Wednesday 29 June 2011

Take Five Books - June 2011

Thought I would have another go at this five book challenge, originally devised by Simon at Stuck in a Book.  This time I have had to change one of the headings.  As I don’t buy books that often, a bit of a skinflint, I have substituted an audio book instead, as I do listen to audiobooks a lot.  So here are my five books for June.
1. The book I’m currently reading - Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido.  This was the first book published by Barbara Trapido.  I have previously read, or rather listened to a latter novel, Sex and Stravinsky, which I enjoyed very much, though it had little to do with either sex or Stravinsky.   I also enjoyed Brother of the More Famous Jack which does feature of lot of sex.  It is on the whole a funny and witty little book which recounts one young woman’s sometimes painful journey towards maturity. 
2. The last book I finished - The Snowman by Jo Nesbø.  I am a great fan of Jo Nesbø, and this is now the fifth I have read, all featuring Oslo’s very own detective Harry Hole.  As with the others, The Snowman is about the solving of some pretty brutal and terrifying murders.  This time it gets really personal for Hole himself.  
3. The next book I want to read -  March Violets by Philip Kerr.  This is the first in Philip Kerr’s series of novels featuring detective Bernie Gunther.  I’ve read two of the latter novels which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I am now looking forward to going back to the beginning.  This one is set in Berlin in the 1930s with the Nazis in power.
4. The last audiobook I listened to - The Lemon Tree by Julian Barnes.   This was slightly unusual for me in that The Lemon Tree is a collection of short stories.  I enjoyed all 11 stories which are about aging, dying and reminiscing about the past, usually with bitterness and regret.  Well read by Timothy West and Prunella Scales.
5. The last book I was given - The Death of the Little Match Girl by Zoran Ferić.  Earlier in the year I signed up for the East European Reading Challenge.  So far I have only read books by Russian authors, so I have pinched this book from Elena, who has no time to finish it.  This will be another first for me - a Croatian writer.  It is billed as “bizarre, uncomfortable fusion of detective story, crime novel, political thriller, and raw, grotesque fiction.  In short - Balkan krimić.”  So no idea of what I have let myself in for.

Monday 27 June 2011

Will Greece have to default?

The answer to this is yes and it is only a matter of when, not if.  At least that seems to be the view of most economists.  At least those not employed by the EU, the ECB or the governments of the member states.  It is easy to see why.  Partly as a result of the austerity measures that the EU and IMF wish to inflict on Greece, there is simply no way in which the Greek economy can grow sufficiently to generate the funds to repay all these loans.  Which of course makes it all the more likely that Greece will reject the proposals.  Even if they are forced to accept them, the austerity measures, it merely delays the inevitable.  At some stage in the not too distant future, Greece will have to default.  And all hell is likely to break out.
The reason for this is that if Greece defaults then some of the big French and German banks will be in deep trouble.  And the reason for this is that any kind of default or rescheduling of debts would force the banks to come clean on their losses.  It is unlikely to end there, as a Greek default would almost certainly have a domino effect and lead to similar troubles in Ireland, Portugal and possibly Spain and Italy.  To get an idea of how losses in Greece can affect banks elsewhere, please read this article by David Malone on his Golem XIV blog.
So the EU is desperate to keep Greece from defaulting, hence all the repayable loans it wants to force on the Greeks.  Getting the already impoverished Greek taxpayers to bear the whole burden is quite cute, at least if you can get away with it.  For remember, it is not in fact Greece that is getting bailed out, it is the bondholders, primarily the French and German banks who so recklessly leant the money to Greece in the first place.
However the likelihood is that by trying to stave off the inevitable, EU leaders are only making this worse in the long run.  Preventing contagion spreading to Ireland and Portugal may be impossible due to current EU policy.  Colm McCarthy, an Irish economist gives a good outline of how this failure to face up to the reality of a Greek default will make things worse, in this article for the Sunday Independent.  He also makes the interesting point that this failure stems in part because, “European political leaders are reluctant to admit to their electorates that the euro system was poorly designed from the outset, that some countries should perhaps not have been admitted at all and that there have been massive failures of bank supervision.  French banks apparently hold €56bn in Greek bonds, German banks €30bn.  Why were they allowed to acquire these huge exposures?”  It is just so much easier to blame poor feckless Greeks and gullible Irish.
So what is likely to happen?  The smart money is on some kind of break-up of  the Eurozone.  Some of the peripheral countries will be forced out or voluntarily decide to leave the eurozone.  This would come along with a default.  While this would clear these countries’ sovereign debts, it is not clear what the long term consequences would be.  The thinking behind this is that a much reduced eurozone - Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium - would not face the same strains and stresses of the current, wider zone.  It would however still be faced with the same basic problem.  Can a monetary union survive without a fiscal union?  This would need the creation of European Finance ministry and would allow for fiscal transfers between member states.  As is the case with the USA.  While the current climate within the EU is hostile to such a move, perhaps within a core eurozone it might be easier to sell this plan to the electorates.  Short of some kind of fiscal union the euro is likely to be doomed.  As the creation of the euro was essentially a political decision, expect politics, especial the need to maintain the Franco German axis, to play a large part in any future decisions.
In the meantime, Europe needs to prepare for the worst.  And this will alas include the UK.  Since what we face is a solvency crisis, Europe needs to expunge the rot from its banks.  This is the conclusion reached by John H Cochrane and Anil Kashyap, two professors of economics and finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.  In an article for the Wall Street Journal they highlight some of the key facts in this sorry Greek tragedy.  Whatever the long term solution for the EU, some time soon, and the sooner the better, banks need to get their houses in order.  As they put it, “Banks with inadequate capital must raise it, find buyers, or reorganize.  If that means bailouts of ‘systematically important’ banks, then governments must do so, face their taxpayers, and make their regulators explain how they let this happen.”  
I like that last bit, about making regulators explain how they let all this happen.  I would go further and where possible charge them with gross dereliction of duty.  At the very least they should no longer be employed as key government advisers.

Thursday 23 June 2011

A Few of My Favourite Ballets

Along with opera I am a great fan of ballet.  I tend to favour the classical repertoire, though I have seen a small number of pieces from what are often termed dance theatre companies.  Unlike opera, classical ballet has a pretty limited number of key works and they mostly all have a pronounced Russian flavour, at least as far as the music goes.  Most ballet productions tend to stick pretty closely to the original, with the addition of new choreography now and again.  Unlike opera, which attracts directors from all kinds of backgrounds and where there are all kinds of radical innovations.  I rarely manage to see ballet live on stage, though I have seen three of Scottish Ballet’s recent productions, and enjoyed them all.  I rely on TV and the occasional DVD.  As with opera, on the whole I like my ballets to have a strong storyline, even if it is a bit on the fairy tale side.  Here are some of my favourites.
Swan Lake is definitely one of my all time favourites.  Tchaikovsky has composed the music for three ballets, all of them wonderful, but Swan Lake is for me the best.  The story is a bit on the fanciful side to say the least, but the music and the dance sequences are just breathtaking.  I’ve never seen this ballet performed live on stage, but have seen quite a few on TV and I own a version on DVD.  This is 1998 performance from the Ballet of the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin.  Directed by Patrice Bart and conducted by Daniel Barenboim.  Very good production too with Steffi Scherzer as Odette/Odile and Oliver Matz as the Prince.   Swan Lake is one of the ballets that has seen a few radical innovations.  Mathew Bourne’s version sticks to the main story line, but uses male dancers for the swans including the Odette/Odile role.  He also changed the period to the early1990s in London, where the court is a none too thinly disguised take-off of our current Royal Family.  Works well as a strong story though the dance sequences are not as rich or varied as the original.   The other alternative that I’ve seen is John Neumeier’s Illusions LIke Swan Lake, which changes the story completely and instead bases the ballet on the real life story of King Ludwig 11 of Bavaria.  Very good production and well worth seeing if you haven’t already.
Another of my favourite ballets is Romeo and Juliet.  This ballet does have a strong story line and very moving and powerful music by Prokofiev.  It also features some great action dances and one of the all time great romantic dance sequences.  This is also one of the ballets have I have seen performed live on stage.  This was the 2008 version by Scottish Ballet.  Claire Robertson and Tama Barry were the star crossed lovers in a new production by Polish choreographer Krzystof Pastor.  This was a very powerful production as Pastor set the scenes in different decades of 20th century Italy, starting in the 1930s, then the 1950s and ending in the 1990s.  Not sure that any of this added that much to the ballet.
I also love Coppélia, which is a much more light hearted ballet, as is reflected in the lovely music by Léo Delibes.  My favourite version is a 1993 production by the Kirov Ballet, with new choreography by Oleg Vinogradov.  This features a wonderful performance by Irina Shapchits as Swanilda, the heroine of the tale.  Shapchits plays her as a bit of a tomboy.  I have tried to find other ballets that feature Shapchits, but she seems to have disappeared from the ballet world.
Another lesser know ballet which I love is Le Corsaire, which is loosely base on the poem by Lord Byron, with music by Adolphe Adam.  It has a very disjointed story line, which makes it difficult to stage.  Though it does have some show stopping passages, which are often performed on their own.  American Ballet Theatre produced a very witty and ironic production which was filmed in 1999, with Julie Kent as an enchanting Medora.
My final pick is Pulcinella.  This short ballet was devised and choreographed by Heinz Spoerli as a comic ballet in 1980 for the Basler Ballett.  Just like Stravinsky’s music this ballet is full of verve, lightness and colour.  35 minutes or so of pure joy.

Monday 20 June 2011

Work Longer for Less - Another Nasty from the Coalition

Another little piece of nastiness from our somewhat beleaguered government.  Today they are trying to get Parliament to agree to press ahead with raising the state pension age for women from 60 to 65 by 2018.  Then the age for everyone will rise to 66 by 2020.  Now the first part of this proposal is manifestly unfair to something around 300,000 women who will now face working up to two years longer before they can get their full state pension.  However the greatest objection should be to this notion that the state pension age needs to rise to 66 by 2018 and then almost certainly to 67 by sometime in the 2020s.
The UK is of course not alone in this and the previous government, New Labour, had also signed up to raising the state pension age.  However I have yet to find any convincing evidence that this measure is either necessary or beneficial.  There are all kinds of anomalies in the proposal.  The fact is that huge numbers of people die well before the state retirement age at the moment and that very large numbers of people only live for a very short period after reaching the age of 65.  This is particularly true for men and even more true for manual workers.  That the majority in this group are already pretty poor is quite convenient for our nasty Coalition as it was for New Labour.  After all what can the poor do - vote Labour?  Raising the retirement age will only make this inequality even worse.
The main, indeed the only justification for these proposals is that the majority of us are living longer and that the country can no longer afford to pay out such largesse.  It is all a bit rich really.  Just what then is the point of all these wonderful technological innovations and these great scientific advances if all it means is that most of us will have to work longer for a lesser pension?  It is not something that will much affect the rich.  They have never had to rely on the state pension for a dignified retirement.  It is as usual an example of the rich and the better off making it crystal clear that they are manifestly not in it with the rest of us.
I am particularly intrigued by one aspect of the assumed benefits from these changes.  Apparently at some time in the near future the government will be raising significantly more in tax from all these people who will have to keep on working a few years longer.  Now I am no expert in either economics or statistics, but if thousands of people remain in their current jobs for another year or two, surely this means that an equivalent number of people will remain unemployed for the same time.  When someone retires they are nearly always replaced by someone else.  After all the various jobs have to continue to be done.  So I fail to see the gain to the Treasury.  Someone will be employed and paying taxes and national insurance.  Whether it’s a 67 year old or a 47 year old or a 27 year cannot make much of a difference to the Treasury.  So where is the benefit?  Even worse if this does lead to an increase in unemployment there will be an inevitable increase in government spending.  So there will be even less of a benefit.  Now one can see that our nasty Coalitions plans to restrict benefits will help a little here.  But surely not by that much.
This, like most of the proposals from our nasty Coalition seems to be more ideology driven than anything else.  Punish the already weak and poor.  Protect the rich and better off.  We can afford nuclear weapons, new aircraft carriers and and ever more expensive military, which it seems is primarily used to kill innocent Muslims.  Yet we cannot, absolutely cannot afford to provide a decent retirement pension for all.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Photo of the Month - May 2011

May was quite a good month for my photo collection, mainly because the last five days we were in Switzerland for the beginning our our visit to Emma & Co.  However I did manage to take a few snaps before then.  The month began with a walk from Wormit to the ruins of Balmerino Abbey.  It is a very pleasant walk which I have now done a few times.  On this occasion we were joined by a little dog, some kind of terrier, who just decided to tag along with us.  Liam gave him the name Scruffy and here he is with Liam, Jamie and Alessio.
 The walk is a grand one for wildlife and flowers.  Here is a lovely butterfly and below, a spread of flowering wild garlic in the woods.  The wild variety gives off a fine subtle aroma.

 The walks ends in the grounds of the ruins of Balmerino Abbey, before you make your way back along the estuary.  Here I am with my two beautiful daughters in a photo taken by Jamie.
May was also a very kind month for the garden with lots of flowers in bloom.  Below is a collage of some of them.
By the end of the month we were in Switzerland, which is always a delight for amateur photographers.  The shop window displays are just amazing.  They are nearly always artistically designed and sometimes as below a bit whimsical as well.
Here are some more displays and a beautiful door.
Our first trip out of Zürich took us to Eglisau, a charming little town on the northern banks of the river Rhine, though it is part of Switzerland.  Here are some of the traditional buildings along with an ultra mordern black metal statue.
And here is me resting by one of the old townhouses.  Photo taken by Alessio.
We followed this up with a trip to Lindau on the northen shores of the Bodensee.  This time we were in Germany, the tiny bit of the Bodensee that belongs to Bavaria.  And a sweet, picture postcard little town it is too.  Below are some of the lovely façades to be seen throughout the town.
Lindau also has an important harbour and here is one of the many ferry ships coming into port between the two guarding towers.
We had delicious Italian lunch in Lindau, which everyone enjoyed as you see from this photo of Kathleen, relaxing after the meal.
Lindau is quite close to Friedrichshaven which is the home of the Zeppelin airships.  They are still around and I close this month with this photo of an airship above Lindau.

Monday 13 June 2011

Scottish Independence – How many Referendums?

Once again we see the rather unlovely sight of Unionists making a fool of themselves.  This time it is over the issue of a referendum or more precisely over how many referendums will need to be held before Scotland can  become independent.  For years now, if not decades, Unionists of all stripes have stated again and again that there was no need for even one referendum.  They asserted as if Gospel, that any referendum was a waste of time as Scots didn’t want independence anyway.  Now that they are out of power at Holyrood, they have suddendly discovered the attractions of referendums.  To such an extent that like a greedy little child they now want two of them.  It is all very revealing of just how scared and lacking in ideas Unionist have become.  Trully the Unionist Emperor has no clothes.

The argument, to the extent that there is one, is a phoney one.  As Gerry Hassan has pointed out there has never, repeat never, been a case of two referendums before a country has become independent.  The main point that Unionists make is that the Scottish Parliament has no jurisdiction over constitutional matters and that therefore any referendum held by the Scottish Government would have no legal or consitutional validity.  Which of course is true.  No one has ever suggested otherwise.  However a yes vote in such an advisory referendum would carry great political weight.  Which is why David Cameron and other Coalition ministers have always stated that they would respect the result of a Scottish referendum.  So why all this talk about the need for a second referendum?

The simple answer is that there is now a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament.  Which means that there will now almost certainly be a referendum.  And the Unionists are clearly terrified that a majority of Scots will vote yes to independence.  Otherwise  why are the Unionists so frightened of a referendum?  What the Unionists now want is a second bite at the cherry.  If Scots vote yes then we will need to vote again in a few years time after the negotiations have been completed and the terms known.  This of course would give all the key powers back to Westminster and the Unionists.  The UK government could prolong the negotiations in the hope that opinion in Scotland changes.  They will be able to decide when to hold this second referendum and most importantly, be able to choose the wording of any question.  So one can see why Unionists are so keen to get this idea of a second referendum accepted.

However there is a little matter in all this which the Unionists seem to have overlooked.  The whole basis for a second referendum is that a Scottish referendum would have no real validity.  It would not in itself give the Scottish Government any additional powers.  In which case why have this first referendum?  The logic of the Unionist case is that the Scottish Government has all the political powers it needs to start negotiations with Westminster.  It has the support of well over half the MSPs, who were all elected on a platform that included independence.  So why does the UK government not just recognize this and offer to begin full negotiations on Scottish independence?  This way there would still only be one referendum, but this time at the end of the negotiations.

One can see immeditately the bind that Unionists are in.  For a referendum at the end of the negotiations to have any validity, the UK government would need to be willing to start these negotiations now.  Which is almost impossible for them to do.  So all they can hope to do is to try and frighten the Scottish people about the dangers and complications of independence and hope that fear works in their favour.  Not much of a prospectus for maintaining the Union.  For a more detailed look at the issues around a second referendum, Lallans Peat Worrier has a very good post here.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro

This was the Reading Group’s book for May and I was much looking forward to reading the novel.  I have previously enjoyed two of Ishiguro’s other works.  I listened to the audio version of Never Let Me Go and I also saw the film version.  Remains of the Day is of course a wonderful film.  So it was with great expectations that I started When We Were Orphans, particularly as this would be my first experience of reading one of Ishiguro’s novels.

It was alas a bit of a disappointment.  Though the novel starts with an interesting and promising idea the whole book is to my mind a great conceit on the part of Ishiguro.  Nothing in the novel or in the writing is ever what it appears at first sight to be.  Take the first part, which, like all the others is given a very precise place and date.  In this case, London, 24th July 1930.  However the first sentence begins – It was the summer of 1923…….  We are then almost immediately taken further back in time as the narrator recalls various incidents from his past, including a reference to his leaving Shanghai as a young orphan in the years before the 1st World War.  It is not until later on that we finally emerge in 1930.  A similar approach is taken with other parts of the novel.  Ishiguro clearly likes to play with time and with his narrator’s memories of time.  I suspect he also likes to play with us readers.

It is all beautifully done, as Ishiguro is a master of deliberate imprecision in his writing.  Here is an example of the convoluted way he allows the narrator to prepare us for an account of something that happened in the past.  There was one other small incident from those weeks following my father’s disappearance which I have now come to believe highly significant.  I did not always regard it so; in fact, I had more or less forgotten it altogether when a few years ago, quite by chance, something happened which caused me not only to recall it again, but to appreciate for the first time the deeper implications of what I had witnessed that day. (p113)

There is much more very fine writing in the book, but what prevents it from working as a whole is that there is just too much variation in styles for no apparent purpose, other than to show off.  There is for example the intermittent use of an even then, old fashioned, upper class English of the stiff upper lip kind.  It even appears when the narrator is caught in the midst of a skirmish in the Sino-Japanese War.  Trying to comfort a terrified young Chinese girl, our narrator comes up with this drivel – Look here…. All of this… I gestured at the carnage, of which she seemed completely oblivious… it’s awfully bad luck.  But look, you’ve survived, and really, you’ll see, you’ll make a pretty decent show of it if you just…… if you just keep up your courage…(p271)

My main complaint about the book is that it just does not ring true.  Most of the story develops at a very leisurely pace, even though our narrator constantly reminds us that he still wants to solve the mystery of what happened to his parents in Shanghai all those years ago.  And yet he does absolutely nothing about it for decades.  When he does return to Shanghai in 1937, just as the Japanese invasion grows in ferocity, he also does nothing of substance.  Finally, almost out of the blue he decides to leave Shanghai with the married woman he has fancied since 1923.  Then, even more improbably, on the very night of his planned elopement, just hours before the rendezvous with his paramour, he goes off on the spur of the moment on a wild goose chase to discover the building where he believes his parents have been kept in captivity for 40 years or so.  30 odd years of doing nothing much and suddenly wham bam off he goes on a double whammy.  Unbelievable!

There is much that is good and enjoyable in the novel, but it does not add up to a satisfying whole.  I remain with the feeling that Ishiguro is just playing around with his undoubted talent and with us.

Monday 6 June 2011

Barça Transfer Rumours – Nothing but Hot Air?

The close season is only two weeks old and already it looks like another vintage summer for lovers of transfer gossip surrounding FC Barcelona.  This is hardly surprising given that there are two daily sports paper published in Barcelona and another two published in Madrid.  And with very few football matches to report on, they have to fill their pages somehow.  It is just amazing how often they carry diamentrally opposed „exclusives“.  So far the speculation about Barça has centred on three players – Giuseppe Rossi, Cesc Fàbregas and Thiago Alcántara, featured in the photo below.
 With Rossi, Italian international striker, currently with Villareal, we had the great pleasure of one paper headlining that the deal to sign Rossi for Barça was pretty much done and dusted, while another paper had for its headline that Barça were no longer interested in signing Rossi at all.  All good fun.

As regards Fàbregas, there has been no shortage of stories about this hardy annual.  This must be at least the third summer in a row in which Cesc is the priority signing for the club.  Or not.  While most reports/speculations continue to claim that Fàbregas is the pet project of Pep Guardiola himself, at least some reports suggest otherwise.  This is where Thiago Alcántara gets involved.  Everyone takes it as gospel that Barça cannot afford to sign all the players they appear to be interested in.  So, in order to sign even two quality re-inforcements, the club would have to sell some of their current squad.  And Thiago is the squad player most likely to fetch a good price.

What makes this particular story really interesting is that not everyone within Can Barça thinks this is a good idea.  Not by a long way.  For Thiago Alcántara is widely regarded as the next superstar to emerge from the fabled Barça youth system.  Opinion is thus sharply divided as regards the signing of Fàbregas.  Some reports take it as granted that Barça are still desperate to sign the player, while others say no.

This lack of reliable information about likely signings is amazing, though understandable.  None of the sports dailies have the resources nor probably the inclination to indulge in a bit of real investigative journalism.  Traditionally they rely on match reports and interviews with players and staff as their staple fare.  Nowadays not much gets out of the club.  If anything, the club are probably quite happy to feed the pack of journalists with stories to keep them at bay and off the scent of any real negotiations.  The key decsions regarding players at Barça are taken by the triumvirate of Guadiola, Andoni Zubizarreta and Sandro Rosell, the club President.  All of them pretty mute when necessary.

However a quick look at the past season and who played most of the time and even more important, which players did not play, gives us a pretty good idea of where Barça need to strengthen the squad.  The two key areas are up front and the defence.  Barça rely on three goalscoring strikers and last season only had three.  They badly need at least one other reliable goalscorer.  Hence the talk of signing Rossi.  To complicate matters though the club do have a goalscorer in the squad, Bojan Krekić.  Still only 20 years old (he will turn 21 in August), Bojan has been a first team player for the last four seasons.  Though he has never quite managed to become an established first choice his goalscoring record is pretty good.  Unfortunately for him last season was his worst season at the club.  Injuries and loss of form kept him out of the team for most of the season.  Guadiola and his staff will know enough about Bojan and his potential to have worked out whether it is worth while to persevere with the youngster or to take the plunge and sign a more experienced player.

The defence, especially the centre of the defence is the area of the team that has suffered most from injuries and the obvious lack of trust in squad players such as Milito and Fontàs.  While Eric Abidal seems to have made a good recovery from his operation, there must be a doubt regarding the future of Puyol who has himself had to undergo an operation on his knee.  Which probably means that Guardiola will not know until the new season is well underway just how quickly and satisfactorily Puyol has recovered.  This would all seem to indicate that at least one experienced cental defender and probably a good left back are needed to re-establish the balance of the squad.

All of which of course would lead one to think that spending €40+ million on a midfielder is a bit of a luxury.  Especially when the club already has the two best attacking midfielders in the world in Xavi and Iniesta and one of the most promising ones in Thiago.  But you never know.  Which of course is precisely where all the gossip and speculation comes in.  For nobody really knows or at least nobody is willing to tell, what Guardiola has in mind for the coming season.  One way or another all will be revealed.  But we face another couple of months of intense speculation and imaginative (and some not so imaginative) headlines to keep us occupied while we patiently wait for the football to start again.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

War And Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s War and Peace is widely regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of literature in the world.  It feels a bit sacreligious to write about such an icon in the world of literature.  So I won’t.  It would take too long to even begin to do justice to the complexity of the novel and besides, many people, much better qualified than I have already covered just about everything in and about the book.  What follows then is just a few brief comments about my experience of reading the novel.

This is the second time I have read War and Peace.  The first was almost 30 years ago.  I don’t remember much about it, other than I enjoyed it.  This time I came across the book quite by chance while wandering about the central library in Dundee.  The book stood out from the shelves of a new section promoting classics of world literature.  It also features a new and relatively recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  As I am trying to read lots of books from Eastern Europe as part of a new Reading Challenge, I felt I could not resist this opportunity to re-acquaint myself with this classic.

I had forgottoen just how long a novel War and Peace is.  This version comes in at over 1200 pages.  As each page is slightly bigger than the normal paperback, that is a lot of words.  I reckon that reading War and Peace is easily the equivalent of reading four regular novels.  As this version also kept in French the passages in the novel that were originally written in that language, it feels like I have also read a short novella in French.

War and Peace is not simply a novel.  Tolstoy had very clear ideas that he wanted to convey to the reader.  And this he did by including whole sections and chapters devoted to his views on history, the role of so-called „important people“ etc.  I once attended a course on becoming a writer, and one piece of advice I remember from this course is that an author should „show, not tell“.  It seems  a bit presumptuous to suggest that Tolstoy was less than perfect in how he wrote.  But, I did find these philosophyzing sections over-long and decidedly boring.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the main story I remembered from that first reading all those years ago.  The love stories, the travails of great families as they seek to survive, the power struggles within the court and within the army, and of course, the horrors and unpredictability of warfare.  All this and much more make up the bulk of the novel.  And it is all gripping and fascinating stuff.  Even more so, the characters, not just the main ones, but the minor ones as well, all come to life as real, living and breathing human beings.  On the whole Tolstoy is reluctant to judge his characters.  They, just like the rest of us, have their strengths and weaknesses.

All in all I enjoyed War and Peace, second time around.  It is a very long read and some parts, especially towards the end are, to my mind, superfluous, but neverthelss the good far outweighs any longueurs.  If you can find the time, then War and Peace is a must read.  The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is very readable, and comes with some brief notes about the political background and some of the real life figures mentioned in the text.