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Slavomir Rawicz’s “The Long Walk”

February 1, 2017

Rawicz Scan

For our 61st book, I decided I’d search for a book unlike any of those featured in the first 60. Preferably, it would be a true narrative that was close to unputdownable. A book that—once read—would be impossible to forget. I found it!

Here are some reviews:

An escape story that combines the best elements of a suspense novel and a travelogue through purgatory. —Newsweek

More than one hundred adventure books are published every year, yet I doubt if any is as gripping and filled with suspense as The Long Walk. A journey of 4,000 miles, with neither map nor compass, equipped with only an axehead, a homemade knife and insuperable determination to live—that is the essence of this book.

Slavomir Rawicz [a Polish officer] and six companions broke out of a Soviet slave labor camp and walked south into the endless crushing spaces of Siberia headed for Tibet. That Rawicz survived to tell his story is a miracle of human endurance. Through nights so cold that sleep meant certain death, through scorching days when heat drove men to the brink of insanity, Rawicz moved on.

The suspense of the book builds to a climax when the threads of life all but unravel a few miles short of the goal. Once you have begun The Long Walk, you cannot willingly lay it down.  —San Francisco Examiner

It is one of the most amazing, heroic stories of this or any other time. —Chicago Tribune

An adventure classic worthy to rank alongside Captain Bligh’s Long Journey and Thor Heyerdahl’s trans-Pacific raft trip. —Minneapolis Tribune

* * *

Constable and Company Ltd
Constable and Company Ltd

The story begins on the eve of World War I, in 1939, and concludes in late winter of 1942. Even before the 4,000-mile ordeal took place, Slavomir Rewicz was tortured for months by fiendish Soviets in Moscow, then sentenced to 25 years in a Siberian prison camp; the hellish ride across Siberia staggers the mind, as does the thousand mile trek on foot (in chains), in the dead of a Siberian winter, to a prison labor camp—all this before the long walk even begins!

Constable and Company Ltd
Constable and Company Ltd

The book was first published in London in 1956 by Constable and Company, then it was picked up by Harpers and other publishing houses around the world. I first read it early in the 1960’s—and have never been able to forget it.

Be sure and purchase an unabridged copy for your library

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We Discover Northern Europe, #5 – Russia

November 9, 2016

Russia: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery
inside an enigma.”
—Winston Churchill

Madonna and Child by Leonardo da Vinci
Madonna and Child by Leonardo da Vinci

I’ve long been fascinated by Russia. In fact, its literature represents one of emphasis in my doctoral program. Especially have giants such as Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, etc., intrigued me. Thus one of the key reasons for taking this cruise was that it enabled me to at least get a two-day-long glimpse of a tiny portion of the largest nation in the world. At 6.5 million square miles it is twice the size of Brazil. It stretches across a staggering 11 time zones!


But if a glimpse should be all that life should grant us, and that glimpse being the almost mystical city of St. Petersburg, it would be well worth it. It has been variously called “Sankt Piterburg,” “Sankt Peterburg,” “Petrograd,” “Leningrad,” and now “Saint Petersburg.” It was the brain-child of that titanic emperor, Peter the Great (1672-1725). Tired of Russia’s being considered a medieval back-water nation, Peter abandoned Russia for over a year and traveled incognito throughout Europe, spending most of his time in the shipyards of Holland and England. His three passions were: a fascination with the West, a gift for waging war, and a determination to build a navy. And, not coincidentally, establish a new capital facing westward on a desolate piece of land at the mouth of the great River Neva. He then had constructed great palaces on the order of France’s Versailles. Catherine the Great (1729-1796) built more, making the Venetian type capital (44 islands connected by 432 bridges) a wondrous place. It is estimated that 100,000 people died of exposure and disease while constructing the city. After the 1917 Revolution, Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow.

A Gallery in the Hermitage

The Western World owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to the citizens of the city. Hitler made one fatal mistake: opening a second front when he attacked Russia during World War II. Then Leningrad was under siege by the Germans for 900 days! (from August 1941 until January 1944), leaving nearly a million Russians dead, most from starvation. Had it not been for this second front, it is doubtful the allies could have successfully stormed the beaches of Normandy.

Ever since I was young, on my bucket list was St. Petersburg’s great Hermitage Museum, so vast that it includes the Winter Palace; and the Small, Large, and New Hermitages. The Winter Palace was Russia’s imperial center of government from Peter the Great’s time until 1917.

Portrait of Saskia by Rembrandt
Portrait of Saskia by Rembrandt


Because there is so much to see, Holland America made an exception for our Russian stop: two days in St. Petersburg rather than the normal one-day per port. The city is so far north that its citizens spend much of the winter predominantly in the dark (November to March). But life returns in May, June, and July when the city is bathed in an eerie nocturnal translucence, which makes it difficult to sleep. There is an annual celebration called the “White Nights” (the sun is up 17-18 hours each day). We disembarked there on May 9, a national holiday in Russia, (“Victory Day.)” Since our ship was one of the first cruise ships to arrive for this season, they opened the Hermitage for us, even though it was closed for the holiday. It took us two days to see it. Thus the crowds that first day were extremely small (much different from the mobs that descend on it when cruise ships fill the harbor).

Samson and Lion fountain at Peterhof
Samson and Lion fountain at Peterhof

The only sour note of our visit had to do with the insolence of those who stamped our passports in the port of entry. We lost well over an hour of our day just moving through 30-40 people in our line alone. A jarring surprise had to do with the chasm between the opulent golden palaces of the city and the third world ugly Stalinist apartment complexes the average Russians are forced to exist in.

St. Isaac's Cathedral
St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Other than that, the two days were glorious as we were privileged to tour the great St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The dome is covered with 200 pounds of pure gold. Inside, it is almost overwhelming, its grandeur and size reminding us of St. Peter’s in Rome. In fact, in the entire world, only St. Peter’s is larger.

Church of Spilt Blood
Church of Spilt Blood

And there was that incredible “Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood,” reminiscent of the 16th century Muscovite masterpiece, St. Basil’s. It was named for Czar Alexander II who had been mortally wounded here in 1881. Over 7,000 meters of dazzling mosaics make it a sight to see. Further out is the magnificent Peterhof Palace with its great cascade and golden sculpture of Samson tearing open the jaws of a lion. There are 144 fountains in the 1,500 acres, all operating without a single pump. Most all of the fountains are plastered with gold.

Even further out is the magnificent Catherine’s Palace [named for Peter the

St. Catherine's Palace
St. Catherine’s Palace

Great’s wife]. We were overwhelmed as we walked awestruck, from room to room, with soaring columns of marble, gold plastered everywhere, and fortunes of precious stones. But one of the world’s greatest wonders has to do with the Amber Room. This priceless 18th century masterpiece was created for Friedrich I of Prussia’s palace in Berlin; his son gave it to Peter the Great in 1716. The Amber Room comprises six large oak wall panels (covering 592 square feet), inlaid with six tons of amber, and Italian mosaics containing precious stones. In 1941, the Nazi’s removed it to the German city of Königsberg where it was reportedly destroyed by RAF raids in 1944. In 1979, Russian craftsmen began the laborious task of reconstructing it. It took 20 long years to re-create it. The room was re-inaugurated in 2003. We were almost speechless as we drank in this so-called “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

The Amber Room in St. Catherine's Palace
The Amber Room in St. Catherine’s Palace

Only two days of our lives—but a lifetime of splendor experience in those 48 hours in that beautiful city called “The Venice of the North.”

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We Discover Northern Europe #3 — Estonia

October 19, 2016

Estonia City View - from, "Insight Guides" to Baltic States
Estonia City View – from “Insight Guides” to Baltic States

All our lives, we’d heard about the three fascinating Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; three small neighboring Northern European countries that have shared histories, similar geographies, different languages, and separate identities. They lie between Scandinavia to the north, Poland to the south, and Finland and Russia to the east. Their combined total land mass is only 67,000 square miles, about the size of Oklahoma—even smaller than Austria. Although they are much alike, they are also distinctively different from each other. According to Insight Guide editors, Lithuanians are stereotypically the most outgoing and nationalistic. Latvians are the most rural in outlook; because Russia did its utmost to swallow up its identity, today only 60% of Latvians are Latvian rather than Russian. Estonia is more influenced by Scandinavia. Under the heading of “Showing Affection” in the guidebook is this thought-provoking paragraph:

Old Town Fortress
Old Town Fortress

“Estonians have mastered the art of being impeccably polite without being friendly. Friendship, for them, is for life…. Despite their differences, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are united by a love of nature and the outdoors. Admittedly, they enjoy it in different ways. Lithuanians will drive their car to a beauty spot and blast their surroundings with pop music, whereas Latvians will organize barbecues or swimming parties. Estonians tend to regard such habits with horror, going to great lengths to find a truly solitary spot where they can sit in silence.”


Walking to Old Town
Walking to Old Town

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, it was only possible for us to visit one of the three: Tallinn, the fairytale capitol of Estonia. It was a heartstoppingly beautiful blue-sky day when the Zuiderdam arrived. It took some getting used to for us to shake off distance misconceptions. Tallinn is only 53 miles from Helsinki, Finland; and 80 miles from St. Petersburg, Russia. This close proximity to giants such as Russia has resulted in a tragic past for the Baltic States. Every time Russia sneezes, they shudder. This is one reason they pay so much attention to U. S. politics, for if Russia should once again swallow them up, if the U.S. refuses to honor its treaties, one gobble and they’d be erased from the face of the map.

But it’s not just Russia that has dominated Estonia. The first conquerors wereestonia-alexander-nevsky-cathedral-scan the Danes; since the Estonians held off 1,000 ships, Denmark called in Teutonic Knights; together, in 1227, they took over Estonia. Sweden was next, but proved so repressive that Estonians turned to Peter the Great. By 1721, Russia was firmly in control. Estonia remained subjugated for 270 years until on August 20, 1991, with Russian tanks rolling into Tallinn, Estonia formally declared its independence. Thus, Estonia has only been independent for a paltry 25 years in its entire history!

Tallinn is a medieval walking town with      meandering cobblestone streets. Unfortunately, we weren’t permitted to stay long in the lovely old city. Apparently, it is today being loved to death by Russians, Swedes, Finns, Norwegians, Germans, and Danes—just for starters. Yet, in spite of it all, Estonians revel in their newly won freedom.

Just as was true of the Danes, Estonians were all outdoors, savoring the early May sunshine. They are so far north, Northern Europe is, that they have very long gloomy winters, with precious little sunshine. Consequently, when May comes, no one wants to stay indoors!

It was with great reluctance that we watched Tallinn receding from view, vowing to return in order to explore more of those three magical little nations, each reveling in its new-found freedom.

Toompea Castle



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August 31, 2016


Day One                     Copenhagen, Denmark (start of first cruise)
Day Two                     Warnemunde, Germany
Day Three                  At Sea
Day Four                    Talinn, Estonia
Day Five                     St. Petersburg, Russia
Day Six                       St. Petersburg, Russia
Day Seven                  Helsinki, Finland
Day Eight                   Stockholm, Sweden
Day Nine                    At Sea
Day Ten                      Kiel, Germany
Day Eleven                Gothenborg, Sweden
Day Twelve               Helsingborg, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark
Day Thirteen            Copenhagen, Denmark (start of second cruise)
Day Fourteen           Oslo Fjord and Oslo, Norway
Day Fifteen               Kristiansand, Norway
Day Sixteen              Stavanger, Norway
Day Seventeen         Lerwick, Shetland Islands, Scotland
Day Eighteen           At Sea
Day Nineteen           Glasgow (Greenock), Scotland
Day Twenty              Isle of Skye (Portree), Scotland
Day Twenty-one      Invergordon, Scotland
Day Twenty-two      Edinburgh (S. Queensferry), Scotland
Day Twenty-three   Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England
Day Twenty-four     At Sea
Day Twenty-five      Copenhagen, Denmark

Scan0007It’s a long way from home to Europe: Denver to Toronto, Canada; Toronto to Copenhagen, Denmark. Since our seats are in coach, we get precious little sleep en route to Europe. We get to Denmark one day early for several reasons: plane-flights can be delayed or canceled without notice; luggage is sometimes mis-sent or never arrives at all; for jet-lag reasons, it’s important to slot in an extra day to deal with it.

Neither Connie nor I had ever been in Northern Europe before, thus this for us is indeed a “trip of a lifetime.”

But before we board the Zuiderdam, it would be helpful for me to share some information with you about the Baltic Sea.


For starters, it’s cold! The 60th parallel runs right through it. Perhaps it may help to give you some specifics: Also on or near the 60th parallel are Anchorage, Alaska; Whitehorse and Hudson Bay, Canada; the southern tip of Greenland; and Northern Siberia in Russia.

The Baltic is the largest expanse of brackish water in the world. It is semi-landlocked and rather shallow for the most part. Surprisingly, it is 85 to 90 percent fresh water, mainly because so much river water drains into it and because the entrance area into the North Sea is rather shallow as well. It is because of this that thousands of ancient ships are still preserved in its waters. Because of that low salinity, wooden ships are still preserved as well. Roughly finger-shaped, it covers 160,000 square miles and drains nearly four times that. In the winter, it tends to freeze over. Countries clockwise from the west are Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark. Although it reaches a depth of 1,500 feet, predominantly it tends to be only a few hundred feet deep.

We were lucky: we visited it in early summer.

* * *

Several weeks from now, we’ll begin our cruise journey in Denmark.

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Around the World in 60 Days

August 10, 2016

Well, it was and it wasn’t. But Connie and I did travel some 24,000 miles in 60 days, and since the circumference of our world is around 24,000 miles, I thought it would be an apt title.

It started with a rather jolting birthday. Certain decade-birthdays that come to all of us, if we live long enough, are harder to take than others. This was one of them.

Knowing this, Connie decided to rummage around and see what she could do to soften the blow. She found it in a Vacations to Go travel listing: a 24-day cruise in Northern Europe for little more than one would pay for a seven-day cruise! Reason being, it was the first summer cruise to that part of the world, and Holland America wanted to fill the ship.

In early May, we flew to Denmark via Toronto, and we visited Estonia, Germany, Finland, Russia, Sweden, Norway, the Shetland Islands, Scotland, England, and Denmark. The following month we took an extended road-trip traveling America’s back roads southeast to the Florida Keys (for our 34th annual Zane Grey’s West Society convention); north to Annapolis, Maryland; northwest to the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, then southeast to Denver. About 17,000 miles on the European cruise and 7,000 miles on the American road trip, adding up to the equivalent of a 24,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe.

It will take us considerable time to share all this with you (not straight through but in batches, as there’ll be a number of other subjects I’ll wish to weigh in on along the way.

Those of you who have delayed getting book orders in to us, be advised that we’ll be able to fill book orders for some time to come. So let us know how we can be of service to you.

Meanwhile, keep your traveling shoes on.

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Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace"

February 4, 2015

This is the 38th book selection in our Book of the Month series. Yet, as hard as I’ve tried to include the most significant books ever written, this is only the second that is certified by the literati to be one of the 10 Greatest Books Ever Written. The other is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (September 25, 2013). Because of its great length, I gave our readers two months in which to digest it. Since the unabridged versions of War and Peace are 1400 pages long, it seems both wise and humane for me to give Book Club members both February and March to read and fully digest the book. As always, I urge/beg our readers to be satisfied with nothing less than the unabridged text of a translation that has stood the test of time.

War and Peace so towers over the history of prose literature that it ought to be on every literate person on earth’s Bucket List, to read before they die. It is particularly timely right now because Russia has been, for some time, in every day’s news: What will Putin do next to try and get back every country Russia lost after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Once you fully digest Tolstoy’s epic, you’ll never again be able to look at Russia simplistically again.

Signet Classic 1968 Edition - Translated by Ann Dunnigan
Signet Classic 1968 Edition – Translated by Ann Dunnigan

But before we get into reasons why everyone should read the book, let’s check out some endorsements:

• “I think Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the greatest novel the world has ever known. No novel with such a wide sweep, dealing with so momentous a period of history and with such a vast array of characters was ever written before.” – W. Somerset Maugham

• “The greatest novel ever written. The characters are universal, for all time.” –John Galsworthy

• “Tolstoy stands at the head of novelists as Shakespeare among poets [and dramatists].” –V. Sackville-West

• “If one has read War and Peace for a page, great chords begin to sound; they come from the immense area of Russia, over which episodes and characters have been scattered, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them.” –J. B. Priestley

• “Here is the greatest novel ever written. It has been called ‘life itself.’ Everything is in it. And it’s also as free as life. Its private joys and sorrows seem to continue when one has closed the pages.” –E. M. Forster

• “There is hardly any subject of human experience that is left out of War and Peace.” –Virginia Woolf

• “The greatest novel in all literature. This magnificent work has taught me more about life than any other novel in any language…. The vast canvas is covered by hundreds of figures, every one alive and distinct, and some of the leading characters, like Natasha and Prince André, are companions for one during the rest of one’s life.” –Hugh Walpole

• “War and Peace is generally considered the greatest novel of all novels…. Tolstoy couldn’t state the theme short of writing 1400 pages…. For Tolstoy… anything that human beings do has its glory. Humanity is equally glorious in its wars, its peace, its quarrels, its love affairs.” –Mark Van Doren

• “Reading War and Peace for the very first time is one of the greatest literary experiences; reading it again and again is to realize the immeasurable gulf that is fixed between a merely good book and a great one. It may be regarded as the greatest novel that has been written, the supreme fictional achievement in the literature of the world.” –J. Donald Adams

(1828 – 1910)

One of his ancestors, Count Peter Tolstoy, had been a celebrated statesman during the reign of Peter the Great. Tolstoy’s father, Count Nicholas Tolstoy, had married Princess Marya Volkonski, an heiress with a great fortune. Leo was one of five children. Sadly, his mother died when he was only three, and his father six years later. So the boy was raised by his Aunt Tatyana, who he’d always adore. The children were all born on the Princess’s ancestral estate, Yasnaya Polyana (about 200 miles southwest of Moscow). Leo would study with tutors until he was old enough to attend university classes. Though he attended two, he never graduated from either. Thanks to his aristocratic connections, he was able to attend society’s balls, soirées and parties in Kazan, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.

Early on, he lost faith in Christianity because of the wide variance between belief and daily living. At that time, atheism appeared to be the only rational alternative to him. Without any spiritual keel, he became a heavy drinker, reckless gambler, and frequenter of brothels. He even lost his ancestral home, Yosnaya Polyana, for a time because of his out-of-control gambling. So it seemed wise to join the army in its wars in the Caucasus Mountains and Crimea (it was then that he contracted syphilis).

Eventually, he came to his senses, realizing that atheism provided no hope at all. Thus he once again turned to Orthodox Christianity. But he was disillusioned so often that he would spend the rest of his life formulating his own type of Christianity, based almost solely on Christ’s earthly ministry as chronicled in the Gospels. This evolution of his spiritual philosophy of life would take the rest of his life.

At 34, he belatedly decided to settle down. He settled on a lovely eighteen-year-old, Sonya Behr. She had a graceful figure, great vitality, high spirits, and a beautiful speaking voice. On their engagement night, he almost lost her, when he lent her his diaries, in which he’d faithfully recorded not only his hopes and thoughts, prayers and self-reproaches, but also his perceived faults, including detailed descriptions of his many sexual escapades and liaisons. Sonya read and wept all night. By morning, her virginal attitude towards life was so seared, she never fully recovered. Almost, she broke the engagement, but finally forgave him–but she never forgot.

During the first eleven years of marriage, the Countess would bear eight children; during the next fifteen, five more–thirteen in all.

And so the Tolstoys settled down to rural life. He and Sonya were very much in love with each other, and they reveled in family and family education and activities. And he wrote; he had been doing so for a number of years, and his literary reputation continued to grow within the Russian Empire. And then—

Campaign of 1805
Campaign of 1805

And then . . . he was 36 years old, in the prime of life, when he began writing a book about Russia’s Decembrist Revolution. But he kept wondering more about the events of 1812 when Napoleon invaded Russia–and in so doing, changed the course of world history. He now moved the heart of the novel to 1812. Initially, the book was primarily about family, life among the gentry, the historical incidents merely a background. But the book grew . . . and kept growing. Sonya hand-copied the entire book. Eventually, apparently, seven times! before her husband was satisfied with it. It would be published during the six years it took to write it, in installments (1865-1869). First, he’d read segments aloud to his family. They quickly realized that there were real people they knew whose personalities were woven into the novel.

Though around 500 characters people the epic, four families are central: the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Kuragins, and the Bezukhovs.
• It is said that the thriftless Count was inspired by Tolstoy’s grandfather.
• The pathetic yet charming Princess Mary, by his mother.
• The two “heroes,” Pierre Bezukhov and Prince André, it is generally concluded that they were modeled on Tolstoy’s own divided persona, and that he wrote the book in order to better understand himself. Alike in that, just as was true with himself, both characters seek mental peace, the answers to the mysteries of life and death, and neither finds it. Both are in love with Natasha, Count Rostav’s younger daughter. Maugham maintains that, in her, Tolstoy has created the most delightful girl in fiction. Natasha is undeveloped when the story begins: entirely natural, sweet, sensitive, sympathetic, willful, childish, already womanly, idealistic, quick-tempered, warm-hearted, headstrong, capricious, and in everything enchanting. Tolstoy would go on to create many memorable women, but never another who wins the affections of the reader like Natasha. Apparently, Natasha was modeled on Sonya and her sister, Tatiana.

Napoleon in Russia - 1812 - from the Inner Sanctum Edition of "War and Peace" (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1942)
Napoleon in Russia – 1812 – from the Inner Sanctum Edition of “War and Peace” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1942)

But for Tolstoy, the real hero of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was the Russian Commander-in-Chief, General Kutusov. Why? Because he did nothing, avoided battle, and merely waited for the French armies to destroy themselves. Just let Napoleon lead his armies so deep into Russia that his lines of communication can easily be severed. Result? The “Little Emperor” reaches the point where his once vast army is so thoroughly demoralized they’re nothing but sitting ducks for the Cossacks who sweep in and out, free the Russian prisoners, seize valuable supplies, and pick the French off, one bullet at a time.

Thus, the force dominating characters of the novel are Pierre, Prince André, Natasha, and Kutusov. Kutusov because, unlike vainglorious self-centered Napoleon, he remains humble, selfless, unmoved by personal glory.

Helen Muchnik maintains that, in the book, all the panoply of war, all its supposed military heroes, are secondary to events and forces beyond their control, secondary to what participants make of themselves.

John Bayley maintains that marriage is the novel’s ultimate theme, its climax, its apotheosis. The book ends with marriage, and features more happy marriages than in any other novel. Furthermore, that Tolstoy had planned and replanned the development of these destinies with such immense care, interweaving what actually occurred in history with his own invention of what must occur to complete and justify the fiction, until the reader can no longer see where truth ends and fiction begins: what happens appears inevitable. A prodigious one-of-a-kind tour de force—the world’s greatest novel.


First of all, seek out a complete unabridged text. Then, over the next two months revel in a book unlike (and unequaled) any other.


Vincent F. Hopper and Bernard D. N. Grebanier’s Essentials of World Literature, Vol. Two (Woodbury, New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1952).

Maugham, W. Somerset’s W. Somerset Maugham Selects the World’s Ten Greatest Novels (Greenwich, Connecticut: Faucett Publications, Inc, 1958).

Muchnic, Helen, An Introduction to Russian Literature (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1947, 1964).

* * *

Aylmer Maude’s Introduction to War and Peace (New York: The Heritage Press, 1938).

John Bayley’s Introduction to War and Peace (New York: New American Library, 1968, 1980).