I feel like writing about books. Here's some blither-blather about the stuff I've read.
The Lord of the Rings || Władca Pierścieni
J.R.R. Tolkien, 1944
I had this on the shelf for over 5 years before I finally managed to read it. I had the Polish version, translated by Maria Skibniewska, which is what's on the image. It's a chonker, roughly half a million words in size (my edition, ignoring supplementary material, has 1077 pages). I took a long break between books 2 and 3, so I don't know exactly how much time it took. If I count the break, then roughly 8 months - if not, then probably around 3 months.
I came into it knowing the story already, because I watched the movie trilogy dozens of times. But the books contain significantly more bits and pieces, so it was still interesting to read. I don't have too much to say on this one, because it's been half a year since I finished it (one year since I began) and the memories are starting to fade.
As a whole, the book was solid and enjoyable. It's clear that Tolkien was really passionate about the world he created, and damn is it a good world, but while the worldbuilding is absolute perfection, everything else is just... fine. The characters honestly don't have much character, other than being brave and determined to defeat Sauron. There is a lot of conservatism and reminiscing about the 'good old times'. The story is really quite basic, a common fantasy tale of friendship and goodness triumphing over corrupting evil.
I don't know, I kind of feel like I'm being too harsh to it, but compared to the later entries on this page, character- and story-wise, Lord of the Rings just doesn't hold a candle. The worldbuilding is spectacular, and I do want to read more about this world, and finishing the book I felt that great sense of expanse, like what I've just read only scratched the surface of what's out there, but besides that I don't have much to applaud the book for.
The Brothers Karamazov || Братья Карамазовы
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1880
How I came across this is a mystery, but I was just browsing the Wikipedia page for it, saw a link to the Guthenberg Project and... started reading. And boy am I glad. I read it in translation by Constance Garnett, while simultaneously listening to the audiobook from LibriVox (I like to do this, devote both my ears and my eyes to the book). Another chonker but less so than LOTR; the paperback I bought later (pictured above) spreads the tale across 769 pages. Again, I took a break in the middle of reading for no good reason, but this time I picked it up faster, so the whole process took about 3 months, or 2 if one ignores the break.
I enjoyed this book greatly on a superficial level. That is to say, the character actions were greatly entertaining and the events were gripping. Every synopsis of the book (including the first chapter of the thing) tell us of the death of Fyodor Pavlovich, and the blame for it quickly falls on Dimitri, his son. The thing is that Dimitri is such a passionate, emotionally-driven and explosive character that even though I got to read probably close to 300 pages of his dialogues, monologues and ruminations, I still don't know if he'd done it. There is so much known about him, yet so much still unknown, that by the end of the book, at the trial, I kept thinking "Did he actually do it? Or is he innocent?" There was so much compelling evidence pointing in either direction. Dimitri made such an impression on me, that for the last few months every passionate character I've encountered in any book/movie/whatever has been compared in my head to Dimitri.
And then you have Ivan. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's writing is heavily psychological with focus on religion. Dostoyevsky is a very effective preacher, but Ivan is an atheist. I am an atheist too, which may make it weird that I like Dostoyevsky's writing so much, but just consider that Ivan, this little ol' Ivan in a 140 year old book written by an extremely religious person, is the single best-written atheist I've ever seen. It was very interesting to see how his story develops, both on its own and in relation to his brothers.
I said that I liked the book on a superficial level, and that's true. Around Book VII, I would read a chapter and think "Oh damn, this is getting real". One chapter later, I think "Oh damn, this is getting real". One chapter later, I think "Oh damn! This is getting REAL!" and it would go on like this for several more chapters. Despite all this pleasure from the book story-wise, I did not maky any sorts of notes or try to analyze things - I simply read, understood what I could and remembered what I could. I am certain that this has caused me to miss a lot of important, more subtle plots (especially later on with Ivan), but despite that I enjoyed it greatly. Even better, precisely because of it, I have a good reason to read it again and potentially discover a whole new side to it, previously unseen and unappreciated.
800 pages of monologues and treatie on good and evil, life, death, morality and religion, and I liked every page of it.
Księgi Jakubowe || The Books of Jacob
Olga Tokarczuk, 2014
The full title of the book is The Books of Jacob, or: A Fantastic Journey Across Seven Borders, Five Languages, and Three Major Religions, Not Counting the Minor Sects. Told by the Dead, Supplemented by the Author, Drawing from a Range of Books, and Aided by Imagination, the Which Being the Greatest Natural Gift of Any Person. That the Wise Might Have It for a Record, That My Compatriots Reflect, Laypersons Gain Some Understanding, and Melancholy Souls Obtain Some Slight Enjoyment.
If somebody dares slap a title of such magnitude on a book, you know they mean business.
I have never heard of Olga Tokarczuk before her Nobel Prize. Then, I had no interest in her works, but recently my obsession with large books led me to discover this title and buy it - which was a pain in the ass, as I had to import it from Poland (the version I read is the hardcover pictured above). The book is as large as the title, at approximately 900 pages (increased to almost 1100 in the English translation, from what I know), but it was absolutely worth it, and I never expected to be able to read a book as fast as I read this one - despite its length, it only took a month. On the last day, I spent almost 6 hours on it.
It's hard to say clearly what the themes are, as there's so many of them. On the surface level the book talks about Jakub Frank, a Jewish prophet (or heretic, depending on hwo you ask) who established a sect in late-18th-century Poland. The book is not written from his perspective, or with insight into his thoughts. We only see him from outside, mainly through the eyes of his followers. The topic of Jakub or of any Jewish sect never came into my head or seemed interesting, yet Olga Tokarczuk made it interestring and quite exciting despite the length of the book.
Pretty much every character has some story to tell, some lessons to give for the reader who connects to them. For me, the most consistently entertaining part was the relationship between Gitla and Aszer Rubin - fairly inconsequential from the perspective of the wider story, and yet every time I sat down, I thought "I hope I get to hear more about how those two are doing", and the ending of their arc was very bittersweet. Tokarczuk's prose, while quite good most of the time, especially impressed me in parts like the chapter where Jakub's wife spends Christmas with their benefactress, Kossakowska. It describes her feelings of alienation and uneasiness in the new house and new culture in such a way that, as someone who has had experience with it, hit extremely close to home.
Speaking of home, a lot of English reviewers of the book found it difficult to follow due to unfamiliarity of the region, but for me, a lot of events in the book actually took place relatively close to where I grew up, and one of the characters (a very minor one) actually comes directly from my home town. Back to themes, the central one of cults was very strong and felt quite relevant to me. There are certain hallmark features of any fledgling cult, and this one ticks every box. But besides religious cults, it felt relevant because of how many of these strategies are used in other groups, political, social, etc. There are chapters about how the group itself operated, how its origins had to do with people shunned by their surroundings, how many of the members joined due to being disillusioned with daily life, or how they were forced into it through unfortunate circumstances (as happened to many of the women). There are those, like Moliwda, who were simply in it for the money.
Something kind of external to the book, but still relating to it and my experience with it, is the edition itself. The different books are marked on the side with colors, there are lovely illustrations, multitude of fonts that gave different parts their distinct feelings. While many books smell kind of nasty and acidic for whatever reason, this one smelled of tree sap - a lovely, foresty smell emanated from it for the entire duration of the read.
I read this book after the previous two, and despite going against such giants of world literature, when I finished I genuinely could've said that this is the best book I've ever read. Still, I don't want to really speak of it too much, because I feel like I'm only scratching the surface of the beautiful work that is The Books of Jacob. One thing's for sure, I will absolutely have to read it again, but this time I will be taking notes and analysing things thoroughly, because boy is there a lot to analyze.
War and Peace || Война и мир
Leo Tolstoy, 1869
Yes, I've read War and Peace. Very recently, in fact; I'm writing this 3 days after finishing it. And I spent the entire summer reading it, though I don't read terribly much per day (rarely more than 2 hours) and I've had several short breaks when I just didn't feel like reading. But it's done, and I am glad that I got through it, because this is quite a magnificent book. My version (pictured above) has a little over 1200 pages, though they are quite dense - the book as a whole has approximately 550-600 thousand words, making it the biggest piece of literature I've ever experienced.
Before I move on to the story and such, I want to talk a little about the physical aspects of the book, because of its surprising "creature comforts". The 1200 page book is divided into 4 volumes, so the average is 300 pages per volume, right? And that's damn near exactly how they are divided; volume 2 literally ends on page 600. Volume 1 is divided into 3 parts, so you'd expect each part to be 100 pages on average, right? And they come within 5-10 pages of that. Part 1 has 20 chapters, so you'd expect the first 10 chapters to be roughly 50 pages long, right? And sure enough, the book doesn't disappoint. This disposition is so surprisingly consistent, and it really helps when you try to lay out your reading (I don't like just "reading until I'm too tired" or "reading little but reading often"). Only problem I encountered was the abundance of French. Particularly in the beginning, the first 30-50 pages, almost half of the book is in French, forcing you to constantly look down into the footnotes for translation, written in a font smaller still than the already not-particularly-large main font.
Alright, moving onto the story. I didn't know anything about it when picking it up. The book takes place in the beginning of the 19th century, on the eve of the invasion of Russia by the French army. We experience the years 1805-1813 (with a bit of 1820 in the epilogue) mostly through the perspective of three characters from three families: Pyotr Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky. Besides them and their relatives, there are quite a few characters in the book, some major and some minor, many of them historical, like General Kutuzov or Napoleon Bonaparte.
The title is made of two parts, and in a sense the book is two books stitched together: the first, a history book detailing the lead up to and fallout of several conflicts between Russia and France, with a healthy side of philosophy of history; the second, a drama filled with love, misery, happiness, betrayal, some masonry mixed in and several individual perspectives on the meaning of life and the source of happiness. I suspect that one could read these two parts separately and still get a more-or-less complete, satisfying and self-consistent package, but they really compliment each other, fill each other out and also serve to show that there is war within peace just as there can be peace within war. Soldiers not only die on the battlefield, but also live their lives as people during time of calm. Those who never see the battlefield can still have their life ruined, can still fall into such peripetea that past, future, everyone and everything else seems meaningless and done for.
It was some time after I finished volume 1. When the battle of Austerlitz was lost, the first Russian loss in a hundred years, and the Russian nobility refused to truly ackowledge defeat. They blamed the Germans, they blamed the Poles, the Austrians. Everybody had betrayed, had shown stupidity and recklessness, but the Russians were steadfast and brave. When I read that, something clicked in my head and I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the events to come. I knew from reading about the Napoleonic wars that Moscow would be taken, and reading about these people, in complete denial about their invincibility and greatness, refusing to admit even a single fault? I find it hard to empathize or sympathize with nationalism, but at that moment I felt that it wasn't some person or group of people, or a place that would be affected, but a whole nation, a sort of soul with its center in Moscow. It would be like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 was to Americans, but on an even greater scale (imagine if it wasn't just the two towers but also the white house, the empire state building and the washington monument that were destroyed). Tolstoy is really good at portraying patriotism, he made Russia feel almost like a character in itself, not just a geographical region.
As for the main fictional trio, I found Pierre and Natascha to be the most relatable and interesting. Andrei Bolkonsky didn't bore me when in focus, by any stretch of the imagination, however as a character with his own problems and ambitions he felt the most distant to me. He performed wonderfully as a contrast to the other two, though. It's hard to describe the characters, though. Pierre lives with his head in the clouds. Natascha is the embodiment of childish wonder and happiness. Andrei is the most mature, yet this doesn't bring him much consolation. They're hard to describe, because they're not static - for the whole 1200 pages, they keep changing, keep developing. Andrei will begin as stoic but apathetic, then battle depression, then find new life in love, then become much more philosophical than before, then ... you get the idea. Of course, there are much more characters. Nikolai Rostov and his feelings for Sonya that cause great turmoil in his family. Princess Marya, who's Stockholm Syndrome personified. General Kutuzov, who skirts the line between a good grandpa and a senile geezer. The list goes on.
Something I discovered prior to reading that made me look forward to finishing every volume was the 1966 adaptation of the book into a 4-part movie, under the direction of Sergei Bondarchuk. The book has 4 volumes and they align quite well with the movies, so finishing each volume meant I had a movie to watch without worrying about spoilers. It's a piece of Soviet cinema, something I haven't really experienced before, but I've got to say, that particular tetralogy is to War and Peace what Peter Jackson's trilogy is to The Lord of the Rings... except better. The production was majority state-sponsored, and got great access to locations and extras, leading to absolutely stunning ballroom scenes and battle sequences, often featuring many hundreds or even thousands of actors in costume at a time, something I have not seen done before or after. Furthermore, the movie that special kind of feeling to it, of having history come alive, that I've only seen done once more, in Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. You can find paintings of the campaign of 1812 and then scenes in the movie that portray the same things just as well, many scenes have that sort of romantic grandeur, every piece of the frame embodying a story. The movie really helped in some places with understanding of the events. The human drama is easy to understand and follow, but particularly the descriptions of war largely flew over my head in the book because I don't have any idea about all the different fortifications and military ranks and such, so seeing it on screen was illuminating. Furthermore, parts of the later events, like a certain fire or a certain execution, really didn't make as much of an impact on me while reading as they should've, and it was only after seeing them in the movie that the horror and/or sadness really set in. Oh, and the movie is really good not just as an adaptation of a great book, but also as a piece of cinema in itself. Quite a few times I paused just to take in and appreciate the cool shots they did. Oh oh, and the full thing has been officially released by Mosfilm on YouTube, so there's no reason not to watch it. There are two more major adaptations of the work, both done by BBC - one, very accurate and meticulous from 1972, and another from 2016, which takes more creative liberties with the source material (and focuses much more on the "Peace" than on the "War). I've yet to watch either, but I'll get around to it eventually and maybe update this page with remarks.
So yeah, closing thoughts, this is a damn good book. I'm glad I read it. Quite possibly the best book I've ever read, though I haven't read much yet so this title doesn't mean much, and also it's really closely tied with the previous entries on this page; there's just a lot of good literature.
Oh, and here's a list of some of the other chonkers I plan on reading:
- The Peasants || Chłopi by Władysław Reymont, 1904
- The Story of the Stone || 紅樓夢 by Cao Xueqin, 1791
- Anna Karenina || Анна Каренина by Leo Tolstoy, 1878
- Illuminatus! by Robert Anton Wilson, 1984
- Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, 1605-1615
- Trylogia || The Trilogy by Henryk Sienkiewicz, 1884-1888
- The Emigrants || Utvandrarna by Vilhelm Moberg, 1949-1959
- Middlemarch by George Eliot, 1872
- Ulysses by James Joyce, 1922
- Mahabharata, from over 2000 years ago
- Ramayana, from over 2000 years ago
- Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, 1862
- Illiad and Odyssey by Homer, over 2700 years ago
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, 1950-1956
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms || 三國演義 by Luo Guanzhong, over 600 years ago
- The Tale of Genji || 源氏物語 by Murasaki Shikibu, over 1000 years ago
- Dune by Frank Herbert, 1965-???
- A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, 1996-???
- The Witcher || Wiedźmin by Andrzej Sapkowski, 1986-2013
- Kin || Rod by Miljenko Jergović, 2013
- Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, 1920-1922
- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, 1996
- In Search of Lost Time || À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust, 1913-1927
- Spice and Wolf || 狼と香辛料 by Isuna Sakehura, 2006 - ???
And now for something much smaller.
Snow Country || 雪国
Yasunari Kawabata, 1948
Snow Country is a short novel published in 1948, written by Yasunari Kawabata. It tells of a love story between a wealthy man from Tokyo, Shimamura, and a geisha named Komako, who works at a small-town onsen.
Perhaps due to my lack of cultural knowledge or ability to relate to either character, the love story fell short for me. The characters’ interactions felt artificial and disjointed, their bickering lacking any discernible reason. I did not particularly enjoy Kawabata’s writing, either; quite often, the ambiguity of the descriptions was confusing, and the dialogues felt as if nobody was really listening to anybody, and never saying anything that makes sense. Shimamura was not a pleasant character, seemingly not seeing anything more in Komako than just an object for personal satisfaction, and Komako’s actions and speech made her far more annoying than endearing; it felt like half the time she spoke of the need to leave and go home, only to not go anywhere, or told Shimamura to get up or get down, only to berate him immediately after for following her command. Komako’s life story and the frequent presence of Yuko, a fellow geisha, only served to confuse me, as some things were unclear, while those that were felt like they had no meaning to the story.
At just shy of 37 thousand words (in English translation), it shouldn’t take an average reader more than 4 hours to get through. The aforementioned problems with confusing writing are not reflected in the vocabulary, which is fairly simple. Sadly, this classic missed the mark for me and I can’t rate it above 5/10.
War with the Newts || Válka s Mloky
Karel Čapek, 1936
War with the Newts is a 1936 science fiction novel by Czech author Karel Čapek. It presents an alternate history of the world, in which, in the early 20th century an intelligent race of sea-dwelling newts is discovered, before being exploited as workforce and generally leading to drastic changes in every sphere of society. Eventually, the rapid progress of the Newts turns them into the technologically superior species and leads to a “change in leadership”.
The novel is filled to the brim with satire, of almost every kind. If you’ve read George Orwell’s Animal Farm and enjoyed it, you’re sure to enjoy this one as well. There is satire of the slave trade and racial discrimination in the United States, of supremacist ideologies of Nazi Germany, of British colonialism. The book managed to predict the arms race that would shape much of the coming century through the Cold War. The later chapters turn quite dystopian, and the last chapter felt to me like a very good allegory for human-induced climate catastrophe. Despite all that, the book manages to squeeze in plenty of jokes and be interesting as a story in and of itself, with colorful characters and well-written dialogue.
At roughly 55 thousand words (in Polish translation), the novel will take 5-6 hours for an average reader. The language is not difficult in any way. A strong recommendation from me, and a rating of 9/10.