War and Peace Readalong, Part 4: The Quest for a Good Life

This week’s reading covered Volume II, Parts III and IV, in which we jump to 1809 (then back to 1808), Pierre becomes the head of the Petersburg Freemasons and agrees to remarry Helene, Boris and Natasha end their courtship, Andrew (Andrei) sets his sights on Natasha despite Pierre’s protestations, and Nicholas (Nikolai) vows to marry Sonya.


In parts III and IV of Volume II, there is very little of what I would call entertainment, but this is one of the more interesting sections of the novel due to the narrative being driven by a simple, yet complex, question: “What does it mean to life a good life?”

So far, we’ve seen almost every character’s attempt at success or happiness foiled. Pierre thought he would find existential peace through the Freemasons but he’s made little progress in his quest for spiritual fulfillment. Andrew has become disheartened with his forays into both the military and the government. Marya is desperate for religious belonging, but she still feels something is missing. Natasha’s impending marriage to Boris has fallen apart. Nicholas intends to marry Sonya, much to the disapproval of his family. And the list goes on.

There was an undertone of cynicism to Part III, a cynicism I was long expecting but haven’t quite seen yet. (I just assume that every big-ass Russian novel will be sad as fuck.) And maybe I’m just in a bitter place in my life, but I enjoyed it. Tolstoy seems to foreshadow that every effort to improve someone’s life will ultimately end up fizzling out. Things are doomed to failure.

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War and Peace Readalong, Part 3: Tolstoy Basically Started Tumblr

To follow along with our War and Peace Newbies Readalong, follow either the hashtag or our fearless leader, Laura, on Twitter. Pretty much everything the group posts will be found there.


1. What Went Down in Volume 1, Part 3

Now that Pierre is one of the wealthiest men in Russia, everyone in high society is fawning over him. Prince Vasili sets him up with a diplomatic job in Petersburg, and Pierre hates it. Anna Pavolvna Scherer encourages Pierre to marry Vasili’s daughter Helene, and Pierre hates that even more. He thinks Helen is vacuous. She is quiet, uninteresting, and concerned with little more than her beauty. But pretty soon, so is Pierre. Despite his misgivings, he can’t really help himself from staring at her … bounty. Oh, and there’s this little rumor that Helene and her brother Anatole have  an incestuous relationship. So there’s that.

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War and Peace Readalong, Part 2: War is Boring but 1-Star Reviews Aren’t

A Note on Names: Since I am reading the Maude translation, I will be using its version of certain names in the text: Andrew instead of Andrei, Nicholas instead of Nikolai, etc. I’m sure you will hate it, but this is the book I’m reading and these who they are to me. 


1. What Went Down in Volume 1, Part 2

In Part II we leave Petersburg high society and venture out to Braunau, Austria. General Kutuzov, the head of the Semyonovsky regiment, is so opposed to his men joining the Austrians in their fight against Napoleon that he makes them dress in rags, in the hopes that the Austrians will refuse their help. It matters not, since the Austrians surrender anyway, thereby clearing a path toward the Russians for Napoleon and his army. Despite Kutuzov’s attempts, the Semyonovsky regiment will soon see action.

Meanwhile, in the Pavlogradsky regiment, Nicholas and company are ordered to destroy a bridge that the French must cross before they arrive. A siege occurs, and the regiment succeeds.

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War and Peace Readalong, Part 1: An Indictment of Love

This is the first of eleven posts I’ll be making about War and Peace over the next eleven Mondays, thanks to the War and Peace Newbies Readalong, hosted by Laura at Reading in Bed. Since this is the first week, it’s definitely not too late to join in. Just head here for the intro post, and get to reading. If you’re intimidated, then think of it this way: reading a 1500+ page book is hard work, in that it’s literally, physically difficult, so your reading time is basically workout time, too. Two birds, one stone. 


1. What Went Down

As expected with a 1500-page book written in 1865, a lot happens even though almost nothing happens. Part 1 (in my Everyman’s Library Edition) is 137 pages and much of it is about establishing the characters and placing the chess pieces on the board before they’re moved around for effect later. Long story short: Part 1 is about about lining people up either for Napoleon or against Napoleon and for Pierre or against Pierre.

At a society party at her home in Petersburg, Anna Pavlovna Scherer discusses the war with her friend Price Vasili Kuragin (great name, and one of about 1200 princes and princesses in War and Peace). In the opening paragraph of the novel Anna calls Napoleon the antichrist and declares that Russia is the only nation on earth capable of stopping him. Talk of the war dominates much of the party. People casually throw around words like “virulent” and “chimerical.”

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The War and Peace Newbies Tag

July is officially go time for the War and Peace Readlong at Reading in Bed, but Laura has a few questions in advance before we all abandon our friends and families for 12 weeks.

It’s the War and Peace Newbies tag, in reference to the fact that everyone doing Laura’s readalong will be a W&P virgin.

Hot, right?

Here we go.


Have your read (or attempted to read) War and Peace?

Not even a little bit. I’m not a big classics guy, to be honest. But for whatever reason, I was one of the people who pressed Laura into reading War and Peace for her readalong this year (she does one every summer).

Despite the fact that I essentially haven’t read any of it, Russian literature is fascinating to me. The grandiosity is nothing if not commendable, and these guys–Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov–tackled some pretty big themes. War, death, existence, God, family, love, hate, etc.

In short, these guys didn’t fuck around.

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The Hobbit Readalong - Chapter 1

Dissecting Gollum’s Riddle Game

In The Tragedy of Arthur–Arthur Phillips’ brilliant novel about the finding, or forgery, of a supposedly lost Shakespearean play–Phillips boldly questions the genius of ol’ Billy Shakes. Specifically, he argues that Shakespeare has been attributed too much credit by his critics, who have, in large part, done a great deal of work for him.

Here, Phillips explains it best:

“Look, look: you have a weak spot where Will’s not thinking very clearly, and the character rambles on, and Will sticks in a joke that he likes about flowers that look like wieners. It plainly doesn’t belong there. Any editor would cut it. It breaks the rhythm and the logic of the scene. And your sweet old Gertrude noticed it and rightly points out the weak spot. Anybody else, we’d say, ‘Whoops. Not buying it, Will.’ If I wrote it, they’d send me home to rework it. Instead, what do you all do? You all talk it out until you make it make sense for him. He wrote it, so it must be right. You six very intelligent people form a committee to offer him your help, and when you’ve done the best you can, consulting old books of other would-be helpers, when you actually come up with some very clever solutions, you marvel at him for composing such a subtle moment.”

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The Hobbit Readalong - Chapter 1

Tra-la-la-ohmygodshutup

One would be hard pressed to argue The Hobbit being anything other than a children’s story, but when Thorin leaves a letter for Bilbo the morning after their unexpected party it becomes clear that Tolkien wasn’t ignoring adults entirely.

“Terms: cash on delivery, up to and not exceeding one fourteenth of total profits (if any); all travelling expenses guaranteed in any event; funeral expenses to be defrayed by us or our representatives, if occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for. Thinking it unnecessary to disturb your esteemed repose, we have proceeded in advance to make requisite preparations, and shall await your respected person at Green Dragon Inn, Bywater, at 11 a.m. sharp. Trusting that you will be punctual.”

The sarcasm here is razor sharp. While the letter appears nothing more than an unusually formal contract, its purpose is to mock Bilbo for his hesitation and supposed cowardice.

First, Thorin thanks Bilbo for offering his “professional” assistance, when in fact the dwarves forced his hand and have little faith in his ability to burgle anything. Next, he waves in Bilbo’s face the very real possibilities of failure and death, knowing that Bilbo is the last person willing to risk either. Finally, Thorin refers to Bilbo’s slumber as his “esteemed repose,” mocking his overblown civility. Thorin may as well have written, “Get over yourself and get your ass to Bywater.”

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