Leonid Andreev, The Abyss (1902)
Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967)
Anna Akhmatova, Requiem (1963)
Vasily Aksenov, Generations of Winter (1994)
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (written between 1928 and 1940; published in 1967)
Andrei Bitov, Pushkin House (1978)
Boris Bugayev, Andrey Bely (1880), The Silver Dove (1910)
Ivan Bunin, The Village (1909)
Anton Chekhov, Ward No 6 (1892)
Anton Chekhov, The Darling (1899)
Anton Chekhov, Duel (1892)
Anton Chekhov, My Life (1896)
Anton Chekhov, Peasants (1897)
Anton Chekhov, In the Ravine (1900)
Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Dog(1899)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment(1866)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Double (1846)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Idiot (1869)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground (1864)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Possessed (1872)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights (1848)
Sergei Dovlatov, Affiliate (1990)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Compromise(1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Craft: A Story in Two Parts (1985)
Sergei Dovlatov, Demarche of Enthusiasts (1985)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Foreign Branch (1989)
Sergei Dovlatov, A Foreign Woman(1986)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Invisible Book (1977)
Sergei Dovlatov, March of the Single People (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Notebooks (1990)
Sergei Dovlatov, Ours: A Russian Family Album(1989)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Performance (1987)
Sergei Dovlatov, Pushkin Hills(2014)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Reserve (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Solo on Underwood: Notebooks (1980)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Suitcase(1986)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Zone:A Prison Camp Guard’s Story(1982)
Vsevolod Garsin, Red Flower (1883)
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls (1842)
Nikolai Gogol, The Night Before Christmas(1832)
Nikolai Gogol, The Nose (1836)
Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat (1842)
Nikolai Gogol, Taras Bulba (1842)
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov (1859)
Ivan Goncharov, Same Old Story (1847)
Aleksander Herzen, Whose Fault (1846)
Vladislav Khodasevich, Heavy Lyre (1922)
Vladislav Khodasevich, European Night (1927)
Vladimir Korolenko, Makar’s Dream (1885)
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Quadraturin (1926)
Andrei Kurkov, Death and the Penguin(1996)
Ivan Lazhechnikov, The Ice Palace (1835)
Leonid Leonov, Russian Forest (1953)
Leonid Leonov, The Thief (1927)
Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time(1841)
Nikolai Leskov, The Enchanted Wanderer (1873)
Nikolai Leskov, The Cathedral Folk (1872)
Nikolai Leskov, The Sealed Angel
Kotik Letayev, The Memoirs of a Crank (1923)
Vladimir Nabokov, Glory(1832)
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
Vladimir Odoevskij, Russian Nights (1844)
Yuri Olesha, Envy (1927)
Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (1957)
Liudmila Petrushevskaia, The Time: Night (1994)
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (2009)
Aleksei Pisemsky, One Thousand Souls (1858)
Andrei Platonov, Foundation Pit (1951)
Andrei Platonov, Chevengur (1951)
Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin(1825)
Aleksander Pushkin, The Queen of Spades (1834)
Valentin Rasputin, Final Term (1971)
Aleksei Remizov, Pond (1903)
Aleksei Remizov, Olja (1927)
Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Gospoda Golovlevy/ The Golovlyov Family (1876)
Mikhail Sholokhov, Quiet Flows the Don (1934)
Vasily Sleptsov, Hard Times (1865)
Sasha Sokolov, School for Fools (1977)
Sasha Sokolov, Palisandriia/ Astrophobia (1985)
Sasha Sokolov, Between Dog and Wolf (1980)
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward (1968)
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
Vladimir Sorokin, The Queue (1985)
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic (1971)
Aleksei Tolstoj, Peter the First (1945)
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina(1877)
Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych(1886)
Leo Tolstoy, Kreitserova Sonata (1890)
Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection (1899)
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869)
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; 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.
Nikolai Gogol was born in Ukraine in 1809. He died of starvation (and possibly depression) when he was nearly 43 years old. Gogol is best known for his book Dead Souls and for his short stories, “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” and “Diary of a Madman.” He also wrote Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, which I would now like very much to read.
I have long heard of Gogol but until recently had never read anything written by him. I am excited to discover him because he is so very very different and refreshing.
The Night Before Christmas was a fun read. It begins as a witch flies into the sky and fills her sleeves with stars. The devil has a plan to get back at a blacksmith/painter for an unflattering painting the blacksmith has done of him. The blacksmith is in love with the most beautiful (and spoiled) girl in the village and travels all the way to Petersburg to ask Catherine the Great for her slippers.
Here is a quote from early in the story:
“Meanwhile the devil stole silently up to the moon and stretched his hand out to seize it, but drew it back quickly as though he were scorched, sucked his fingers and danced about, then ran up from the other side and again skipped away and drew back his hand. But in spite of all his failures, the sly devil did not give up his tricks. Running up, he suddenly seized the moon with both hands; grimacing and blowing, he kept flinging it from one hand to the other, like a peasant who has picked up an ember for his pipe with bare fingers; at last, he hurriedly put it in his pocket and ran on as though nothing had happened.”
The book also has some very funny parts regarding the witch’s suitors hiding in coal sacks. All in all, The Night Before Christmas is a fun entertaining read with some insights on what it was like to live in Ukraine in the early 1800s.
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?
[Spoiler alert] When I see a short story over 20 pages long, I shudder. Will it be that interesting? Will I like it? Or, will it be a trudge?
To Room Nineteen did not disappoint. It held my interest all the way through, and the pages flew by. This, even though I felt myself arguing with the viewpoint of the protagonist, Susan Rawlings, pretty much the whole way through.
One of my problems, I suppose, is that I don’t have four children. I don’t fully know how draining that can be. But I can imagine. She did have help. She had a cook and later a nanny.
And granted, the personality type of the protagonist Susan Rawlings is not my personality type. I can’t imagine having no interests in life. If I had free time at my disposal, I would write, draw, paint, play music, compose, and hike. But I don’t, and I’m envious of those who do. It’s hard for me to understand those who have time on their hands and waste it.
Susan was restless. It seemed she had the dream in her grasp, and then it disappeared. Some of the uglier parts of marriage materialized and although everyone involved thought they were so intelligent, no one had the common sense to say “no.”
With four children, Susan couldn’t go to the parties any more. She had to stay home with the children. Why did her husband go? They were his children too.
There seemed to be this unspoken idea in the story that it was better to be unfaithful than to be insane. I don’t agree. Being unfaithful is a choice. Being insane is not.
I must have missed the point of this story somewhere. Was it that all marriages are farces? Was it that having four kids and a husband leads to insanity? Was it that people who think they are intelligent can make some pretty stupid decisions? Was it about a woman’s need for privacy?
But what about the man? He worked all day. When was he supposed to have any privacy? When was he supposed to have his own life?
So he cheated? So she went insane?
I’m not agreeing with all of these premises. How could Susan’s life have been so empty? Why did she not have any art in her life? Music? Something of her own? What about the children?
Maybe the story is about the traps people can fall into while trying to do everything right. Everything that society wants and expects. Then when you do those things, you’re in a trap, and society has no sympathy. And you have no life.
But, all my complaining aside, the story kept me turning pages without agony.
Rules of the Game is a story about how a young Chinese girl living in San Francisco’s Chinatown discovers something she can take pride in and how to temper that pride.
This story is a breeze to read. It flows and carries you along with it. Its theme and promise are contained in the first sentence: “I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength.”
All of a sudden, I want to learn more. What is invisible strength? What is its art? The mother must be very wise. We know that this is a story about a mother-daughter relationship. What a great first line.
Later, we see the protagonist, the daughter, learning how to get what she wants, tapping into invisible strength:
A man who watched me play in the park suggested that my mother allow me to play in local chess tournaments. My mother smiled graciously, an answer that meant nothing. I desperately wanted to go, but I bit back my tongue. I knew she would not let me play among strangers. So as we walked home I said in a small voice that I didn’t want to play in the local tournament. They would have American rules. If I lost, I would bring shame on my family.
‘Is shame you fall down nobody push you,’ said my mother.
Ok, quick. Flannery O’Connor: male or female? Well, I didn’t know. Female. Her first name was Mary. This short story was published after her death.
Everything That Rises Must Converge is a story that illustrates the old degrading habits of racism and the self-delusion that comes hand-in-hand with racist beliefs. Human ugliness, anger, degradation, violence, and what’s up with the ending? What is Flannery telling us? What does she want us to think? Are we to be utterly confused? We rejoice at and despise the hateful narrator son. We hate and despise his hateful mother. We get the feeling that they hate each other too. It’s all very hateful.
There is the interesting twist with hats. But I even found that annoying.
I disliked the story for purely personal reasons, not because of its merits as a story. I’m sure it meets all the criteria for success. I am caught up on the content; I have met people like these. I grew up with people like these. What callous hateful ignorance. How do people not recognize the evil that lurks behind it. I don’t understand.
This story took a little while to get going for me. The action of the present is bookended around the actual story. An event from the protagonist’s past is at the core of the story, so it makes sense that the author started a little farther away from the action than what we typically experience in contemporary short stories.
After I got to the action, I was glued to the page. The suspense was incredible. The following paragraph was especially suspenseful for me:
“She has gone over and over it in her mind since, so many times that the first, real shout has been obliterated, like a footprint trampled by other footprints. But she is sure (she is almost positive, she is nearly certain) that it was not a shout of fear. Not a scream. More like a cry of surprise, cut off too soon. Short, like a dog’s bark.”
And a couple of pages back there is foreshadowing:
“Out on the lake there were two loons, calling to each other in their insane, mournful voices. At the time it did not sound like grief. It was just background.”
I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, but this story basically gives us an important event from the protagonist’s past and invites us to think about how it may have shaped her whole life.
An interesting story that raises interesting questions.
By Kelli Beck @ 2013, from the short story collection Talking Walls and Cigarettes and Other Dark Tales.
I am still very interested in the short story form, so when I saw that fellow blogger Kelli Beck had just released a collection of short stories written by herself and Erin Beck, I had to get it.
The first story of the collection is “The Salesman.” I don’t want to give away the story, so I’ll just point out a few things that I especially appreciated. This story did a great job of setting a tone and a mood. I was transported into the scene. I had a sense that I was there.
When she was in front of the window a slight breeze slipped up her neck, caressing the small hairs that had fallen from her loose ponytail. She shivered, turned and faced the night. Fog started to wash its way across the street heavy like smoke creeping in from all directions, swallowing up first the hardware store and the small defunct movie theatre, moving in to the center until the entire parking lot was invisible behind the shroud of fog. A childish fear built up in her and she closed the window, securing it in place with the locks. She watched the haze, then, afraid of what might appear out of the mist, closed the shades, and turned her back on it.”
I thought the part where the protagonist turned her back on this scene was wonderfully creepy. It captured my attention and built suspense.
I think it’s important for stories to have a big idea. One of the big ideas of this story has to do with messes and responsibility. The protagonist ruminates over this and comes to the conclusion:
“Whatever mess you cleaned up, it always ended up somewhere else.”
I could identify with the protagonist and the guilt she felt at being put into a difficult situation and having to make some hard choices.
The pacing of the story is very effective, and I enjoyed the surprises that the author threw my way. These really added interest to the story.
“The Salesman” was a great diversion. I’m excited to read the rest of the collection.
Silly me. Nikolai Gogol is not to be confused with Maxim Gorky. I have a collection of stories by Gorky, so when I decided to read Gogol, I went to that collection, only to find a Soviet writer! Bah. No Gogol wrote many years before the revolution; he lived from 1809 to 1852 and was of Ukrainian/Polish decent. Wikipedia says he was a surrealist and I agree. I’m thinking I like this guy Gogol! [slight spoiler alert below]
Gogol’s Overcoat, to my great amusement and surprise, was a zombie story? Wow!
Ok, yes, I am being a little extreme. It wasn’t a zombie story the way you and I think of zombie stories, but still. Are the roots of zombie stories here? I don’t know. Hmm.
I thought “The Overcoat” was a great read, and Gogol is definitely on my list of authors to read more of. I don’t want to be an extreme spoiler, so I won’t comment on which parts nearly tore my heart apart, but I was especially gratified and surprised by the ending.
I learned several things too. I learned what a marten was. I was thinking of martins, the birds I grew up with, which are not the same at all. Martens are cute little mammals with beautiful fur, which trappers collect and sell to be contribute to the fur on coats. In the story, an adequate marten substitute is a cat. Gasp.
Our protagonist is Akaky Akakievich. The note says that this is a play on the on the word “kaka,” which means defecator. I thought this was interesting given the translation of the Spanish word, caca. Is this a sign (pardon the pun) of a Latin influence on Russian? Or, the other way around?
Another thing I found interesting was the smell of the stairs that led up to the tailor’s apartment. They were ammonia soaked.Why would they be ammonia soaked? I am almost afraid to ask—or ponder this.
And, I learned that serfs were called only by their first names. Only when they were freed, were they called by first name and patronymic. I had always wondered about that.
Lastly, I found an insight into the “name day.” But I’m still not sure how this works. It seems that the name day is the day on which the mother (or family) decides on the name of their newborn child and the child is Christened. In this story, a calendar was taken out and several dates were examined to see what names were associated with them. When Akaky’s mother didn’t like any of the proposed names (from the calendar), she decided to simply name Akaky after his father, and hence he was Akaky Akakievich.
This was an interesting story. I enjoyed it. And I especially liked the weirdness at the end.
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.
I’ve been reading a book called Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark. I’m not ready “to review” it yet, but it made me aware of something that I missed in my review of James Joyce’s short story, Araby.
I missed the whole theme of blindness!
—Which, Roy Peter Clark assures me is a good thing. Well, sort of. Clark advises us to use symbols and not cymbals in our writing. Apparently Joyce was quite a master at this. Good to know as I contemplate reading Ulysses.
I would not even have delved into this except that Clark points out that Joyce was blind. (An Internet search says he was not completely blind.) I didn’t know any of this!
Missing blindness is kind of odd when I think about it. I’ve been struggling with my eyes lately and my eye doctor even told me that with the amount of reading I do, it’s normal for me to feel like I’m going blind. (oh yay)
Long before there was flash fiction, Kate Chopin seems to have mastered the form. The Story of an Hour gets a lot done in three pages.
A wife (Mrs. Mallard) learns some terrible news. It turns out she has a heart condition (relevant back story), so her sister is very careful about how she delivers the news. As it turns out, (a little twist) what we might think was horrible news is received as fantastic news by Mrs. Mallard. While everyone is terribly worried about her, she is secretly rejoicing.
But it turns out that there was an error in the news. What we thought happened actually did not (another twist). Mrs. Mallard receives a terrible shock when she finds out, and dies on the spot (twist).
The Story of an Hour is a story worth studying. It’s a great example of a short story in that it takes one situation and gives just enough information about the protagonist and supporting characters, so that we understand what’s going on. And personally, I love a good twist.
Kate Chopin is most known for her novel The Awakening (1899), which my anthology says ended her writing career because of its scandalous nature. The book is now praised as a portrait of a woman in search of her individuality. Potato/ Potahto.
By Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923), @ 13 pages (1922).
There’s nothing like a good cry in the morning. Wretched. How wretched!
There are so many things about this story that I just love—for example, the way we are lead into the story. We begin with an opinion on the weather, then ponder the flowers that people are most likely to recognize. When we meet our first character we are transported from the outside world into the home. We learn more about the plot and the characters when we are given insights into how each character feels about participating in the setup of the party. When we learn that one doesn’t want to be part of that action, we move to another, who also will not be involved. Finally, we meet the character who will take charge, Laura, and we follow her out of the house and into the garden.
My grandmother used to throw garden parties, so this story transports me back to those days and to thoughts of her. This line, especially, made me think of her:
“Oh impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder. All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream.”
Ah, the good life.
And that’s just it. Right outside their massive estate, poverty is just down the lane.
Another reason I like this story is because of its contrasts. Rich, poor. Happiness, sadness. Joy, grief. An man is killed just down the road. The family is practically a neighbor of his widow and five children. Laura asks the question, should we really go ahead with the party?
“‘But, my dear child, use your common sense. It’s only by accident we’ve heard of it. If some one had died there normally—and I can’t understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes—we should still be having our party, shouldn’t we?'”
It’s funny (weird) how we can explain things away in order to get what we want.
To her credit Laura does push back and gets this response:
“‘You’re being very absurd, Laura,” she said coldly. ‘People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now.'”
Upping the stakes, after the party, Laura’s mother has the splendid idea of sending the leftovers to the widow and her children. I won’t spoil the whole story, but I thought this was a wonderful touch by the author.
Well done Katherine Mansfield. I want to read more from you!
By William Carlos Williams (1883–1963), @ 4 pages.
William Carlos Williams was both a doctor and a writer. Sadly, I only know him from his wheel barrow and chicken poem:
So much depends
on the red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.
But it appears that he was a prolific writer with strong opinions. The Use of Force is a short story that describes a doctor’s battle to examine a young girl who he believed might have diphtheria, a disease which could be lethal. The only way he could know was by looking at her throat and getting a throat culture. Meanwhile, the young girl is terrified and not cooperating. With her parents’ permission, he uses force to open her mouth.
Williams very effectively conveys his feelings of frustration and blind determination so that the reader feels it as well. He lays out the stakes, has a ticking clock, explains his own motivations as all of this is going on, and has a force to contend with. It is also quite the picture to imagine a grown man, a doctor, struggling with a little girl and nearly being defeated. It seems she is a worthy adversary. While this might not be the greatest story ever told, it is a good study of technique.
I looked William Carlos Williams up on the Poetry Archive and found this quote from him:
“Forget all the rules, forget all restrictions, as to taste, as to what ought to be said, write for the pleasure of it.”
The story begins as Ivan Ilych’s friends/associates learn of his death. They remember that he was a friendly guy liked by all, but really their immediate reaction was what effect Ivan’s death would have on them. What kind of promotion would they get now that Ivan Ilych’s position had been vacated? Then we are transported into a review of Ivan Ilych’s life, his major decisions, profession, and character.
One thing I think is so interesting about reading Tolstoy is how observant he is of human nature and social interactions. Although Tolstoy lived more than 100 years ago, it makes no difference; his observations and insights into human relationships remain fresh and contemporary.
Tolstoy himself was an interesting man. He fathered 13 children, became something of a religious fanatic, and according to my short story anthology, had a most annoying habit of running away from home. On one such adventure, he died in a railway station.
Ah, great artists.
One of my big complaints about my own culture is the seeming denial of the reality of death. When my family members started dropping off, I was woefully unprepared for the logistics. When my grandmother was on her death bed and I left work to be at her side for her final days, I was overwhelmed by the whole experience. We had been very close. She had spent more time with me growing up than perhaps anyone else, and I was beside myself with grief.
I witnessed the deathbed experience again with my mother, this time for several months leading up to the event. It was a grueling ordeal, and I came away from both experiences with the idea that death happens when the body becomes so uninhabitable that the soul is forced out. Perhaps those who can let go of life easily have the easiest time with death, and perhaps those who are determined to live have the most pain. These are my impressions from direct experience.
There are lots of religious ideas around death too, many of which I find very difficult to deal with during the event. My husband’s family views grief as a kind of heresy, a viewpoint I find incredibly inhumane.
The short story, The Death of Ivan Ilych, leads us through these experiences and related happenings in great detail, physical, psychological, and social. Ivan Ilych did not marry the love of his life, we are not sure if he ever had one; instead, he married a woman who later became a shrew and failed to understand him, pity him, or even face his imminent death directly.
I think I must seem preoccupied with death. And perhaps. A friend of mine passed away a couple of years ago. She had contracted a rare virus that attacks the heart and actually had a heart transplant. Her body rejected the transplant and a terrible skin irritation developed. Medicines then destroyed her liver and eventually she died. It was all quite gruesome.
“Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be, when I did everything properly?”
I can’t claim that I have done everything properly by any means. I reflect now and find so many errors and only hope to not make more. It seems to me as I reflect on my life at this point that things are of little value. My family put such a high value on collecting things, and I feel not a small amount of guilt for wanting to be rid of them and considering what experiences and travels their “worth” could bring. I’ve been obsessed for nearly two years with unburdening myself of things, and it seems that I am never happier than when I am traveling. These desires to see the world are in constant conflict with my desire to build a home, so that I have populated my backyard with lavender, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, spinach, mint, and arugula. I am fascinated with gardening even though gardening and traveling are forever at odds with each other.
Tolstoy raises an interesting idea of correctness in living one’s life. Who decides what is correct? You? Someone else?
At some point, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to live correctly—by my own definition. And this meant tearing down everything I had built up. What had been my dreams back when I dared to dream? And could I still accomplish them? Could I detach myself from all my self-created prisons and live? And what does living now mean to me? And is living worth anything without love?
“What if my whole life has really been wrong?”
A horrible question and then:
“He felt that his agony was due to his being thrust into a black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it.”
Finally Ivan Ilych has a realization that helps him die. It seems that Tolstoy touches all the bases surrounding death that I myself have experienced as a witness, all except one. Both my mother and grandmother hallucinated about people who were dead being in the room with them. I have read that others have had the same sorts of hallucinations.
As for my poor dog who recently died, I could not bear to have her suffer in these ways. Maybe I did the wrong thing. There are some who believe the process of death is valuable and not to be denied. Her euthanasia was my selfishness. And what would I want for myself?
I want not to lie on my deathbed and realize I got it all wrong. I would like to look back and think I that when I saw two paths that converged in the woods that I took the one less traveled. Finding that path and getting onto it is the trick. It’s around here somewhere. I know it is. I can almost see it.
This story took a good 20 pages to gain my interest, but the end was worth it. The story takes place on the night of the Misses Morkan’s annual dance, which is in the wintertime, I think between Christmas and New Year. The Misses Morkans are three elderly ladies who live in Dublin and have lots of friends and family.
Irish hospitality is praised highly in this work. The Irish scenes, social habits, and conversations reminded me of my own family a long long time ago in Texas.
In my last blog entry about James Joyce, I mentioned a couple of rules of storytelling. Here, I am reminded of yet another rule, which is when it snows, somebody dies—or died. Of course, the title foreshadows this as well. All through the story, I’m thinking: ok, who gets it?
I don’t really like this “rule” of storytelling. I adore snow, and I would like to find (or tell) a story that resists this rule.
The story’s tone and pacing change radically after the party is over when everyone is heading home. Our protagonist, Gabriel, who seems like a pretty good guy, but perhaps has a bit of an inferiority complex, is excited to finally be alone with his wife. The writing really picks up here, and for me becomes a real page turner.
Oddly, when I got to the last paragraph I realized I had already read it, the last paragraph, not the story. The paragraph was given as an example in one of my writing books. And indeed, it is a very nice paragraph. This is where writing truly becomes art.
As I read Araby, I was reminded that in every story the main character has to want something. In Araby, the young man wants to impress a girl. The girl mentions a bazaar that she cannot go to and recommends it to our love-struck narrator/protagonist. He tells her that if he is able to go to the bazaar, he will bring something back for her.
I am not sure, and shame on me, I didn’t check, but I think that Araby was the name of the bazaar and it was held in Dublin to benefit the Jervis St. Hospital.
The next thing I remember about the dos of story writing is that complications must be thrown in the path of the protagonist, and so they are in Araby.
As I reflect on the story, a third do of story writing comes to mind, and this one is that everything in the story must count. There must be no irrelevant details. So here I am stumped and if one of my readers can enlighten me, I will be grateful. But what was the relevance to the detail that a priest had once been a tenant in our narrators’ family’s house? And what was the relevance that he had died in the back drawing-room? And why was it mentioned that our narrator was in the drawing-room in the paragraph preceding our narrator’s first conversation with the girl he liked so much? Was he praying in the room? Did the room have special powers that led to his conversation with the girl?
Or was it simply that priests are supposed to have a vow of poverty and the way our protagonist wants to win the love of the girl is with a gift?
I’m stumped. I do get a vivid image of twilight and children playing in the streets. And I have to admit that the mention of the poem “The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed” in which the Arab imagines his heartbreak after selling his favorite horse, was good foreshadowing.
I have the impression that in the end the narrator was humiliated because he had been forced to wait so long to go to the bazaar and the only items left were far beyond his means—thus, a present for the girl was impossible. Oh sad, sad love.
All in all, I found this story hard to understand with a casual read. I felt like Joyce wanted me to come to conclusions that I couldn’t quite make it to. Maybe in the end I got there.
This is one of the most profound stories I have ever read. It does a lot in five pages. I read it first in 2006, and it has stayed with me ever since. Le Guin creates a city called Omelas, a place were people are very happy. But, although they were incredibly happy, they were not simple:
They were no less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pendants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”
She describes this beautiful city of joy and then asks her readers: Do you believe?
She decides that we can’t yet believe, not without one more detail of the life in Omelas.
What she then describes is what I found so incredibly profound because at first the whole story seems like pure fantasy, but after further consideration, it struck me that the second part of the story (be warned this is only my interpretation) accurately describes what is happening to the animals on this planet (other than humans). It struck me so forcefully and so completely. And so sadly. I doubt that Ursula meant for me to take it that way, but once the idea formed in my mind, it’s been unshakable.
“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there…”
The end of the story seems to leave us with a choice.
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.
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.
By Franz Kafka; @ 1925, 1998 by Schocken Books, Inc.; 266 pages.
After finishing The Trial, my first response was to go online for a professional analysis of what this novel was all about. Unsuccessful, I decided to see what I could come up with on my own. I knew when I began reading The Trial that it was unfinished, and normally that would put me off, but since it has been called one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, I was interested to read it anyway.
The story opens as Josef K., (or K.) the CFO of a bank, wakes up without the breakfast that his landlady normally gives him. He opens his door to find strangers waiting for him and is placed under arrest. Thus, his trial begins. From that point forward, he tries unsuccessfully to discover what charges have been brought against him and to defend himself against an impersonal, bureaucratic legal system.
Metaphor for Realization of One’s Own Mortality?
To me, the theme of “the trial” seemed to be a metaphor for life, especially man’s relationship with religion and his quest to enter Heaven. Many symbols supported this view for me. In the beginning, K. was not taking his trial seriously (just as children don’t take their lives seriously; their consciousness of life is a dreamworld of possibility). Later, as the book progresses, K. takes his trial (life) more and more seriously; this seems to escalate as everyone tells him his trial is going badly.
K. was arrested within the boundaries of his everyday life (just as one who has the realization of their own mortality would be arrested, unable to think of anything else for a while). K. isn’t detained in a prison, but instead is allowed to go on living just as he always had, only now with the shame (metaphor for knowledge of original sin) of being on trial (life). He had to report to hearings from time to time (metaphor for going to church on a regular basis), and was promised that no one would know about his trial (shame attributed to life through original sin), however, many found out about it.
He doesn’t know the higher judges, can’t find them, can’t communicate with them directly (God), and is never free again, as he was in his innocent childhood.
There were two ways to avoid conviction (death). One was the “extension option” (extending the trial indefinitely) and the other was “temporary acquittal,” which amounted to working really hard to get acquitted and then forgetting about the trial until the judges found your paperwork again and you were tried again. (This idea seemed to mirror the illnesses we get during life. We get sick and then get well again, until finally one day, we get sick and don’t recover.)
The way K.’s lawyer treated his other client, the merchant, as a dog, and that the man allowed him to do so, served to illuminate K.’s character. The merchant had chosen the “extension option” and in so doing had lost every ounce of self respect he ever had. He was turned into an obedient “dog,” always begging for approval (Kafka’s view of the obedient churchgoer?). The reader could see that this was not something K. was willing to do as his own trial (life) progressed, and K. fired the lawyer.
The options given K. for avoiding a verdict, that of extending the trial (by going to court (church) on a regular basis) or seeking a temporary acquittal (forgetting about the trial (nature of life) for a while), were ultimately rejected by K. The option of “temporary acquittal” seemed like it would buy K. some peace until the next time the court noticed his paperwork, which could be years, or minutes. However, the knowledge that the court would one day discover him and try him again, would keep K. from ever being free (like the looming knowledge of death. Eventually death will catch up with us all, so we are never really free.)
Some people take actions to avoid judgment or to postpone it. This progresses differently for everyone, depending on how predispositioned they are for obedience. This is illustrated by the merchant and how he acted as an obedient dog, giving up the rest of what shreds of freedom existed for him to serve his lawyer in an effort to postpone the inevitable, obediently reading texts he didn’t understand (metaphor for the scriptures/Bible?) in a dark room with very little light.
I found K.’s romantic relationships with women interesting. Other than his landlady, the women were all a little slutty, even the young girls who waited outside the painter’s apartment (women are the tempters of men). So, for a while, I thought K. might be on trial for his boorish treatment of women. All of the women except for Fraulein Brustner were already involved with other men (even the little girls could be said to have been involved with the artist). K. himself was involved with a woman that the novel didn’t say much about, and he cheated on her without thought or apology. He was told not to stop enlisting the help of women, but K. disagreed with this. He believed that women could help him (in the end, they didn’t.) This seemed like a loose end attributable to the novel being unfinished.
For a high ranking officer at a bank, Josef K.’s living quarters seemed inconsistent with his status. He was a boarder in a house with a landlady. Wouldn’t a CFO have his own place? This was odd. The writing at the beginning of the novel was much more vivid and engaging than at the end. Of course, this wasn’t a finished novel, and Kafka had left instructions for it to be burned. To further the religious metaphors, K. was sentenced in the cathedral (perhaps symbolic of the courtroom of God), and his execution took place in a quarry.
Parable of the Law
In the parable of the law told to K. by the priest in the cathedral, I figured that the priest was represented by the gatekeeper of the law (priests can be thought of as gatekeepers to God), and K. was represented by the merchant who waited his whole life to enter the gate to the law (the everyman waiting outside the Pearly Gates of Heaven). The merchant (like K.) was afraid and was advised that he could not gain entrance to go through the gate to the law (Heaven) even though we later learn that this gate was made especially for him (Jesus died for our sins). I thought this might be the key to the entire novel. K. never figured out a way to get justice (to get to Heaven).
Kafka’s references to freedom (free will) were interesting. How the gatekeeper’s post (the priest) restricted the merchant’s freedom, while the merchant, in fact, restricted his own freedom by seeking what he couldn’t have, or could he have it? (entry into the law (into Heaven)). Inside or outside the law, the man still had a choice to pursue his desires (free will). He could have chosen not to seek (Is Kafka saying that the only free men are those who are not religious? Those who seek nothing?) Yet, I don’t think the merchant was free, since he was enslaved his whole life by his desire to enter the law (Maybe this is Kafka’s point—seeking God one’s whole life is a form of slavery). Or, is it that believing what others tell you can prevent you from having what is easily attainable? Or, is it that the desire itself is enslaving. Or, is it that forgetfulness is good?
This book was much more fun to analyze than it was to read. 🙂
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 Albert Camus; Vintage International; @ 1942; 123 pages.
This book won the Nobel Prize in Literature. My edition was translated by Matthew Ward. There was a lot of build up about how great this translation is and how it was specifically directed at the American audience. I noticed a couple of grammatical errors and wondered if those were in difference to us Americans.
I couldn’t sympathize with Meursault, the protagonist. I didn’t understand why he did what he did during Part One. That he did not cry at his mother’s funeral didn’t bother me (I cried beforehand), but that he supported his acquaintance in beating up a woman who he didn’t even know—well, that lost my sympathy.
I know. I know. I should think about the time in which it was written. Blah, blah, blah. I don’t care. I am tired of crimes against women. And there was no way I was going to see it as justifiable.
Meursault couldn’t say that he cared about anything. His girlfriend would ask him if he loved her, and he would say: well, I don’t think it matters, but no, I don’t think so. I kept getting stuck on “it doesn’t matter.” To whom? To Meursault? To the girl? To life in general?
The narrator did seem very genuine in Part Two, and I was thankful for the honesty of Camus here, especially the part where Meursault is thinking about escape. That rang true for his character. But the whole story felt like a vehicle to raise a discussion of the existence of God or the afterlife or lack thereof at the end.
To put it mildly, I felt short-changed. Maybe if I had read it in French I would have formed a different opinion. Or maybe it would have seemed like a breath of fresh air if I had read it in the 1940s or 50s. Who knows.
I enjoyed the descriptions of the beach and the heat. The murder irritated me, because I wasn’t buying the motivation for it.
The cover art was cool… Probably I’m missing something important.
A friend of mine said she LOVED this book, but sadly it was lost on me.
By Joseph Conrad; Wordsworth; Editions Limited; @1995; first published before television in 1899; 74 pages.
At 74 pages, this may be the longest book I’ve ever read in my life. Whereas the story of the Heart of Darkness has some interest in it, the telling is excruciating. I’ve heard about this story for as long as I can remember, so I was convinced there must be something to it.
You would think it would be interesting what with the setting in the Congo and the ivory, the mysterious Kurtz, and cannibals on-board a tin can of a boat going down a river. And the fog. I love fog!
But the terrors do not come in the suspense of the story, but in the awful drudgery of wading through it, rather like wading through a muddy river bottom after a soaking rain and having to struggle for each step forward until the muddy bog finally releases your rubber boots with an awful sucking noise—thwup!
By Mary Shelley; Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.; @ 1818; my edition is 2004; 284 pages.
Believe it or not, Frankenstein shows up on many of the “to read” book lists.
I picked up Frankenstein because I’m tired of love stories. The story begins in Russia as our first narrator tells of his ambition to explore the North Pole. While in Archangel, he has a bit of boat and ice trouble and runs into Victor Frankenstein, a man who has a tragic story to tell. The rest of the story takes place in Switzerland.
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was only 21.
And it appears she was quite scandalous for her time. She and Percy Shelley had an affair while he was still married. His wife, Harriet, not too long afterwards, committed suicide by drowning herself in a lake. Mary and Percy Shelley married soon thereafter. A few years later Percy Shelley also drowned in a boating accident. Quite a lot going on for a young female author of the early 1800s.
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as the result of a bet to see who out of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and she could write the scariest story. Byron and Shelley never finished a book-length story, and Percy urged Mary to complete what she had started.
At its core, Frankenstein is a story about unchecked ambition and the consequences of disturbing the order of nature. In explanation of the subtitle, in Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods to enable human progress and civilization. He is credited with the creation of man from clay. He was punished for his theft by Zeus, who sentenced Prometheus to eternal torment. Prometheus was bound to a rock, where every day an eagle was sent to feed on his liver. His liver would grow back every day, and every day the ordeal would be repeated. Nice, eh?
And while I didn’t want to think about love, the story shows the consequences of the deprivation of love. The monster turns evil because there is no one on Earth who can love his hideous form, not even his creator.
I found the structure of the story interesting. We have the first narrator, who has his goal of visiting the North Pole. He meets Victor Frankenstein, who then begins telling his tale in the first person. Then the monster Frankenstein’s story is told through Victor and also is portrayed in the first person. Then we come back out as Victor begins speaking again, and finally the first narrator takes over. The monster Frankenstein was very well spoken. That didn’t seem to ring true to me, even though it is explained in the story.
I have not seen the Frankenstein movies, so I have nothing to compare this to other than Young Frankenstein with Gene Wilder. So this book is nothing like that. It’s a pretty good read. I wasn’t scared, but I was intrigued.
This novel was a nice diversion. And what a tear jerker! Oh my goodness. I was so sad to see our main character, Concha, leave the Sonoran desert. Here’s a nice description of her homeland as told by the last female narrator in the book:
I realized that I missed the intense light of the Sonoran Desert—light unaccompanied by a proximity to water. The light in Sonora reduced every item on which it fell to its elemental self—light and dark, substance and shadow, reflection and absorption.”
Concha, a young girl from the now extinct Opata tribe, is forced to flee with her family from their tribal lands in the Sonoran desert of Mexico. She left everything behind, even her real name. The story follows her journey to Tucson, Arizona, and the course of her life and also the first part of her daughter Rosa’s young adult life. This is the story of their “legacy of dislocation.”
I loved this book until the last section, which brought the reader into the present. I was so involved with the characters in the first and middle sections that I had really high hopes for the ending. There were elements of magical realism sprinkled around in various places that I just love anyway, but to me, the ending missed its mark. The imagery of the sea could have been brought in and tied to the beginning, and I really wanted a stronger idea of how the last character related to the first two.
I couldn’t understand the final female protagonist. She seemed weak. She did things that I didn’t want her to do and that I didn’t understand. I get where she was coming from (trying not to be a spoiler here), but I guess I needed to understand more about her before I could accept her weakness, her perceived lack of options, and at least one instance of really poor judgement.
The last line threw me too. I didn’t understand it. I think I missed a huge point. As I turn it over in my mind, I still don’t know for sure.
Kathleen Alcalá creates a interesting structure for this novel. The point of view changes several times and for several reasons throughout the book. I found it interesting and risky, but it works.
Alcalá uses Spanish to make many of her main points. If you don’t speak Spanish, get out your dictionary or you’ll miss some things. There were only a few words I didn’t know, so I got a kick out of it. But for non-Spanish-speaking readers, I’m not sure the context is enough to give the meaning of the Spanish words.
And maybe that’s the point, but it’s a risk to leave your reader in the dark.
I definitely want to read more from this author. She also wrote Spirits of the Ordinary.
Here is a quote from the beginning of the book that I found interesting, and it seems to directly relate to the relationship between Concha and Rosa:
Amid those internal changes
Your skull fills with a new life,
and instead of thoughts, has flowers.”
Manual Acuña, from “Before a Corpse”
Y en medio de esos cambios interiores
tu cráneo lleno de una nueva vida,
en vez de pensamientos dará flores.”
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater promises to be a satirical science fiction story about money. It’s ok; I wouldn’t race out to buy it or read it. Eliot Rosewater (our protagonist), heir to the vast Rosewater fortune, a man with total love for humanity and thus teetering on the verge of raving lunacy, has destroyed the word “love.”
One of the characters complains: “Eliot did to the word love what the Russians did to the word democracy. If Eliot is going to love everybody, no matter what they do, then those of us who love particular people for particular reasons had better find ourselves a new word.”
Kurt Vonnegut is very odd. Of course I knew this. I have read several of his books. Here is an excerpt I found interesting. Apparently, when people want to do something nice for Eliot Rosewater, they come by his office to help him get rid of flies. Vonnegut describes two methods for doing this. Here is the second:
The tumbler-and-soapsuds technique worked like this: A woman would look for a fly hanging upside down. She would then bring her tumbler of suds directly under the fly very slowly, taking advantage of the fact that an upside-down-fly, when approached by danger, will drop straight down two inches or more, in a free fall, before using his wings. Ideally, the fly would not sense danger until it [the tumbler] was directly below him, and he would obligingly drop into the suds to be caught, to work his way down through the bubbles, to drown.
Of this technique Eliot often said: ‘Nobody believes it until she tries it. Once she finds out it works, she never wants to quit.’”
But about money:
It’s still possible for an American to make a fortune on his own.
Sure—provided somebody tells him when he’s young enough that there is a Money River, that there’s nothing fair about it, that he had damn well better forget about hard work and the merit system and honesty and all that crap, and get to where the river is.
[Of course, this is not my view. I am merely relating the bitterness of Vonnegut, who himself worked hard and did pretty darn well.]
For me the story finally picks up with the tale of Fred Rosewater, the long lost relative of the Rosewater clan, who lives in poverty, not knowing that he is the heir to millions—the American dream.
He learns of this, just as he is about to be caught in the embarrassing act of killing himself.
I wasn’t sure what Pearls Before Swine meant, but after researching the phrase, it seems to have particular significance. Food for thought anyway.
Matthew 7:6 “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”
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.
By Mohsin Hamid; @ 2007, Harcourt Books; 184 pages.
It is late afternoon, and you are an American on the streets of Lahore, Pakistan. Perhaps you are lost. Maybe you are seeking the perfect cup of tea. That might be your excuse if anyone should ask. A Pakistani man approaches you.
“Excuse me,” he says. He wants to know if he may be of some assistance. “Do not be frightened by my beard,” he says. He tells you that he is a lover of America, and you appear to be on a mission.
Anyone who has ever been assailed by kindness, trapped in a conversation or situation on the pretense of maintaining good manners can relate to the dynamics constructed by Mohsin Hamid in the Reluctant Fundamentalist. Page one hooks the reader by offering an intriguing interpersonal dynamic. Who is our narrator? Is he an ordinary man or out to do someone harm? Who is he addressing? Is his American conversant an innocent tourist, a businessman, or a spy?
As readers, we can only eavesdrop on the conversation from the narrator’s point of view. No matter, because it appears that the narrator, Changez, is happy to do most of the talking. Changez escorts the American to a café where they can have a perfect cup of tea. Changez begins to tell the story of his time in America. Why does Changez need to tell this story? Why is tonight a “night of some importance”? Will this be the American’s last meal?
The story of Changez in America begins around the time of his graduation from Princeton. To celebrate, he goes on a trip to Greece with a group of Americans. In Greece, he falls in love with Erica, an American girl his group. Changez takes the relationship slowly. He wants more, even marriage, but there is something holding Erica back.
Changez soon lands a coveted position at an American valuation company called Underwood Samson. At 22, he is making $80,000 a year. It is intense work, but after three years, Changez can depend on acceptance to Harvard Business School. At Underwood Samson, success requires employees to focus on the “fundamentals.” Only the fundamentals of companies are acceptable measures to determine their value. Underwood Samson’s assessments often result in job losses, and empathy for employees can only impair the assessment. Changez excels at his work. He focuses on the fundamentals.
Shortly after Changez is hired, the terrorist attacks of September 11 compel him to re-evaluate his identity. He goes home to Pakistan to see his family. Nuclear tensions are high between India and Pakistan after September 11, and Changez is concerned war will break out between the two countries. He feels guilty about returning to his job in New York instead of staying with his family through this crisis. On his flight back to the United States, he notes:
I found it ironic; children and the elderly were meant to be sent away from impending battles, but in our case it was the fittest and brightest who were leaving, those who in the past would have been most expected to remain. I was filled with such contempt for myself…
After Changez returns to the United States, he sees things differently. He is no longer eager to please his employer. He becomes defiant and stops shaving his beard. People mistake him for a terrorist. He is angry and begins to realize that something is wrong with Erica.
As afternoon becomes evening, and evening turns into night, Changez and the American eat at the café. The courses of their meal, served by a large, ominous waiter, pace the story. Eventually, it becomes clear why Changez gave up his career in the United States and returned to Pakistan.
Mohsin Hamid is a master of psychological introspection. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is filled with unexpected developments and metaphors. Questions arise, such as: How should we make decisions about our world? and Is it possible to separate the fundamentals from the big picture? Goals and aspirations are weighed against loyalties and ways of seeing the world. Do Changez’s experiences in the United States lead him to embrace religious fundamentalism once he returns home? The reader isn’t sure. This creates great suspense.
Because of Changez’s journey and knowing what he has decided to give up, the reader expects Changez to act decisively. During dinner, Changez tells the American, “Here we are not squeamish when it comes to facing the consequences of our desire.” What is the result of this one-way baring of souls? What will happen after dinner?
The Reluctant Fundamentalist illustrates the difficulties encountered when trying to bridge the gap that has been widened by cultural distrust. When fear is a factor for both sides, one can only hope it is not too late.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Moshin Hamid’s second novel. His first novel, Moth Smoke, won a Betty Trask award and was a PEN/Hemingway Award finalist.
————–The BBC World Book Club interviewed Mohsid Hamid about the Reluctant Fundamentalist. You can listen to that interview here:
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.
By Nicole Krauss; @ 2005 by W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 252 pages.
The History of Love is an engaging page turner. I laughed out loud once and cried twice.
Krauss shows incredible skill in handling the different narrators in this book. She writes convincingly as both of her protagonists, Leo Gursky and Alma Singer. Krauss also writes from the point of view of Bird, and for a brief time, I believe, takes on the omniscent narrator.
If the whole thing were written from Leo’s point of view, I guess Krauss couldn’t have introduced the twists and turns she did, but Leo felt the most authentic to me.
Krauss also has many memorable poetic insights that I found especially interesting:
At times I believed that the last page of my book and the last page of my life were one and the same, that when my book ended I’d end, a great wind would sweep through my rooms carrying the pages away, and when the air cleared of all those fluttering white sheets the room would be silent, the chair where I sat would be empty.”
Once upon a time there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered and everything was possible. A stick could be a sword. A pebble could be a diamond. A tree a castle.”
I recommend The History of Love. I could understand the motivations of the characters, but I also found it frustrating. I had a hard time relating to the choices that Leo made—choices that made him unhappy. I don’t think he realized that he was making choices, but he was. Happiness is a choice, and sometimes a hard one. Despair is also a choice, one I’d rather my protagonists not make. Maybe Leo’s character had to make the choices he did, but I’m not entirely convinced.
[Re-reading my entry, I find myself a bit preachy above. Happiness is a choice, I say so easily, so knowingly. And, I suppose you can rid yourself of those things/people who make you unhappy. Ground yourself in routine. Put on your blinders and refuse to notice those things that make you think and bring you down. Now, however, I’m more inclined to believe that Unhappiness is the choice, but happiness—well, that is a gift.]