In my review of Nonviolent Communication, I also neglected to cover anger. And since anger is a big part of my life right now, it’s worth it to me to dig into it.
Rosenberg encourages us to express our anger fully.
I would suggest that hitting, blaming, hurting others—whether physically or emotionally—are all superficial expressions of what is going on within us when we are angry. If we are truly angry, we would want a much more powerful way to fully express ourselves.
The first step in expressing our anger is to divorce the other person from any responsibility for our anger.
(Tell this to my husband!)
We are never angry because of what others say or do.
Others can provide a stimulus for our feelings, but not the cause. And it is important to establish a clear separation between the stimulus and the cause.
This is like Greek to me. I like it!
Rosenberg says that it’s easy to equate the stimulus of anger with the cause in a culture that uses guilt as a means of controlling people.
In such cultures, it becomes important to trick people into thinking that we can make others feel a certain way.
“The cause of anger lies in our thinking—in thoughts of blame and judgment. Whenever we are angry, we are finding fault—we are judging the other person for being wrong or deserving punishment.”
This is the cause of anger.
Anger is a result of life-alienating thinking that is disconnected from needs. It indicates that we have moved up to our head to analyze and judge somebody rather than focus on which of our needs are not getting met.
When stimulated to anger, we turn off that feeling of anger by focusing on our own needs and feelings or the other person’s feelings and needs.
So isn’t anger sometimes justified?
To this Rosenberg says that rather than agreeing or disagreeing on the righteousness of anger in different situations, we serve life better by focusing attention on what we are needing.
When we judge others, we contribute to violence.
At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled. Anger can be valuable if we notice its presence as a need that isn’t being met and that we are thinking in a way that makes it unlikely for that need to be met. It’s time to connect empathically with your needs:
“I am angry because I am needing…”
And remember it’s important not to judge. If you put a label of “wrong” on anger, you are judging. It’s better to be inquisitive about anger. What are the thoughts that are fueling the anger?
Step back. What needs aren’t being met?
How do you feel? Scared?
Violence comes from the belief that other people cause our pain and therefore deserve punishment.
People trick themselves into believing that pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished.
Hmm, I’m still struggling with this. I still think those neurologists who were so callous with my husband need to be punished. I guess somewhere I’m not following. I understand how my unmet needs made me angry and the neurologists didn’t meet my needs and I’m still angry—at the neurologists.
I suppose I could find out what the unmet needs of the neurologists were, but they weren’t seeking help. They weren’t in a vulnerable situation, as was my husband.
Nope. Still angry.
I can make all kinds of justifications for them and it still comes down to they had a sacred duty and they shirked it. I don’t really care why. I don’t care about their needs. They took our money and our insurance’s money and they didn’t render the service we needed them to render.
I want my money back and I’m still angry.
I guess though, the NVC process helps me from being blinded by anger. It has a calming effect. A slowing effect.
Steps to expressing anger:
Identify our judgmental thoughts.
Connect with our needs.
Express our feelings and unmet needs.
Ah, so maybe here is what I’m missing. I need to express the feelings and needs to the neurologist. I need to be heard. I need to know that they know. Ah, I need the other party to connect with what is going on in me.
But before those nasty neurologists will be able to hear me, I have to first empathize with what leads them to behave in the ways that are not meeting my needs, or the needs of their patients.
I need them to make it right.
But warning: as soon as people think that they have done something wrong, they will not be fully apprehending our pain.
People do not hear our pain when they believe they are at fault.
If we sense blame entering their mind, we may need to slow down, go back, and hear their pain for a while more.
I reviewed Nonviolent Communication and didn’t touch on empathy.
What is empathy?
“Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing….Empathy with others occurs only when we have successfully shed all preconceived ideas and judgments about them….Instead of offering empathy, we tend to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feeling. Empathy, on the other hand, requires us to focus full attention on the other person’s message.”
I wanted to add this post because I believe the information on empathy that Rosenberg gives is so critically important. It can be impossible to communicate completely with someone when they don’t know how to be empathetic. Sometimes, you just need to vent. Sometimes, you just need to be heard.
Rosenberg lists common behaviors that prevent us from being sufficiently present to connect empathetically with others:
Advising: “How come you didn’t…?” or “I think you should…”
One-upping: “That’s nothing. Wait ’till you hear what happened to me…”
Educating: “This could turn out to be a very positive experience for you if you just…”
Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault; you did the best you could.”
Story-telling: “That reminds me of the time…” (I call this shifting focus to oneself.)
Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.”
Sympathizing: “Oh, you poor thing…”
Interrogating: “When did this begin?”
Explaining: “I would have called but…”
Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.”
Oh man, I am guilty of doing so many of these when I really wanted to be there for someone, but didn’t know how. Now that my husband’s condition is so much on the forefront of my reality, I cringe at some of these when they are directed at me.
This communication language thing is very hard.
We know a speaker has received adequate empathy when we sense a release of tension or the flow of words has come to a halt.
When we can’t give empathy to others, it’s a sign that we need to give empathy to ourselves.
When we can speak our pain without blame, even people in distress can hear our need.
So why is empathy important?
Empathy allows us to reperceive our world in a new way and to go on.
And empathy gives us strength.
When we listen for feelings and needs, we no longer see people as monsters.
Empathy can help us mourn our past mistakes:
NVC mourning: connecting with the feelings and unmet needs stimulated by past actions we now regret.
There is incredible memoir fodder in the statement above.
What allows us to remain compassionate even under the most trying of circumstances? This is the question that Marshall Rosenberg seeks to answer in Nonviolent Communication. To answer this question, he examines the crucial role that language and and our use of words play in our thinking and communication.
Rosenberg points out that most of us grew up speaking a language that encourages us to “label, compare, demand, and pronounce judgments rather than to be aware of what we are feeling and needing.” He believes that “life-alienating communication has deep philosophical and political roots.”
It originates from and supports hierarchical or domination societies, where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals to those individuals’ own benefit.
The language of wrongness, should, and have to is perfectly suited for this purpose: the more people are trained to think in terms of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness and badness, the more they are being trained to look outside themselves—to outside authorities—for the definition of what constitutes right, wrong, good, and bad.
Nonviolent communication is a “specific approach to communicating—both speaking an listening—that leads us to give from the heart, connecting us with ourselves and with each other in a way that allows our natural compassion to flourish.” When practiced, this communication method can help you move beyond feeling attacked to really listening and extracting other people’s underlying feelings.
NVC asks us to focus on clarifying what is observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging. When we focus our attention on clarifying what we observe, feel and need, we are more likely to get what we are seeking.
Our cultural conditioning leads us to focus our attention on places where we are unlikely to get what we want. That’s one reason why it can be so difficult for us to get along, and once we know how this works, it’s relatively easy to address our differences by communicating differently, more accurately, and with more compassion.
Our language leads us astray. Instead of articulating our needs and values directly, we insinuate wrongness when they haven’t been met. We say: Violence is bad. If communicating through compassion, we would state our feelings or needs and then our values: I am afraid of violence, I value resolution of conflict through other means.
Notice how the version without the judgement is longer and less fluid. To me this points to the fact that humans have not evolved to be nonviolent and our language (at least English) is a reflection of that.
Our language also helps us deny that we are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. This easily observable in the phrase: I had to. As in: I washed the car because I had to. This implies that someone was making us and we didn’t have a choice. Denying our own responsibility is “life-alienating.”
The NVC translation of “I have to” is: I choose to do X, because I want Y.
Our language obscures awareness of personal responsibility.
We deny responsibility when we attribute our actions to factors outside ourselves:
Vague impersonal forces
Our condition, diagnosis, or personal psychological history
The actions of others
The dictates of authority
Institutional policies, rules, etc.
Gender, social, age roles
Rosenberg believes that it is in everyone’s best interest that people change, not in order to avoid punishment, but because they see the change as benefiting themselves.
The concept that certain actions merit reward while others merit punishment is also associated with life-alienating communication.
Four components of NVC:
Observations (articulate without judgement or evaluation/interpretation the concrete actions we observe that affect our well-being)
Feelings (state how we feel in relation to this action)
Needs (state what needs, desires, values of ours are connected to our feelings)
Requests (something specific the other person could do to make our lives better)
The other part of NVC is receiving this information from others.
Connect with them by sensing what they are observing, feeling, needing
Discover what would enrich their lives; getting their request.
With my husband, because of his brain injury, I am often in the dark as to what he is feeling and needing. NVC has shown me that a lot can be gained by guessing. It is also helpful to have this kind of conversation with yourself.
Your guess doesn’t have to be correct. What matters is that your guess is a sincere attempt to connect with the other person’s feeling or need. If this makes you feel uncomfortable or vulnerable, you’re on the right track.
What’s tricky is that our language sets us up to confuse thinking with feeling. For me personally getting these two straight is pretty difficult.
The other critical aspect of this is not to judge. I think we are all wired to judge. It’s a survival mechanism. So if catch yourself judging, becoming aware of that as soon as possible is helpful. Try to move past your judgement and into a space of curiosity. Question your perceptions. Find out if you are correct. Judging alienates us from compassion. Rosenberg includes great examples that tease apart simple observation from judging. If your observation contains an element of rightness or wrongness, you are judging. Try thinking through your observation once again to get to the bare bones facts. And don’t forget, comparisons are a form of judgement.
Classifying and judging people promotes violence.
If we can stop thinking and communicating in terms of what’s wrong with others, we get closer to our NVC goal. Instead if we ponder what other people are needing and not getting, we can open up an area of compassion in ourselves. By questioning others to see if our guesses are correct, we can begin a dialog with them and open up a space of compassion in them.
One thing I really loved about this book was that if clarifies a misquote that I’ve often heard and always doubted as false. People will say that whatever you think others are doing that’s wrong, you are actually doing yourself. They say you are projecting. Rosenberg puts this concept a bit differently:
Analyses of others are actually expressions of our own needs and values.
Now that, I can get onboard with. I get that. If I say you are hateful, it doesn’t mean I’m hateful. It means I’m needing something from you. Maybe connection.
My interpretation of you as being hateful is a judgement I’m making about you. This judgement isn’t helpful for me to get what I want from you: connection. What I need to do to get what I want is to find out what you need and feel. Once I do that, we can start to progress into a space where we both get what we need, and hopefully feel better.
Of interest to me in my new goal as a caregiver was this:
We all pay dearly when people respond to our values and needs not out of a desire to give from the heart, but out of fear, guilt, or shame. Sooner or later, we will experience the consequences of diminished goodwill on the part of those who comply with our values out of a sense of either external or internal coercion. They, too, pay emotionally, for they are likely to feel resentment and decreased self-esteem when they respond to use out of fear, guilt, or shame.
He goes on to say that each time they respond to our needs out of fear, guilt or shame, their compassion for us decreases.
Beyond putting NVC into practice in difficult situations, it also appears to be a good method of self examination for the purposes of introspection or for writing memoir. How can you nonviolently communicate with yourself? A good question for those of us who are plagued with negative self-talk.
In difficult situations, it’s helpful to take charge of our feelings. But how?
When making sense of your feelings, try this linguistic construction:
I feel … because I need …
We have four options for receiving negative feedback:
Sense our own feelings and needs
Sense others’ feelings and needs
Worldwide, NVC is used to mediate disputes and conflicts on a wide range of levels.
The more directly we can connect our feelings to our own needs, the easier it is for others to respond to us compassionately.
Read the book for exercises and to test yourself. Learn more about feelings and non-feelings and how expressing your own vulnerability can help resolve conflicts.
But because I can’t resist, here is one more example, of a conversation between two people in a relationship:
Partner 1 (not having awareness and taking responsibility for their feelings): “You are so needy and dependent. It’s really stressing out our relationship.”
Partner 2 (enlightened by NVC): “So you find yourself in panic. It’s very hard for you to hold onto the deep caring and love we’ve had without turning it into a responsibility, duty, obligation…. You sense your freedom closing down because you think you constantly have to take care of me.”
Alternative a non-empathic response from Partner 2 where Partner 2 takes responsibility for Partner 1’s feelings could look like this: “Are you feeling tense because I’ve been making too many demands on you?”
This last version keeps both partners enmeshed in emotional slavery, a real bummer of a place to be.
You can use the components of NVC to tune into the feelings and needs of others in stead of blaming them or blaming yourself.
Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.
By Garry Kasparov
With the crazy state of the world today, I just haven’t felt like reading fiction. Craving news of Russia, as per usual, I gravitated toward this book, Winter Is Coming, by the famous Russian chess champion, Garry Kasparov.
After my very brief time in Russia in my twenties, I have always wondered: should I have stayed? Should I have tried to learn Russian really well and started some kind of business in Russia? My employer at the time had encouraged me to start a business tourism venture, where I would bring Moscow businessmen to the town of Vladimir. The idea was that I would promote the arts and culture of Vladimir to American businessmen or expats.
Even in my twenties with the huge sense of adventure I had back then, I didn’t think this was wise. I kept meeting people who didn’t seem quite trustworthy and with my language skills at only a low intermediate level, I was sure I was missing a lot of what was going on around me.
Mr. Kasparov seems to have confirmed my doubts in his book Winter Is Coming. I very likely would have gotten into trouble of some sort.
Since the recent Russian clashes with Georgia and Ukraine and the resulting territory grabs, I’ve been wondering as have others, just what is Mr. Putin up to?
Kasparov claims Putin is probably the richest man in the world. That by itself makes him interesting, especially given his roots growing up in poverty in Leningrad. Rags to riches stories are always interesting.
Kasparov’s disappointment with the West’s seeming lack of interest in the loss of civil liberties in Russia is apparent. We should step up and do more.
I was hoping for more info on Putin in this book, but instead I got a fair bit of lecturing by someone who understandably is quite emotional on the topic.
The text of the title Winter Is Coming suggests that something will happen and that the author will make some predictions based on some facts. The basic prediction was: Putin is bad. Watch out!
Ok, that’s fair, I suppose. But where will he strike next? What are his real aspirations? How likely is he to succeed? And what about the recent drop in oil prices? How is that affecting him? How strictly are the citizens of Russia watched now? With all the technology for eavesdropping have their lives turned into a version of 1984?
So while Winter Is Coming is an interesting book for someone way out of touch with current events in Russia, it didn’t fulfill the promise of its title. And the subhead: “Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped”—well, that’s a no brainer. Of course enemies must be stopped. But how? And when? And is Vladimir Putin really an enemy of the free world, or just self-interested? Who are all these enemies and are they colluding? Is there an organized conspiracy? What’s Russia doing with Syria? What’s the connection there? Oil?
There are soooo many unanswered questions.
I don’t expect fortune telling, but I was in the mood for some speculation.
Dan Carlin recently produced a podcast where he talked about Russia’s recent aggressions in Ukraine and speculated on the likelihood of the West standing up for one of the Baltic states if it were invaded by Russia. The question he posed was would we engage in World War III or would we turn a blind eye and ignore the aggression. And would Putin push his luck and try it?
I think Kasparov is answering this question in his book. Yes, Putin would try it and now is the time to stop him.
So all this makes Putin even more interesting. If Putin is the richest man in the world and he is already leading a superpower like Russia, what motivates a man to keep going? I mean, isn’t that enough? Why endeavor to enlarge an empire? What’s the motivation? Why doesn’t he rest on his laurels and enjoy the perks of his power?
Now I have to know more.
I hope that Winter is not coming, but I sense that it is. The world is a messy place and humans have a long history of violence. The horrors of World Wars I and II have been forgotten and U.S. citizens are lulled into a stupor by too much work, too many things, too much sugar, and too much television. Obviously many of us are completely ignorant of history—a fact made painfully evident by the popularity of a man like Donald Trump for president.
I first read 1984 back in 1983 because my mother wanted me to read the book before the year named actually occurred. Since then, it’s remained one of my favorite books. Not only is Orwell a master when it comes to crafting prose and plot, he is also an intellectual master, a master of “great ideas.” Also, the idea of a dystopia captivated me like nothing else ever had.
Now many years later as part of my quest to teach myself about good writing, I decided to revisit 1984. Is it still one of my favorite books? And if so, why?
I think humans inherently enjoy struggling against something. It’s the reason stories remain popular with us. We gather round the television (or campfire) to learn about how to overcome obstacles. We learn about how others have behaved in certain situations in order to steel ourselves against challenges we too will surely face.
This, I think, is the appeal of 1984. Its the “us against them” mentality that resonates to our core. Human tribes surely must have had this kind of thought process, as do countries today, and social groups. How often is it that we form bonds of friendship by participating in pointing out the weaknesses of others? We like to have something in common, and one easy thing to have in common is hate.
I know I mention the “unhistorian” Dan Carlin a lot in my posts, but it is because my world seems bereft of “thought leaders” and Dan, for me, fits this bill. From listening to Dan’s accounts of warfare, the idea of strangers following and dying for a leader they have never met and would never meet in order to fight strangers that they might even like and have much in common with, seems increasingly bizarre. The fact that I find this bizarre may be my own personal thought crime.
As I revisit 1984, I am flooded with memories of Russia. I lived in Russia briefly in the 1990s and found it to be a magical place. The onion-dome churches had survived (many had), the communist party as had the faith of so many of the Russia people. In the days of the party, believers were heretics.
That strange pairing of words and ideas, where they initially seem at odds with each other but upon deeper thought ring true, is one of the great ideas of Orwell’s book.
“War is peace.”
“Freedom is slavery.”
“Ignorance is strength.”
Over the years, I have wondered if slipping into Russian culture would be similar to slipping into the pages of 1984? And, have we in the U.S., already embraced such a life?
After meeting many Russians as well as people from other surrounding republics, the idea of hating them and warring against them became ridiculous. I saw strangers help each other on the streets in Moscow. And yes, people did smile.
But we have our own problems with this 1984 lifestyle in the United States. Glued to our televisions, computers, and phones, we let a barrage of “programming” speak to us, and after my own experiences in listening to hate radio during Hurricane Katrina, I see how I myself could be influenced. “Why didn’t those people just leave when they heard the storm was coming?” This was the cry of the Republican right. I believe we are very easily influenced, even though most of us are certain that we personally are in complete control. It is my shame to this day that I listened and accepted even 5 percent of the “logic” spewed by hate radio in the fall of 2005. The lesson was an important one.
Other big ideas in the book are sex and love. Julia passes a note to Winston that reads: “I love you.” As a skeptical female, I am sent reeling. Of course she doesn’t love Winston. They don’t even know each other. The note should have said something else. Something more direct. Or, is it far better to imply what you mean?
So then, when does love start? And when does it end? How can it be created? And, how can it be destroyed? To what extent is love based on dependence? How much decision is involved? These are more questions the book raises.
1984 is a book that captures so much in a relatively small space. It leaves you thinking and reminds you that thinking doesn’t always feel good. So why do it? Why think? Why ponder? Why ruminate?
More good questions. Although after reading 1984, I’m not convinced that thinking is bad.
Once you’re convinced that someone doesn’t care for you, you can let go.
That’s where love ends.
And when it does, without all that craving and infatuation, we can return to an unnatural state of bliss.
By Mike Nelson
Read by David Elias
3 hours, 30 minutes
This year I moved from an 1800-square-foot house with a large shop into a 545-square-foot house with two small sheds. This required the wrapping, packing, hauling, storing, moving, re-storing, unpacking, unwrapping, and shelving of all of my worldly possessions. In the process, I sold some things and I gave many things away. And still, I was drowning in stuff. Since my mother, grandmother, grandfather, and great uncle have all passed away, I also have their stuff, everything that I have not already thrown out or given away. I have my souvenirs from Russia that for some reason are impossible to part with. And then there are the books.
In the face of all of this, I still have the audacity to say that I don’t have a problem. I’m not a hoarder. I can walk through my house. My kitchen is clean. And yet, the 30 remaining boxes out in my white shed tell a different story, that after nearly five months of spending every weekend unpacking and recycling, I am not done. If it’s not my problem, whose is it?
My grandmother lived through the Great Depression and afterwards, she knew to hold onto everything. When she and my grandfather became rather affluent and in her old age, she decided to “invest” in collectors plates. And invest, she surely did. She also “invested” in butterflies and even though she was a conservationist at heart, she helped to drive many species of butterflies into extinction in South America.
My mother was a hoarder. That’s hard to say, but it’s true. They say that one can be genetically predisposed to be a hoarder, so then I have to ask myself: do I suffer from the same affliction? I want to say: no, certainly not! This isn’t me. I’m simply straightening up, for five months. And I’m tired of doing it. I’m so tired of stuff.
I checked out the audiobook, Stop the Clutter From Stealing Your Life, free using the Hoopla app. I listened to it as I worked on meeting my weekly quota of unpacking boxes and figuring out what to do with the stuff inside. Keep it? Throw it out? Give it away? As I listened, the book transported me back to my mother’s life and my grandmother’s life. As I listened to it, I was touching the things that used to be theirs before they died, things that were important to them, so they should be important to me too, shouldn’t they?
Does it bring me joy? So many things don’t, and yet I hold on to them. Does it bring me joy? No. Let it go.
And then in my denial, it occurred to me yesterday that this year, in fact last Monday, my mother has been gone for ten years. The stuff in my hands is mine. This clutter is my clutter. This mess is my mess. There’s no more blaming my family. These things are my things. And I can let them go if I want to. I don’t have to have a garage sale. I don’t have to recuperate the money. Time is money. Time is life. I can give these things away. I don’t need a porcelain statue of a cockatoo!
The books, of course, are harder. And the audiobook says that. Do the easy stuff first and do it fast. Do not sit down to read a thousand books and say you’ll throw each one away after reading them and clear the clutter that way. How long would that take?
Tonight as I write this, I have two boxes ready to go to Good Will and four boxes in my living room marked “documents.” And I think, how could this be? I have already shredded so many documents.
My strategy seems to be a good one. I am strict about my weekly quota. And I remind myself that it is a mathematical certainty—eventually I have to run out of stuff.
If you or someone you love has a problem with clutter, this audiobook is a great help in getting your mind around the problem and learning some strategies to make it better. It will also help you understand their thinking.
By Paula Hawkins
Riverhead Books, A member of the Penguin Group, New York
A New York Times bestseller and published in 2015, The Girl on the Train is more recent and popular than the books I usually read. But rather than read from the pile of books I already have, I felt like something fun.
Set in England not too far from London, Rachel our unreliable drunken narrator, takes the same commuter train into London every day, even though she has lost her job several months ago. While on the train, she passes the house where she used to live with her ex-husband. Now he lives there with his new wife, Anna. Rachel also watches a young couple in another house not far from where she used to live. They are the perfect couple, completely in love, who she has even made up names for. Rachel wishes that she had their life. That is until something happens that sets something off in Rachel, something she can’t turn away from. Rachel suddenly turns into a modern day Miss Marple, who will cross multiple lines of social decency in order to figure out who done it.
The structure of this book is interesting. It is told in the first person present tense, and slips into past tense to give background information. It bounces its first-person perspective around between the key female characters in the novel, Rachel, Anna, and Megan. It’s interesting that the author chooses to never give us the male voice or perspective, but the females do a good job of holding our interest.
This book is a great example of how curiosity sometimes gets the better of us and how that curiosity, innocently enough, intrudes into other’s lives. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, or so it seems.
As I read this book, I’m confronted with my own questions about “bestsellers” versus “great literature.” I think great literature has at least two components. The first one is met by this book; great literature gives us an honest glimpse into human relationships or into the human condition. The other component that I’m not sure is met by this book is that great literature gives us a poetic insight that is so revealing that we are astounded by our connection to it. When I have this kind of connection to a book, I find myself uncontrollably taking notes. I don’t want to miss anything of what the author is telling me.
I third component that I really really want in my reading is a driving force that keeps me interested and keeps me reading. The Girl on the Train certainly has that. Rachel, our protagonist, is sort of a train wreck herself. Some of the other characters think she’s weak, but she isn’t and she isn’t timid either. Her driving passion to know the truth to really truly know makes her a strong character.
This is a masterful work. It feels authentic and reads well. Seeing the protagonist reclaiming her own strength is uplifting and believable. It’s a book certainly worthy of a bit of study.
Or The Children’s Crusade
A Duty-Dance With Death
By Kurt Vonnegut
Dial Press Trade Paperback
I’ve said it before: I like Vonnegut. But, he gets a bit too vulgar for my tastes. I suppose it could be argued that war is vulgar, so a book about war must be vulgar. I suppose.
Vonnegut’s main character, Billy Pilgrim (William Pilgrim), has gotten unstuck in time and has traveled to another planet where he has learned not to fear death. Because death is only one moment of many moments; the other moments were, for the most part, happy. So you die in one moment, but there are plenty more when you are alive. Why not focus on those?
I like Vonnegut’s big ideas. Sort of like Robert Heinlein’s big ideas. Fleshing them out is tricky.
Vonnegut fought in World War II, and much of what happened in the book really happened. He says he was trying to write the book for a long time. After all, how could he not write about the fire bombing of Dresden? You’d think there would be a lot to write about, laments Vonnegut. Airplanes flew over that city and dropped incendiary material on the whole city. People were burned alive. Everything burned. All the buildings were destroyed. Only those who were able to shelter underground survived. Not many people survived.
“The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he’s given a regular trial, and then he’s shot by a firing squad.”
Someone at work was pestering me about irony. OK, that’s irony. The guy didn’t get burned alive during the firebombing. He took a teapot out of the rubble after it was all over. Probably, he thought no one wanted it because everyone was dead. And a cup of tea sounded nice. Something warm. Some kind of comfort after all that misery. But after all that, someone decided the soldier was stealing. And then decided to shoot him. For a teapot. The guy survived something that he was not likely to survive to be shot for something that he was not likely to be shot for. Ironic.
I like the way Vonnegut describes himself as a writer:
“A trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations…”
World War II was bad. Shockingly bad. But people have been doing bad things for ages. Vonnegut subtitles his book the Children’s Crusade. According to Vonnegut, the Children’s Crusade started in 1213, “when two monks got the idea of raising armies of children in Germany and France and selling them in North Africa as slaves. Thirty thousand children volunteered…about half of them drowned in shipwrecks…”
The book is jumbled. Vonnegut explains this:
“…there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.”
“I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.”
People are not supposed to look back says Vonnegut:
“…Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”
“Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.”
Dresden, fire bombings, Children’s Crusades, birds.
The book was originally written in 1919 by Professor William Strunk Jr. and was self-published by the author. It was professionally published in 1935, then again in 1957, 1972, and 2000. It’s fair to say this book has stood the test of time.
Strunk and White Elements of Style consists of:
11 Rules of Usage
11 Principles of Composition
21 Style Guidelines
Commonly Misused Words and Expressions
From the introduction:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. (page xvi)
Professor Strunk, although one of the most inflexible and choosy of men, was quick to acknowledge the fallacy of inflexibility and the danger of doctrine. (page xvii)
Where I work we argue a bit about how relevant Strunk and White remains, with some taking the position of fully committed fans and other wanting more freedom (translate wanting to be lazy and not understand/follow the rules of grammar or of good writing style.) I guess you can figure out where I fall on this controversy.
[Written on September 2016: I’m very sorry to do this. I realize this was a popular post and provides a comprehensive summary of the book. However, it occurs to me that my review may have gone too far. I have have revealed too much of the book and instead of mere commenting on the book and giving examples, I gave far too many examples and very few comments. For this reason, today I have chosen to delete much of this post. I recommend that you buy the book. It is a great resource for any writer.]
By Ivan Turgenev, Modern Library New York, @ 1961 for the English translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney; first published in 1862, 281 pages.
I don’t know what it is, but if someone tells me to read a book or an author, I automatically resist. The more they rave, the more I resist. So way back when, I asked someone to make a list of must-read Russian authors, and Turgenev was on this list. So, some 20 years later, I am picking up Fathers and Sons.
Or Fathers and “Children”—but maybe this is just me overly concerned with the correct translation—and accuracy. The topic is nihilism (am I a nihilist?) and this is what I should be concerned about. As explained in the novel, a nihilist is “a man who does not accede to authority, who does not accept a single principle on faith, no matter how great the aura of respect which surrounds that principle”), but my mind is struck more with the situation the father is in. Nicholai Petrovich Kirsanov (aged 40 ish) has taken up with his servant girl (Theodosia or Feodosya or Phenechka aged 20 ish) and fathered a child. This sends my mind into a tailspin and derails me from any sophisticated discussion of nihilism to come.
The story begins on May 20, 1959 as Nicholai Petrovich awaits his son’s (Arcadii’s) return from Saint Petersburg as a university graduate. Arcadii has brought home a friend, Evgenii Vaselivich Bazarov, a medical student and a nihilist.
Since Bazarov isn’t too taken with Arcadii’s uncle Pavel, Arcadii explains his uncle’s early life and heartache. It’s a sad tale and told well by Turgenev—sad, because love hasn’t changed over time. Pavel is brokenhearted—I won’t rob you of the story, but Bazarov, our nihilist, remains unmoved:
“…I would say that a fellow who has staked his entire life on the card of woman’s love and who, when that card is trumped, goes all to pieces and sinks to such an extent that he’s not fit for anything—a fellow like that is no man, no male.”
I saw this in my mother (for my father), and it makes me sad to read it here. She would say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. But is it love to have loved a phantom? One’s own illusion, someone with no more basis in reality than a character in a book?
I found Turgenev’s insight on aging interesting:
“Pavel…was…on the threshold of that troubled, twilight time, a time of regrets that resemble hopes and of hopes that resemble regrets, when youth has gone by while old age has not yet arrived.”
It’s a hot night as I write this. The television has been off. All the windows are open. A light cool breeze blows gently through. It’s summer here, like in the story. The crickets are chirping and once in a while a car goes by. It’s quiet as I read about Bazarov’s family. I feel I have met this family before. I have met his mother before. I wax nostalgic about this for a while. Tonight, after walking around town, appreciating the rolling hills and the setting sun, feeling the cooling of the night, I’m not so very sad. I wish for this lifestyle every night. This routine of coming home, eating dinner, studying Spanish, walking around town, and sitting down to read.
Authors love to torture their characters, so of course, Bazarov has to fall in love. He is quite wretched, probably more so because he thought he was immune to such things. It’s interesting for the reader to watch him squirm. We know that having love in his life would be good for him and we want to see him get it, but he’s in his own way. Oddly, he declares his love to the woman he cares for because he gets so worked up about it. She doesn’t respond, yeah or neah. And this given all of his pride and self conceit is difficult for him to take.
Turgenev captures youthful restlessness well. When Bazarov cuts his visit to his parents short, his father and mother are very sad. Children can’t help but mistreat their parents, without meaning to. And a long married couple who weathers the various storms of life ends up rather like this:
“It was then that Arina Vlassievna drew near to him [her husband] and, placing her gray head against his gray head, told him: ‘What can a body do, Vassya! A son is a slice cut off the loaf. He’s the same as a falcon: he felt like it, and he winged back to the nest; he felt like it, and he winged away. But you and I are like brown autumn mushrooms that grow on a hollow tree: stuck there side by side and never budging from our places. I alone will remain unchanged for you through all time, just as you will for me.”
This is a beautiful and apt way of putting marriage, I think.
But who is this guy Bazarov? Is Turgenev trying to tell us that he’s bizarre? And his first name, Evgenii (Eugene), a reference to Eugene Onegin, the bad boy of Russian literature? (Although for bad boys, I like Pucharin.)
But that’s just it. Bazarov isn’t bad. He’s just lost. And when he finally is lost, we feel sad. It was a waste, ridiculous, preventable, but a good thing for frogs, no doubt.
By Andrey Kurkov, Translated by George Bird, Melville International Crime, Melville House, Brooklyn, New York, @2002, 255 pages.
Penguin Lost is the sequel to Death and the Penguin. The story begins with a betrayal and ends with redemption. Along the way, we journey from Kiev to Moscow and into Chechnya. I thought the last line was the best.
What I like so much about these penguin books, besides their bizarre nature, is that Kurkov has set up the scenario where there is interspecies friendship. I haven’t seen that done before, and I appreciate it. Misha, the penguin, is our protagonist’s (Victor’s) friend. But, Kurkov doesn’t make Misha cutesy or try to make him human. Misha remains a true penguin, with the heart of child, which still seems odd, but so be it.
It’s an interesting take on friendship, betrayal, and redemption, not exceptionally deep, but it does provide an interesting excursion elsewhere.
I would love to see these penguin books on the big screen. This morning I was thinking that I’d sure like to write that screenplay. I could see Victor as a Slavic James Bond with everything that might mean.
By Leo Tolstoy, originally published in 1869, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 1408 pages.
I can’t seem to move on without finishing up my thoughts on War and Peace. There is so much in this book, so many quotes that provoke thought that I wanted to record some of them here. But first, a few general comments.
The members of my book club complained that there were too many character and plot loose ends. I think that is because throughout the work, Tolstoy was trying to imitate life, real life. And in real life people form new relationships and move on. There isn’t always closure and there is often disappointment.
Because of this, War and Peace can be read in several ways. It can be read merely for its story. It can be read for Tolstoy’s philosophy regarding historical science. Or, it can be read for the many details of human nature and interaction that Tolstoy provides. Clearly Tolstoy understood the Russian aristocracy and the politics of the drawing room. I think it’s interesting to ponder how the drawing room of the 1800s and the social norms observed there can still be found to some extent, though somewhat altered, in places of social interaction today—such as the office. If you think about it, for many of the aristocrats of the 1800s who did not have to work and therefore did not have the cubical madness we embrace today, the drawing room very well may have been their equivalent of our office.
Another thing that makes this book so interesting is that it was written approximately 150 years ago about events that happened approximately 200 years ago. The details that we get transport us back in time. I have to say that I am so sorry for the poor horses. Taken into battle, wounded, killed, starved, eaten. War itself is a suffering, blind mess, and Tolstoy provides vivid details:
“Prince Andrey turned his scornful gaze on the endless, chaotic mass of detachments, wagons, supply vehicles, artillery and more wagons, wagons, wagons of every size and shape, overtaking one another and blocking the muddy road three and four abreast. On all sides, right up front and way behind, as far as the ear could strain in every direction, you could hear wheels rumbling, carts rattling, wagons creaking, gun-carriages groaning, horses trampling, whips cracking, drivers shouting and everybody swearing, soldiers, orderlies, and officers. The roadsides were littered everywhere with fallen horses, flayed and unflayed, broken-down wagons with solitary soldiers sitting by them just waiting, other soldiers separated from their units, heading in little groups for the next village or carrying loot from the last one—chickens, sheep, hay, or sackfuls of something or other. When the road went uphill or downhill, the crowds squashed together even closer, and there was an endless hubbub of shouts and groans. Soldiers floundering knee-deep in mud heaved guns and wagons along with their bare hands while the whips cracked, hoofs slithered, traces snapped and the air rang with the most heart-rending cries.”
Do I like Tolstoy? Well, yes and no. I don’t like that Tolstoy is trying to push his agenda on me. Every writer does this, of course, but Tolstoy has a heavier hand than I like. One book club member said that after Tolstoy, she didn’t think she would read any more Russian authors. I was stunned. What a statement and from a world traveler no less. Are all Russians the same? Everyone of them? Now, yesterday, and forever? What?????
Sorry, I’m going to have to digress here. These are the kinds of statements I’m having to make lately: Not all Russians are the same. The USSR is no longer in existence. The USSR consisted of 15 republics that dissolved in 1991, not in 1989 when the Wall fell. The Wall was in Germany. Russia was one of those republics. Russians are not all atheists! There are many deeply religious Russians. Notice the incredible eastern Orthodox churches. Russians do smile, and they do smile in public. Yes, yes, I know. We were all victims of Cold War propaganda, but we don’t have to continue to be victims. We can open our eyes! There are good and bad people everywhere. We are all a mix.
Ok, well that said. I like (love) Tolstoy—in parts. I love the way he captures little bits of human nature that ring so true to us that they remain relevant after more than 100 years and across thousands of miles. The following are some examples of what I’m talking about.
A severe criticism of society:
“Just as a skilful head waiter can pass off as a supreme delicacy a cut of beef that would be inedible if you’d seen it in the filthy kitchen, Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests that evening first the viscount and then the abbé as if they were supreme delicacies.”
On the way some men talk to women:
“His face changed instantly and assumed the sickly sweet, patronizing air which he obviously reserved for conversations with women.”
On women who forget themselves:
“She had obviously forgotten her age, and habit had told her to let go with all her ancient womanly wiles.”
The sometimes painful sincerity of Pierre:
“His smile was not like theirs—theirs were no real smiles.”
First thoughts of Napoleon:
“If I were fighting for freedom I’d understand it. I’d be the first to enlist, but helping England and Austria against the greatest man in the world—that’s not right.”—Pierre
Makes you say, hmmm:
“‘If everybody fought for nothing but his own convictions, there wouldn’t be any wars,’ he said.”
“‘Never, never get married, my dear fellow…But tie yourself to a woman and you’ll lose all your freedom, like convict in fetters. And all the hope and strength there is in you just drags you down and tortures you with regret…If you only knew what these fine women are, or let’s say women in general…Selfish, vain, stupid, totally vacuous—that’s what women are when they show themselves in their true colors.”—Prince Andrey
“Even in the very warmest, friendlist and simplest of relationships you need either flattery or praise in the way that you need grease to keep the wheels turning.”
Before Pierre received his inheritance he was received “like a corpse or a plague victim.”
On Prince Andrey’s father:
“…the prince was brusque and always demanding so that without actually being cruel he inspired the kind of fear and respect that the cruelest of men would have found it difficult to achieve.”
The Way a Man Can Shame a Woman:
“On the way to his sister’s room, in the gallery connecting the two parts of the house, Prince Andrey came across Mademoiselle Bourienne who smiled sweetly at him. It was the third time that day that she had happened on him in out-of-the-way passages, always with a nice beaming smile on her face.
“‘Oh, I thought you were in your room,’ she said, blushing for some reason and looking down. Prince Andrey glanced at her sharply, and a look of bitter displeasure came over his face. He glared at her in silence, not at her eyes but at her forehead and hair, with such contempt that she turned bright red and walked off without another word.”
On Crossing Lines:
“The enemy held their fire, increasing the sense of that dark menacing, mysterious, and intangible dividing line that exists between two warring armies. One step across that dividing line, so like the one between the living and the dead, and you enter an unknown world of suffering and death.”
Later when Pierre is trying to ask Helene to marry him, he mentions a line that he must cross and his inability to cross it.
On Fear in War:
“He grabbed his pistol, and instead of firing he hurled it at the Frenchman and dashed towards the bushes as fast as his legs would carry him.”
Well anyway, I could go on and on, and maybe I will at some point later. The book is a hefty tome, no doubt about that. I can’t believe it would ever be assigned to a high school student. That seems preposterous and a way to kill a love of literature in anyone. But if read without a deadline and for pure interest in the subject, War and Peace has a lot to offer.
By Leo Tolstoy; first published in 1869; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; 1408 pages (Notes begin on page 1359).
Around page 1350, I began to wonder, just what is Tolstoy trying to do here? Obviously an intelligent guy, definitely no radical, what is going on with the structure of this book????
It seems odd to put a spoiler alert on a book that was published more than 100 years ago, but still, I realize many people haven’t read it and I don’t want to interfere with Tolstoy’s intent by saying: hey watch out for this, especially for those puritans out there who want to experience the work as it was meant to be experienced.
If, however, you are one of those “walk on the wild side” kind of people, here’s what I think is going on.
The whole work is a demonstration of two types of historical thought:
Stories of individuals, descriptions of the lives of people (the drama experienced by specific characters, Pierre, et. al.)
Historical movements of peoples and humanity (the French invading Russia and the Russians chasing them back into Europe)
Tolstoy’s point is that you can look at history in these two ways and these two ways lead to conclusions that are at odds with each other. In the first way, when examining history as though it depends on individual leaders and the multitude of causes performed by individuals, the concept of free will comes under examination. Individuals have free will, they choose their actions, and history results. In the second way, when you look at humanity in more general terms as a unit and think that we are all affected by the natural environment in which we live. We are all affected by space and by time, by our environments, etc. And all of these situational constraints keep us from ever truly being free. For example, we have to eat; therefore, we may be compelled to do things to satisfy this need. The more needs we have to fulfill, the less free we are.
So let’s look at the two points again:
Stories of individuals (the plot) is used to illustrate the concept of free will
Mass migration of armies east and then west (the historical backdrop of Napoleon invading Russia) is used to illustrate the concept of historical laws (in this case the law of necessity)
Tolstoy seems to be saying that historians of his time hesitate to examine this phenomenon of historical laws, in this case the struggle between the law of necessity and that of free will.
“And now…a hard struggle is being conducted between old and new attitudes to history, and in just the same way theology, guardian of the old, calls the new attitude an offense against revelation.”
“…it now seems that once we accept the law of necessity we destroy all concepts of the soul, or good and evil, and all the towering political and ecclesiastical institutions founded on them….the law of necessity in history, far from destroying the foundations on which political and ecclesiastical institutions are constructed, actually strengthens them.”
If you read Part II of the Epilogue, you’ll find this discussion. Reading this before reading the whole book from the beginning is what I suggest to get the most out of Tolstoy’s argument. It won’t ruin the plot for you at all. But it may rob you of that “ah ha” moment—which if you think about it, I am robbing you of right now.
It is very interesting. Perhaps more interesting than any of the preceding pages. I think Tolstoy was trying to prove his point throughout his novel. By the time we get to the Epilogue, we see him pulling these strands together.
In the final analysis, I believe that Tolstoy was saying that we are never completely free. We believe we are free, but by virtue of being alive and all the necessities that state of being brings about, we do not have the free will we think we do.
I got the feeling he was saying freedom and necessity are in constant flux. And some people have their lives set up so that they have fewer needs and greater freedom, whereas others don’t.
I’m still in the process of reading War and Peace, but since I had such a hard time breaking into this novel and because my friends have had the same experience, I thought I would share some dos and don’ts that I have discovered.
Be lazy like me and buy an Audible book version of this masterpiece. I tried that thinking that I could multitask while listening to the book. This was a big mistake. The tone and inflection of the reader put me off to such an extent that I started to hate the book and all of its characters.
Give up…until you’ve reached page 250. If you don’t like the book by page 250, you probably won’t, so it’s safe to stop at this point. As for myself, I was very interested in the book by page 100. I enjoy Tolstoy’s observations and interpretations of his character’s innermost thoughts and feelings.
Go online and find a summary of the five families of this book, their members, and their relationships to each other. This is not cheating. Figuring out who’s who is the central challenge of this novel. It takes about 100 pages to nail it down.
Make notes in the margins of your book. This could be hard with an eReader. Since my debacle with the Audiobook, I went back to the old style paper version. Whenever something interesting happens, I make a mark in the margin or underline the text. When I notice that one part of the book relates to another, I write the associated page numbers in the margins. This has helped immensely.
Pay attention to when and what characters are speaking French versus Russian. I found it very interesting that while Russia is under attack by the French, its upper class snobbishly prefers to speak French—at home. Why wasn’t Russian good enough for them? Tolstoy even goes so far as to give one of his main Russian characters a French name: Pierre.
Read this in the wintertime when it’s cold outside but there’s no snow and no snow sports.
Accept that this is a really long work and pace yourself. I set myself a goal of reading 100 pages per week. Sometimes I read more, but I don’t allow myself to read fewer than 100 pages. That comes to 10 pages a day (on workdays) and 50 pages over the weekend.
Read Part II of the Epilogue before reading anything else. This will set you up nicely for what is to come.
By Leo Tolstoy; Translated by Anthony Briggs; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; @ 2005; originally published in 1869; first appeared in 1865–66; 1408 pages.
War and Peace is known for its massiveness. At 1,408 pages, reading War and Peace is like reading five novels. I don’t think Americans are typically required to read it. I wasn’t, not even at The University of Texas where I majored in Russian and East European Studies. So why read War and Peace now—since I’ve already escaped it once?
It’s a common question. The members of my book club are asking themselves this too. What have we gotten ourselves into? Is this book still relevant? Is it worth it? Might this a book be better put off until old age when we have absolutely nothing better to do?
Well, we say, it’s got to be a classic for a reason. It’s got to be good. Otherwise, it wouldn’t still be around. Right?
Were it not for my persistent feelings of inadequacy which spring largely from possessing a Russian Studies degree and never having read this book, I might have been able to worm myself away. But, there it is. My personal and psychological makeup require that I drag my eyes over these 500,000 words.
There is some solace. The introduction promises me that:
“Above all, War and Peace will move readers by virtue of its beauty as a work of art. It is a triumphant affirmation of human life in all its richness and complexity. That is why one can return to it and always find new meanings and new truths in it.”
In 1865 War and Peace was released serially in the magazine The Russian Messenger and was titled The Year 1805. It wasn’t until 1869 that it was first published as a single unit. So the first readers weren’t handed a tome that resembles an attractive door stop. Instead, they were spoon fed bits of story. War and Peace must have been like a soap opera or a telenovella.
Lots of pressing issues had to be on the Russian mind at this time. Twenty three million serfs had just been liberated (1861). This was a big change for Russian aristocracy. The price for labor had just gone up—way, way up! In effect 23 million people now had the full rights of free citizens, could finally marry without having to gain consent, could own property, and could create and own a business. And, they could buy land. Shocking. Simply shocking!
So perhaps, part of the contemporaneous appeal of War and Peace was a nostalgia for the past. The time when the power and significance of Russian society was unshakable. There were ways one had to act. A foreign language one needed to know (French). People one needed to know. Connections one had to establish or face the consequences of a harsh life, or worse.
And at the time of the book’s publication, we are 52 years from the 1917 revolution, which would change everything. Revolution seems to weak a term for what happened in 1917. But its the word we’ve got.
So picture yourself on a cold night in 1865. Downton Abbey has yet to be written. Television has yet to be invented. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’re not living with electricity, and there’s no Facebook. The latest issue of The Russian Messenger has just arrived. Thank goodness for this Leo Tolstoy chap, you think to yourself in French. Wonder what ol’ Pierre has gotten up to now. How is Prince Andrey?
Settle back into your easy chair and prepare to be transported back to an earlier time. You’re in the drawing room of the wealthy 40-year-old Anna Scherer in 1805. She goes by Annette. The year 1812 is still a ways off. There’s a prince who is having trouble with one of his sons, Anatole. The solution is simple. Marry the boy off. Annette will see that it’s done.
There’s nothing like being required to read a particular book that makes you want to read something else. I am supposed to be reading War and Peace, but I am compelled to read A Hero of Our Time. So finally, I gave in. Besides, I had to read the book after I found out that Lermontov’s early poetry was too explicit for young ladies to read.
A Hero of Our Time is written as a travel journal and takes place in the Caucasus. It concerns the anti-hero, Grigori Alexsandrovich Pechorin. My translation was done by J. H. Wisdom and Marr Murray in 1854 and was verified and corrected by Alexander Vassiliev in 2010.
A Hero of Our Time is a very interesting read. I felt transported to the Caucasus. I could almost see the landscape. I marveled at the strange cultural traditions. And the character Pechorin is a man at his worst—a character I have encountered in various forms in my life. I can’t believe this guy is still around:
Mine is an unfortunate disposition; whether it is the result of my upbringing or whether God created me so—I know not. I only know this, that if I am the cause of unhappiness in others I myself am no less unhappy. Of course, that is a poor consolation to them—only the fact remains that such is the case. In my early youth, from the moment I ceased to be under the guardianship of my relations, I began madly to enjoy all the pleasures which money could buy—and, of course, such pleasures became irksome to me. then I launched out into the high society—and that, too, soon palled upon me. I fell in love with fashionable beauties and was loved by them, but my imagination and egoism alone were aroused by their love; my heart remained empty….Then I grew bored…Soon afterwards I was transferred to the Caucasus; and that was the happiest time of my life. I hoped that under the bullets of the Chechens boredom could not exist—a vain hope…”
We learn about Pechorin through his friend Maksim Maksimych, who is treated heartlessly by Pechorin upon an unexpected reunion. Maxim is quite hurt by Pechorin’s lack of enthusiasm upon seeing him again:
“Of course we were friends—well, but what are friends nowadays?…What could I be to him? I’m not rich; I’ve no rank; and, moreover, I’m not at all his match in years!…See what a dandy he has become since he has been staying in Petersburg again!”
“I’ve always said that there is no good to be got out of a man who forgets his old friends!…”
It is sad when one’s memories of old friends are not supported by reality.
This novel employs two different devices. The first device is a travelogue in which we hear about Pechorin from someone who has known him. Then our narrator is able to get hold of Pechorin’s diary. From that point on, we hear about Pechorin’s innermost thoughts and feelings as well as his exploits from his point of view.
Pechorin seems at times almost like a sociopath and yet I felt sorry for him. I also recognized his sad ideas and was surprised that so little has changed with the stereotypical bad boy, even across cultures and more than a hundred years.
Here is Pechorin’s view on friendship:
“Of two friends, one is always the slave of the other, although frequently neither acknowledges the fact to himself. Now, the slave I could not be; and to be the master would be a wearisome trouble, because, at the same time deception would be required.”
Throughout the novel, Lermontov pays attention to and appreciates nature:
“Whatever grief oppresses my heart, whatever disquietude tortures my thoughts—everything is dispersed in a moment; my soul becomes at ease; the fatigue of the body vanquishes the disturbance of the mind. There is not a woman’s glance which I would not forget at the sight of the tufted mountains, illumined by the southern sun; at the sight of the blue sky, or in hearkening to the roar of the torrent as it falls from cliff to cliff.”
“On making a woman’s acquaintance I have always unerringly guessed whether she would fall in love with me or not…”
And all games:
“To arouse a feeling of love, devotion and fear towards oneself—is not that the main sign, and the greatest triumph, of power? To be the cause of suffering and joy to another—without in the least possessing any definite right to be so—is not that the sweetest food for our pride? And what is happiness? Satisfied pride.”
He goes on to say that passion never lasts forever.
Some people are just better talkers than others:
“You are a dangerous man!” she said to me. “I would rather find myself in the woods under a knife of an assassin than under your tongue…In all earnestness I beg of you: when it comes into your mind to speak evil of me, take a knife instead and cut my throat. I think you would not find that very difficult.”
Harsh words from a princess. And even though she was on the right track, Pechorin later observes her weakening:
“Compassion—a feeling to which all women yield so easily, had dug its talons into her inexperienced heart.”
Before I dare to wonder too much about Lermontov and this book, here is what he has to say about his intent in writing it:
“The Hero of Our Time, gentlemen, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man only; it is a portrait composed of the vices of our whole generation in their full-grown development. You will tell me again that no man can be as bad as this; and I shall tell you that since you have believed that all the villains of tragedy and romance could exist, why can you not believe in the reality of Pechorin?…This must not, however, be taken to mean that the author of this book has ever proudly dreamed of becoming a reformer of human vices….He has simply found it entertaining to depict a man, such as he considers to be typical of the present day and such as he has met—too often, unfortunately for the author himself and for you. Suffice it that the disease has been pointed out: how it is to be cured—God alone knows!”
I really enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it—and I especially recommend it to young women.
So while I was supposed to be reading War and Peace, I started reading Vonnegut. There’s this whole Vonnegut/Dovlatov connection I keep trying to make, but to read more Dovlatov, I either have to wait until April for the release of Pushkin Hills in English OR I have to learn Russian. Ok, so I know some Russian. I know enough to eat and travel. And to get some quizzical looks. Rosetta Stone, BTW, is turning out to be great for Russian pronunciation.
Anyway, I read Breakfast of Champions a very long time ago. I’m reading it again because I remembered how intensely creative Vonnegut was with his structure and storytelling. On this read, Vonnegut pummels me over the head with foul language and imagery. Apparently, I used to be immune to this. Now, not so much.
Breakfast of Champions—wow—what to say about this book. It is all over the place and perfectly organized at the same time. It has characters you don’t want to get to know, and yet, like the train wrecks they all are, you can’t stop reading about them. Hmm.
And speaking of trains, I found Vonnegut’s ideas about machines to be very interesting. Vonnegut really develops this, but here is the kernel:
‘You are surrounded by loving machines, hating machines, greedy machines, unselfish machines, brave machines, cowardly machines, truthful machines, lying machines, funny machines, solemn machines,’ he read. ‘Their only purpose is to stir you up in every conceivable way, so the Creator of the Universe can watch your reactions. They can no more feel or reason than grandfather clocks.’
Breakfast of Champions is the kind of book that I think I want to read again, maybe in 20 years. Maybe then, I’ll be able to digest it fully. And Vonnegut, like Dovlatov, is one of those guys you wish was still around so you could say stuff like: hey, what do you think about the 2045 project? What do you think about immortality for humanity? Isn’t that a really bad idea?
I’d love to put those guys in a room, ohh and add in George Carlin, who is also now in the club, introduce the topic, and let them go. What I wouldn’t give to hear that conversation. I wonder if D wouldn’t be too polite for these two rambunctious Americans. Would he sit there with a thin smile on his lips, thinking how uncivilized George and Kurt were? Or, would he, after almost coming to blows on certain subjects finally let loose with some raucous laughter, teeter on his chair, and nearly fall over?
By Bill McKibben, Random House, @ 1989, 195 pages.
This book has been sitting on the shelf for a long time. I don’t remember when I bought it. It was published in 1989, which means much of the information is out-of-date, but it’s still an interesting read. McKibben’s central theme is that man’s activities have gone so far now  that we are seeing a permanent end of nature—nature being defined as a force independent of man.
“An idea, a relationship, can go extinct, just like an animal or a plant. The idea in this case is ‘nature,’ the separate and wild province, the word apart from man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died. In the past, we spoiled and polluted parts of that nature, inflicted environmental ‘damage.’ But that was like stabbing a man with a toothpick; though it hurt, annoyed, degraded, it did not touch vital organs, block the path of the lymph or blood. We never thought we had wrecked nature. Deep down, we never really thought we could: it was too big and too old; its forces—the wind, the rain, the sun—were too strong, too elemental.”
This book contained several new ideas for me. One was that an explosion in the numbers of termites could occur from rising global temperatures. The logic goes like this. As temperatures rise, trees will be caught out of their climate zones and die. Termites will then move in and feast. Termites emit methane, like cows. So, global warming will be further fueled by methane from termites.
Also, methane ices are also expected to melt, releasing more methane.
And another reason not to engage in nuclear war: it would damage 30 to 70% of the ozone layer. (The ozone layer is what keeps us from being fried like toast.) And here, I was just worried about radiation poisoning.
McKibben also delivers the not so cheerful message that it is already too late:
“…scientists agree that we have already pumped enough gas into the air so that a significant rise in temperature and a subsequent shift in weather are inevitable.”
This 1989 book is dated. I found myself wishing I had a revised edition. One thing that did strike me as being very interesting primarily because I have a corn sensitivity and “corn” is one of those words that makes me stop and take notice was the following:
“Last fall, when American farmers finally harvested what corn crop there was and took it to the grain elevators, United States Department of Agriculture officials began to find a new trouble: corn samples from at least seven states—including Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, which grow close to have the nation’s crop—where found to be contaminated with aflatoxin, a fungus commonly found in topsoil. When overheated corn kernels crack, the mold rushes in. Aflatoxin is a potent carcinogen, known to cause liver cancer, and corn for human consumption can’t contain more than twenty parts per billion, while immature hogs are limited to a hundred parts per billion and mature cattle to three hundred.”
My dog had liver cancer. Dog food, like human food, is processed and has lots of corn in it. The animals we eat are fed high quantities of corn. I have to wonder if there is any connection, and also have to wonder if my dog was a canary in the coal mine, of sorts.
This book really picked up around the end when McKibben discusses genetic engineering. I have not kept up with the news items of this science even though I find them fascinating. And judging by what had already been accomplished by 1989, I am sure that my knowledge of what’s going on now is woefully out of date.
This is one of those areas where people are apt to say: This is complicated, you need to leave all this to the scientists. And to that I reply, since it has moral implications that can affect my family and me, I’m unwilling to do that. I believe that I have just as much right to think about and discuss these developments as I have a right to discuss rain and snow—and I’m not meteorologist. I am interested in the big picture. The picture of which I am a part. And it’s a gruesome picture indeed.
My tolerance for gruesomeness is kind of low, so I won’t get into vivid detail. Don’t get me wrong. McKibben doesn’t write anything that makes me want to close the book and walk away. This fairly long quote does a good job of explaining his point:
There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there. We like to imagine that we’ve already crossed a bridge or not yet come to it. Some people tend not to worry much about genetic engineering, for instance, because they think it’s an extension of traditional practices, such as selective breeding. But nature put definite limits on such activity: Mendel could cross two peas, but he couldn’t cross a pea with a pine, much less with pig, much less with a person. We could pen up chickens in atrocious batteries, but they still had heads. There were restraints, in other words—limits. And our understanding of what those limits were helped define nature in our minds. Such notions will quickly become quaint. The idea that nature—that anything—could be defined will soon be outdated. Because anything can be changed. A rabbit may be a rabbit for the moment, but tomorrow ‘rabbit’ will have no meaning. ‘Rabbit’ will be a few lines of code, no more important that a set of plans for a 1940 Ford…”
An this makes be think of the 2045 project:
“‘Eventually,’ says Stableford, ‘there may well be a complete breakdown in the distinction between living and nonliving—the boundaries between the two will be blurred and filled in by systems which involve both the machinery of life and the machinery of metal, plastic, and glass.'”
“It is the logical outcome of our defiant belief that we must forever dominate the world to our advantage as we have dominated it in the last hundred years.”
“The idea that the rest of creation might count for as much as we do is spectacularly foreign, even to most environmentalists.”
“Many of those who take the biocentric view are, of course, oddballs, the sort who would walk two thousand miles instead of flying.”
I’m not sure I see things quite the way that McKibben does. I am less likely to be so completely at odds with minor tweaks of our natural environment. But I too, would also hate to see an end of nature. Surrounded by mass plantings of monocultures and hiding from the cold in either my house or my car, I feel very disconnected from nature. Much more than I have in years. I am hesitant to say that nature does not exist any more in an unaltered form. I believe it still does in Idaho. But at least where I live, except for some raptors, coyotes, song birds, and deer, my view of nature seems largely diminished from where I grew up.
By Edith Wharton; @ 2012 by Vintage Books a Division of Random House; First published in 1911; 103 pages.
Oh my goodness. Shocking, simply shocking. Edith Wharton really knew how to create opposing characters. And nice twist at the end. I did not see that coming. Wow.
I had no idea what to expect with Ethan Frome. This is the first time I have read anything by Edith Wharton.
The story begins with the observance of what has happened to Ethan, a man who in our present is broken beyond all repair. We observe him in his fifties, and he is already an old man. Then we travel to his past to when he was 28 years old. He has lost his parents and has inherited the family farm but no money.
Ethan’s wife is Zeena. She is seven years older than he and hasn’t aged well. At 35, she already has false teeth! She exaggerates her health problems and isn’t pleasant to be around. Ethan is miserable. Then Ethan falls in love with Mattie, one of Zeena’s relatives who has fallen on hard times and has come to help care for Zeena and the housework.
Even though this novel was published 101 years ago, it is really readable. Not much has changed—it still seems much easier to feel sorry for the man who is mismatched than for the woman. I suppose that things were not too fun for Zeena either.
Edith Wharton was born into high society. I thought I saw a glimpse of this world view in the restrictions Edith places on Mattie, a seemingly vibrant and healthy young girl who could not sustain standing up as a store clerk all day. Since I have had the experience of working while standing all day, and while I didn’t like it one little bit, I felt this was an unworthy and perhaps an uneducated excuse for what happened as a result of this “impossibility.”
The ending was just chilling—a real testament to the choices that money gives or rather that the lack of money takes away.
By Haruki Murakami; Knopf, Random House; @ 2007; Translated by Philip Gabriel in 2008; 180 pages.
I recently went on a book binge. I was in the local used bookstore with my credit card and no supervision.
Murakami’s book was one of about seven or eight that called to me from the shelves: Hey, you, over here!
I read Murakami’s After Dark while I was in grad school, and though I loved his style, I didn’t really care for the story. Murakami’s best known work is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and I can’t wait to read it.
Before I go on, you should know that I do not run. Never have. Ever since I was a kid and was secondhand inhaling five packs of cigarettes a day, I have not been a runner.
But back to Murakami. I like this guy. He says most people don’t like him because he isn’t willing to compromise. That makes me like him even more. He’s in his late 50s as he writes this memoir. He says he started writing novels in his 30s. His secret? He runs every day, or at least every other day, and he runs a marathon once a year.
Murakami explains that solitude is a necessary part of his profession. That’s why he’s had to constantly keep his body in motion…”in order to heal the loneliness I feel inside and put it in perspective.”
Murakami doesn’t recommend that everyone run. It’s more important that people go at their own pace. If they are meant to run, they will. (If they are meant to write, they will.)
As he describes training for the New York City Marathon, he drops pearls of wisdom about writing. He says the most important qualities of a novelist are talent, focus, and endurance. A novelist has to focus for three or four hours every day for six months to two years. Running helps him maintain his endurance.
“Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest….with clear goals and fully alive….”
Murakami says that a lot of people in Japan seem to think that writing novels is an unhealthy activity—”that novelists are somewhat degenerate and have to live hazardous lives in order to write.” He says that it’s a widely held view that by living an unhealthy lifestyle, a writer can remove himself from the profane world and attain a kind of purity that has artistic value.”
Murakami says: “when we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not, a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it….”
I had a hard time understanding exactly what Murakami meant by that, but he goes on to say that it can be related to the fugu fish. The tastiest part is near the poison.
To create, a writer has to deal with the risks of becoming antisocial or decadent. The writer has to get the energy from somewhere to battle this. Murakami gets the energy from keeping his body strong. He says “an unhealthy soul requires a healthy body.”
He says that with older writers it’s harder to maintain the balance between imaginative power and the physical abilities that sustain it. When that happens, some writers commit suicide.
I’m not sure I agree with this entirely. I think that when writers open up their subconscious and remove those protective barriers to lost memories, feelings, etc., that what comes out can be so startling and overwhelming that they can fall into a clinical depression. The actual chemistry of their brains is affected to such an extent that they can’t handle it emotionally. Perhaps running provides a mechanism to cleanse the brain of the chemical toxins generated by introspection. Maybe vigorous exercise is needed to keep the brain healthy. Maybe, or maybe not.
Murakami says that some people think he’s obsessed. Hmm, marathons every year for 25 years and then completing a 62-mile race in one day? Maybe.
But there are worse things to be obsessed about. At least he balances his obsession for running with his obsession for writing. I felt sorry for him, not because he couldn’t reach the time he wanted to obtain, but because he seems to beat himself up about it. I think anyone capable of running a marathon in his late 50s and early 60s has nothing to be ashamed of, even if that little old lady did pass him up.
By Toni Morrison; Penguin Books USA @ 1973; 174 pages.
Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Sula is the tale of an independent young black woman who lived before World War II, roughly (1920-1941). The story revolves around her personality, her friendship with her childhood best friend, Nel, and around their town’s reaction to Sula’s independent attitude.
So how can one friend betray another? I think that’s the question here. The answer is disappointingly elusive, for both the betrayer and the one betrayed. It isn’t made any easier when the course of a whole life is at stake. Morrison asks the question of who truly is morally wrong or right. It’s common knowledge that your friend’s lover is off limits, especially if they mean nothing to you. Friends who break that rule are not friends. And yet, there remains that tie. When something significant happens, you want to tell your friend, but now, and forever, they are gone. They can’t hear you. Or, you realize that you no longer want to tell them anything. There is that absence. That terrible loss. That forever. And then, who do you miss, really?
This book was loaned to me by a friend at work who found out I was reading Beloved. My friend prefers Sula to Beloved, and I am just the opposite. And while I typically can’t stand notes in the margins of a book, I appreciated the marks of my friend, which have added quite a bit to my understanding of the story, for Sula is full of symbolism that I might have otherwise missed.
I love Toni Morrison. She is an excellent writer with tremendously creative ideas and an unflinching ability to write about those hard, messy areas of life. (A little depressing.) Here is a sample from Sula:
In the back of the wagon, supported by sacks of squash and hills of pumpkins, Shadrack began a struggle that was to last for twelve days, a struggle to order and focus experience. It had to do with making a place for fear as a way of controlling it. He knew the smell of death an was terrified by it, for he could not anticipate it. It was not death or dying that frightened him, but the unexpectedness of both. In sorting it all out, he hit on the notion that if one day a year were devoted to it, everybody could get it out of the way and the rest of the year would be safe and free. In this manner he instituted National Suicide Day.”
I was all fired up thinking that the story would be about National Suicide Day, but it wasn’t. Now that I write this, it seems bad that I was a wee bit disappointed, but what finally happened with this seemed to symbolize what can quickly and without any thought go terribly wrong.
By Arundhati Roy; Random House; @ 1997; 321 pages.
Do not give books that you have not read to friends, relatives, strangers, etc.
Don’t do it.
I could almost stop my little book report here. Literature, it seems, is a beautiful way to talk about horrible things. Take if from me, if you must give a book, give a book of jokes by Reader’s Digest.
I first became aware of the book The God of Small Things during a bout of insomnia. Flipping channels at 4 a.m., I landed on PBS and saw Arundhati Roy interviewed. I was so impressed by her that I became obsessed with buying her book.
Following my oh-so-flawed pattern, I purchased the book right away, but did not read it until now. And, so sure was I at how great this book would be that I bought a copy and gave it to an acquaintance/friend several months ago. (Curses/embarrassment.)
Arundhati writes her story using the omniscient narrator. This way she can tell us the thoughts and motivations of all of her characters. The story’s theme focuses on the Love Laws of India: “The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” This is all very foreign territory for me, since sadly I know next to nothing about India.
Of course, India is not the only country (or culture) that has taboos about love. We all do, and taboos are just that: taboo. It sounds like ewwww, and that’s what they are for us, big ewwwwws. Some taboos are larger than others. Some are no longer so taboo. Arundhati starts us out with taboos that are bad for Indian culture, but for Americans, eh, not so much. Her story becomes a gradient of taboos, introduced so gradually, you barely notice what’s happening, until you’re in her scene where her characters are in the theater watching The Sound of Music, and then blammo. Then it levels off for a while as you are fed information and are trying to figure out what exactly happened, for about 100 pages. The finale features a fireworks of taboos.
Arundhati is one of those authors who delivers hugely in the area of craft, and The God of Small Things could be read as much for the story as for the craft used to tell it. Information is portioned out, like strands of yarn. Strand by strand, she tells us about her characters’ problems. We’re too close to each strand to really understand what’s happening, until eventually everything is woven into place.
The story begins in Ayemenem, India, with Estha and Rahel, dizygotic (two-egg twins), who after a tragic turn of events are separated at the age of seven. Now at 30, Rahel has returned to India to find her brother Estha damaged, changed, broken. To know their story, we find out about their family members.
Their mother Ammu, for instance, made a terrible life-altering mistake and married the wrong man, thus forever ending her chances for societal-sanctioned love:
Ammu watched her husband’s mouth move as it formed words. She said nothing. He grew uncomfortable and then infuriated by her silence. Suddenly he lunged at her, grabbed her hair, punched her and then passed out from the effort. Ammu took down the heaviest book she could find in the bookshelf—The Reader’s Digest World Atlas—and hit him with it as hard as she could. On his head. His legs. His back and shoulders. When he regained consciousness, he was puzzled by his bruises. He apologized abjectly for the violence, but immediately began to badger her about helping him with his transfer. This fell into a pattern. Drunken violence followed by postdrunken badgering….”
Ammu divorces “the wrong man” and does the best she can. She loves her children terribly:
To Ammu, her twins seemed like a pair of small bewildered frogs engrossed in each other’s company, lolloping arm in arm down a highway full of hurtling traffic. Entirely oblivious of what trucks can do to frogs. Ammu watched over them fiercely. Her watchfulness stretched her, made her taut and tense. She was quick to reprimand her children, but even quicker to take offense on their behalf.”
Arundhati got off to a wonderful start. Her narrative style and the cadence of her words are poetic, but then from time to time she slaps us around with bad/vulgar words.
OK, I realize that bad words have their place. They can convey feeling, tone, loss of emotional and rational control, and social background. They are valuable. But when one is talking about something sensitive, smooth, and touching, and a four-letter word is tossed down, there’s a question. What exactly is the motivation behind this sudden jolt of cold water? Why this smack in the face? If that question can’t be answered in terms of advancing the plot (congruence with overall philosophy or tone isn’t enough), then I think the bad word needs to go. It’s too jarring.
This book, like a person who delivers sensitive information too soon, runs the risk of being cast aside. For me, the foreshadowing was so intense and offensive that I nearly closed the book forever; I nearly discarded the deftly crafted tale, the intricacies, and all the strands of information that would be eventually woven back together and understood. The story seemed like it might be too horrible to read; the characters too innocent; the demons too demonic; then Arundhati coaxes us back in. But don’t be fooled, she is determined to make her point.
Did I like the book? Yes and no. Would I read it again? Well, parts of it to help me with my own writing. (Arundhati is so tremendously talented.)
I won’t again ignorantly hand a book to someone based on the pretty flower/lily pad theme on the cover or the very charming PBS interview given by the author. Reading books with friends, like sharing art with friends, might not be my thing.
The God of Small Things was wonderful in so many ways, I hate to say anything bad about it. Still, it wasn’t the book for me. I wanted something else from this book; I wanted a closer connection to at least one of the characters, and yet, I thought it was very well done.
It was interesting in the end to know that The God of Small Things is The God of Loss.
By Nien Cheng; Grove Press, New York, @1986; 544 pages.
Life and Death in Shanghai is wonderful—outstanding. Over and over, it made me ask: how could this happen? and Could this happen again?
Life and Death in Shanghai is an account of the Cultural Revolution that took place in China under Chairman Mao. It opens on a summer evening in 1966 when the author, Nien Cheng, is summoned to attend a struggle meeting. A large crowd of her former coworkers has been assembled to struggle against one of her former colleagues from Shell. Since Shell was a foreign firm that had operations in China and because during the Cultural Revolution all things foreign were deemed against the state, anyone who had worked for such a company was automatically suspected of espionage, or so it seemed.
What in fact was going on was a struggle within the Communist Party in China, with people serving as pawns.
As the revolution progressed, everything that reminded the leadership of the old ways was under attack. Art was destroyed; books were destroyed; possessions were confiscated; people who had any educational training were deemed enemies of the state; anyone who could be considered a capitalist was under attack.
Nein Cheng, soon after attending her first struggle meeting, was visited by the Red Guard. The Red Guard amounted to a gang of young people who went house to house and ransacked, pillaged, confiscated, and destroyed.
Not too long after this event, Nien herself was seized and taken to a prison for political prisoners. Armed only with the advice to never give a false confession, her intellect, and her will to survive, Nein endured 6 1/2 years in solitary confinement, subject to temperature extremes, medical emergencies, and torture.
As I read this book, I was stunned by the character of its author, Nien Cheng. Through all that she had to endure, she is the most self-assured personality I have ever encountered. She comes to conclusions about her surroundings and the people who populate her life without question, without any kind of self-reproach or self-doubt. I am amazed. I wish I could have known this woman. To have met her would have been an honor.
Even though English was Nien Cheng’s second language, this book is effortless to read. She has great skill for the craft of writing. I looked, and I don’t think that she wrote anything else. It’s a real pity.
I bought this book on a whim for $3. In it I learned more about courage and perseverance and honesty than I think I have in any other place. Even after she was released from prison, she remained under the watchful eye of the party. Nearly everyone who came in contact with her had an agenda and sought to trick her into saying something that could send her back to jail.
For all the trouble they went to, I found myself often wondering, why they didn’t just make up a lie? Why go to the trouble of baiting her to say something against the party and then becoming disgruntled because she didn’t?
Maybe I’m revealing my Western way of thinking here. But for a system that wasn’t above torture and trickery, why were certain lies off limits?
There is so much in this book. It is probably one of the best books I have ever read. I highly recommend it.
By Chuck Palahniuk; W W Norton & Company; @ 1996; 218 pages.
Call me a child of the short attention span generation, but 218 pages is about as long as I like my novels to be. I get the experience, and it ends at about the time I want it to.
This is a book club book for me. I voted for the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami but didn’t get my way. That’s OK—it’s a lot longer—Fight Club was my second choice. I’d seen the movie, but it’s been years.
I’ve read Palahniuk before—he’s a Northwest writer, revered by the students in my writing classes when I was in school. The only other book I’ve read by him was Rant. How do I describe Rant? Hmm, “insane” is the first word that comes to mind. The second is “creative.” It’s been my experience that Palahniuk is edgy. He makes me a little uncomfortable. At the same time, I’m impressed by his imagination and delivery. He’s definitely a writer who stands out.
Fight Club begins very near the end with the protagonist losing all his worldly possessions. I like this structure. It definitely sustained my interest.
“The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.”
That’s also the second rule.
Our protagonist has a severe sleeping disorder. Until he found fight club through a friend, he was visiting various support groups. This is an example of Palahniuk’s extraordinary (twisted?) creativity, so for anyone who hasn’t read him, I’ll stop there.
As our protagonist incorporates fight club into his schedule, his life view changes:
“Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer….Maybe self-destruction is the answer.”
“You aren’t alive anywhere like you’re alive at fight club. When it’s you and one other guy under that one light in the middle of all those watching. Fight club isn’t about winning or losing fights. Fight club isn’t about words. You see a guy come to fight club for the first time, and his ass is a loaf of white bread. You see this guy here six months later, and he looks carved out of wood. This guy trusts himself to handle anything. There’s grunting and noise at fight club like at the gym, but fight club isn’t about looking good. There’s hysterical shouting in tongues like at church, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved.”
I thought our protagonist’s relationship with Marla, the woman who stole his support groups, was hilarious (-ly dark). Very funny.
Marla and his friend Tyler become lovers, further irritating our protagonist.
“’If you lose your nerve before you hit bottom,’ Tyler says, ‘you’ll never really succeed.’
Only after disaster can we be resurrected.
‘It’s only after you’ve lost everything,’ Tyler says, ‘that you’re free to do anything.’”
I love Palahniuk’s pacing, part of which is accomplished by random haikus. (5,7,5)
Flowers bloom and die
Wind brings butterflies or snow
A stone won’t notice
Fight Club started as a short story “just an experiment to kill a slow afternoon at work.” (The original story is chapter 6 of the book.) Palahniuk says he was just writing The Great Gatsby updated a bit. He needed a technique. “Instead of walking a character from scene to scene in a story, there had to be some way to just—cut, cut, cut. To jump. From scene to scene. Without losing the reader. To show every aspect of a story, but only the kernel of each aspect. The core moment. Then another core moment. Then, another.”
By Katharine Graham; @ 1997; Vintage Books, a Division of Random House; 625 pages.
This is the story of Katharine Meyer Graham (1917–2001), the woman who led The Washington Post as its publisher for more than two decades. Personal History is her autobiograhy and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. It is also a history of The Washington Post, the newspaper that shaped the course of Katharine’s life.
Katharine writes in an incredibly straightforward, self-confident style. Reading her makes me think anything is possible with a little organization and planning.
Katharine begins by telling about her parents, who they were and how they met, and how her father acquired his vast fortune. Graham grew up fabulously rich, but she says she never knew she was rich. While her family owned vast assets, property, and huge houses, she and her siblings were not showered with lavish toys or clothes. They seemed to grow up without parents, as they were raised by governesses while their parents attended to business and social matters.
Katharine’s father, Eugene Meyer, was a very powerful man and during the Great Depression was appointed by President Hoover to be governor of the Federal Reserve Board. He guided the banking policies of the United States both domestically and abroad from 1930 to 1933. He was also the first president of the World Bank, serving for 6 months in 1946. (She never explains how he shielded or held onto his wealth during this time when the average American was losing everything. That would have been very interesting.)
In 1933 Meyer bought The Washington Post. He had attempted to buy The Post at an earlier time for $5 million and had failed, but during the Depression sale, he was able to anonymously bid and win The Post for $825,000. Knowing nothing about the newspaper business, Meyer stepped in and turned the failing paper around, transforming it into the prestigous paper it is today. A republican in political ideology, Eugene Meyer made it his goal to run an independent nonpartisan paper. To this end, he outlined and followed seven principles:
That the first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.
That the newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world;
That as a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman;
That what it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as for the old;
That the newpaper’s duty it to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owner;
That in the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifice of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good;
That the newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.
What great principles/aspirations for a newspaper! (Though not completely followed by his son-in-law, we find out later.)
Just like the other books I’ve been reading and writing about, I am paying particular attention to what I can apply to my own writing. Katharine does a great job at reflection. After she shares an incident in her life, she tells us how she felt, why she thought things happened as they did, and what impact they had on her at the time or on her or others moving forward. Anyone struggling with this part of memoir writing should study this book.
I also noticed that the fact that Katharine was born wealthy diminishes my level of sympathy for her. And I think anyone who sets out to write a memoir should be aware of this factor. Maybe it is human nature to want our heros (protagonists) to have truly earned their hero status; we want to know that they have suffered. This is harder to get that across when all basic needs are met with abundance from the beginning.
But I do feel sympathy for Katharine. The fact that her parents were absent during most of her childhood lend greatly to this—her difficult relationship with her self-absorbed mother, her distant relationship with her wildly successful father all help to build my sympathy. The fact that she is so humble as she tells her story and that she tells us about her self doubt. The fact that she wasn’t incredibly beautiful and didn’t simply get by on her looks. It helps too, that she really did master the skill of writing as evidenced by her career and her autobiography. She is able to laugh at herself in several places.
One example is when Katharine humourously critiques herself as a mother: “One week when she [the nanny] was away, Donny fell out of his crib because I had left the side down, and out of his swing while I was weeding the yard. He ended up looking like Donald Duck, with his swollen upper lip sticking out an inch. That was the same week I put the nipples for his bottles on to boil and forgot them while I took time out to call people for a party. When the smell of burning alerted me, I found flames a foot high shooting out of the pan, threw it into the sink to put out the fire, and turned the water on, only to have the pot explode glass all over the place. I couldn’t help wondering how the children would fare if I took care of them all the time.”
Also funny is her comparison of childbirth to moving.
Katharine lived through the time in our country where women were expected to put their husbands and their families before themselves, all the time, and it appears that she did this. When her father handed over the management of The Washington Post to her husband, Phil, Katharine said she knew a man was needed to run the publication. It never occurred to her that she had been passed over. And even with all the cushion of her wealth, the values and expectations of the time didn’t sheild her from the average woman’s martial experience: “It was typical of our marital relationship that Phil conceived the idea of a country house for summers and weekends, and I did the actual work.”
And while that statement seems slightly bitter, on the whole, Katharine’s account of her husband is very loving and gentle. Looking back on her life, Katharine discovers the clues of her husband’s depression, clues she wishes she had understood better at the time. She says that because she had very little knowledge of the disease that she didn’t make the best choices to deal with it. And certainly in the whirlwind of their lives, with their relationships with people like Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy, the social pressures must have been enormous for both Katharine and Phil.
For someone like me, who does not have massive wealth at her disposal, it does seem that a different life could have been had. Unbridled ambition and haunting self doubt seem to have been Phil’s undoing. But who am I to say. If I were rubbing elbows of the President of the United States and in a position to influence the course of our nation, I’m sure I could be tempted by this trap as well.
I marvel at how kind Katharine remained toward Phil, even after he lost complete control of his manic depressive disorder and even after he had a very open affair during which he wanted to divorce her. When Phil wanted to come back, she accepted him without hesitation, even with all the hurt, even knowing what his future bouts might bring. Even so, she hadn’t guessed that he would commit suicide as soon as he had the opportunity. But Phil, I guess, in realizing the enormity of his depression and his utter inability to control it fell into extreme hopelessness. That, coupled with his very public affair which he finally came to realize had hurt the woman who had given him everything, his whole identity at the Post. The fact of these two insolvable problems plus the weight of the depression must have led him to the conclusion that there was only one way out.
Not to appear unsympathetic, but this part made me think of William Styron’s Darkness Visible, in which he says that even with all the pain of depression, the one thing that kept him from committing suicide was that he couldn’t bare what it would do to his family when they found him. For Phil, this doesn’t seem to have been a consideration. He shot himself in their bathroom.
After Phil died, Katharine decided to run The Washington Post. Having grown up with the paper and having watched both her father and husband build it up, she felt she had no other choice. She had hardly worked a day in her life in the business world and recounted that she had much to learn. Her endless questions annoyed some of the people she would rather have befriended, but she perservered.
And it’s a good thing she did because life for Katharine Graham only got better. She recounts tales from this exciting new adventure of active participation in the publishing of the Post. Here is one example of her relationship with LBJ:
“As he was yelling at me, he started to undress, flinging his clothes off onto a chair and the floor—his coat, his tie, his shirt. Finally, he was down to his pants. I was frozen with dismay and baffled about what to do. I remember thinking to myself: This can’t be me being bawled out by the president of the United States while he’s undressing. Suddenly he bellowed, ‘Turn around!’ I did so obediently and gratefully…”
Katharine tells about the Nixon years, The Post’s role in Watergate, the changes in the roles of women over her lifetime, her friendship with Warren Buffett, and the union strike at TheWashington Post. It’s wonderful to see how strong and confident she became once she became publisher of The Washington Post. It’s sad too to think that neither her father nor her husband had any inkling that she could do it. It just goes to show that you should never let anyone judge you or what you can do.
Katharine answers the necessary memoir question of “why am I writing this” towards the end. She has several reasons, but the one that stands out for me is that she hoped to gain some understanding “of how people are formed by the way they grow up and are further molded by the way they spend their days.”
By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; @1943; 101 pages.
I read The Little Prince when I was a child—and hated it. The boa constrictor swallowing the elephant put me off on page one. I got really caught up on the plight of that elephant. How cruel to have him swallowed on the first page. We need to get him out. Now!
I was too young for this book. I remember that I argued with everything the author presented. Was I a horrible child?
The best excuse I can offer is that my mother raised me on her own. With suitors coming and going, I developed a keen suspicion of any attempt to gain my trust or good will. So when Saint-Exupéry tries to identify with me on kid terms, explaining that he sees things like I do, that he’s writing from a child’s point of view (and certainly not in agreement with the often erring adults), he lost me. I was on to him. What was next? Was he going to grab me by my ankles and toss me into the air repeatedly until I socked him in the jaw?
Since then, a couple of people have said this is their favorite book—of all time!
My silent response has been: really???? But when someone identifies a favorite book or author, I tend to notice. I have to know why.
So I purchased The Little Prince through iTunes and read it on my iPod.
As an adult, the first thing I notice, oddly enough, is a number: 1943. This was the date of the book’s first publication and an important number for me.
The story goes something like this. The little prince has left his home planet, which is very small. There was a unique flower there that somehow went to his planet as a seed and grew there, but she was foreign to that planet.
She was very vain and had all sorts of requirements. The prince grew weary with her and disillusioned and decided to leave the planet and her forever. As he left, she admitted that she loved him. She said it was her fault for never letting him know. (Had he ever told her about his feelings for her?)
The prince then travels to other planets. On one of them, he finds a lonely king. I suppose the king’s planet is also pretty small and he is glad to finally have a subject, our little prince. To get the prince to stay with him, the king offers the prince a position as a minister of justice. The prince points out that there is no one to judge, since the king is the only person on his planet. The king offers that the prince can judge himself. That’s the hardest person to judge anyway. But the prince says he can judge himself anywhere. He doesn’t need to live on the planet with the king.
Well, well! the king said. “I have good reason to believe that there is an old rat living somewhere on my planet. I hear him at night. You could judge that old rat. From time to time you will condemn him to death. That way his life will depend on your justice. But you’ll pardon him each time for economy’s sake. There’s only one rat.
Then the little prince visits Earth. He lands in the desert. When asked why he came, he answers that he was having trouble with a flower. He is lonely and wanders upon a fox. The little prince wants to know if the fox will be his friend. The fox says no because he’s not tamed.
“For me you’re only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you have no need of me, either. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you…”
“…The only things you learn are the things you tame,” said the fox. “People haven’t time to learn anything. They buy things ready-made in stores. But since there are no stores where you can buy friends, tame me!”
Then the fox says this: “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
A long time ago a French girl informed me that the young man I liked so much was “wild.” This was such an odd idea for me. What did she mean? He must have liked her quite a bit because he often hung around with her. Even to my jealous eye, I couldn’t see why. And here she knew this detail about him that I had never guessed, that he was wild. Did she mean that he formed no ties? That he was not in the habit of taking on responsibilities? That he would have no friends?
“What makes the desert beautiful is that it hides a well somewhere…”
“…whether it’s a house [and it’s hidden treasure], the stars [the lost flower], or the desert [the hidden well], what makes them beautiful is invisible!”
And then: “you risk tears if you let yourself be tamed.”
It’s really odd, but I get the meaning of this book in a way I never had before. The little prince will return to the stars, but because he won’t point out which star he is returning to, his friend (our narrator) will forever find significance in all the stars. Every star will remind him of the little prince, just as every visitor from England reminds me of one particular friend and every smart ass remark reminds me of another.
[Saint-Exupéry wrote several successful novels, including Night Flight; Wind, Sand, and Stars; Flight to Arras; and Letter to a Hostage. He was a pilot and flew missions in World War II. In July of 1944, he set out to fly over occupied France. He never returned.]
By Nick Flynn @ 2004 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.; 347 pages.
An estimated 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States in a given year. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, gives us insight into that way of life.
This is the story of Nick Flynn, a caseworker at a homeless shelter in Boston, who wound up running into his estranged father as one of his “customers.” This book is the recipient of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Memoir and was on the list of books I was encouraged to read in grad school.
Flynn’s memoir is very well written and at times is poetic. He does a wonderful job creating scenes and reflecting. His pacing is good. Timing is good. Structure—good.
Flynn as the protagonist is a sympathetic character. I respect his ability to hold it together during these difficult times and I also respect his literary accomplishment. I can relate to the internal turmoil he feels about a parent who doesn’t always do as society expects.
I’m not sure I understand why Flynn didn’t offer his father a place to live—with Flynn. At the same time, I feel like I should understand this, knowing how hard it would be for me to live with either of my parents. All the same, with the stakes so high, I’m not sure how I would react given a similar situation.
Mental illness is a tough one, not to be taken lightly, not to be passed on. It’s hard to admit it when someone you love is afflicted. Intelligence offers no immunity, and surprisingly, increases the risk.
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is an honest, brave examination of a very difficult and complex family situation. I’ll be keeping it close, trying to learn from it. I recommend it to anyone who has their own parental problems (few of us don’t) and/or wants to learn the craft of memoir.
By Hunter S. Thompson; Vintage Books; @1971; 204 pages.
Since I’m soon to be off to Las Vegas to see my father on Father’s Day—and to experience this iconic city, I thought it would be appropriate to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I’ve heard about this book (and movie) for years, but somehow never got around to it, sort of how I never got around to Las Vegas.
Like Thompson, I am in search of the American Dream. I want to know what the American Dream means to me.
Hunter S. Thompson (and Jack Kerouac) would have us believe that the American Dream is about taking what you can get. There is an absence of responsibility and a love of indulgence. (Look at Las Vegas—enormous fountains of water in the desert dancing with lights.)
If the drug culture scene bothers you, don’t read this book.
So, on a sleepy Sunday morning (cue Johnny Cash music which might have been appropriate but was never referenced in the book), while the cold Spring wind whips through the trees and cancels out any warmth the sun could possibly offer, the following paragraph, the first paragraph in fact, makes me chuckle:
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.
Our protagonist, Raoul Duke, is on his way to Las Vegas to write a news story about the Mint 400, “the richest off-the-road race for motorcycles and dune-buggies in the history of organized sport.”
I won’t give the details of what was in the trunk of his car. Suffice it to say that he and his attorney were very thorough:
The only way to prepare for a trip like this, I felt, was to dress up like human peacocks and get crazy, then screech off across the desert and cover the story.
From there the story descends into drug-addled mischief. I thought the part about the hitchhiker was outstanding. The voice of the novel was strong. Whereas Keroac really put me off with his irresponsibility, with Thompson, it’s somehow forgivable, understandable, and endearing. I think this is because throughout the book, there is the thread of personal reflection that this might not really be the best way to behave, but since he has chosen this path, he’s going to do his best—to excel. The guy is an overachiever in this realm. Maybe that’s what I like. He’s no slacker once he’s chosen his course.
By the end of the book, Raoul Duke has broken every Vegas rule: burning the locals, abusing the tourists, and terrifying the help.
Except for the strength of the narrator’s voice, I don’t see much reason to read this book. It was ok, but that’s not quite enough these days.
I’m not sure this book got me much closer to the American Dream; I don’t really have that much hope for Vegas either, but maybe. Here’s a quote from the end of the book that I thought would be interesting to ponder, or come back to:
…This was the fatal flaw of Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously….But their [acid freaks] loss and failure is ours, too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create…a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.
In the middle of reading the book, I watched the movie. Even though I enjoyed Johnny Depp’s performance, I don’t recommend the movie. The book somehow was less offensive.
Anna Karenina is an 817-page study of the consequences of adultery. But it isn’t just about adultery; it’s also social commentary on everything from marriage, maternal love, having children, the education of the workers, farming practices, faith, and the moral implications of not actually working for a living. It’s about human relationships, love, birth, and death. Tolstoy forces us to look at Anna, the adulteress, as a person. He keeps us from judging her out of hand. He shows us the terrible consequences of choosing security over love and then again of choosing love over security. And he shows us all the jealousy, insecurity, and fickleness involved in human relationships.
Anna Karenina is set against the backdrop of the Russian aristocracy in the 1800s. Tolstoy provides great insights into human nature that ring true even today, more than 100 years later. He explains that some adulterous liaisons were excused by society while others were not.
The story is wonderfully crafted (for the most part—I felt like the ending was tacked on) and easy to read. None of the explicit details are given that modern readers are accustomed to. It’s all very classy. Tolstoy very subtly gets the point across on page 149, saying simply “…this desire had been satisfied.” With the romance out of the way early on, let the tortuous tale begin.
Count Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 on the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana in the Tula province of Russia. He studied oriental languages and law but did not complete a degree. He faught in the Crimean War and afterwards wrote Sevastopol Sketches in 1855. He married at the age of 34 to Sofya Andreyevna Behrs, and together they had thirteen children. For much of his life, Tolstoy was active in efforts to educate and emancipate the serfs. His most well known novels are War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karinina (1877).
Anna Karenina is a novel written in eight parts and told through the omniscient narrator. With this format, Tolstoy is able to explore the thoughts and motivations of all his characters. The story begins in Moscow, Russia. Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky’s affair with a former French governess has been found out by his wife, Dolly. Stepan’s married sister, Anna Karenina, who lives in St. Petersburg has been summoned to his house to console his wife and put their marriage back together. Meanwhile, Stepan has two friends, Konstantin Dmitrych Levin and Count Alexei Krillovich Vronsky, who are rival suitors for the same young lady, Kitty Tcherbatsky. Kitty is Dolly’s sister.
(Confused? You won’t be once you get going.) To get it all started, Tolstoy puts Vronsky’s mother and Anna Karenina in the same train car to Moscow from Petersburg.
The biggest problem for the western reader not used to Russian naming conventions is keeping track of the names and nicknames. If you can get that straight, this novel is smooth sailing. The translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, have done a fantastic job.
The first thing that struck me about the story was how unfair Stepan Arkadyich’s (Prince Oblonsky’s) view of his wife, Dolly, was.
He could not be repentant that he, a thirty-four-year-old, handsome, amorous man, did not feel amorous with his wife, the mother of five living and two dead children, who was only a year younger than he.
So this guy is older than his wife, and yet she is too old for him, now that she has “done her womanly duty” and given him seven children!
It even seemed to him that she, a worn-out, aged, no longer beautiful woman, not remarkable for anything, simple, merely a kind mother of a family, ought in all fairness to be indulgent.
Oblonsky’s friend Konstantin Levin, seems the opposite of the other men in this story. Tolstoy described Levin’s love for eighteen-year-old Kitty in a very charming way:
He [Levin] knew she was there by the joy and fear that overwhelmed his heart. She stood at the other end of the rink, talking to a lady. There seemed to be nothing very special in her dress, nor in her pose; but for Levin she was as easy to recognize in a crowd as a rose among nettles.
I love this too for being such an accurate description of love, or I suppose, of infatuation:
He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.
Tolstoy writes about the younger generation rebelling against the norms of the older generation. The previous generation had consented to having their marriages arranged by their parents. This generation was moving away from that practice. More and more young people were arranging their own marriages. To that end, I love this description of Kitty’s mother’s feelings on the topic:
And however much the princess [Kitty’s mother] was assured that in our time young people themselves must settle their fate, she was unable to believe it, as she would have been unable to believe that in anyone’s time the best toys for five-year-old children would be loaded pistols.
And yet, Kitty’s mother’s interference caused much grief.
This novel turns around the love affair that develops between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky. It must have been shocking reading indeed, for not only is Anna married to man with whom she has a son, it also seems that she might be older than Count Vronsky. Tolstoy illustrated for us from the beginning how Russian society viewed wives who were even slightly younger than their husbands—as unattractive throwaways who should be understanding of their diminishing status. I love how he pushes this social value when he sets up Anna with Vronsky.
Early on, we suspect that Anna may be getting in over her head as Vronsky’s views of love are a bit liberal even by today’s standards:
In his Petersburg world, all people were divided into two completely opposite sorts. One was the inferior sort: the banal, stupid, and above all, ridiculous people who believed that one husband should live with one wife, whom he has married in church, that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, a man manly, temperate and firm, that one should raise children, earn one’s bread, pay one’s debts, and other such stupidities. This was an old-fashioned and ridiculous sort of people. But there was another sort of people, the real ones, to which they all belonged, and for whom one had, above all, to be elegant, handsome, magnanimous, bold, gay, to give oneself to every passion without blushing and laugh at everything else.
And this is Vronsky’s friend’s opinion of why people get married:
For this there exists one means of loving conveniently, without hindrance—that is marriage…it’s as if you’re carrying a fardeau (burden) and doing something with your hands is only possible if the fardeau is tied to your back—and that is marriage. And I felt it once I got married. I suddenly had my hands free. But dragging this fardeau around without marriage—that will make your hands so full that you won’t be able to do anything.
Anna’s husband is onto her straying feelings immediately. Tolstoy is wonderfully wise about this:
She [Anna] looked at him [her husband], so gaily, that no one who did not know her as her husband did could have noticed anything unnatural either in the sound or in the meaning of her words. But for him who knew her, who knew that when he went to bed five minutes late, she noticed it and asked the reason, who knew that she told him at once her every joy, happiness, or grief—for him it meant a great deal to see now that she did not want to notice his state or say a word about herself. He saw that the depth of her soul, formerly always open to him, was now closed to him.
Anna’s husband, Alexei Alexandrovich, is twenty years older than she. He doesn’t seem capable of passionate love, but we see that he does love her. He would rather ignore the whole thing, save his reputation, and keep Anna as his wife. One can see that they are fundamentally a bad match. Alexei, with all his flaws, eventually becomes a sympathetic character, at least to me.
He felt that he could not divert people’s hatred from himself, because the reason for that hatred was not that he was bad (then he could have tried to be better), but that he was shamefully and repulsively unhappy. For that, for the very fact that his heart was wounded, they would be merciless towards him; people would destroy him, as dogs kill a wounded dog howling with pain.
As much as this story is about Anna Karenina and her love affair with Count Vronsky, it is also the story of Konstatin Dmitryich Levin and his love for Kitty Tcherbatsky. Levin seems to symbolize all that is good in men. He lives in the country, mows the grass with a scythe along with the muzhiks, and wants nothing more than to have a loving family. He is also a good tool for Tolstoy’s exploration of the pros and cons of the education of the muzhiks and the rise of a working class.
One really big hole in the story, for me, was the absence of Levin’s reaction to Anna’s death. He has only met her once, but his awareness of Count Vronsky has been high throughout the story. He was charmed by Anna when he met her. It seems really odd that we don’t get Levin’s take on either Anna or Vronsky at the end of the story. Levin becomes consumed with the idea of death and the meaning of life. One can infer that this is one of the consequences from Anna’s death, but with the omniscient narrator, it seems that Tolstoy missed a big opportunity to draw the whole thing together.
At the end, we also get insights into faith. Levin is not a believer at the beginning of the story. His view of the universe and how it operates could be summed up as follows:
In infinite time, in the infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble-organism separates itself, and that bubble holds out for a while and then bursts, and that bubble is—me.
But later, he has an epiphany. People must live for goodness, live for the soul, and that goodness is revealed by God.
If the good has a cause, it is no longer the good; if it has a consequence—a reward—it is also not the good. Therefore the good is outside the chain of cause and effect.
He also makes the argument that faith and love are outside the bounds of reason.
Yes, what I know, I do not know by reason, it is given to me, it is revealed to me, and I know it by my heart, by faith in that main thing that the Church confesses.
…faith in God, in the good, as the sole purpose of man.
At over 800 pages, I was prepared to trudge through this novel. It was quite a relief to find it so engaging. I came away from this book wanting to throw out all my Russian novels and re-buy them as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They did a brilliant job.
I read this a while back when it first came out, and thought it was ok—I don’t think I was awakened. I opened it up again to see if maybe this time would be different.
The first thing that surprised me was how fast I zipped through it. I can’t pinpoint where the content was particularly compelling, but one word seamlessly led to another and away I went!
Toward the beginning, Tolle says that mankind is in the process of awakening. This book isn’t meant to convince, it’s meant to awaken.
You cannot fight against the ego and win, just as you cannot fight against darkness. The light of consciousness is all that is necessary. You are that light.
[I’m feeling better already.]
Tolle gets my attention when he says this: “The first part of that truth is the realization that the ‘normal’ state of mind of most human beings contains a strong element of what we might call dysfunction or even madness.”
He goes on to say: “Certain teachings at the heart of Hinduism perhaps come closest to seeing this dysfunction as a form of collective mental illness. They call it maya, the veil of delusion.”
“According to Buddha, the human mind in its normal state generates dukkha [not to be confused with dookie—my words, not his, but still fitting, I think], which can be translated as suffering, unsatisfactoriness, or just plain misery.”
The great Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi, says: “The mind is maya.”
[My mind is maya.]
Tolle says that “sin” is a word that is greatly misunderstood. “Literally translated from the ancient Greek in which the New Testament was written, to sin means to miss the mark, as an archer who misses the target, so to sin means to miss the point of human existence. It means to live unskillfully, blindly, and thus to suffer and cause suffering.
Science and technology have magnified the destructive impact that the dysfunction, that collective insanity, can be most clearly recognized. A further factor is that this dysfunction is actually intensifying and accelerating.
Another aspect of the collective dysfunction of the human mind is the unprecedented violence that humans are inflicting on other life forms and the planet itself—the destruction of oxygen-producing forests and other plant and animal life; ill-treatment of animals in factory farms; and poisoning of rivers, oceans, and air. Driven by greed, ignorant of their connectedness to the whole, humans persist in behavior that, if continued unchecked, can only result in their own destruction.
In our destruction. I like how Tolle sets himself apart: “in their own destruction.” Almost out of harm’s way.
Tolle says: “If the history of humanity were the clinical case history of a single human being, the diagnosis would have to be: chronic paranoid delusions, a pathological propensity to commit murder and acts of extreme violence and cruelty against his perceived ‘enemies’ —his own unconsciousness projected outward.”
Who is this Tolle guy anyway?
The back of the book says he is a contemporary spiritual teacher who travels extensively. The inside cover doesn’t reveal much more. An enigma, I suppose. Is “traveling extensively” credential enough to diagnose the collective of humanity with insanity? Sure, I was thinking it too, but I’m just a wabbit who has only traveled marginally.
Reading on…Gautama Siddharth (Buddha) is said to be the first to come to this conclusion, 2,600 years ago in India. Or, maybe it was China’s Lao Tzu, author of Tao Te Ching.
I admit, I’m liking Tolle. He doesn’t hide behind “culture” to excuse suffering. He is a proponent of self evaluation and change.
He says that through organized religions, people “could make themselves ‘right’ and others ‘wrong’ and thus define their identity through their enemies, the ‘others,’ the ‘nonbelievers’ or the ‘wrong believers’ who not infrequently they saw themselves justified in killing.”
A dim little light came on for me when I read the following paragraph:
He [Jean-Paul Sartre] looked at Descartes’ statement “I think, therefore I am” very deeply and suddenly realized, in his own words, “The consciousness that says ‘I am’ is not the consciousness that thinks.” What did he mean by that? When you are aware that you are thinking, that awareness is not part of thinking. It is a different dimension of consciousness. And it is that awareness that says “I am.” If there were nothing but thought in you, you wouldn’t even know you are thinking. You would be like a dreamer who doesn’t know he’s dreaming. You as identified with every thought as the dreamer is with every image in the dream. Many people still live like that, like sleepwalkers, trapped in old dysfunctional mind-sets that continuously re-create the same nightmarish reality. When you know you are dreaming, you are awake within the dream. Another dimension of consciousness has come in.
Tolle explains that complaining works to strengthen the ego (not a good thing) and when someone or something is wrong and you recognize that, it makes you feel you are right. Tolle echos the ideas expressed by Dostoevsky when he says that “by far the greater part of violence that humans have inflicted on each other is not the work of criminals or the mentally deranged, but of normal, respectable citizens in the service of the collective ego.”
Here “normal” equates to “insane.” And what lies at the root of insanity? “Complete identification with thought and emotion, that is to say, ego.”
While reading this, I continue to think back to my questions regarding the economy of New Guinea and how it was disrupted by discovery by the outside world in the book Lost in Shangri-La. My question was, and is, is war really necessary? Economically? Also, I can’t help but think about recent news events. The two brothers who devastated so many lives in Boston, but also ruined their own. And for what? For ego? In the service of their unconscious pain body? What could they have hoped to accomplish with that act? It makes no sense to me. I see the face of that 19 year old and my heart goes out to his parents, and yes, to him as well. What happened? I want so much to think he didn’t do it and we have convicted him too soon (outside the courts), but then if it wasn’t him, it was someone. Someone did this. But why? And how?
Tolle has this to offer:
A collective ego manifests the same characteristics as the personal ego, such as the need for conflict and enemies, the need for more, the need to be right against others who are wrong, and so on. Sooner or later, the collective will come into conflict with other collectives, because it unconsciously seeks conflict and it needs opposition to define its boundary and thus its identity.
Tolle’s discussion of the pain body and how it feeds the ego is interesting. I think I struggle with some of this stuff. I liked and identified with what he had to say about time:
Time is what the ego lives on. The stronger the ego, the more time takes over your life. Almost every thought you think is then concerned with past or future, and your sense of self depends on the past for your identity and on the future for its fulfillment.
The main way to disable the ego, according to Tolle, is to accept what is and what comes, regardless of whether your reaction makes a judgement of good or bad. Since the ego identifies with stuff, it would also seem that cutting back on one’s belongings might help. But Tolle doesn’t say this. It’s just my idea.
As I read Tolle, I slip into a reverie of what life might be like to live closer to nature, with significantly fewer belongings and significantly fewer obligations. Would my world be enlarged or depleted? And my ego?
To awaken from the dream is our purpose now. When we are awake within the dream, the ego-created earthdrama comes to an end and the more benign and wondrous dream arises. This is the new earth.
This is a lot for my Western mind to take in. But if I understand Tolle correctly, the idea is to be present in each moment. Experience “now,” no matter what is happening now. Right now, you are reading my blog. There is a strange temporal relationship between my thoughts and yours. I am communicating with you from the past. You are reading my thoughts in your now. I am thinking about your actions and reactions in my future.
When I picked up this book, I came to it with the assumption that everyone’s life purpose is different. But not so per Tolle. Everyone has the same internal purpose in life—that is to awaken. Awakening means to be able to distinguish between the constant inner dialog we all experience—thoughts—and ourselves as the thinkers. Basically, we are not our thoughts. If your purpose is anything other than that, it will be thwarted by time and will eventually result in sadness.
So, curing cancer, ending poverty, building a fortune—anything of that nature no matter how altruistic, is the work of the ego. Anything you are doing in the present moment is your purpose, even if you’re sharpening a pencil. When you move on to something else, that will be your external purpose. And so forth. The point is to be conscious of what you are as you do whatever it is. Tolle says that whatever you do you should do it in a state of acceptance, enthusiasm, or enjoyment; otherwise, stop doing it.
I recommend this book for anyone having a problem with excess seriousness. It’s a lot of food for thought. I’m not sure I got it all. When I was in college and having a rough day, I would often go to a certain fountain and stare at the water. My mind would clear and peace would descend. Sort of like a serving of broccoli, everyone probably needs a serving of peace, so many grams a day.
By Sergei Dovlatov; Translated by Anne Frydman; Russian edition @1982; English edition @1984; My edition @2011; Counterpoint Press; 182 pages.
Perhaps Dovlatov is the Soviet version of George Carlin, sans the vulgar tirades and the four letter words.
Here is the introductory statement by the author:
The names, events, and dates given here are all real. I invented only those details that were not essential.
Therefore, any resemblance between the characters in this book and living people is intentional and malicious. And all the fictionalizing was unexpected and accidental.
Dovlatov always had an excellent structure for his books. In The Compromise, it was a series of increasingly absurd compromises. In The Suitcase, the chapters were organized by what he found in his suitcase and the relevance of each item to his life.
In this book, Dovlatov has come to America. He has written the book, The Zone, while still in the USSR, but couldn’t risk taking it with him when he left. As a result, several of his friends have smuggled small parts of the book out while traveling to various places in the free world. Dovlatov is now trying to reassemble his book. The serious content of The Zone is tempered by Dovlatov’s letters to his editor talking about his current life in the U.S. and commenting on the manuscript he is now submitting in parts.
As one might imagine, being a prison guard was pretty horrible not to mention shocking at times.
Awful things happened around me. People reverted to an animal state. We lost our human aspect—being hungry, humiliated, tortured by fear.
This is the darkest of Dovlatov’s books. But while dark, it still contains his philosophical bent which I enjoy so much. I thought his strategy for dealing with his job was very interesting:
I felt better than could have been expected. I began to have a divided personality. Life was transformed into literary material…I began to think of myself in the third person.
Dovlatov says he doesn’t agree with the ancients—that a sound body means a sound mind. Instead, he says that people who are physically healthy are most often spiritually blind and morally apathetic.
He says he was very healthy.
Since the time of Aristotle, the human brain has not changed. What is more, human consciousness has not changed.
Dovlatov rails against not being able to get his work published in the Soviet Union, but really, what did he expect when he said things like this:
… a prison camp is a pretty accurate representation of a country in miniature, the Soviet state in particular. Within a camp, you have a dictatorship of the proletariat (which is to say, the camp administration), the people (the prisoners), and the police (guards).
Dovlatov says that literature has historically portrayed the prisoner/guard relationship in one of two ways. Either the prisoners are to be pitied or the guards are. To him, both views are wrong:
Almost any prisoner would have been suited to the role of a guard. Almost any guard deserved a prison term.
For anyone wanting to read Dovlatov, I wouldn’t start with this book. Even though I really liked the book and appreciated what Dovlatov had to say and his characteristic humor, I’m not sure I would have been so compelled to keep reading him if I had started here. (The order I suggest? The Compromise, The Suitcase, A Foreign Woman, The Zone.)
So has the spell been broken? (Will I be rushing out to buy more D?)
Well, as I finish this book, I think about how jaded and disillusioned a person might become after having similar experiences. Here is a man who didn’t graduate from university. He trained as a heavyweight boxer. He saw horrific things and experienced ongoing fear.
Yet, through it all, (not having had everything given to him, not having had a pampered existence and the best education, freedom for travel throughout his life, money, etc.) through it all, he retained his humanity. He retained his capacity for mercy and compassion. How did he do this? Do these kinds of circumstances breed empathy and emotional maturity?
It makes you think, especially on days like today with all the crazy news stories—the Boston Marathon bombing, an NPR story about a company you can hire to get the kidnapping experience, and other more horrific things I don’t want to get into.
By Sergei Dovlatov; Counterpoint Press; @ 1986; 129 pages.
The premise of The Suitcase is simple. Sergei Dovlatov finds the suitcase that he carried from the Soviet Union to the United States in the back of his closet in New York. Each chapter of the book tells the story behind each item he rediscovers inside.
I really like this structure. I’m trying to figure out how to “repurpose” it for my own needs. And, I really like Dovlatov. I’ll be reading along, interested enough to keep going, and then all of a sudden I’m laughing. It’s nice. It reminds me of Russia and the friends I met there, and makes me sorry I left and glad that I did at the same time.
I like how Dovlatov describes his relationship with his wife, Lena. He says the main things a wife should do for her husband are 1) feed him, 2) believe he is a genius, and 3) leave him alone. And she can’t just do one of these. She has to do all three. So I’m ticking off these things in my head. Am I doing my part? It was touching—for all his tough-guy rhetoric, you can tell he really loved his wife. The kind of love that is too real and painful to talk about.
Dovlatov died relatively young (Not suicide—but what was it? I don’t know.), and it makes me really sad. But he left behind several books that I haven’t read.
The New York Times said this about The Suitcase: “Readers will soar through the first two-thirds of this novel, then…stave off finishing it. The final chapters will be hoarded and cherished, doled out one at a time as a reward after a bad day.”
That’s exactly how I felt. I have a bad day, I reach for Dovlatov. That’s why I need to have enough on hand. Fed up with life? Lost your sense of humor? Take two Dovlatov’s and call me in the morning.
By Svetlana Alliluyeva; @1967; Harper & Row Publishers; New York and Evanston
Svetlana Alliluyeva was the daughter of Joseph Stalin. In her memoir, Twenty Letters to a Friend, she struggles to come to grips with her childhood and in particular her relationship with her father, who he was a man, father, husband, and leader. According to Wikipedia, Svetlana caused an international stir when she defected from the Soviet Union in 1967. Interesting that this is the same date her memoir was published. Svetlana was born in 1926 and passed away in 2011. (Stalin died in 1953.) Wikipedia says as of 2010, she was living in Wisconsin.
This book came to me from my grandmother. She didn’t give it to me, but rather, I inherited it when she died. My grandmother was a member of the Book of the Month Club, and this was one of the books she received. My grandmother was very well read, but I don’t think she ever had the same kind of fascination with Russia that I developed.
As I read this book, I felt a wave of compassion for Svetlana. After all, it’s hard to top having Stalin for a father. For one, there is the mysterious death of Svetlana’s mother. Was it really a suicide? Did Beria do it? Could Stalin have? How culpable was Stalin in the terror? She seems to want to shift the blame, painting Stalin as a man whose passions could be manipulated, a man with tremendous paranoia that worsened over time. What is touching is that she loved him, and I suppose the monster that I have read about in my history classes must have loved her too.
There are a couple of things that could have improved her memoir. She didn’t say much about the Soviet gulags that her father worked so hard to populate. She also didn’t write much in scenes. Most of her letters were strictly telling, not much showing. The letters she wrote about her mother and her first husband were the most gripping, where I actually forgot I was reading and lost myself in her story.
Svetlana is extremely self-conscious throughout her memoir, always watching what she says, always crafting an impression. And this is certainly understandable given the very public nature of her life. Unfortunately, in this writing, she hasn’t unraveled her own denial, even though I have the feeling that she sincerely tried.
By Toni Morrison; Signet, Penguin Books USA @1987; 338 pages.
I had heard of Toni Morrison, but had never read her books. I won’t rehash the story here because I don’t want to spoil it for you, not even the first chapter.
Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Briefly, the story is about Sethe, a woman who escaped from slavery and who continues to be haunted by her past.
Toni Morrison is amazing. She is the most skilled writer I have read in a very long time. I am in awe. The story she tells, the details, her execution, her command of language, suspense, knowledge and understanding of human nature, scene, dialogue, imagination! And while I’m not drawn to sad stories, this one is a must read. This one, that I’m reading so soon after having read Doris Lessing’s Prisons That We Choose to Live Inside, strikes me as another example of the horrific behavior of our species.
Slavery is a topic so painful that we still can’t talk about it. There is so much I didn’t know. So much I need to find out. How terribly awful our past is. But Morrison has created art here. She has brought beauty, humanity, and strength to a situation so horrible, so shameful, so intense that it is just unimaginable to me that it really happened. Of course, this story is fiction, but the details here revive the real-life actions of the past. We know that people, other than the characters of this story, real people, lived through a lot more. Morrison tells a story that must be told, must be read, and must be acknowledged.
Here is an example of Toni Morrison’s writing:
Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let along loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers. What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children. Halle she was able to keep the longest. Twenty years. A lifetime. Given to her, no doubt, to make up for hearing that her two girls, neither of whom had their adult teeth, were sold and gone and she had not been able to wave goodbye. To make up for coupling with a straw boss for four months in exchange for keeping her third child, a boy, with her—only to have him traded for lumber in the spring of the next year and to find herself pregnant by the man who promised not to and did. That child she could not love and the rest she would not.
I find Baby Suggs’ strategy for getting though the final chapter of her life compelling. She decided that she wanted to think about something that didn’t have any pain involved, no hurt, no evil. She went to bed and contemplated color. She started with blue, then went on to yellow and then pink.
Was Morrison meaning to be ironic? Because it seems that color does have a lot of pain associated with it.
On the front of my copy, there is a quote from Newsweek:
By Sergei Dovlatov; Academy Chicago Publishers; @1990, first copyright Alfred A Knopf, Inc @1981; 148 pages.
While reading about Kurt Vonnegut, I noticed this guy, Sergei Dovlatov. Apparently, Vonnegut said some nice things about Dovlatov, so that peaked my interest.
The story unfolds as Dovlatov, a Russian living in Estonia, takes a job writing satire for the newspaper, On Watch for the Motherland. Turns out he isn’t a party member—which I found odd; I thought you would have to be a party member to write for a Soviet newspaper and that basically everyone was a party member anyway, but apparently not. Also, his articles weren’t satirical. Hmm, or were they?
Each chapter opens with a short newspaper article that Sergei has written—and that must be written in a certain way or changed to satisfy his bosses—a compromise. Basically, the typical writer’s life. But in this case, it is a writer’s life under Soviet rule. And it seems, every aspect of Dovlatov’s life.
One amusing anecdote is about an article that is needed for Tallinn‘s liberation anniversary. Dovlatov is given the assignment to tell the story of the 400 thousandth inhabitant born to the city. This number isn’t accurate, or even close, but no matter; it makes for a good story. Dovlatov goes to the maternity ward of the hospital in Tallinn and waits for a male child to be born. The 400 thousandth child needs to be a boy because a boy is more symbolic for the occasion.
Dovlatov waits. The first child born that day is a boy, but he doesn’t meet all of the publicizable requirements; he is half Ethiopian. Then another boy is born—also unacceptable; he is Jewish. Dovlatov has to explain to the father that the paper is looking for a boy from a “worker-peasant family.” No intellectuals. Too bad, because the father has already written a poem for the occasion.
“How could it appear in our country? Here, in a country where it seems—”
I interrupted him. “In a country where the ‘founding corpse’ has still not been buried…”
(I can see why Vonnegut liked Dovlatov.)
A suitable boy is finally born, but now the newspaper, still seeking to tell a good story, wants Dovlatov to convince the father to name the child Lembit, a name out of Estonian folklore. They are willing to pay him. So for 25 rubles, a would-be Volodya becomes a Lembit.
Sergei Dovlatov is immediately engaging. He captures my attention by talking directly to me; I find out who he is as he’s telling the story and I feel sympathetic to him (I have to think more about why). I like his tongue-in-cheek style. He’s absurd, honest, and subtlely humorous.
I liked several of his lines, but especially this one: “Lying without hope of gain is not lying, it’s poetry.” Seems right, considering how much poetry pays.
So probably, there are some things I missed, references, etc. that I didn’t understand because I haven’t ever lived in the Soviet Union. But, overall, The Compromise, was a good read and makes the interesting distinction between the facts and the truth.
I found myself giggling through the last two compromises, high praise indeed.
By Fyodor Dostoevsky; Bantam Classic; First published in 1866; this edition published in 1981; 472 pages.
At the risk of sounding like Alistair Cooke, it seems this is the best way to start my entry:
The stakes are high for Dostoevsky as he contemplates writing this novel. It’s been five years since his return from exile in Siberia (1850–1860). He had been sent there as punishment for alleged subversion against Tsar Nicholas I. He spent four of these years doing hard labor. At one point, he was even led before a firing squad, but was pardoned at the last second. After his return from Siberia, Dostoevsky worked with his brother to produce two literary-political journals (you’d think he wouldn’t have wanted to touch politics after his stint in Siberia). In April 1864, his wife died of tuberculosis. His brother died a few months later. The journals failed, and Dostoevsky’s debts increased by the day.
Hounded by creditors, in 1865 he wanted to leave Russia to find some peace in Europe where his ex-mistress, Apollinaria Suslova, was currently living and whom he wanted to see very badly. To raise the money, he obtained a loan from the Literary Fund. He also approached several periodicals with an idea for a new novel.
He was rejected. Finally, he made a deal with a publisher named F.T. Stellovsky. Dostoevsky promised to give Stellovsky a novella-sized work by November 1866. (Looks like he made his deadline?) If he failed, he would have to give Stellovsky the right to publish all of his future work without compensation for the next nine years! (I have the feeling that Dostoevsky really wanted to go to Europe.)
So Dostoevsky took an advance from Stellovsky, paid his debts, and traveled to Wiesbaden, Germany. His plan was to replenish his funds by gambling what he had left. He lost everything. He could not even afford to eat.
During this time as tension and desperation continued to build, Dostoevsky developed the idea for Crime and Punishment. He swallowed his pride and wrote to an old enemy, Mikhail Katkov, a powerful editor. He pitched the story, and Katkov liked it.
Now Dostoevsky was indebted to two publishers. The introduction to my edition tells me all this and the whole plot of the novel (which I turned a blind eye to because I would rather experience it myself), but did not explain how Dostoevsky resolved these two debts. Leave it to me to fixate on something no one else finds interesting. And what happened with Apollinaria?
Only three years before his imprisonment in Siberia, Doestoevsky published his first novel, Poor Folk. (Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821.) His prison memoir is Notes From the House of the Dead.
Crime and Punishment begins with a scene of a hot July evening in St Petersburg. Our protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov (Родиóн Ромáнович Раскóльников), is leaving his tiny apartment and trying to avoid his landlady because he is hopelessly in her debt. He is off to see his pawnbroker to pawn something else. He isn’t from St. Petersburg but is living there to attend the university. He has dropped out due to lack of money. Crushed by poverty and in need of nice clothes, he has also given up on the only way he can earn a small living, by working as a tutor. It doesn’t pay enough to seem worthwhile. He is incredibly handsome. (Well, of course. Protagonists have to be handsome don’t they?)
The name Raskolnikov is derived from the Russian word “raskolnik,” which means schismatic, and according to Wikipedia this alludes to the Old Believer Movement (Old Believers aka старове́ры or старообрядцы), which I don’t get because it seems like Rasknolikov was intended to be the poster boy for the new Socialist movement of the day.
In 1652, Nikon, the then Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, noticed discrepancies between Russian and Greek rites and texts and introduced ritual and textual revisions to create uniformity between Russian and Greek Orthodox practices. He did this without gaining consensus among the clergy. Those who did not accept Nikon’s changes were persecuted from the end of the 17th to the beginning of the 20th century as schismatics or Old Believers (Old Ritualists) (старообрядцы). Old Believers rejected all innovations and the most radical of them believed that the Church had fallen into the hands of the Antichrist.
In 1666, the Church officially suppressed (anathematized) the old rites and books and those who wished to stay loyal to them, and stripped the Old Believers of their civil rights. Persecution, arrests, torture, and executions followed.
(This is pretty cool to me because when I was in Russia, people would sometimes whisper to me: he’s an Old Believer. I had no idea of the significance of that.)
I really don’t think that Raskonikov is supposed to represent the schism of the Church. At one point with Sonia (the 18-year-old girl who has been forced into prostitution as a way to keep her family from starvation, or worse), he questions the existence of God. I think, rather, that Raskonikov, was named for the schism between his motivations and his actions. He is driven by this idealistic view of what good is or should be and, because of this, views himself as above the recognized moral code of what is always good and always evil, allowing himself to believe that he is entitled, justified, even duty-bound to commit a crime if his crime would end evil actions of the one murdered. Or, maybe more accurately, it is the schism that happens when one believes with all one’s heart and soul that to do a particular thing is wrong, but does it anyway.
Raskolnikov’s mother (Pulcheria Alexandrovna) and sister (Avdotya Romanovna) want desperately to help him escape his poverty, misery, and depression. (His father has already passed away.) In this society, it seems the only help from women can come from an advantageous marriage (one for money [in this case of Raskonikov’s sister to the “supercillious” Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin]) or through prostitution, a way to thoroughly and forever destroy a girl’s reputation. So basically, it’s condoned prostitution (holders of a yellow passport) or uncondoned prostitution (holders of a marriage certificate). Raskolnikov’s mother, at 43, is too old to be of any use.
Dostoevsky indicates Raskolnikov’s feelings of helplessness with his gruesome and upsetting dream about a mare. Clearly, Dostoevsky has observed how stupid and cruel humans can be once they get an advantage over something that can’t fight back.
Part I, Chapter VII is riveting. Every sentence was a tense extension of the one before it. I was on the edge of my seat. I haven’t read writing so thoroughly engrossing in years. Dostoevsky’s skill is phenomenal. The proofreader of my edition, however, should have been shot. I’ve never seen so many misspellings!
And I suppose it’s the penny-pincher in me, but every time Raskolnikov gave away his rubles (typically to help someone else), I cringed.
Writing this in his 40s, Dostoevsky demonstrates superb skill. He conveys time and space with ease. I am right there with Raskolnikov in his tiny room or walking in the street or along the Neva. I don’t see his face, but I’m in his head. I sympathize with him and yet I’m repelled. Dostoevsky pulls me back and forth as he examines Raskolnikov’s complex character from all directions.
Raskolnikov has a good friend, Razumihin, who sees after him during his “illness.” Just as you might suspect, there is an opportunity to discuss the nature of crime in this novel. According to Socialist doctrine, “crime is a protest against the abnormality of the social organization.”
…if society were properly organized, all crime would cease at once.
This strikes me particularly now as I have been reading about a different Russian, a billionaire Dmitry Itskov, and his idealistic (and rather terrifying) 2045 project aspirations. As humans use technology to achieve immortality, Itskov expects all of humanities’ problems will miraculously disappear.
Are Itskov’s views a reincarnation of the socialist ideas present in Russia in the 1860s?
…there will be nothing to protest against and all men will become righteous in one instant. Human nature is not taken into account, it is excluded, it’s not supposed to exist! … They believe that a social system that has come out of some mathematical brain is going to organize all humanity at once and make it just sinless in an instant…
…they don’t want a living soul! The living soul demands life, the soul won’t obey the rules of mechanics…
These words seem hauntingly relevant today.
Raskolnikov discovers that an article he wrote while a student has been published. In it, he discusses the psychology of a criminal before and after a crime. He suggests that some people have a right [even a duty] to commit crime.
He explains that all men are either ordinary or extraordinary. Ordinary men live in submission and have no right to break the law. Extraordinary men have an right to decide their own conscience and to “step over obstacles … for the benefit of humanity.” [pre-emptive strikes?]
For example, posits Raskolnikov, if the discoveries of Newton and Kepler could not have been made known without sacrificing the lives of a hundred or more people, they would have been duty-bound to eliminate those men.”
And there you have it. There is the reasoning behind the atrocities committed in the name of scientific advancement (chimps in space, gorilla head transplants, introducing animal genes in to plant DNA, etc.) And of course, behind the atrocities committed between nations in the name of “security.”
Raskolnikov goes on: “…all great men … must … be criminals…”
Ordinary people live their lives in a rut and stay there. They are inferior. They preserve the world and the people in it.
Extraordinary people do not. They move the world and lead it to its goal. They have the gift or talent to utter a new word.
Funny how one collects memories and impressions throughout one’s life. So much is discarded and yet some experiences, however irrelevant, linger and come to the surface as the result of some reminder. Maybe some experiences are so extraordinary that one is compelled to pay attention to every detail. The following passage struck me in such a way:
For a minute they were looking at one another in silence. Razumihin remembered that minute all his life. Raskolnikov’s burning and intent eyes grew more penetrating every moment, piercing into his soul, into his consciousness. Suddenly Razumihin started. Something strange, as it were, slipped, something awful, hideous, and suddenly understood on both sides.
One thing that always interests me when I read these types of stories, stories in which the reader is set up to judge the protagonist, is order. My impressions of Raskolnikov would have been different if I had learned more about his character before I was exposed to his crime. I would have felt more sympathetic towards him. As it is, I find myself struggling, which I think is exactly what Doestoevsky intended. It’s easier to forgive someone you know and love, but not so easy to forgive a stranger, even if you do know his thoughts.
Then at last, there is the idea of redemption in suffering.
I finished this novel on the same day that the leading story in the news was about the murder of Chris Kyle, the 38-year-old former Navy SEAL who wrote a memoir about his 150 confirmed sniper killings in Iraq. His wife explained on TV that he did what he loved. Both Kyle and Raskolnikov made the same decision about human life, though Kyle apparently was less bothered by it, but then I haven’t read his book, American Sniper. Sanctioned killing versus unsanctioned killing. It’s important, it seems, to get the rubber stamp.
Was Raskolnikov’s deepest regret the self awareness that he was not, in fact, and extraordinary man?
Several times in my life, I’ve been accused of thinking too much. I’ve always thought that was odd. I think now I finally get what that means. For the truth of things isn’t really so complicated.
At the end, like at the end of Anna Karenina, we are left with the hint that our protagonist will make the conversion from atheism to Christianity.
When the Kiev zoo gave its smaller animals away because it could no longer afford to feed them, Victor, a struggling writer, adopted a depressed penguin named Misha. The story unfolds with Victor and Misha living together in an apartment in Kiev. For both of them, it’s a rather unnatural environment.
This book did a great job of grabbing my attention early on. Page one and I was into the story.
Kurkov subtly examines the nature of choice. There is a tension that develops and a contrast that is set up when the main characters have different kinds of situations to deal with: ones they have freely chosen for themselves and ones they have happened into. I enjoyed the way Misha’s predicament mirrored Victor’s internal struggle. I also appreciated that Misha wasn’t turned into a cheesy kid’s character. Misha was always his own penguin. Enigmatic at times, but after all, he was a penguin.
One question remained for Andrey Kurkov. On the last page, the last line is the date range: December 1995–February 1996. What is this? The time it took to write the book? Bragging?
[Thanks to the Internet, I was able to find out. Mr. Kurkov was very kind to answer my question and said that this was the time it took him to write the book, although he said that it took him two years to nail down the plot.]
There was something that happened to me while reading this book. Misha the Penguin had a health problem. The resolution to this health problem, when I read it, was like flipping a switch for me. I can’t explain it. I don’t really understand it, but it’s as though a weight was lifted. The shock. The laughter. The immediate understanding. It was all very personal. I’m not promising a cathartic experience for anyone who reads it, but for me, it helped. Sometimes the stars align with literature and this was the case for me.
Glory is the first book I’ve read by Vladimir Nabokov. (I couldn’t bring myself to read Lolita.) Nabokov displayed a great ability to write into and out of reality. The main character, Martin, drifted in and out of reveries. Most of the time I could understand what was what, but sometimes I had to reread.
Martin is part Russian, part Swiss. We follow him from his youth through his college days during the time of the Bolshevik revolution.
I didn’t really enjoy this book. It was fun to read about things Russian, but I didn’t care about any of the characters. Nabokov writes in the omniscient narrator, so that might account for my lack of caring. Not sure. The end was startling and got me thinking, so that’s always nice.
Written by Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) and published in 1958, the story is set some time in the future, at a time when the elite and well-educated live and work on the moon.
High school senior Kip wins a second-hand space suit in a contest, fixes it up, and goes on a wild adventure, lending an opportunity for all kinds of cool (if not outdated) space travel ideas to be explored along the way.
Not much as space suits go these days. It was an obsolete model that Skyway Soap had bought as surplus material—the tenth-to-hundredth prizes were all space suits. But it was a real one, made by Goodyear, with air conditioning by York and auxiliary equipment by General Electric. Its instruction manual and maintenance-and-service log were with it and it had racked up more than eight hundred hours in rigging the second satellite station.
It was my childhood dream to go to the moon. I think I really would have liked this book if I had read it when I was a bit younger. As it was, I almost lost interest. While it’s not my favorite book, it has redeaming qualities. You can depend on Heinlein for big ideas, and he does deliver, even if it’s towards the end.
Although I am a fan of Heinlein, I’m not so fond of this book. I can’t recommend it to the busy reader, but for someone who would get a kick out of comparing physics ideas of the 1950s to those commonly accepted today, it would be a nice diversion. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about either to benefit from all the amusing factoids offered here.