Saturday, 11 July 2015

War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy


I loved this book from the very start, right up to the second epilogue 1320 pages later, but at that point Tolstoy began repeating himself and I shamefully admit I gave up. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of this gigantic book I was completely captivated and so it will easily be in my top 10 books ever.

The book deals with all aspects of life; religion, love, death, war, philosophy, family life, marriage, class, probably many other things I can’t think of right now.

What I loved most about this book was Tolstoy’s ability to characterise people so clearly, right down to their movements, thoughts, feelings that it felt even clearer than a film.
At some points I felt like this book was late 19th century Russia’s version of a soap opera on TV. 
I can’t believe I just compared War and Peace to East-Enders, let me just clarify. What I mean by that is because of its size, you are carried along the lives of various families in such lucidity and for quite a long time, that you keep dipping in and out of their world and completely taken away from your own.
Obviously that’s where the similarities end as War and Peace is also a remarkable piece of art in terms of its literature and philosophy. I unfortunately didn’t read it in Russian, but my mum who has read both versions was impressed by the translation so I’m trusting that it was as accurate as it can be.

Tolstoy is not just a beautifully talented writer, but also shows his genius elsewhere…

Tolstoy the artist -
As previously mentioned Tolstoy recreates scenes extremely vividly, in particular I felt completely with the characters during the war scenes. He surprises you with the richness of life by describing the minutest details about all the emotions that can be experienced during war, even unexpected ones such as joy and vitality.

Tolstoy the psychologist –
He covers psychological phenomenon that have only recently been ‘proven’ by scientists such as group-think - when individuals conform to actions of others around them, and attribution errors - when people look back at history and misattribute causes to things that were really just coincidences.

Tolstoy the historian –
The book starts in 1805 and ends in 1813 (the epilogues go a bit further to 1820 but in less detail). And that period of time is covered so comprehensively that you pretty much get a history lesson (albeit slightly biased from a Russian’s perspective) about Napoleon and his tragic attempt to conquer Russia. So if you’re studying that period of time, this book doubles as a perfect textbook!
Tolstoy also recognizes that history is continuous and the result of so many contributing factors, and is strongly against the opinion that a few powerful individuals influence the events of the world. He argues that events just happen, and people like Napoleon and Alexander I are instead consequences of their situation rather than acting agents.

Tolstoy the philosopher –
Throughout the book, especially while describing Pierre and Prince Andrew’s contemplation of life, as a reader you witness Tolstoy’s search for the meaning of life, of death, of love, of religion. And it’s fascinating to watch.

This book is a lesson on life, and so thoroughly takes you into another world as every great piece of fiction should, that your outlook on life will not be the same.

A small criticism I have is that sometimes it feels a bit repetitive, and in a book over 1000 pages long it just might not be necessary. It feels as if Tolstoy has made a point that he feels passionately about, and can’t quite let it go in fear that you haven’t understood exactly, so he keeps drilling it in.  This happened at the end of the book, in the second Epilogue, which was why I couldn’t finish it.
One further criticism, as a feminist I was disappointed by his portrayal of women. All the women characters are somewhat weak, silly, and over-emotional. But saying this, women at those times probably were all those things as they were hidden away from the world until marriage and then expected to be both an interesting wife and a submissive one. Which is by definition impossible. So I’ll forgive him for that and this book remains one of my favourite of all time, and I look forward to reading it again in the future and see how my opinions change.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Daisy Miller - Henry James

Be warned - spoilers!


I hadn’t touched my Kindle since coming back from travelling until last night when I found myself unable to sleep and with a broken reading light…Browsing through the weird mix of classics and foreign books that make up the Kindle free section, I came across Daisy Miller by Henry James and settled on it straight away. I’m a big James fan - both William and Henry - together they make up my two main interests of psychology and literature. Also, it’s a short little book, and I’m in the middle of War and Peace right now so the task of taking on something more substantial would have been an impossible feat.

The book is about an unconventional American girl travelling around Europe with her mother and brother when she meets Winterbourne, another American, who lives in Switzerland. The story follows their bizarre and short-lived relationship in which Winterbourne is constantly puzzled by Daisy, but never truly respects or likes her and only pays attention to her because she’s pretty.
To be fair to Winterbourne, Daisy is quite a confusing character. I initially found her completely annoying and irresponsible, but occasionally there would be sparks and hints of intelligence, and a freedom of spirit that was admirable in those days. For example, the very fact that she never gives in to Winterbourne’s charms and can see that he isn’t really serious about her is impressive. And at another point when he’s trying to stop her inappropriate behaviour (walk around Rome with an Italian man at night) instead proudly claims, “I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do”. Go girl!
When she eventually becomes ostracized by European society I felt bad for her, so at times I can sympathise with Winterbourne’s mixed feelings. Unfortunately James doesn’t let us like Daisy for long as she suddenly dies at the end. But this does feel somewhat unavoidable by her overwhelming silliness and how ill-suited the couple are for each other. Winterbourne could never truly love her, but somehow liked her enough to not let her go either. Death was the only way!
I don’t know whether James is criticizing American laxity or European stiffness in this book, perhaps both, but it’s a captivating little novella and I recommend it as a short, thought-provoking read. 

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Unqualified Opinion

I've got to get something off my chest despite knowing far too little about the situation, and I'm sure I'm missing a lot but I’m going to have a go anyway...

The media on Greece's financial situation seems to be missing one key point. Why has Greece not once said: ‘okay, we are to blame for our economy being in such a terrible state, and we will be better in the future?’ 

Admittedly yes, now we know with hindsight that the austerity measures imposed by the banks since the beginning of all their trouble haven't helped, but Greece were in such a terrible situation even if the banks lent them loads of money (to spend and encourage growth) this wouldn’t have helped either! The central banks would have just thrown their money into the hands of a few rich people who don't pay tax. The money has gone somewhere! This crisis in Greece has actually made a select few Greek people a lot richer, and they aren't giving it to Greece. 

The banks had two choices (they shouldn't have even had to make this decision in the first place but that was the EU's fault and we'll get to that). 
This was the background simplified- 2008 crash, Greece has to borrow a lot of money, corrupt system (loads of tax avoidance, relaxed fiscal system - for example able to retire at 50 and receive a pension…) 
Choice 1. Give Greece loads of money and try to encourage economic growth through spending. But where in reality would this money go? Because of the fundamentally backward and flawed tax system and other issues none of this money would help the economy grow, it would just go into the hands of a few rich.
Choice 2. Give Greece less money and impose austerity measures, and hope their economy strengthens. They went with this one.

Admittedly, their economy has gone from bad to worse because of the austerity measures, but can you see how out of their choices this probably seemed like the safest option?

I think the mess Greece is in now is mainly because they were allowed in the Eurozone in the first place with such an undisciplined government and tax collection system. And whose fault is this? Both. Greece lied when applying about the state of their economy, and the EU knew they were lying but accepted them anyway, unaware just how bad it all was.

Also, I think it’s very admirable of the Londoner Thom Feeney trying to raise a billion euros for Greece via crowd fund, but the reason I will not be contributing to this fund is because there are many rich Greek’s with a billion between them too. 

The fact that they themselves are not willing to put in the money to help their own country means I won’t be willing either. I don’t know if that’s unnecessarily harsh or not, but the problem and fault here lies with a few powerful and rich people in Greece who are unwilling to pay taxes and contribute to a failing economy, that of their own country, and this needs to change.

This is what I’ve gathered from reading the news and talking to people recently, and to summarise it all boils down to the fact that Greece has a huge problem collecting tax (a shocking 81% isn't collected), so the government can’t pay back it’s debts like every other country can.

Why have I not heard once, Greece admit to this and say they will start taxing normally like every other EU country? Greece needs to stop living beyond it’s means, and wake up to reality. It’s not the banks faults (entirely) that they are in this mess, and they alone – probably out of the EU - can clear all this up. They need a huge change. The reason this isn't happening is that the only people who are powerful to enforce this change are the ones who are benefitting most from the current system and therefore don't want to. In the end it's selfish interests winning over communal.