"Who Has Seen The Wind"

Who Has Seen The Wind by W. O. Mitchell

Brian O'Connal is a little boy living on the Canadian Prairies with his parents, his grandmother and younger brother Bobbie. This is a gentle and touching look at his early years in a small town where everyone knows everyone else and it's hard for a boy to get away with anything.

The authour takes us inside Brian's home life and school life, his ups and downs with friends, neighbours and a new puppy, and then (spoiler alert) the tragedy of losing his father when Brian is still a young boy. His father's affectionate nickname for Brian was "Spalpeen" and the reader can feel Brian's aching loss, knowing he will never hear his father speak that name again.

The writing is quite beautiful. One of my favourite things about reading is coming across a line that perfectly describes a thing I have thought or felt but never found words for. One such in this book is "Within himself, Brian felt a soft explosion of feeling". Isn't that wording lovely? Another line I love is "The poplars along the road shook light from their leaves". So perfect and I can see it, can't you?

Mitchell seems to create that "small town on the big prairie" feeling effortlessly. It's nice to read something that makes you want to slow down and savour every word, breathing in the airy atmosphere that feels safe and yet wild and uncontrollable at the same time.

The copy I read was a library loan and I was lucky enough to get the illustrated version with lots of monochrome, and a few full colour, sketches. It was a sizable book, probably 14"x10" so the artwork was large and, like the writing, easy to get lost in. I recommend this beautifully written book to everyone. 

"War And Peace"

War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I finished it. The whole thing. Every. Last. Word. And I feel as though I understand the word epic better than I ever have before, and tome and other words that mostly just mean really big book. Now, with fear and trembling, I will attempt to articulate what I thought of it.

First I have to say I liked the "Peace" parts more than the "War" parts, but more than either of those I loved the parts where Tolstoy left off telling the story and talked about his own philosophies of society, history, war and peace. That is where his brilliance as a thinker shines brightest, in my opinion, and that's all it is, an opinion. I haven't studied this novel, I have only read it. I don't pretend to offer anything but a very simple response to a complicated work.

I've decided I'm not a fan of Russian Literature. I had the same problem connecting with the characters in this that I did with Anna Karenina. On some levels I believe that people are the same all around the world - but, there are cultural differences that go deep and these sometimes leave us scratching our heads at behavior we don't understand. The thing about Tolstoy's characters that frustrates me is how quickly their moods change. They can go from ecstatic to desperate and back again several times in a mere few minutes depending on what thought flits through their minds or what they read into someone's glance. I get that they are a people of strong feeling, but all that emotion every minute of every day wears a bit thin for me and makes the story heavy and plodding. For me the melodrama is exhausting, something I could take in a short story perhaps, but this, as we are all aware, is no short story.

The "Peace" parts tell the stories of several well-to-do families, their children, their struggles, their romances. And of course, their efforts to get through the war years without their menfolk. I found these sections easier reading and more interesting even with the "all drama, all the time" characters. The Russian names did present a bit of a problem; I spent so much time trying to figure out the right pronunciations that I frequently lost the line of the story and had to go back and pick it up again.

The "War" parts just about did me in a couple of times. I found the long passages about battle strategies and troop movements mind-numbing. Try as I might I can't seem to work up an interest in military things. And that Russian intensity looks almost crazed in the soldiers' obsessive need to impress their leaders, to be noticed or touched by them. They positively swoon if their Great Leader stoops to speak to their lowly selves.

Tolstoy has some pretty good insight into the human condition, as shown in the following great quotes:

"It was as if the thread of the chief screw which held his life together were stripped, so that the screw could not get in or out, but went on turning uselessly in the same place."

(He) was one of those who purposely put themselves in most depressing conditions to have a justification for being gloomy.

"Pfuel was one of those theoreticians who so love their theory that they lose sight of the theory's object--its practical application. His love of theory made him hate everything practical, and he would not listen to it. He was even pleased by failures, for failures resulting from deviations in practice from the theory only proved to him the accuracy of his theory."

"At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal power in the human soul: one very reasonably tells a man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of escaping it; the other, still more reasonably, says that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger, since it is not in man's power to foresee everything and avert the general course of events, and it is therefore better to disregard what is painful till it comes, and to think about what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally listens to the first voice, but in society to the second."

It is that insight that kept me going when I wanted to quit the book altogether. I had to see how his characters turned out, where he took them and who they became. I didn't really connect with them at all but I did enjoy reading what they believed and how they looked at life.

Now for my favorite parts of the book, those where Tolstoy leaves the story and addresses the reader directly. I love his logic, the clarity of his thinking. I'm probably the only person on the planet who doesn't already know this but I need to do a search to see if he has written any non-fiction. He's fascinating to read when it's his personal thoughts and philosophies he's conveying. He writes eloquently about history, human nature, society, etc.

Throughout the book, particularly at the beginning of chapters, there are passages that reveal his feelings about war in general and the War of 1812 in particular. Book 9 Chapter 1 begins with this almost angry comment on the criminal nature of war:

"On the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes

Another topic he's keen on is Napoleon. He talks about his rise to and fall from power and makes it clear he's not a fan: "Napoleon, with his usual assurance that whatever entered his head was right..." and "Napoleon- that most insignificant tool of history who never anywhere, even in exile, showed human dignity...." I feel I know Napoleon better after reading this book than I did after reading others where he was the main subject.

Another target of Tolstoy's criticism is historians. He frequently takes shots at them for portraying history in ways that accomplish their own purposes and have no regard for truth. He presents clear, practical arguments for his case that recorded history is wrong about the war of 1812 and that things were not as historians have portrayed them. He is not at all hesitant to point out their errors and to hint strongly at their deliberate falseness and stupidity.

There's an impressive discourse on "greatness of soul" and what that means, and then in the second epilogue, a wonderful essay on understanding "freedom" and "inevitability" as causes of historical events. Even if you never read the whole book, that section is worth looking at.

All in all I found lots to appreciate, and lots I couldn't appreciate, in War And Peace. The sheer volume of it is intimidating but it's not difficult to read. Boredom was my chief adversary but I conquered that by reading other books at the same time and taking War And Peace in small doses over a long period of time. Having finished it, I can now recommend it. Truthfully, I don't think I will ever read the whole thing again but I do expect to reread some of the more philosophical parts, especially the second epilogue, which I found fascinating.

Leo Tolstoy certainly deserves the literary world's admiration. He can at times drone on and on about things (like his endless comparison of the emptied city of Moscow to a queenless beehive that felt like it went on forever) but there's no denying his genius. I can't begin to imagine what would inspire anyone to undertake such a huge endeavor or how anyone's mind could hold all of this story from beginning to end, let alone the tenacity to keep going and getting it all on paper. And without a computer!

So this monster that has intimidated me for ages has been faced and found not so terrifying after all. It is with great satisfaction that I cross this one off my list. And though also intimidating, the writing of this post wasn't really so bad either. It is the longest review I probably will ever write, but then it's the longest book I probably will ever read. And the very best thing is: I didn't hate it!

"Breakfast At Tiffany's"

Breakfast At Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Another one I can mark off my guilt list, and such a quick read. At only 111 pages it's a long short-story or I guess "novella" is what they're calling them now, it had no chapters, and I was able to finish it in a couple of sittings.

The main characters are Holly Golightly and the narrator, referred to by Holly as "Fred" though that is not his name. Fred is basically just a talking head that we never learn much about. He is trying to be a writer and he's living in his first New York apartment. That's about it. Holly is a young socialite who seems to flit hither and yon with no definite plans. That's what she does; she flits. She doesn't seem to be bothered by any kind of moral restraint or any need to treat others well. She's rather self-centered and shallow, and her affections can be purchased by the highest bidder, but in spite of all this, every man she meets falls in love with her.

There's no real plot at all, just 111 pages about Holly. I don't know if readers are meant to find her as irresistible as all the men in the book do, but I'm afraid I didn't. I'm told the movie with Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard strays far from the book and I'm thinking that must be why everyone seems to love it so much.

Capote's writing is of that spare style that I find pleasant to read, a little like Hemmingway. He uses a few words/phrases that were in common use at the time (early 1950's) but they sound dated reading it now. It reminds me of the language I used to hear on early tv shows like "Dragnet" which totally impressed me with it's sophistication when I was a kid but now sounds a bit....dorky.

Included in this book were three short stories of Capote's: "The House Of Flowers", "The Diamond Guitar" and "A Christmas Memory". I read the first two and enjoyed the reading but didn't like the stories. That's the thing about Truman Capote; I don't like the stories or the characters and yet I enjoy the reading experience. I like the uncomplicatedness of his writing, which I should be able to call the simplicity of his writing, but I can't because it isn't the same thing. I did enjoy "A Christmas Memory" more than the others, maybe because the characters were more likeable.

I'll leave you with a few of my favorite passages:

"...the army of wrongness rampant in the world might as well march over me."

"...our understanding of each other had reached that sweet depth where two people communicate more often in silence than in words: an affectionate quietness replaces the tensions, the unrelaxed chatter and chasing about that produce a friendship's more showy, more, in the surface sense, dramatic moments."

"...her smile was fragmentary, it clung to her lips like cake crumbs." (from "House Of Flowers")

"...singing a song that sounded as jolly as jingling coins." (from "A Diamond Guitar")

"Blessed Are The Cheesemakers"

Blessed Are The Cheesemakers by Sarah-Kate Lynch

In my search for a "pleasant" book I thought I had hit the jackpot. This one had two eccentric old guys, Corrie and Fee, making cheese at their dairy farm in County Cork, Ireland, a long-lost grand-daughter come to recover from a bad marriage and a just-fired, self-destructive stockbroker sent there to get his head straight. Great setting, lots of cheese (and wine) talk, a plot that might be a little sappy but still hopefully comforting, a bit of romance, a bit of humour..., what could go wrong?

Ugh. There was a lot of swearing that served no purpose I could see other than shock value and it didn't even work for that. I think this authour could have done better. There were huge holes in the story. The tying up of loose ends went way over the top with people who were supposed to be dead but weren't and one who was supposed to die but didn't and one who wasn't supposed to but did. There was at first an appealing hint of the mystical and magical about the cheesemakers and their dairy farm but then absurd coincidences pretty much took over and it got so silly I just skimmed the last couple of chapters to get to the end. The best I can say is I found it ridiculous.

I wanted to love this book and to be able to recommend it, but I didn't, so I can't.  Maybe I'll have better luck next time.

"Hot Water"

Hot Water by P. G. Wodehouse

I finally got to read P. G. Wodehouse. The great reviews of other readers had pointed me to the "Jeeves" series of books but I didn't want to start them till I could locate all of them and as yet I haven't.  It was certainly no problem finding other titles. The library copy of "Hot Water" that I borrowed listed over 80 of his books on the back cover.

The story is set in the seaside town of St. Rocque in France, where a Mr. and Mrs. Gedge have rented the Chateau Blissac and are inviting guests for the weekend. Her intent is to pull some strings and get the powers that be to appoint Mr. Gedge Ambassador to France. Meanwhile, in a bar in town plans are being made by small time thieves to break into the chateau to steal the diamond jewelry Mrs. Gedge keeps in her bedrom safe.

What ensues is a comedy of identities. Hardly anyone is who they claim to be and as the motives of one character after another come clear and chance meetings threaten to blow cover stories the plot gets complicated and comical. What begins as a pile of puzzle pieces falls neatly into place creating a clear and tidy picture by the end.

Wodehouse's language is great fun to read. Slightly more than tongue-in-cheek  and slightly less than sarcastic, it's witty and wry and slightly mad. How satisfying it is to know there are so many of these books to come back to; this is the kind of writing that fits into my "comfort reads" category and it's a rare thing now for me to find anything that qualifies so I'm thrilled with these.

I'm pretty sure you've all been reading Wodehouse for years now, but on the off chance you've been living under a rock like me and have missed the fun of these books you should beg, borrow or buy one immediately. They're that good.  

"The Canterbury Tales"

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (Edited, introduced and translated by Peter G. Beidler, building on an earlier edition by A. Kent Hieatt and Constance Hieatt)

My book club read this a couple of years ago but for some reason that I can't remember I wasn't able to go and that gave me license to ignore it. Since then it's been sitting on a shelf staring at me and accusing me of laziness and other dire character flaws; I got tired of feeling guilty whenever I walked by it and finally picked it up.

The copy I have has 643 pages (see why I dreaded starting?), but I was delighted to find it only half that long because it's a side-by-side translation: old English on the even pages, modern English on the odd pages. I was surprised and relieved at how easy the translation was to read. I was also surprised at how raunchy the "tales" are. In one breath the tale tellers are talking about religion and holiness and Christ paying the price for their sins and in the next they're talking about the lusty behaviour of one knight/prince/hero after another.

Now that I've read it I still question what the appeal is. I didn't mind reading it but that's not much of an endorsement is it? I think it's one of those books that has to be studied to fully appreciate it; I'm sure there's a lot more to be seen in it than a casual reading will reveal. Alas, I have no desire to study it. I might have enjoyed a serious study in school, but that ship has sailed and a casual reading was quite sufficient to satisfy my curiosity. There were some good moments when I was able to get interested enough to follow a particular tale, but there were also many times I found myself bored and reading only to get to the end. 

As I said earlier, I found the language quite manageable to read; the modern English flows easily, though it loses the rhyming couplets in the translation. Chaucer is sometimes plain spoken in describing romantic encounters (until there's no romance left at all really) as in lines 1106-1109 in The Merchants Tale:

"Ladies, I ask you not to be angry with me;
I cannot gloss, I am a blunt man.
Without warning, then, this Damien
pulled up his smock, and in he thrust."

As I said; plainspoken. And there is lots of talk about women being defiled and then taking their own lives rather than live with the shame. There is no mention of the defiling men or their shame. Huh.   

Some of the tales are more memorable than others; I expect that's a matter of personal preference more than anything else. The one image that has planted itself in my brain and will probably stay there (because of it's utter ridiculousness) as a permanent icon for "The Canterbury Tales" is from "The Merchant's Tale". At one point in the story the merchant is sitting under a tree while his wife and another man have sex in the tree above him. If only I could erase that unfortunate picture.    

I'm putting it back on the shelf now where it will not make me feel guilty anymore. I'm moving on to something far more entertaining: "Hot Water" by P.G. Wodehouse.