Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

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April Book Post

Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham :

He prayed with all the power of his soul. No doubts assailed him. He was confident in the word of God. And the night before he was to go back to school he went up to bed tremulous with excitement. There was snow on the ground, and aunt Louisa had allowed herself the unaccustomed luxury of a fire in her bedroom, but in Philip's little room, it was so cold that his fingers were numb, and he had great difficulty in undoing his collar. His teeth chattered. The idea came to him that he must do something more than usual to attract the attention of God, and he turned back the rug which was in front of his bed so that he could kneel on the bare boards; and then it struck him that his nightshirt was a softness that might displease his Maker, so he took it off and said his prayers naked. When he got into bed he was so cold that for some time he could not sleep, but when he did it was so soundly that Mary Ann had to shake him when she brought in his hot water next morning. She talked to him while she drew the curtains, but he did not answer. He had remembered at once that this was the morning for the miracle. His heart was filled with joy and gratitude. His first instinct was to put down his hand and feel the foot which was whole now, but to do this seemed to doubt the goodness of God. He knew that his foot was well. But at last he made up his mind, and with the toes of his right foot he just touched his left. Then he passed his hand over it.
He limped downstairs just as Mary Ann was going into the dining room for prayers, and then he sat down to breakfast...
"Supposing you'd asked God to do something," said Philip, "and really believed it was going to happen, like moving a mountain, I mean, and you had faith, and it didn't happen, what would it mean?"
"What a funny boy you are!" said aunt Louisa. "You asked about moving mountains two or three weeks ago."
"It would just mean that you hadn't got faith," answered uncle William.

This is a classic “growing up” story, following the life of its protagonist from the early death of his parents and adoption by a strict, clerical uncle, through attempted careers in scholarship, commerce, art and medicine, to eventual business success and marriage. In the process, we see considerable misfortune, through Philip’s own youthful folly, and from the cruelty of others. We also see Philip learn and grow from good and bad experiences. This is a book about life and the human condition.

It’s also one of those books that has whole new layers of meaning if read at age 18, and then again at age 38. When I read it long ago, it made me cry. Today, it makes me think. There may be things common to all young people, and this book captures them.

Frozen Desire—the Meaning of Money, by James Buchan :
The distinctive aesthetic experience of nature—what we used to call Romantic and now term environmentalist—begins at a great remove from nature. The farmer who ploughs a stony field, or stays up all night on Christmas Eve to keep his newborn lambs from freezing, does not generally regard nature with a contemplative eye or feel that soft sorrow, that sense of estrangement from a lost paradise that we think of as the proper Romantic or environmental response to nature. He welcomes the by-pass if it will speed his journey to or from market. He’ll grow trailers in his fields as happily as soybeans. The song Summertime is a celebration not of the beauty of the cotton bush but of the strength of the market for it: the living is easy BECAUSE the price of cotton is high.

As Peter Ackroyd did with the city of London, as Philippe Aries did with death, James Buchan finds everything there is to know wrapped up in a single subject: Money. This exhaustive look at the history, philosophy and politics of money neither celebrates capitalism nor tears it down; it just looks at what IS, and what it does to and for people. Along the way, we encounter Christ’s relationship with money; the Spaniards’ quest for gold in the new world, the Mississippi and South Sea harbingers of today’s stock bubbles compared with the Great Depression; and the uneasy jockeying for power among the military and financial world powers.

My own relationship to money is an intense balancing act. I find that when I use it responsibly, I become an asshole, and when I relax and am of good cheer, my finances become awful. And so I continue on the Path of the Frosted Mini Wheat, ever searching for the right balance. This book had a lot to say to me.

I Samuel :
Therefore David arose and went, he and his men, and killed two hundred men of the Philistines. And David brought their foreskins, and they gave them in full count to the king, that he might become the king’s son in law. Then Saul gave him Michal his daughter as a wife.

Included here for completeness. I read this volume from the Bible because our family has been watching Kings on television, and I’m eagerly waiting for them to dramatize this scene. I’m imagining David opening a big bag of foreskins, and the foreskins all flutter out of the bag and alight on his head in the shape of a crown.

There’s a reason people know Genesis, the first part of Exodus, Job, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, some of the psalms, Revelation and the Gospels, and not much else from the Bible. Most of the rest of it is deadly dull reading. In I Samuel, you’ll find David and Goliath and the witch of Endor. Everything else is pretty much for devout Christians only. Saul and Samuel and David and their associates, like most of God’s chosen, continually behave badly and inconsistently. Saul loves David and makes him his heir. But wait, Saul is now trying to kill David! Look again, they’re friends! No, they’re enemies! David is loyal to Saul, or not, or to his country and people, or not, or to God, or not, and at least once he goes over and joins the Philistines. After a while, it looks completely random.
I’ll give the TV show this much: it’s doing an excellent job so far of making Saul’s hate on/hate off relationship with David seem to make sense, so far. On the other hand, the show has about as much relationship to the actual Biblical tale as O Brother Where Art Thou has to The Odyssey. In some places, the passing acquaintance serves as nothing more than a source of in jokes for people who have read the original (Saul’s thousands and David’s ten thousands, on TV, are political donations, not dead enemies). And they’ll probably never get around to doing the bit with the 200 foreskins. Wusses.

Sons and Lovers, by DH Lawrence :
At a quarter to six he rose, cut two thick slices of bread and butter, and put them in the white calico snap bag. He filled his tin bottle with tea. Cold tea without milk or sugar was the drink he preferred in the pit. Then he pulled off his shirt, and put on his pit-singlet, a vest of thick flannel cut low round the neck, and with short sleeves like a chemise.
Then he went upstairs to his wife with a cup of tea because she was ill, and because it occurred to him.
“I’ve brought you a cup of tea, lass,” he said.
“Well, you needn’t, for you know I don’t like it,” she replied.
“Drink it up; it’ll pop thee off to sleep again.”
She accepted the tea. It pleased him to see her take it and sip it.
“I’ll back my life there’s no sugar in,” she snapped.
“Yi-there’s one big ‘un” he replied, injured.
It’s a wonder,” she said, sipping again.
She had a winsome face when her hair was loose. He loved her to grumble at him in this manner. He looked at her again, and went, without any sort of leave taking.”

I was expecting one of those early 20th century English love novels, where most of the men wear boaters and striped jackets and take walks in the country lane with ladies and telling them that, dear, dear, they very much fear they’re in danger of falling in love. I also came close to just putting it back on the shelf after skimming the soppy introduction, which wallowed in the Freudian/Oedipal aspects of DH Lawrence. Thankfully, the book was something different entirely.

It takes place in a working class mining town. The main character, Paul Morel, has parents who hate each other and an older brother who dies early, causing his mother to be possessive of her remaining son and to struggle with his girlfriends for power over him. Paul is insufferably emotional; however, he may have enough talent as an artist to be the one who actually makes it out of the mines, if he can just get Mommy’s apron strings untangled first.

Like Of Human Bondage, it is first a story of a youth growing up, but told very differently, and with a different effect on me. I kept finding myself acutely remembering the biggest social/emotional disasters of my own youth. Tottering out into a hostile world on unsteady teenage legs and all that. With Maugham’s Philip, you’re pretty confident all the way through that he’ll make it just fine in the end; with Lawrence’s Paul, not so much. And Paul’s relationship with girls is not as interesting as his fights and eventual understanding with the separated husband of one of his lovers.

Trial and Error, by Anthony Berkely :
However bravely one may be determined to commit a helpful murder, it is not so easy to find a victim. One cannot very well approach one's friends and say:
"Look here, old fellow, can you tell me anyone who ought to be murdered? Because I'm prepared to do the job."
And even if one did, the chances are that the friend would not be able to assist. After all, the number of people whom the average person would like to see murdered is very small; and when these are winnowed down to the number who actually deserve murdering, the result is surprisingly often negative.
Enquiries therefore have to be exceedingly circumspect. Mr. Todhunter's personal feeling was that a nice juicy blackmailer would suit the bill best, but here again there are difficulties, for blackmailers are elusive creatures. Unlike almost every other person today, they seek no publicity. And if one asks one's friends point blank whether, by any chance, they are being blackmailed, they would almost certainly resent it.

The protagonist of this dark comedy is a quiet middle aged professorial type who, upon being diagnosed with a terminal illness and given just a few months to live, decides to make the world a better place by taking some rotten bastard out of it with him, and so he sets about in search of a suitably nasty victim. And that's about as much as I can tell you about the plot, since it turns several times in ways that I don't want to spoil you for. I will mention, however, that there is a murder, and that Todhunter does NOT end up having all sorts of adventures with a ring of thieves, make sudden use of abilities that middle-aged nobodies don't usually have, rescue a girl and fall in love with her, end up with the thanks of a grateful police for solving their crime, and then it turns out he's not terminally ill after all.

Well worth the read.

Kon Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl :
An admiral who had inspected the raft told him that we should never get across alive. In the first place, the raft's dimensions were wrong. It was so small that it would founder in a big sea; at the same time it was just long enough to be lifted up by two lines of waves at the same time, and with the raft filled with men and cargo the fragile balsa logs would break under the strain. And, what was worse, the biggest balsa exporter in the country had told him that the porous balsa logs would float only a quarter of the distance across the sea before they became so completely waterlogged that they would sink under us.
This sounded bad but, as we stuck to our guns, we were given a Bible as a present to take with us on our voyage. All in all, there was little encouragement to be had from the experts who looked at the raft. Gales and perhaps hurricanes would wash us overboard and destroy the low, open craft, which would simply lie helpless and drift in circles about the ocean before wind and sea. Even in an ordinary choppy sea we should be continually drenched with salt water which would take the skin off our legs and ruin everything on board. If we added up all that the different experts, each in turn, had pointed out as the vital flaw in the construction itself, there was not a length of rope, not a piece of wood in the whole raft which would not cause us to founder at sea. High wagers were made as to how many days the raft would last, and a flippant naval attache bet all the whisky the members of the expedition could drink for the rest of their lives if they reached the South Sea islands alive.

I must still be an immature little cuss, 'cause I still love it when the experts are wrong.

When I was very young, I was at the Virgin Islands looking out over a port, and noticed a tourist raft with a huge fake-thatched hut on it, with "KON TIKI" on the roof in huge white letters. That was my first exposure to those words, and for a while aferwards, when I heard the term Kon Tiki, I thought they were talking about that thing. My, it must have been a very famous tourboat, like the famous rides at Disneyland or something. Later on, I thought the book was an ancient account of actual south sea islanders making a journey across the Pacific in a raft, maybe some time around Marco Polo's time. This was before I noticed that the book was written by a guy named Thor.

In fact, the events of Kon Tiki take place shortly after WWII, and Heyerdahl is an anthropologist at the end of his rope (and his grant money), the experts having unanimously rejected his theory that the South Sea islands were originally populated by indigenous South Americans who travelled there on rafts. In a last, desperate bid for attention, Heyerdahl decides to build a raft, using no nails or metal of any kind, and prove the plausibility of his theory by sailing from Peru to the islands himself, with a vikingish crew named Erik, Bengt, Thorstein, Knut and Herman. To say nothing of the parrot.

Yes, this really happened, and even knowing in advance that they made it, the ride is a thrill a minute, with the rough seas, the privations, and the exotic sea creatures on every page (apparently, sea creatures are a lot less shy about popping up to pay you a visit when you're right there on the water line, without a motor to churn up the waters and make scary noises). I hadn't really thought about how dangerous such a voyage would be for real. High recommendations.

A Dirty Job, by Christopher Moore :

While Alpha Males are often gifted with superior physical attributes--size, strength, speed, good looks--selected by evolution over the eons by the strongest surviving and, essentially, getting all the girls, the Beta Male gene has survived not by meeting and overcoming adversity, but by anticipating and avoiding it. That is, when the Alpha Males were out charging after mastodons, the Beta Males could imagine in advance that attacking what was essentially an angry, wooly bulldozer with a pointy stick might be a losing proposition, so they hung back at camp to console the grieving widows. When Alpha Males set out to conquer neighboring tribes, to count coups and take heads, Beta Males could see in advance that in the event of a victory, the influx of female slaves was going to leave a surplus of mateless women cast out for younger trophy models, with nothing to do but salt down the heads and file the uncounted coups, and some would find solace in the arms of any Beta Male smart enough to survive. In the case of defeat, well, there was that widows thing again. The Beta Male is seldom the strongest or the fastest, but because he can anticipate danger, he far outnumbers his Alpha Male competition. The world is led by Alpha Males, but the machinery of the world turns on the bearings of the Beta Male.
The problem (Charlie's problem) is that the Beta Male imagination has become superfluous in the face of modern society. Like the saber-toothed tiger's fangs, or the Alpha Male's testosterone, there's just more Beta Male imagination than can be put to good use. Consequently, a lot of Beta Males become hypochondriacs, neurotics, paranoids, or develop an addiction to porn or video games.

I'd heard a lot of good things about Christopher Moore (whose other provocative titles include The Gospel According to Biff; I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings; and You Suck: A Love Story, but this is the first time I've actually read anything by him.

Despite what I'd been told, this book is not a comedy. At least, not a complete comedy. That is, the humor is comparable to having your birthday party catered by the Addams Family, and when you blow out the candles on your cake, the top flies off and out springs a jack-in-the-box with the head of an iguana. A real one. As with Piers Anthony's much tamer On a Pale Horse, it tells the story of an ordinary Beta Male who suddenly finds himself having to do the work of the Grim Reaper while fighting the forces of darkness. Only here, he's in modern San Francisco, undergoing severe culture shock while also having to cope with the trials and tribulations of his regular life, which are not particularly sugar coated. And so, while we get all some delightfully incongruous images, like Charlie calming his infant daughter and saying "There there, Daddy's sorry he ripped open the very fabric of time and space", we also have moments of extreme pathos, poignancy, tragedy and downright horror, including some very real attempts to cope with death of loved ones, and some of the nastier supernatural villains this side of Ramsey Campbell.

It may be that my reading of A Dirty Job was colored by the recent births and deaths in my own family, or that the humor was way closer to my own "I'm going to see the silly side of this because if I don't laugh, I will cry or vomit" defense mechanisms, but to me it read like a deadpan novel.

Or it would have, if the situations weren't so over the top screwy. Squirrel people! Hellhounds that need to go walkies! Human souls trapped in breast implants! The Geoffrey Holder character from Live and Let Die, only dressed in mint green and operating a record store in the Castro district!

On second thought, maybe it's a real dark comedy after all. I can't decide. In any case, it's unlike anything else I've read, and I liked it buckets.

The Origins of the Second World War, by AJP Taylor :
To judge by what is said now, one would suppose that practically all conservatives were for strenuous resistance to Germany in alliance with Soviet Russia and that all the Labour party were clamouring for great armaments. On the contrary, few causes have been more popular. Every newspaper in the country applauded the Munich settlement with the exception of Reynolds' News. Yet so powerful are the legends that even when I write this sentence down I can hardly believe it. Of course the "appeasers" thought firstly of their own countries, as most statesment do and are usually praised for doing. But they thought of others also. They doubted whether the peoples of Eastern Europe would be best served by war. The British stand in September 1939 was no doubt heroic; but it was heroism mainly at the expense of others. The British people suffered comparatively little during six years of war. The Poles suffered catastrophe during the war, and did not regain their independence after it. In 1938 Czechoslovakia was betrayed. In 1939 Poland was saved. Less than one hundred thousand Czechs died during the war. Six and a half million Poles were killed. Which was better: to be a betrayed Czech or a saved Pole? I am glad Germany was defeated and Hitler destroyed. I also appreciate that others paid the price for this, and I recognize the honesty of those who thought the price too high.

I chose this one hoping for some insight into the parallels between what's going on in the world now and what went on in the 1930s, what with an unpopular war, economic crisis, and an upswing in insane fascists looking for a leader to grind down everybody different from themselves. What I got was a partly comforting, partly ominous refrain of "There is nothing new under the sun".

Taylor is definitely a liberal with an agenda, and his mission is to challenge the Lone Madman explanation of WWII that I was given in school: that the whole thing was the fault of Hitler, and of Chamberlain for enabling Hitler. By extension, he challenges the "History is made by important individuals" theory of history. Without softpedaling Hitler's evil, he dispenses with the after-the-game quarterbacking and looks at the decisions of the Germans, French, English and others in light of what was known at the time, what the prevailing diplomatic traditions (and the strategic interests of the countries) were, and what the citizens were demanding of their leaders. The conclusion is not that the French and English were wimpy appeasers, but that war could have been avoided if they had beein either appeasers OR ruthless resisters, and they failed by trying to walk down the middle.

It's convincing only in part. I don't buy the idea that Hitler had a sane grasp of his limitations, knew that Germany could not survive total war with all of Europe, and would surely have backed down without firing a shot had Europe and the US presented a united front from the beginning. If Hitler had known those things, he would not have broken the Molotov pact with Russia before Britain was subdued, and he would not have declared war on the US following Pearl Harbor. Taylor fails to explain why, if his theory that a show of force would surely have caused Hitler to stay out of Czechoslovakia is true, that the same show of force a year later did not cause Hitler to stay out of Poland. Further, though Britain may have suffered "comparatively little" compared to the Poles, the Russians and the Jews, they didn't exactly have a picnic of it. They went from being the world's only superpower to losing their empire and being a second tier player to the Americans and Russians in one generation, and were at least as aware that this would happen as the Germans were that they faced eventual certain defeat.

On the other hand, Taylor did convince me that Neville Chamberlain was not a craven wimp. In fact, Chamberlain was the primary aggressor against Czechoslovakia, giving Hitler even more than he had asked for, out of a firm belief that the Sudetenland had been wrongly taken from Germany after WWI, and that Germany was rightly entitled to the land (Imagine, for instance, that President Polk’s war with Mexico happened less than 20 years ago; there’d be a substantial number of people, in America and out, calling for the return of the new Southwestern States as a matter of right, whether the current Mexican leader was a nice guy or a tyrant). Further, the British armed forces had been exhausted during the first war and had never been renewed by Chamberlain's predecessors, who thought that there would never be another war. Therefore, by the time Munich happened, Britain was not in a position to come down hard on Germany. It didn't have the military to back up its threat. It needed every day between 1938 and 1939 to play catchup with the Germans, and almost didn't make it
A thought-provoking interpretation, but not objective. Recommended for history and politics geeks, who have probably already read it.

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway :
The stretch of ground from the edge of town to the bull ring was muddy. There was a crowd all along the fence that led to the ring, and the outside balconies and the top of the bull ring were solid with people. I heard the rocket and I knew I could not get into the ring in time to see the bulls come in, so I shoved through the crowd to the fence. I was pushed close against the planks of the fence. Between the two fences of the runway the police were clearing the crowd along. They walked or trotted on into the bull ring. Then people commenced to come running. A drunk slipped and fell. Two policemen grabbed him and rushed him over to the fence. The crowd were running fast now. There was a great shout from the crowd and putting my head through the boards I saw the bulls just coming out of the street into the long running pen. They were going fast and gaining on the crowd. Just then another drunk started out from the fence with a blouse in his hands. He wanted to do capework with the bulls. The two policemen tore out, collared him, one hit him with a club, and they dragged him against the fence as the last of the crowd and the bulls went by. There were so many people running ahead of the bulls that the mass thickened and slowed up going through the gate into the ring, and as the bulls passed, galloping together, heavy, muddy-sided, horns swinging, one shot ahead, caught a man in the running crowd in the back and lifted him in the air. Both the man's arms were by his sides, his head went back as the horn went in, and the bull lifted him and dropped him. The bull picked another man running in front, but the man disappeared into the crowd, and the crowd was through the gate and into the ring with the bulls behind them. The red door of the ring went shut, the crowd on the outside balconies of the bull ring were pressing through to the inside, there was a shout, then another shout.

Hemingway is supposed to be the Great American Novelist of the 20th Century, and The Sun Also Rises is the novel that made him famous for his “concise sentence structure” and his “deeply moving portrayal of the Lost Generation”. I therefore invite any Hemingway fans out there to enlighten me on the point of this story, which I clearly missed by several country miles.

To me it was like The Great Gatsby without a compelling love story, and without the killings (besides the incidental human and animal carnage in the bull ring, that is). A group of Generation Lost-ers hang out in Paris, where they drink and dine and complain of boredom and are rude to the token Jew among them. Then they go to Spain, where they drink and dine and complain of boredom and are rude to the Jew some more. Then they make it to Pamplona, and the men do the Iron John thing as they explore the art and mystery of fighting, fishing and bullfights before going back to the drinks, complaints and anti-semitism. The woman whose attention they compete for is a shallow bitch, and the men are barely distinguishable from each other, except for the Jewish man (he’s trying to prove himself somehow to the other cretins and has eyes for the woman, which is why he continues to hang around with this lot), and Pedro the bullfighter, who manages to enliven the story when he appears ¾ of the way through. Pedro graciously agrees to preen for the brooding narrator as the author’s lesson of Real Manhood by fighting bulls, demonstrating good manners, and continuing to get up when the drunk boxer keeps knocking him down.

I’m glad Hemingway has a Concise Sentence Structure. It made the book easy to read and kept me from feeling like my time was wasted. It also left most of the characters’ feelings unspoken, such that the reader has to work a little to know what they’re thinking. The problem is that in order to do that, the reader has to care about the characters. And I found no reason to care about them. I’ve read some of Hemingway’s short stories, like The Killers and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Those are gripping. So are some authors, like Robert Parker, who imitate Hemingway’s style and silent machismo. The Sun Also Rises, it seems to me, just meanders.

The back cover shows a photo of a young, beardless Hemingway staring out at the reader in an attitude of sad confusion. After reading the book, I was staring back at him with the same expression.

A Hymn Before Battle, by John Ringo :
One of the talkers was a blond bear of a man wearing the uniform of a Special Forces staff sergeant from 7th group. Well over six and a half feet tall, he filled his BDU uniform like a human tank. He was debating knife fighting techniques, complete with gestures, with a short, wiry chief petty officer sporting a SEAL badge. The petty officer was laughing through snaggly teeth, obviously unimpressed. The PO’s forearms looked like his role model was Popeye from their thickness, and his hands and wrists were heavily scarred.
A tall, soft looking Special Forces sergeant first class with a van Dyke beard was carrying on a one-sided conversation with the sole female. She was good looking in a long-faced way with thick, short auburn hair and dark green eyes. She wore the carefully tailored uniform of a marine staff sergeant. Her unadorned jacket was cut almost skin tight and made of such a lightweight fabric that every movement of her small but firm breasts was clear. Likewise, the skirt had been cut to accentuate her figure and, unless Jake was mistaken, was at least two inches short of regulation. Her shoes, while a regulation black, were a nonregulation patent leather and had a sharply spiked four-inch heel. Between the uniform and the scent of heavily musked perfume that hit him like a sledgehammer as he entered the room, the staff sergeant was an incitement to riot. She also had the stillest features that Mosovich had ever seen. Her hands and arms remained motionless at her side throughout the entire conversation and her head never swiveled. Her eyes were fixed on a point on the wall, thousand-yard stare firmly in place. The bearded staff sergeant continued his monologue, totally oblivious.

I have a new reason for adding an author to my booklist: John Ringo, with whom I was previously unfamiliar, friended me on Facebook. Maybe he’s a Bujold fan. Anyhow, the least I could do was check out his books, and I’m glad I did. A Hymn Before Battle is his first, and it is great brain candy for people who like military sci fi.

Ringo has co-written books with David Weber (creator of the wonderful Honor Harrington universe, where all the women are strong, all the men are ambiguous, and all the spaceships buck in agony), and you can tell they’ve influenced one another. Here’s an Earth army composed of equal parts super soldiers who put Norse Gods to shame, and asshats who exist to outrank the superheroes and put everyone in danger by making stupid command decisions. Here’s a book cover showing male and female warriors slogging through an alien swamp with their revealing combat fatigues and their recently blowdried hair. Here are exotic alien races of untrustworthy allies and monstrous enemies. And here are interlocking stories of first contact, in which Earth’s forces scout worlds in small groups, plan and execute major battles, and train the dregs of the newly drafted army back home. I enjoyed it.

And Quiet Flows the Don, by Mikhail Sholokhov :
”My sons, I ask you one thing. I ask you seriously, and you mark what I say,” the old man said. “Remember one thing! If you want to come back from the mortal struggle alive and with a whole skin, you must keep the law of humanity.”
“Which one?” Stepan Astakhov asked, smiling uncertainly. He had begun to smile again from the day he heard of the war. The war called him, and the general anxiety and pain assuaged his own.
“This one: don’t take other men’s goods. That’s one. As you fear God, don’t do wrong to any woman. That’s the second. And then you must know certain prayers.”
The Cossacks sat up, and all spoke at once:
“If only we didn’t have to lose our own goods—not to speak of taking other people’s!”
“And why mustn’t we touch a woman? How are we to stand that?”
The old man fixed his eyes sternly on them and answered:
“You must not touch a woman. Never! If you can’t stand that, you’ll lose your heads or you’ll be wounded. You’ll be sorry after, but then it will be too late. I’ll tell you the prayers. I went right through the Turkish war, death on my shoulders like a saddlebag, but I came through alive, because of these prayers.”

Heavy duty communist literature to clear the sinuses! For those of you unfamiliar with inner Russian history, and Cossacks in particular, you might imagine that, in 1860, the American Great Plains were twice as heavily settled as they really were, and that the frontiersmen of the upper Missouri and Platte rivers had a reputation for mingling Nordic/Teutonic genetics with the bravest of the Native American warriors, such that, though they lived apart from the cities of the Midwest, the United States Army prided itself on selecting them for its best troops. Then imagine that, after Antietam and Chancellorsville, the IWW and the American Socialists rose up and attempted to recruit the farm belt troops for a Marxist insurrection against the already divided Union, with pushback from the Union leaders, and that all the while the families went on farming in the plains, anxious for news from the east, but with their own section of the country stolidly going on as before, seemingly untouched by the upheaval far to the east and south. It’s an analogy that wouldn’t really withstand close scrutiny, but it’s close enough to give a picture of the Cossack life captured in Sholokhov’s epic Russian tale.

The Don river is a central character and theme of the book, quietly flowing through peace, war, revolution and civil war, as if to indicate that there’s nothing new under the sun, and the farms and the simple life will always be there, far from the busy people and “important” events in the cities. Neither as long nor as ponderous as War and Peace, and I learned something about an unfamiliar Russian subculture besides. Recommended.

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