War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

November 30, 2013 at 10:18 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literature, Mediocre Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , )

WarAndPeace

6/10

6/10

It seems foolish to complain that this book is so exceptionally long; like complaining the Bible has too much religion, or the Magna Carta has too much politics. The complaint that really ought to be laid at Tolstoy’s door is this: for a writer so obtusely uneconomical with his words, he does not do nearly as much with them as he might have. When an author spends thousands of pages describing a place, a person, an idea; there ought to be a strong emotional or impressionable impact on the reader. Tolstoy comes a certain distance towards this. Certainly it would be untrue to claim that he does not adequately describe his creations. It would not be fair to say that his is a problem of detail. Rather, it is a problem of beauty.

Compare him for an instance with Melville. Melville is thicker and sludgier and harder to read for pleasure than Tolstoy, but when he describes a smoke-rimed tavern or the vivifying enormity of a storm, it is impossible to fail to be moved and captured. Or let us look at Hemingway. If the problem is a problem of inadequate floridness, let us pit Tolstoy against an author renowned for his refusal to bow to poetry! But there is an impact and a seething, brusque emotion in Hemingway that is utterly devoid in War and Peace.

“The general on horseback at the entrance to the dam raised his hand and opened his mouth to address Dolokhov. Suddenly a cannon ball hissed so low above the crowd that everyone ducked. It flopped into something moist, and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood. Nobody gave him a look or thought of raising him.”

-War and Peace

This book feels like reading Pride and Prejudice seven times through, only with more death and without Jane Austen’s humour. The Peace is bland drawing-room scandal and folly. The War is interesting, but only on an intellectual level. This summary seems damning, and it is distinctly peculiar that the book is honestly not a bad read. In fact, in spite of its unnecessary length it is really worth the time; particularly in an age when the vapid lives of soap opera and sitcom characters fill vastly more hours than it takes to plough through this novel. The point is not that it is uninteresting. The characters are immaculately drawn (those that matter, anyway) and the historical narrative is truly fascinating. In fact, by the end of the (first) epilogue, this could almost be called a page-turner.

The problems then, if they are not the book’s monstrous size or quality of writing, are twofold. First is simply a case of expectation. Tolstoy’s style (or the styles of at least two of his translators) is vexingly drifty, without a very powerful narrative stamp. He seems to absorb by osmosis some of the aristocratic lassitude of Pierre and the Rostovs, and there is a displeasing lack of decisive direction. For an author to take his readers so deeply into any story, he really must have the humour or the choler or the wryness to truly captivate his reader: not merely to tell an interesting story and trust that the reader is following along. The second problem is the generally unremarkable aspect of so many of his characters. There is nobody to love and nobody to hate.

“Rostov became thoughtful.
‘I never go back on my word, he said. ‘Besides, Sonya is so charming that only a fool would renounce such happiness.'”

-War and Peace

Books are paintings, and come in as many sharply contrasting styles as works of visual art. There are the Caravaggios, with menacingly daubed streaks of deep contrast and dazzling light. There are impressionistic streams of consciousness or works of muzzy pointillism. But if Tolstoy painted, he would paint an enormous canvas with a Gainsborough landscape, covering the entire wall of a gallery and dotting in each painstaking figure and wisp of cloud. This is the lasting feeling of War and Peace: it leaves nothing out, and there is nothing to complain about; but it never draws itself to a point as if to say this!–is what the story is about!

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The Naked Constitution, by Adam Freedman

November 10, 2013 at 11:36 (Book Reviews, Philosophy, Politics, Poorly Rated Books) (, , )

TheNakedConstitution

4/10

4/10

“What the Founders said and why it still matters” is the proclamation emblazoned on the front of this ponderous new diatribe. Would that this boast were true! It can be difficult for non-Americans to understand (viscerally if not intellectually) why the United States stands so fiercely and so doggedly to its historical codifications, and a passionately-written explanation of why this might be the case is an interesting and compelling prospect.

Alas! For Adam Freedman does not address his book to the earnest seeker, but rather to the confirmed disciple. Like a new convert turning to a book of theology only to be driven thence by sludgy discussions on the Greek translation of parousia, readers of The Naked Constitution will be confronted almost immediately by a schoolyard bicker about whether conservatives or liberals are true “originalists”. There is not really an honest attempt to explain how the determination of “original intent” is uncovered, nor even to explain why original intent is even important.

“Despite all evidence to the contrary, anti gun zealouts insist that their narrow reading of the Second Amendment is the true ‘originalist’ reading.”

-The Naked Constitution

In examining the general mindset of men over two centuries dead, it might be expected that the politics of the olden days would take precedence, but instead this book is firmly entrenched in scouring through court decisions and bills passed in the last two decades–particularly under Clinton and under Obama. And that is the real meat and bones of this tract. It is a fiercely partisan denunciation of liberalism in the early twenty-first century, and little else. It makes some very good points and some poorer ones; it descends to pettiness as often as it makes honest and thought-provoking points. But it emphatically does not answer the thorny issue so proudly displayed on its cover. If anything, it proves only that the United States Constitution is irrelevant as a basis for government, as it can be (and is) dissected and patched back together by liberals and conservatives alike, to serve their own particular interests. In one or two shameless slip-ups, Freedman does exactly this, mentioning in passing that such-and-such constitutional idea cannot really apply in today’s world, and ought to rather mean so-and-so.

Besides this, there are the same old tired political talking points that obsess modern commentators so: the anachronistic gun-worship, the quibbling and complaining about nineteenth-century federalism, bickering about the division between church and state, and where the lines are drawn, and how thickly, and by whom. There is a great deal to value in this book, but it is either irritatingly dishonest, or else an abysmal failure in its central point and intention. Ultimately, that makes it just another run-of-the-mill polemic, and while interesting on its own merits, it has nothing to distinguish it from a hundred other books of the same shade.

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1356, by Bernard Cornwell

November 2, 2013 at 09:48 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , , )

1356

8/10

8/10

Bernard Cornwell is a tricky fellow to define, and his books are not the easiest to anticipate. He is certainly a very able writer; there is no argument to be made on that count. One of the biggest fluctuations in his writing quality tends to be his restraint, where he allows himself to become so carried away in depicting a ruthless and gritty realism that it turns into an unreadable slush of perverted sex and graphic violence. Another of his faults is linked even closer to his commitment to realism: there are a lot of people in real life who are cruel, selfish monsters that some of his books become populated exclusively with characters who are unappealing in every regard.

Now, obviously if he fell victim to these two failings in every one of his books, he could hardly be called an able writer. The truth is that when he makes his mark, he shines. It would not be a stretch to name him the best writer of historical fiction working today. It would even to be fair to name him as being among the best writers of historical fiction of all time. Picking up one of his books might rightly be a venture carried with great trepidation, but it will never be a worthless effort.

“…the Black Friar walked north. He was going home, home to the tower. He carried la Malice and the fate of Christendom. And he vanished into the darkness.”

-1356

This particular entry in the trilogy that became a loosely-bound series drifting through the Hundred Years War shows writing that is more mature than anything in his Richard Sharpe series, and even than some of the writing in his excellent Arthurian trilogy. This is not to say his writing is faultless. There are momentary lapses, overly-dramatic blunders, and storytelling cul-de-sacs; but the whole is considerably greater than the sum of its parts, and he produces an epic and thoroughly gripping adventure story that no reader could justly describe as boring.

The central quest that runs through the story is a rather disappointing MacGuffin, and this is really an excuse to place characters Cornwell has established elsewhere onto the stage in the midst of a deeply intriguing historical battle, and allow them to thrive. This is not necessarily a bad choice, as a plot that might easily have felt like the barrel-scrapings of that infamous incompetent Dan Brown, is instead turned into a peripheral curiosity that does a fine job of pacing beside the book without ever overpowering the human dynamics of the plot.

This, then, is where Cornwell shines, and what turns 1356 from just another battle told from the perspective of a footsoldier into something of note. His ensemble cast of characters are cleverly crafted, and there is a sense of real human depth to them. Their motivations and their conflicting passions are threaded gently into the plot without any ham-fisted exposition, and an impressive amount of time is spent developing even extraneous characters. Thomas of Hookton is a fellow explored pretty thoroughly in others of Cornwell’s books, but as with Sharpe the books are written so as generally to be legible–and even enticing and fulfilling–even when read out of chronology. In 1356 there are strong echoes of Cornwell’s Arthur, though decidedly less tragic in flavour, which can be nothing if not a strength.

This is not the best of Cornwell’s work, but the excellence with which it is written ought to stand then as a proof in its own right of this author’s abilities and attention to detail. There are many writers who rest easily on the laurels of past successes, and it is a genuine relief to find that Bernard Cornwell has not fallen prey to laziness in his later books. This is a book easy to recommend, and if it serves as a gateway to the author’s stronger work, so much the better. But it is a fine piece of work on its own merits.

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