know, but I hope against hope that there will always remain the families that sit around a table sharing dinner and conversation as well as the people who like to curl up with a book . . . one with a cover and pages, I mean.    

On the other hand, I think I would’ve sprained my wrist by now if I were reading War and Peace in hardback . . . to each job, the appropriate tool, I guess.    

A Glutton for Punishment

Napoleon in his study at the Tuileries - 2nd v...

Napoleon in his study at the Tuileries

Before I even finished reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I knew what my next read had to be:  Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  I knew that the two were contemporaries who embodied the idea of Russia in their writings, and they appeared to have great respect for one another.  Upon hearing of Dostoevsky’s death, Tolstoy wrote, “I never saw the man, and never had any direct relations with him, yet suddenly when he died I understood that he was the nearest and dearest and most necessary of men to me.”

But I had no idea how interrelated their most famous novels are.  Apparently the two men used the same publisher to serialize their novels.  While Tolstoy was ensconced in his country estate, slowly struggling to write and rewrite his massive epic, originally called 1805, his fortunate publisher Mihail Katkov had another talented author mired in a financial crisis caused by gambling debts and desperate for income.  This other author dashed off a note with the idea for Crime and Punishment and Katkov quickly bought it.  Imagine being the publisher who featured the serialized version of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece in his journal beginning in January of 1866 and in successive publications switched back and forth between that and the ongoing saga created by Tolstoy!  It is almost impossible that these two authors were published at the same time by the same editor in the same periodical without having an impact on each other. 

It seems in my first few pages of reading that the first topic they both share is Napoleon, although Tolstoy’s idea of Napoleon almost seems to counter the “Napoleonic genius” figure of Raskolnikov’s philosophy.  At the very least, there are character viewpoints ranging from genius to fool regarding this man who is such an omnipresent figure at this particular period of Russian history.

The setting and mood of this novel, at least so far, are dramatically different.  Tolstoy’s characters move in elite circles.  They have wealth and titles and political clout.  Everybody has something that deserves complaint, but there is much more in the way of drawing room manipulation and much less crushing poverty.  It is a substantially easier read, though I don’t know if this can be attributed to the translation or the original author, but I must say I am relieved.  I don’t think I could read 1384 pages of Crime and Punishment.

Wow, that’s a long book . . .

Not the good kind of crazy

Raskolnikov and Marmeladov from Crime and Puni...

Raskolnikov and Marmeladov from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I have recently finished my first book towards my goal of 101:  Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  The first observation I have to make is that the central figure in the novel Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov has practically no redeeming social value as a human being.  It’s notable that I when I went back to the beginning of the novel to find the correct spelling of his name for this post, I noticed a description of him as “exceptionally handsome . . . with beautiful dark eyes.”  Dostoevsky does not elaborate much on the physical descriptions of his characters, tossing them off in brief as though grudgingly meeting a necessary duty of a writer, and this visual was probably not repeated in any variation throughout the book.  However, it was surprising for me to find this sketch of his main character because by the end of the book, I had completely forgotten it and had formed a much less savory picture of him in my mind. 

To call Raskolnikov melancholy and irritable is a gross understatement.  As much as I wanted to like and sympathize with the “hero” of the story, he made it nearly impossible.  I wanted to pity the crushing poverty he endured in 19th century St. Petersburg, but he refused to make use of his obvious intelligence and education to improve his situation in any way.  He rather prefers sleeping the day away in his tiny room, cursing at those who try to provide company or food and brooding over his solitude and dismal situation.  He lashes out at the few people around him, screaming at them randomly (“scream” is the word frequently used in this translation), and pushing them away.  Even near the end of the book, he wonders why these people continue to love and care about him as horribly as he treats them, almost without exception.

And he is crazy . . . not the good kind of crazy that makes for a funny story after a night of drinking.  The pull-the-wings-off-an-insect-before-throwing-the-noose-over-the-rafters kind of crazy.  From the beginning, Raskolnikov is tormented by an idea he has developed to commit murder and robbery on an old pawn broker lady.  He aimlessly wanders the streets talking to himself, not looking anyone in the eye, getting into absurd arguments, and lamenting his plight to himself.  When he puts his plan into action, it quickly falls apart and he also ends up killing the woman’s much more likable sister Lizaveta.  Interestingly, the old pawn broker is never given a name, likely illustrating how very little Raskolnikov (and society at large) thought of this disagreeable woman.  And Raskolnikov’s ravings and mental anguish turn into physical illness.

I was hoping that this illness and mental distress was the physical manifestation of guilt over his bloody and ultimately senseless crime (since he did not take advantage of the stolen items), giving me permission to see him as sympathetic and human . . . a victim of his dire situation but still capable of remorse and regret.  But I eventually reached the inescapable conclusion that it was not guilt that sickened him. 

He had developed a theory and unknowingly published an article detailing the philosophy that ultimately led him to murder.  Dostoevsky apparently lifted Raskolnikov’s theory from a real life article published in a periodical called The Contemporary which was reviewing a book written by Napoleon III, the grandson of the infamous conqueror.  The Contemporary extrapolated the moral consequences of Napoleon III’s idea that some men are geniuses, men of destiny, and as such are not bound by the logic and rules that constrain normal men.  These men, like Napoleon and Julius Caesar, dramatically change the world and lay the roadmap for generations to follow, and therefore, the actions they take that would be considered “crimes” for ordinary men are forgivable in these heroes.  The problem is how to recognize these “Napoleonic geniuses”, and what if one erroneously sees oneself as a member of this elite group and proceeds to disregard the laws of man?  Raskolnikov saw himself as a man of greatness, and the murder was to be, in a manner, proof that he belonged to this group.  The botched crimes and his subsequent confession proved that he was just like the mortals that surrounded him.  He was no better than they, and this devastating realization was the source of his almost complete unhinging.  It was not guilt that he had done something evil, for he continued to believe that the pawnbroker was unworthy of anyone’s sympathy and deserved to die.  It was the shame that came with the realization that he was not exceptional.

It may be strange for me to say, but in this, I finally found my connection to Raskolnikov.  It is almost embarrassing to admit any similarity between myself and such unpleasant character, but I recognize the desire within me to see myself as extraordinary and live my life accordingly.  No, I don’t go to the extremes of committing crimes or mistreating the people around me, but I unconsciously draw a line between myself and the vast majority of other people . . . normally based on intellect.  And it has a powerful impact on me when I fail at something and realize that I am not that different from the people around me.  It is emotionally distressing to be ordinary for some reason, and I didn’t even grow up the product of a society where every child always wins and gets a ribbon or a trophy.  In my childhood, there were winners and losers, and it’s a good thing too because I’d probably be much worse and more self-entitled than I am (scary thought!)

Man, that paragraph is going to come back and bite me if I ever DO get famous one day!

But back to the novel . . . it takes until the final paragraph of the story for Raskolnikov to demonstrate that he has any hope of redemption and then it is due to the saintly influence of a prostitute with a heart of gold:  a woman with admirable qualities, not the least of which is her endless patience and understanding which had to have been worn very thin by Raskolnikov’s belligerent behavior.  Even on the last page where he finally broke down and let love into his life, I kept thinking that he was then going to be killed by his fellow inmates, who also found him quite irritating and obnoxious.  I wouldn’t have been the least surprised because aside from the awakening on the last page (which was qualified by 7 more years of prison and the prophecy of more hard time to follow that), there was very little in the book that demonstrated grace or hope.  To me, the “happy” ending was a surprise.

Overall, it took me a while to get into reading the book.  The language was not difficult but there are period references and the speech patterns are different enough to require extra concentration and an occasional visit to Wikipedia.  There are unexpected changes in the narrative voice from time to time, and there are monologues that go on for pages without a single paragraph break, proving that truly great authors ARE actually exempt from the rules of mortal men . . . literary rules, anyway.  Worth reading?  Ultimately, I’d say yes, but I’m not sure I would have had it on this “must read” list in retrospect.  Sorry, Fyodor.  But at least I don’t think you’re scary any more.  Just terribly depressing.  And a little crazy.

One Man’s Trash . . .

While I am plowing through the first novel on my list of bests, I thought I’d give you an idea of what I normally read (for better or worse).  What follows is a list of some of the books I have read this summer along with my personal thoughts about the books, authors, etc.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo & The Girl Who Played With Fire both by Stieg Larsson – I was lent and read the 2nd book in this series first and contrary to what I was told, it DOES make a difference.  There is a major plot point that carries much of the first novel that is already resolved before the 2nd, so I already knew how the 1st was going to turn out while I was reading it.  I might have been able to figure it out myself anyway, but it kind of messes up my flow when I have knowledge of a spoiler.

The heroine is unusual and fairly kickass which makes for an interesting read, in my opinion.  The first book was made into a movie in Sweden, I think, and the powers that be have decided that it need to be made into a movie in the U.S. since Americans, apparently, can’t tolerate subtitles.  It’s just the kind of book that should translate well onto the silver screen:  handsome, principled hero; funky, counterculture heroine; an old, wealthy family mystery; sex; technology; murder; money . . . it’s like Stieg lived in Hollywood already.

Anyway, this is a series of 3 books by the now deceased Swedish author and they are all (?) currently on the best seller list.  I would have read the 3rd but it’s only available in hardback & I can’t bring myself to spend that much.  And even if it were in paperback, I needed to give myself a break from this particular series, as much as I have enjoyed it.

Tipping Point by Malcolm Glaldwell – another best seller, but this one is non-fiction and the reason I found it was a referral by a marketing teacher I had in my MBA program.  This book deals with what is the difference between a sweeping trend and an idea that just kind of peters out without making an impression.  Using numerous examples from a wide variety of sources, Caldwell tries to identify the factors that “tip”.  It sounds like it would be a dry read, but Caldwell has an amazingly readable tone and a storyteller’s voice.  It was thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating, and I plan to read it again one day.  I also recommend another of his books I read previously:  Blink.  More or less, it’s about first impressions and their impact on behavior.

Odd Hours by Dean Koontz – I happen to like a good series, as you will gather from this list.  I particularly enjoy a series that doesn’t necessarily have to be read in order where the main draw is a strongly appeal main character.  This is one of those series.  I have never read any of Dean Koontz’s other books and I am aware that he is widely popular.  They just never seemed to be my kind of books.  I’m not sure why I stumbled upon this character, Odd Thomas, who was so named by a typo on his birth certificate (his first name was meant to be Todd), but I love him.  He, like Haley Joel Osment, sees dead people, and the dead people know it so they frequently want him to do something for them.  It’s frequently spooky, but there are wonderful, comedic sidebars where he talks to the ghost of Elvis and Frank Sinatra, among others, although none of the ghosts can actually talk back.

Odd is quirky (as you might imagine for someone named Odd that talks to ghosts), tortured, heroic and humble.  There’s a good bit of action and traditional bad guy stuff too.  I believe this is the 4th books featuring Odd, and they are all easy, fun reads that sweep you along.  You’re at the end before you know it, with only a vague memory of what you just read, but that’s OK.

Lucky You & Strip Tease by Carl Hiaasen – This is one of my Florida authors.  Having been born in South Florida and lived 11+ years of my adult life there too, I have an exasperated, affinity for the craziness that is that state.  Interestingly, unknown to much of the rest of the country, it’s almost like that state is divided into four other, distinct states that have their own personalities and foibles.  Mr. Hiaasen focuses his efforts on the swamps of the Everglades with its colorful cast of Seminole Indians, dangerous wildlife, eco-tourists, redneck militia fanatics, immigrant farm laborers, and much more.  He has some extremely engaging recurring characters, but they don’t show up in every book and are not usually central players.  He also makes visits to other, more populous areas and has a fondness for all that makes Florida tacky.  In these two books, there is a “dispute” over a winning lottery ticket and a stripper who is accidentally caught in a political intrigue.  The sharp wit and entertaining characters carry the books along quite well.  Perfect summer reading if you don’t mind finishing the book in just a day or two because you can’t put it down.

Sanibel Flats by Randy Wayne White – This is my second Florida author, but his work focuses the locale in Western Florida and follows a main character Marion “Doc” Ford who seems to be a geeky marine biologist living on a houseboat, but turns out to be some kind of inactive covert operations type of government employee.  He’s a bespectacled nerd that is more than capable of kicking somebody’s ass when necessary . . . and it’s amazing how often it becomes necessary when he obviously wants to avoid it.  He is kind of like Indiana Jones but a little tougher and less cartoonish.  I have read several, but this particular book is the first and it’s interesting to read knowing how Doc Ford develops over time.  My brother and I have so enjoyed RWW’s novels over the last several years that the main character’s preferred drink, pineapple and dark rum, has become our standard summer cocktail, and we call it a “Doc Ford.”  Like the drink, the books are a delightful combination of humor and action, fruitiness and business.

The Queen’s Pawn by Christy English – This is a freshman novel by a friend of mine from high school, and I cannot say enough good things about it.  I have read a number of first novels recently, for some reason.  I am not listing most of them here because most are not worth listing.  In so many, there tends to be a stiltedness that forces you to remember the reality that you’re reading somebody else’s not quite eloquently worded thoughts.  It jars you out of the floating suspension of disbelief that you enter when you immerse yourself in a well written book.  This book has none of that as a problem.  From beginning to end, this fictionalized look at Eleanor of Aquitaine and Princess Alais of France and the intersection of their lives lifts you up and doesn’t put you back down in your world until you close the book.  It is virtually seamless.  Whether this is the innate ability of the writer or the masterful work of a highly skilled editor, I cannot say.  I imagine it is a bit of both.  But if you have any interest at all in historical fiction a la Philippa Gregory, I highly recommend you give this book a try.  Christy’s second book is locked and being printed as I write, and I will have to take a break from this project to read it when it finally comes out.

Positively Pooh:  Timeless Wisdom From Pooh by A.A. Milne – an adorable little book given to me on the occasion of my graduation.  It’s exactly what you might think it is, and the better for it.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett – This, too, is a first novel, but not by a writer I know.  Why this one is so immensely popular and The Queen’s Pawn is relatively undiscovered . . . well, I’ll have to read Tipping Point again to see if the answer is in there somewhere.  That is certainly not a knock on this book, though.  It is absolutely outstanding.  I hesitate to say that it will become a classic because I feel unqualified to make such a pronouncement, but I will just let that indicate my high regard for the book.  It deals with segregation in the South during the Civil Rights movement and particularly the remarkable variety of relationships that white families had with their black housekeepers.  It resonates with me because even when I grew up, we had a black housekeeper that I called by her first name.  An adult woman that a child was allowed to call by her first name!  I had no idea what a travesty that was at the time, just as many of these people had no idea what they were doing.  It’s embarrassing to be able to see myself in it, but I am glad that I see it rather than being so ignorant as to think it has no relation to my life.  Read it, whether you had a housekeeper or not.  You won’t regret it.

Earthfall (Volume 4 of the Homecoming Saga) & The Crystal City (Volume 6 of the The Tales of Alvin Maker Series) by Orson Scott Card – I go through phases where I read a lot of a particular genre.  These two are leftovers from a science fiction/fantasy phase and I am trying to finish the series.  The Homecoming Series is genuine science fiction and I have one more of those left.  I prefer the Alvin Maker Series as it is more fantasy and it deals with an alternate reality pre-Civil War America where there is an element of magic around.  I like alternate reality views of the world.  One must be so creative to flesh them out fully.  I admire OSC for his ability to do so, although it seems that he used an online community of readers to help him.  The Crystal City is the last of the series.

Note:  both series should be read in order because each book builds on the previous one.  It kind of drags it out when you can’t find the next book you need to read, so it’s taken me quite some time to get through them.

Demons & Other Inconveniences by Dan Dillard – this is a self-published book of short horror stories by the husband of a friend of mine from high school.  It’s not my normal genre, but I see great promise in his work.  I know that he is writing on a regular basis, so his craft will only get stronger.  He has great instincts and some of the stories are genuinely surprising and scary.  He is currently talking to a publisher, I hear, and is definitely someone to watch.

Reading Like a Writer:  A Guide For People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want To Write Them by Francine Prose – this was the last book I read prior to starting my 101 Best Novels project, and the title really says it all.  I’m hoping that it will help me to slow down and read a little more critically from time to time, so that I can figure out just a little bit of what makes a novel great.  Not exactly pleasure reading, for most, but worth the time, in my case.