2017 – or, Distracted by Documentaries…


That might seem an odd title for a post rounding up my thoughts on my best reads of the year, but I fear that my reading rate has actually slowed down quite a lot over recent months and I suspect that might have something to do with my constantly being distracted by the BBC…..

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

This all kind of began over the summer months with the series of programmes on BBC4  focussing on Utopias of all sorts, and in particular Prof. Richard Clay’s three-part series on the subject (I also blame him for sending me off down a bit of an iconoclasm rabbit hole…) Since then, I seem to have been awash with documentaries of all sorts, from classical music through Margaret Atwood to Mexican art, all of which are a bit distracting and take the mind away from books (or send the mind off in strange directions after other books aside from the ones I was meant to be reading…) So my rate of reading has slowed down a bit I think generally because of this, and spending time in chunksters like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment” has compounded the problem.

However, I have read some absolutely marvellous books this year; I never do anything as formal as a top ten, but here are a few of my highlights. And note that two of them have been read in December, so yes! doing one of these lists before January is premature! So – here goes…


This blog would not be about my reading without having a lot of Russians in there, and 2017 was by necessity dominated by them. It has been, of course, a year of marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of the outstanding books of the year for me were ones dealing with this. China Mieville’s October and the collection 1917, put together by Boris Dralyuk, were fine books which really brought the events of a century ago alive and both will stay with me.

On the Russian fiction front, I spent a great deal of time with some classic chunksters. Finally reading “War and Peace” was a milestone for me, and revisiting “Crime and Punishment” by my beloved Dostoevsky was also a special experience.

There were new treats too, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and “Memoirs of a Revolutionary” by Victor Serge. Both authors are recent discoveries and both I would now count as amongst my favourites.  And the wonderful collection of Russian Emigre Short Stories, collected by Bryan Karetnyk and which I covered for Shiny New Books, was a real eye-opener and treat.

Still with Russia, but with non-Russian authors, I actually loved to bits two novels set in that country – “A Gentleman from Moscow” by Amor Towles; and “The Noise of Time”, Julian Barnes’ masterly portrayal of Shostakovich. Really, as a lover of Russian culture and history, I *have* rather been spoiled this year!

Classic Crime

Unsurprisingly, given my taste for it, I’ve delved into a lot of classic crime this year. Much of it has come in the form of lovely books from the British Library Crime Classics editions; and I find it hard to pick favourites from them, although “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a real treat.

I also discovered John Dickson Carr with a vengeance. It’s not for nothing he’s known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve spent many a happy hour with Dr. Gideon Fell this year.

Margaret Atwood

A living legend. A genius. ‘Nuff said. I rediscovered her work this year too, and definitely want to keep that trend going during 2018. Certainly, her non fiction books have been a real revelation and I can’t praise her highly enough.

Translated literature

There has been a *lot* of translated literature flowing through the Ramblings this year – and if I was more organised I daresay I could get the spreadsheet I keep my list of books read in to work out some statistics. I suspect there could well be more translated that native language books in there – maybe I’ll calculate one day…

Anyway, spending time with Georges Perec is always a joy and I read more of his works this year. I still have a book or two left unread, thank goodness – I dread getting to the last of his works available to me in English.

And one of the highlights of my reading year, during December was the book “Malacqua” – an author and book new to me which I stumbled upon because of the recommendation on the front from Italo Calvino. An unusual, hypnotic and memorable work.

Sci-Fi (or slipstream or speculative fiction or whatever  you want to call it…)

I’ve always dipped into this kind of genre over the years, but during 2017 I really reconnected, after dipping into Soviet sci-fi during 2016. The late, great Brian Aldiss is turning out to be something of a treasure, but my main incursions into the genre came via M. John Harrison. I read some of his shorter works for the 1968 Club and then had the joy (also in the last month of the year!) of reading his newest collection of shorter works, “You Should Come With Me Now”. It’s a powerful and unforgettable work and another book of the year arriving at the last minute.

Reading Clubs

On the subject of the reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck in a Book, we spent time in 1951 and 1968 last year, and we have 1977 lined up for this one – do join in if you can, these events are such fun!

2018 – plans or not?

I started 2017 giving myself few challenges and reading plans or restrictions – which seems to have worked best for me, and I plan to continue on that road for 2018. I don’t function well as a reader if I feel that I *must* read a book; instead I intend another year of No Plans At All and simply following the reading muse!

One reading challenge I *will* try to drop in on occasionally is HeavenAli’s centenary read-along for Muriel Spark. I’ve read a fair bit of Spark over recent years, but there are plenty of titles I haven’t read so if the timing is right, I’ll be there…

I must too say thank you to all who drop in here, leave comments, discuss and recommend books – I always love engaging with people about reading, and look forward to interacting with you all in 2018. And thanks also to the lovely publishers who’ve provided review copies this year (and contributed to the lack of space in my house…)

Apart from that – lead on, Reading Muse, I’m right behind you…. 🙂

… in which the best laid plans… #warandpeacenewbies


I know myself as a reader; and I had my doubts when I started my reading of “War and Peace” as to whether I’d be able to stick to the schedule. Well, I haven’t I have to confess – but not necessarily in a bad way… The trouble is that I became so invested in the story of these characters and their lives that I found it impossible to stick to the restriction of reading and reviewing a couple of sections a week. That isn’t the way I normally read, and although it worked at the start while I was busy at work, I found that when I set off for my recent round trip of visiting my Aged Parent and Offspring I just wanted to read the rest of “War and Peace” straight through. Which I have, and it was a wonderful experience.

I was conscious with my previous posts that they were veering towards just giving a summary of the action of the sections I’d read, and I did doubt whether I would sustain weekly posts of any substance. Therefore, I think I’ll just give some overall thoughts in a kind of bullet point way, drawing on my thoughts and reactions to the book. I would say, however, that I can’t recommend highly enough that you read “War and Peace” – definitely one of the reads of the my life. So, some thoughts:

* Plot-wise, after some years of fragile peace, war breaks out again when Napoleon invades Russia. Andrei, Nikolai and Petya fight; Pierre becomes embroiled in the fall of Moscow and comes up with some harebrained schemes at one point; the Bolonsky family flees the French and hooks up with the Rostovs eventually; Natasha and Marie become BFFs; St. Petersburg society carries on much as normal; the common soldier suffers (of course); the Generals and those in charge of the armies attempt to strategise and fail; Napoleon is *not* apparently defeated by the Russian winter alone, but by a number of factors including the fact that his army is human and undisciplined and exhausted; some characters survive, some don’t, some (rather pleasingly) get their comeuppance, and life will eventually resume a calmer course for those who remain.

* Perhaps the things that strikes me most strongly is Tolstoy’s masterly handling of his material, expertly juxtaposing the lives of his characters against the vast panoply of war. In fact, I guess the point of the book is to show the effect of great events on ordinary people, and this he does brilliantly.

On the 12th of June 1812 the forces of Western Europe crossed the frontiers of Russia, and war began; in other words, an event took place counter to all the laws of human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, deceptions, treacheries, robberies, forgeries, issues of false monies, depredations, incendiarisms and murders as the annals of all the courts of justice in the world could not muster in the course of whole centuries, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as crimes.

* The war sections, even when Tolstoy was pontificating on the point of conflict and how grand events come about, were fascinating; I’d somehow expected these to be a problem, but I didn’t find them so at all. Tolstoy makes no bones about what happens in a war, about the death and horror and gore, and there were some real shocks and tragedies to come. He doesn’t shy away from showing not only the effect on those wounded and killed, but also their families back at home, and some of the events really put me through the emotional wringer. Andrei’s final fate, for example, was perhaps inevitable but no less painful; and the outcome for Petya was hard to take.

Andrei looks a tad poorly

* Much of Tolstoy’s genius seems to me to come from his skill at building up a big picture from small events: there are wonderful little vignettes that stick in your mind, like the three soldiers helping Pierre after the battle of Borodino, and this kind of approach is much more human and approachable than something like, say, “The Glory of the Empire”; this latter took a broad brush approach to grand events, but was much harder to relate to because of that detachment.

War is not a polite recreation but the vilest thing in life, and we ought to understand that and not play at war. Our attitude towards the fearful necessity of war ought to be stern and serious. It boils down to this: we should have done with humbug, and let war be war and not a game… What are the morals of the military world? The aim and end of war is murder…

*Napoleon (and indeed all the historical characters) were entirely convincing; Tolstoy’s version of him was not just a cardboard cut-out villain and I felt that he entertained a certain sympathy with the emperor of France.

Napoleon in the BBC 1972 adaptation

* The book conveys a strong sense of the random forces that come together to cause a huge historical moment. Tolstoy is clear that it is never just one person or happening that causes a war to be started, won or lost, but a combination of factors, from personal ambition and politics, through planning (good or bad) to pure chance.

* The character development is wonderful – we watch each participant on their journey through the story to their final destination, whatever that may be, and I for one became completely involved in their lives and fates.

* The behaviour of human beings in the middle of a cataclysmic conflict was another strong element in the story; and when war and peace collided, the contrast between the fall of Moscow and the flight of the Rostovs, set against St. Petersburg society blithely continuing its frivolous pursuits as if nothing had happened, was striking.

* The treatment of the male characters was interesting; they often broadly fell into the categories of superfluous or sneaky and conniving, but even when stereotyped a little were very nuanced. I certainly felt that Tolstoy’s sympathies did not lie with the society characters, but more with the landowners or the lower ranks of the army or the ordinary people; although he is often a little cynical in his outlook generally, and no-one escapes criticism!

*As for the female characters; well, their lot is not usually a happy one. Again, there is often the split of conniving society woman or nice and naive. As usual, different standards are applied for women: a man can behave as badly as he likes, but for a woman to be seen to transgress at all is the end of everything for her. One of the most dramatic episodes in the book is Natasha’s involvement with Anatole Karagin, and his attempt to seduce her. She’s an impulsive, emotional and unworldly girl who’s out of her depth with a serial womaniser like him; so it’s no real surprise that she falls completely under his spell and is prepared to run off with him without knowing anything at all about him. Fortunately, Sonya proves to be a wiser young woman than her cousin, and disaster is averted; but as usual in society of the time, her reputation is at stake while a man in the same position is praised. So a young and inexperienced girl can have her life ruined by a nasty rake for no reason other than being immature; had she been a mature and experienced woman like Helene, able to carry out her affairs discreetly, she would have met with society’s approval. I’m not sure I entirely approve of Natasha’s final place in life, as the solution for her seems a little stereotypical, but we’ll pass that by.

Anthony Hopkins as Pierre

* It seemed to me that Pierre was in many ways the focus of the book; his moral struggles and search for meaning in the middle of chaos, as well as his experiences during the occupation of Moscow, made him a lynchpin of the story, and I grew to love him as a character very much. He comes out of the war changed, but for the better, and is rewarded in a way that is entirely satisfying for him. In fact, spiritual searching is a consistent thread in the story, and both Pierre and Marie end up with a shining happy belief and a new extended family, which perhaps ties in with Tolstoy’s views.

Whatever he tried to be, whatever he engaged in, he always found himself repulsed by this knavery and falsehood, which blocked every path of action. Yet he had to life and to find occupation. It was too awful to be under the burden of these insoluble problems, and so he abandoned himself to the first distraction that offered itself, in order to forget them. He frequented every kind of society, drank too much, purchased pictures, built houses, and above all – read. (Pierre gets his priorities right at the end there…)

* No book can be without criticism and if I had to make one, I would like to have strong words with Tolstoy about some of his characters’ names and their similarities, which really don’t help the reader. For example, Dokhturov and Dolokhov; Kuragin and Karagin; I mean, that latter one is like having two main characters in an English book called Smith and Smythe. Why?!?!

I should state upfront that I took a decision when it got to the epilogues and only read the first one; as I read somewhere (and I wish I could remember where) that a commentator said they wished they hadn’t read the second one as it added nothing, and they advised not reading on. The first epilogue certainly wraps things up nicely; set seven years after the events of the main book, it brings the reader up to date with the lives of the surviving characters and allows us to see how they’ve developed. That in itself is interesting, as they haven’t all necessarily become what we would expect. Natasha, for example, has become a devoted mother and jealous wife; Pierre a happy, saintly husband who loves all; Marie an unexpectedly happy wife; and Nikolai a successful, if somewhat rigid, landowner. All of their basic characteristics have come to a kind of fruition and final stage, and they have the life they want in their re-adjusted family. I was particularly pleased to see Denisov making a reappearance, as he’s such a wonderful and entertaining character!

A final word on the translation; it worked absolutely perfectly for me and I salute Rosemary Edmonds. The book was readable, gripping, the language never got in the way of the story and I felt as though I was reading a book about Russia and Russians. The English is my sort of English (late 20th century no doubt) and I wouldn’t want to have experienced any other version.

So there you go: 1400-odd pages in about 6 weeks and a remarkably powerful and involving read; one that gripped from the start and that I really couldn’t put down. Having read “War and Peace” once, I’m sure that I’ll return to it again at some point, and pull out even more from it than on my first visit. I have to thank Laura for coming up with the War and Peace Newbies read, because I don’t think I would have particularly picked up the book at this time; but I’m extremely glad I did, and now I just have to try and shake off this book hangover I have and move into a new fictional world!

Week 5 – Natasha grows up… #warandpeacenewbies


Perhaps that’s a slightly trite heading to choose for a section of “War and Peace” so packed with action, but it *is* something pivotal to this part of the epic journey I’m on with the book; which also contains one of the iconic scenes of Tolstoy’s great works.

Nearing the end of book 1!!!!

This section opens with the fragile peace between Napoleon and Alexander still in place, and meanwhile life goes on as normal for the majority of people. Andrei is still living in the country, running his estate very competently and emancipating his serfs; in fact, he achieves everything that Pierre sets out to do but cannot, simply because he is so able and Pierre is totally impractical. However, Andrei is cold and emotionally locked away, and it’s only an encounter with the young and beautiful Natasha that draws him back to society and the more practical world of the court. For a while, Andrei comes back to life a bit whilst mixing in these circles again, but a re-encounter with Natasha at her first ball changes his outlook again quite dramatically.

Pierre, meanwhile, is as troubled and lugubrious as ever, spending most of this section in a haze of moral and spiritual soul-searching. The Masons are proving to be a little too worldly for him, most definitely not what he thought; and despite having agreed to live under the same roof as his estranged wife, there is no proper marriage. He is not ‘being a husband’ to her, and that seems to suit Helen perfectly, leaving her free to flirt and spend time with young men such as Boris. The latter seems to have changed for the worse as he’s matured, and despite his young infatuation with Natasha, it’s clear that neither wish to carry that relationship on as they grow up.

In the eyes of the world Pierre was a fine gentleman, the rather blind and ridiculous husband of a distinguished wife, a clever eccentric who did nothing but was no trouble to anyone, a good-natured, capital fellow – while all the time in the depths of Pierre’s soul a complex and arduous process of inner development was going on, revealing much to him and bringing him many spiritual doubts and joys.

Natasha Rostov herself comes much more into the fore in these chapters; at 16 she attends her first ball, and becomes the belle of it, spending much time danced with Andrei, who is completely smitten – just a bit of an age difference there, though…. She’s a vibrant character, injecting life into the story and her surroundings, although still very immature. She responds strongly to Andrei’s declaration of love, although she sees the good in Pierre too; and an engagement is agreed between Andrei and Natasha, although with the stipulation they must wait a year, leaving Andrei free to swan off abroad for his health.

In fact, the Rostovs and their fortunes are a troubling element here; through mismanagement they are lurching towards genteel poverty and it’s in the interests of the Count and Countess to match their children off to rich spouses. Eldest sister Vera has married a lowly soldier and so hopes now lie on Natasha. Interestingly, the inability of the nobles to deal with business and sort out their issues is a strong thread in the book; old Count Rostov is being systematically cheated, Pierre is totally fuddled by it all and only Andrei seems to have a business head.

Nikolai makes a lengthy reappearance and reconnects with his sister, spending happy hours hunting with her and celebrating Christmas. I’ll confess here that I skimmed some of the hunting pages, because I really *don’t* want to read them; but after the hunt, the group visits a local eccentric known as “Uncle” and it’s here that the famed dance of Natasha takes place. As a balalaika is played, Natasha taps into her unconscious heritage and performs a native Russian dance from who knows where, and it’s a powerful moment.

Tolstoy introduces another interesting aspect in the form of Pierre’s diary; he takes up the writing habit and Tolstoy treats us to regular extracts which plot the tortuous state of Pierre’s mind. It’s clear the poor man needs to be loved, but there seems to be no prospect of that on the horizon. Instead, he frets about his friends, uncertain for example whether the engagement of Andrei and Natasha is a good thing. Actually, no-one feels she is right for Andrei, and I felt a little uncomfortable about an old widower marrying a 16-year-old, particularly when she’s portrayed here as so childlike. However, towards the end of these chapters I felt that the cracks were showing slightly, with Andrei showing no inclination to rush back from abroad and visit his betrothed, and so I’m not sure whether this marriage will go ahead. By the end of this section, Nikolai had rekindled his childhood love for Sonya, but I feel a little trepidation about that too – Tolstoy doesn’t seem to want to portray happy relationships!

So another cracking couple of sections, packed full of action and an absolutely wonderful read. I’m constantly impressed by how well Tolstoy handles his material and keeps you involved at all times; and also by his powers of description. I felt I was actually living alongside the characters at times, racing through the snow in sledges, watching Natasha sing or dance, laughing at the mummers entertaining local children – the narrative was so vivid, and I’m absolutely hooked and desperate to find out what happens next!


Week 4 – Action packed, both at home and away! #warandpeacenewbies


And so we reach week 4 of the “War and Peace” readalong, and my! what an action packed week it’s been! I realise now that it’s going to be hard to discuss each section in detail without giving spoilers, but I’m trying not to give too much away; just be aware of this if you haven’t read the book yet and are planning to.

Look how far I am into volume 1! (thanks for the idea, Liz!)

There seems to be a bit of a lull in the fighting to begin with, and so we see a lot of the military characters in a domestic setting, which is quite fun. Nikolai comes home on leave and is feted by all around him, but what a pompous young man he’s turned into! Of course, he’s much too important for his childhood sweetheart, Sonya, and so he breaks with her. However, he’s not so grown up that he can be sensible and he ends up with a massive gambling debt after a session with the nasty Dolokhov and he returns to the army with his tail between his legs.

Andrei, meanwhile, is initially believed to be dead, and mourned by his wife, sister and father. Lise, his wife, goes into labour and Andrei re-appears from the dead just in time, though all does not end particularly well. Andrei then goes into a period of depression, becoming hard and cynical, and this state only begins to be lifted a little with the arrival of Pierre on a visit later in the book; their deep discussions bring some relief to Andrei though what will happen to him in the long term remains to be seen.

As for Pierre – well, what an irritating fool he can be! His marriage is of course not going well, with his wife Helene very bored and rumoured to be having an affair with the dastardly Dolokhov. Pierre does not deal with this well, and eventually a duel becomes inevitable, which leads to an irreconcilable split. Pierre then heads off to his estates and attempts to put a lot of well-meaning changes into place (spurred on to being enrolled as a Freemason); but he’s such an impractical twit that he’s rooked by his Steward and nothing improves. Pierre is obviously searching for something, but what that something is neither he nor anybody else knows, and he’s so naive and impressionable that he can be suckered into just about anything!

Who is right, who is wrong? No one! But while you are alive—live: tomorrow you die, as I might have died an hour ago. And is it worth worrying oneself when one has only a second left to live, in comparison with eternity?

The fighting takes up again, and Nikolai is delighted to be back in the formal, controlled atmosphere of the army where everything is straightforward and a man knows where he is. However, the war does not go well and the troops are suffering from lack of rations, which leads to Nikolai’s foolish colleague Denisov taking drastic action – with unfortunate results. Denisov does not have a good time of it generally, as his proposal to Nikolai’s young sister Natasha was rejected, and his maverick actions leave him in a dire situation – which is a shame, because he’s one of the most entertaining characters! This section of the book ends with a truce being declared between Napoleon and the Tsar, a truce which is not received well by all – Nikolai in particular is horrified and gets very drunk and aggressive about it, his hero-worship of his monarch edging closer to disillusionment. But I’m sure the truce will not last for ever….

The Tsar – slightly less imposing than Napoleon, methinks…

That’s a very sketchy summary, because Tolstoy packs SO MUCH into “War and Peace” and the story rattles along merrily at a breakneck pace. He really keeps you on the edge of your seat as one event follows another and there were some real shocks that I didn’t see coming. The book is so immensely readable and because Tolstoy doesn’t keep you hanging about there’s no time to get bored. The only part I felt slightly dragged was the section where Pierre became a Freemason which I’m afraid all seemed a bit silly to me; though I think much of the point is to prove that whatever Pierre undertakes never goes anywhere for long, because he’s so mentally all over the place!

I really felt with these chapters that I was starting to become properly invested in the characters and their lives, and some of them in particular are a real joy. The lisping Denisov is very amusing and I hope his fate is not a bad one; Dolokhov is an unpleasant yet interesting piece of work, and seems to revel in causing chaos wherever he goes; Andrei is becoming more nuanced as the narrative goes on; and Pierre’s wife Helene is a real society type, flirting and enjoying trivialities. In fact, Tolstoy’s view of society is wonderfully cynical and critical, which I liked, and he doesn’t pull his punches when portraying the deals, favours and manipulations that go on behind the scenes. He also doesn’t hold back in his portrayal of war – the mud and the blood is real, and the visceral portrait of the realities of the army hospital is stark and memorable.

I notice I’ve mainly been writing about the male characters, and they do seem to have dominated the narrative so far. Of the female characters, Marie Bolonsky stands out; a troubled woman in thrall to her father, she comes into her own a little more in this part of the story, having taken on the care of her nephew and support of her brother. However, her strong religious belief is portrayed a little ambiguously, and I wasn’t sure if Tolstoy was condoning or condemning her patronage of a number of ‘holy fools’. Natasha is starting to blossom, and her vivacity and eagerness for life are obviously contagious; she certainly manages to captivate poor Denisov!

So I’m really loving my read of “War and Peace”, and I’m starting to have a bit of a battle with myself! Part of me wants to just keep going and read the whole thing in one go, while the other part is enjoying pacing myself and reading other books alongside. I wonder which side of me will win the war of “War and Peace”? 🙂

Week three – a little bit of both! #warandpeacenewbies


Well, cautious optimism applies…! The weekly reading of a section seems to definitely be a hit so far; I’m reading other books alongside War and Peace, and not feeling cross about having restricted reading. Plus, I’m really enjoying Tolstoy’s masterpiece!

Part three is a mixture of war *and* peace sections, and brings several plot strands up to an exciting climax. At home, the marriage game is still underway; Prince Andrei’s wife Lise is living with her fierce father-in-law and repressed sister-in-law, Marie. Visitors arrive in the form of Prince Kuragin and his dissolute son, Anatole, the latter being a suitor for the hand of Marie. The poor woman is seduced emotionally by the thought of being a married woman and escaping her life of drudgery with her father, but a cruel disillusionment awaits her.

Another romance is blossoming between the newly rich Pierre and Kuragin’s daughter Helene, encouraged by all around them. Pierre himself is a callow and conflicted young man, still finding his way and not comfortable in society. He’s simultaneously attracted and repelled by Helene, but finds himself being inexorably nudged towards a marriage he really isn’t sure if he wants.

Meanwhile, back at the war! Here we head into what Wikipedia tells me was one of the crucial clashes of the Napoleonic War, the Battle of Austerlitz. Andrei is still dreaming of glory in battle, Nikolai is recovering from his injury and feeling guilty about not keeping in touch with his family, and both men are in love with the Emperor. That might sound like a slightly over-the-top description, but the way they react to his appearances is quite dramatic, and even Tolstoy mocks their infatuation with their leader a little.

The battle, however, suffers from the usual confusion, lack of understanding and cohesion amongst the leaders, and the fact that the fog-bound troops often don’t seem to know what they’re doing or where they’re going; and they retreat rather madly when attacked by the superior French force. Can’t wait to get onto the next part.

This particular section of the book was fascinating; the juxtaposition of the war and peace strands showed what different worlds the various characters were moving in, and the peacetime people really had no idea what it was like for the wartime ones. The latter found themselves regretting their comfortable Petersburg life while dealing with the visceral reality of conflict and, reading this, you wonder why anyone would want to go to war.

Another intriguing element was the appearance of a real-life, larger than life character – Napoleon Bonaparte. He made his vivid entrance towards the end of the section and I rather felt that Tolstoy admired the man who was leading the fight against his countrymen. French was, after all, the language of choice for sophisticated Russians of the time so it may be that despite the war, Napoleon was regarded as representing a cultured country.

Napoleon Bonaparte. Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte 1769-1821 at the battle. Detail of a painting by Joseph Chabord 1786-1848. Museo Napoleonico, Rome Italy

There is some wonderfully atmospheric writing in this section of the book, particularly in the battle scenes where the men were stumbling through the mist which was gradually clearing; and powerful passages conveying the drama and alarm of the fight. He also captures the emotions behind the will to fight and the awareness all of the men have of belonging to a larger whole which transcends their individual destiny – a feeling that no doubt explains the willingness of humans to go to war and certain death.

Not only the generals in full-dress uniform, wearing scarves and all their decorations. with slender waists or thick waists pinched in to the uttermost, and red necks squeezed into stiff collars; not only the flamboyant pomaded officers, but every soldier with face newly washed and shaven and weapons clean and rubbed up to the final glitter, every horse groomed till its coat shone like satin and every hair of its mane had been damped to lie smoothly – all alike felt that something grave, important and solemn was happening. From general to private, every man was conscious of his own insignificance, aware that he was just a grain of sand in that ocean of humanity, and yet at the same time had a sense of power as a part of that vast whole.

Book 1 ends with the battle lost and Andrei heading for an uncertain future. The events have been dramatic, and the immediacy of Tolstoy’s narrative made me feel as if I’d been in the middle of the conflict myself. So another successful and enjoyable read – I wonder where the focus of the next part will lie?

Checking in for week 2 of the #WarandPeaceNewbies readalong!


After the issues with the translation from last week, things have settled down a bit and I’ve now finished part 2, the first ‘war’ section of the book. I was a little apprehensive about this, to be honest, as battle scenes are not normally my thing. However, I needn’t have been, as Tolstoy, in his wisdom, focuses on more than just fighting and this part of the book was fascinating.

At the end of part one, Prince Andrei set off to war, abandoning his beautiful, young and pregnant wife – which possibly tells you a lot about Tolstoy’s attitude to marriage! Also setting off to battle was young Nikolai Rostov, eager to prove himself. This section of W&P follows both of their experiences, although they are moving in very different spheres: Nikolai is a mere cadet, but Prince Andrei has been attached to the higher ranks and is thriving.

Alan Dobie as Andrei in the BBC’s 1972 adaptation

Inevitably, we see more of Andrei’s adventures: throwing himself into battle, watching the troops move and fight, mixing with the high and mighty; and all through this his emotions fluctuate wildly. He’s obviously happy to be away from the restrictions of home and society, and in many ways has found himself within the manly structure and discipline of the army; but he has noble notions that are often dashed. Andrei has studied battle strategies and imagines these things take place like clockwork, following a plan; and his ideals are somewhat shaken by the reality of the conflict and the chaos around him.

Because chaos it certainly is, and Tolstoy captures this disorder brilliantly in a series of vignettes, conveying how it feels to be caught in the middle of a conflict with one element not knowing what the others are doing and no real cohesive command. He paints a vivid picture of the chain of command, from the generals at the top working on strategies down to the common soldier who’s the one who bears the brunt of the battle, often with his life. No-one in that chain really knowing what the overall picture is, instead dealing simply with their small area of the fighting. And it became obvious that the inability to communicate effectively was a major element in the failure of a battle – often nobody knew where they were and who they were meant to be fighting. The one successful action in this particular battle was because of a small battalion with an inspired captain who ignored orders and just fought.

However, just because this was a ‘war’ section didn’t mean there was no character development, because there was. We met a wonderful mixture of soldiers and civilians of all types, all memorable and well-drawn. I particularly warmed to Captain Tushin, the maverick soldier who kept his battalion fighting away when all around him were withdrawing; and Dolokhov, an officer reduced to the ranks, determined to redeem himself.

Somehow, despite his close-up view of the fighting, Tolstoy manages to convey the wide panorama and the sheer scale of the war. He doesn’t stint on his description of the conflict and portrays a muddy and bloody reality. Both Andrei and Nikolai enter the battle expecting one thing, some kind of nobility, and finding a very different reality. Nikolai, in particular, has his first skirmish and it’s anything but glamorous; and we leave him in a rather precarious situation at the end of the section.

So, a gripping and thrilling read, wonderfully written and capturing the gritty and confusing reality of being in the middle of an old-style battle. I found I really enjoyed it, which I wasn’t expecting – so that bodes well for the rest of the book, in particular the war sections!

#warandpeacenewbies – Week 1 update


Ermmmm – what was that I was saying about the Maudes’ version? 😦

Lovely as it is, I hit a major snag fairly early on with the Everyman volume of “War and Peace”, despite finding the book readable and easy to handle… Unfortunately, the Maudes render Prince Andrei as Prince Andrew, and that’s going to be a deal-breaker.

Maudes version with Andrew and Pierre….

Pierre is left as Pierre and not Peter, and as OH commented when I mentioned this problem to him, it sounds like the Prince belongs in Scotland and not Russia. And then I discovered that Kirill is rendered as Cyril…  No. I want my Russian characters to sounds as if they *are* Russian. So I switched to the Edmonds version, as she has the Prince as Andrei, and once I settled down again, the reading has gone swimmingly!

The Edmonds version character list

So, putting these irritations aside, how have I got on with my first week of reading “War and Peace”? Quite well, actually. I’ve found the reading easy and very enjoyable, and boy am I impressed again with Tolstoy’s storytelling abilities. He plunges straight into the action, right into Russian society of the era, and in the first part we get introduced to what I believe are most of the main players. Instantly, we learn about the kind of behind the scenes machinations that go on, favours being called in to get your son into the right regiment, or your idiot son married off. The war against Napoleon is on everyone’s lips and Andrei (as we shall correctly call him) is heading off to fight, mostly it seems to get away from his young and light-headed pregnant wife. Pierre, our other main character, comes into money and title through to even more machinations on his behalf. And Natasha is still a young girl.

I love the way Tolstoy moves the action on, with the result of the actions in one chapter being revealed almost in passing by a character in the next. And all of the players are leaping off the page, wonderfully realised, so that’s a plus.

I think these posts are not so much going to be a review as such (how can you encapsulate such a massive work in some blog posts, after all?); but I shall probably be more using them to record my reactions as I read. What’s clear is that Tolstoy is very good at observing the small details in life, using his snapshots of relationships to build up a bigger picture. He captures the interplay between characters brilliantly and is not afraid to build up to a dramatic climax, such as the one which occurs at the end of the first part of the book.

So I’m about 100-odd pages in, and so far loving “War and Peace” – let’s hope all continues this well!

#warandpeacenewbies – Here we go…..


Well, today is the day we officially get going with our reading of “War and Peace”, but I have to confess that I’ve been dipping my toe in already. I decided to read the first few chapters (they’re short!) of each of my editions to see which one I would read.

The translations I have, as I mentioned, are by the Maudes and Rosemary Edmonds, and to be honest there isn’t much to choose between them. The French sections are rendered in English, which is a relief to me as I can’t read in French and I don’t want to have to keep checking notes – I want to go with the flow and just immerse myself.

My two available options

And so far, both versions seem very readable; several of the major characters have already made an entrance; and I’m feeling a little more confident about coping with the length as I seem to have read through these parts quite quickly.

So it may come down to something as simple as the physical ease of reading the book; because it *is* big, and the little hardback Maude I have flops open quite nicely, and the paper is very thin India paper, so it’s really manageable. That may be the decider – I’ll let you know in the next update! 🙂

Onward and upward!

A tentative commitment #warandpeacenewbies


Yes, you read that correctly. In the year of planning to have no plans, I am making a tentative commitment to join in to a group read! Gulp!

So far this year the only real project I’ve got involved in, apart from our reading years of course, is the LibraryThing Virago Group’s monthly author choice. This has been enjoyable, and I feel that I can drop in and out of this one as necessary, so there isn’t any pressure.

Old hardback Maudes version

However. When I read that Laura of Reading in Bed was hosting a War and Peace Newbies read over the summer, I was sorely tempted. Tolstoy’s great work is one I’ve intended to grapple with for years and have simply never got to. Yet I loved “Anna Karenina” so there’s no good reason not to, apart from size!

Laura’s read is split up into manageable weekly chunks and looks doable. She’s come up with a Q&A to go with the tag and you can read her thoughts here. I thought I would have a go, too, so here’s my take on the meme!

Have you read (or attempted) War and Peace?

No, basically. I’ve owned a copy for decades but I don’t think I’ve got farther than reading the first two pages.

What edition and translation are you reading?

I have two copies of “War and Peace” in the house if I’m not sure of which translation I fancy reading. One is a lovely two-volume set with box that came out at the time of the old BBC adaptation, and it’s translated by Rosemary Edmonds. The other is *very* old – and I’ve had it for decades – and is the Maudes version. I tend to always go for a contemporary rendering if I can so that would suggest the Maudes – we shall see.

The BBC tie-in version

How much to you know about War and Peave (plot, characters, etc)?

Not a lot really – I know the names of some of the main characters and that Napoleon’s in there, but apart from that I come to War and Peace with little foreknowledge!

How are you preparing (watching adaptations, background reading, etc?)

I’m not. I figure I want to come to this with no preconceptions and I already have some as I visualise Pierre as a young Anthony Hopkins! So I’ll try to judge it as I find it, and I’ll have all the plot twists to come with no expectations.

The hardback even has a lovely little map inside

What do you hope to get out of reading War and Peace?

I don’t actually know! But I loved Anna Karenina – one of those books you kind of live through – and I’m hoping for a similarly immersive experience.

What are you intimidated by?

The length. And having a schedule. I don’t do too well with schedules….

Do you think it’s okay to skip the “war” parts?

Definitely not. You need to have the contrast between the two elements. I shall try to read each page, despite any occasions of my attention flagging during battle scenes.

So – I will give it a go and see if I can stick to a small section of “War and Peace” every week. I’m not always good at disciplined reading that like but I think it’s worth the attempt – to see if 2017 will be my Summer of “War and Peace”!

If you’re keen to join in, do go and check out Laura’s site – it should be fun! 🙂

Well, you can’t blame me, can you???


A few more books made their way out of the house today to the charity shop, and I made a point of not browsing too much – but I really couldn’t resist this:

w & p

I do, of course, already own a copy of “War and Peace” which if I recall correctly is the Maudes translation. Whichever one it is, it’s riddled with the original French passages which Tolstoy put in the book (as upper class Russians of the time only spoke that language) and this has always been a stumbling block for me as my French is very, very, VERY basic.

However, this lovely box set which was produced to tie in with the old BBC adaptation is translated by Rosemary Edmonds and hurrah! the French is translated! So it may that this is the impetus I need to get me reading W&P at last.

w & P spine

Plus it’s really pretty, in great condition and it only cost £1.50 – amazing! As I’ve said before, I do love the local charity shops! 🙂

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