Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong

Except the history of earliest phase of Islam, this is a great book to read as an introduction to Islamic history. Its short and well written as all books by Karen Armstrong are. At one place she states that ‘the claim that Prophet Muhammad had been the last and greatest of the prophets is not made explicitly in the Quran’ . But if you see 33:40 of Quran it is stated that Muhammad PBUH is the seal of the prophets. Apart from this and some other mistaken details , this book is worth reading.

 

P.S.

The best book on beginning of Islam as a biography of Prophet Muhammad PBUH is that by Allama Shibli Nomani and his student Syed Suleiman Nadwi. For anyone reading the biography of Prophet Muhammad PBUH for the first time, it is highly recommended that it should be read. The author clearly indicates why western historians and biographers make mistakes in recording the life of the prophet. One wonderful example is how the writer has proved that the Battle of Badr was a defensive act by Muslims. It is a 7 volume text in Urdu and I luckily bought all volumes for 1200 rupees from new Darrussalaam shop at University Road Karachi.

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War and Peace

I am not a student of literature nor have I read too much to understand literature by myself. I intend to read a lot and there is a long list of books which I have decided I must read. From whatever I have read so far I have understood that the content and the form of a body of text , both are important. I must admit though that the content impresses me more and I normally judge books by their content. I read War and Peace in a period of 4 months. Leo Tolstoy wrote it in a period of 5 years. He wrote in ‘Some Words about War and Peace’ : “ On publishing this work, on which I have spent 5 years of interrupted and exceptionally strenuous labour under the best conditions of life, I wish to express my own view of it and thus counteract misunderstandings which might arise in the reader’s mind.’’ No misunderstandings arose in my mind , may be because I am a simpleton.  War and Peace has received many positive reviews since its publication in 1869. Its subject is the life of Russian people during the Napoleonic Wars and the climax builds as Napoleon crosses Russian frontiers in 1812.

The novel starts in 1805 and goes on till 1820. In last chapters give hints of further activities by characters in 1825. The work is magnanimous in size, touching 1000 pages in my Wordsworth Classic edition. Leo Tolstoy himself is considered to be a giant in Russian literature.

 

leo-tolstoy--depression

             Leo Tosltoy was born in Yasnaya Polyana , Tula, Russia in 1828

 

His other works include Anna Karenina (which I have already read) , his autobiographical trilogy Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, The Death of Ivan Illych  and a number of short stories and essays.

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Tolstoy himself, somewhat enigmatically, said of War and Peace that it was “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.” Large sections of the work, especially in the later chapters, are philosophical  discussions.

 

There is a large number of characters in the books including historical ones and fictional ones. The life of different Russian families is described in background to the Russia’s wars. There are more than 10 main fictional characters whose story is told from 1805 to 1820. There are 3 volumes and 2 epilogues. The second volume deals with the year 1812 when Napoleon invaded Russia and subsequently retreated.

The battle scenes are rich in detail and realistic. The emotions of all men participating in the war are described from commander-in-chief to a soldier, especially the Battle of Borodino. The scene where commander- in- chief of Russian army is contemplating over the moment when actually did the Russian army gave Moscow to the enemies are wonderful and as a young, inexperienced reader  I enjoyed all Councils of War, all meetings between Napoleon and Russian Emperor, Alexander, all receptions of Russian messengers by French commanders and all chapters where Tolstoy extensively describes the causes of historical events and undermines the dependence of a particular event on will of a single human being with ultimate genius. Not just the war time but the peace time (actually the peace time is rare since the Russian Army is engaged somewhere, if not with Napoleon , with Turkish forces) is equally rich in detail and the stories of people in Russian society in Moscow and in St.Petersburg are interesting. In the first few  chapters , novel’s one of the main characters , Pierre Bezukhov is raised in society. His character is beautifully created and his opinions throughout the novel undergo a massive change. Another character Prince Andrew who serves as one of assistants to the Russian commander-in-chief during Battle of Austerlitz undergoes some tragic changes in personal and family life. These and number of other characters are as real and as relevant today in real life.

 

 

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Almost in the centre of it, above the Prechistenka Boulevard, surrounded and sprinkled on all sides by stars but distinguished from them all by its nearness to the earth, its white light, and its long uplifted tail, shone the enormous and brilliant comet of 1812–the comet which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world. In Pierre, however, that comet with its long luminous tail aroused no feeling of fear. On the contrary he gazed joyfully, his eyes moist with tears, at this bright comet which, having travelled in its orbit with inconceivable velocity through immeasurable space, seemed suddenly like an arrow piercing the earth–to remain fixed in a chosen spot, vigorously holding its tail erect, shining and displaying its white light amid countless other scintillating stars. It seemed to Pierre that this comet fully responded to what was passing in his own softened and uplifted soul, now blossoming into a new life –  excerpt from War and Peace

 

Natasha Rostova is a little girl at the start of the novel and her life goes through a lot during the length of time.Mary, Andrew’s sister, only character with religious thoughts suffers at the hands of her father. There are duels, engagements, break-ups, jealousy, beauty and a lot more entertainment.

I was totally immersed in the novel when I read it. One thing I noted is that the characters cried a lot and there were many , many parties and dinner and dances and other social gatherings. Of course I do not know a lot about Russian society except that from Anna Karenina and War and Peace.

Apart from wars and parties and family tensions, very important chapters of War and Peace are those where Tolstoy has written his view of history and the inexorable process the history goes. He argues over the opinions held by the historians of that era and goes in describing his opinion in simplest language possible which he ultimately concludes in his Second Epilogue. He highlights the question of prevalence of man’s will or laws of inevitability. His language thanks to his translators Louise and Aylmer Maude , is very simple and easy to understand. I have read many of his stories and like his work very much, no doubt that he is hailed as one of the greatest writers.

War and Peace has provided me an insight to many different matters of life. I read War and Peace and I was elated and always excited all these months and I declare War and Peace as the best novel I have ever read. There was once in these 4 months a time when I wanted to meet Leo Tolstoy and tell him how much I liked War and Peace.  I have on my table Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth as my next read.

Eight Months Eight Books

1. The Alchemy of Desire by Tarun J. Tejpal

Earlier this year I joined an online library called The Readers Club and started reading ceaselessly. I had given four papers in September last year of which I flunked in one. I had to give it again in March this year. Its history now but I had ample of time to read things beyond usual accounting stuff and contrasting that boring subject was this novel I borrowed. With very impressive starting lines and equally magnificent ending lines , the novel tells a compelling tale which shifts from despair to hope to despair again but with love entangled in between the mysterious web all along. A husband and wife and the love between them and  very graphic location , the novel is set in, are features which combine to make this novel an interesting read. There came a part in book which altered the course of story. A separate story of a princess and his lover. The main focus of the story is carnal desires of a human being and actions fulfilling those desires are described in great detail. I was disappointed by the extent to which the writer went to achieve his purpose of explaining sex. It could have been a very very good read. I enjoyed it initially, but in the middle of the book, I lost my interest in the story. The best thing about this story is the shift of the main character from the believe in the physical love to his more stronger believe in pure abstract love not involving the human body.

2. Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

George Orwell is well known for his dystopia ‘1984’. This less known novel is at its heart a disturbing sketch of a very stubborn man, Gordon Comstock, in love with a very lovely, wise and contrary to Gordon, very reasonable woman,whom he annoys a lot. Set in London in 1930s, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is not a very lengthy novel but still it hurts you and you want to kill Gordon not because he is evil or something, but because he is way to stubborn, persistently stubborn, and you feel pity for his sweet girlfriend all the way to the end. The end is very good though. Gordon hates money. He hates status. He is not worried about his status. He sells books to eat food. He borrows money from his sister.  I loved how his character remained undeveloped throughout the novel. No change in his thoughts or actions. You will love him in the end. You will love his girlfriend throughout the story. You will like his rich friend throughout the story as well. While reading the novel, i considered him justified in his actions and thoughts, but again my opinion shifted and I loathed him more. Consistent denial of money and the power it brings and the consequent wretched conditions is what this novel is all about. You expect an end which might justify Gordon’s denial but what prevails is the truth, the mighty truth. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Very good read.

3.Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham

Brilliance and excellence envelope the character which Maugham has created in this book. Based on life of a painter Paul Gauguin, Maugham has written this novel very accurately. The insights into a man’s soul who according to the society has gone mad and you actually start believing it are very openly explained and touch the reader. The purposes of the protagonist remain unexplained even at the end. This is one book I have decided to read again. One of the best books ever read.

4.Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

‘There are as many loves as there are hearts’ says Anna Karenina, a married woman with a son and a husband. Madly in love with Vronsky and determined to destroy herself, Anna, takes steps which a very brave woman wont think of. You wont believe her, you will scream and beg of her not to do it but she does it. She follows love and nothing else. Ultimately she gets what she deserves. Considered by many as the greatest novel ever written, Anna Karenina is truly a masterpiece. Characters seem not a bit fictional. Society seems not a bit unreal. A very beautifully written novel which has won many hearts. It tells two stories. Of Anna and of Levin. Levin is a young landlord  with confused ideas which he finally solves at the end. Jealousy, Love, Hate, Pity, Inspiration, Faith, the novel is made of all this and is very engaging.

5. The Razor’s Edge by William Somerset Maugham

Another very good novel by Maugham. It starts off as a promising journey of a young man in pursuit of a meaningful purpose. He leaves his love for it. Goes on travels the world and tries to find knows he not what. I lost interest in the books as it moves on because it turns vague as it develops. Maugham’s other books are much better than this one.

6. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I read a comment at some website which said ‘Life is too short, don’t read Moby Dick’

I read Moby Dick. Though life is still short but I enjoyed a piece of literature, incomparable and fascinating. I know more of whales now than of humans. (I don’t but it was a good line)

You are a part of crew of a ship destined to doom and you are called Ishmael. You go on and join a whaler with your new friend who sells human heads and is a cannibal. You are aboard ‘The Pequod’, the whaler. You meet a captain, a mysterious captain with a wooden leg, he tells everyone that he has only one purpose of the trip, to kill a whale, a white whale, The Moby Dick.

Then you are taken on an unforgettable trip of your life, a journey of three years, to kill a monster which awaits you.

The best adventure I have ever read. I took me three or four months, I guess.

7. The Painted Veil by William Somerset Maugham

Another tale of an adulterous woman but here she is not destroyed, she is too proud to destroy herself. She destroys other. Set in China during the British Government, this novel is very exotic. You can imagine the wonderful locations in between were going on some dishonest acts. Not a lengthy novel but very entertaining. Twists in the plot were amusing. A tragic end. A real picture of human emotions and desires. Very entertaining. Another Maugham classic.

8. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by David Herbert Lawrence

Erotic adventures of a dissatisfied wife. Class differences. Indifference of her lover. Boredom of her husband. This is very controversial novel for its frequent use of banned words in literature. The story is of an adulterous affair between Lady Chatterley and the gamekeeper Oliver Mellors. Lady is sexually frustrated as his husband is injured in war. She realizes that living with mind is not alone. She must be active, physically. The class difference between the two of them creates major developments in the plot.I am quite indifferent to this novel, though I enjoyed the erotic parts.