Archive for the '2013 Books' Category

“The Karamazov Brothers” Book 12: Judicial Mistake

Sunday, August 18th, 2013


Oh, did you notice the change in the wording of the title and the book cover? That’s because I was fortunate to find a used copy of the Oxford World’s Classics edition, titled (more appropriately?) The Karamazov Brothers. In Russian, the word ‘brothers’ comes first, but in English, it would not, no? Unless they were a circus show. And while it might be argued that this book is a kind of circus–A CIRCUS OF CRAZY–I still like this title better. And having read the longest segment of it from this translation, I like this far better than the Pevear/Volokhonsky which has irritated me continuously throughout this readalong. This tells me two things. One, new is not necessarily better, just a cash cow for the publisher. And c, I have liked every Oxford World’s Classics edition I’ve read it. The notes are a good balance of helpful without being information dumps while also not interrupting the text with something that can be gleaned in context.

And now, on to our longest segment.

Book 12, titled Judicial Mistake (what do you think the narrator REALLY thinks about the result? WHICH HE HIMSELF CREATED.) could also be titled Dmitri’s Trial. And my irreverent brain would often supply the “chung chung” sounds of Law & Order as this segment unfolded.

Imagine how this book could be adapted to the various L & O series, such as Original Recipe and Criminal Intent? Someone should totally do this if it hasn’t been done already. I’m checking Youtube now…nope, doesn’t exist. You are welcome to the idea, anyone.

Anyhoo, I digress; back to the book.

Ch 1: The Fateful Day. The trial begins. Lots of gawkers, especially women, who are fascinated by Dmitri. It’s Fetyukovich, the famous city lawyer hired by Katerina, on defense and Ippolit Kirillovich for the prosecution. Dmitri finds out Smerkyakov is dead and shouts. The judge tells him to zip it. This will happen a lot over the next many chapters.

Ch 2: Dangerous Witnesses. The initial testimony by the witnesses for the prosecution are pretty damning. One by one, though, Fetyukovich knocks them down. The main ingredient in Grigori’s back-pain tonic? Vodka, and lots of it. Rakitin? Took money from Grushenka. Innkeeper? Stole from a drunk Dmitri. The Poles? Cheated at cards. Dmitri shouts; judge admonishes.

Ch 3: Medical Evidence and a Pound of Nuts. Three doctors give three opinions. Herzenstube, the elderly town doctor, says D is abnormal and thus should’ve looked to the ladies when he walked in. Famous city doctor says D is manic and prone to fits of passion. (You don’t say!) Third, young doctor says D is perfectly normal. Dmitri shouts agreement; judge admonishes him to shut up. Herzenstube comes back to tell a heartwarming story about giving a pound of nuts to starving Dmitri in childhood. D came back in adulthood to thank him.

Ch 4: Fortune Smiles on Mitya: Alyosha, Katerina and Grushenka all claim Dmitri’s innocence, though with no concrete proof. Alyosha recalls an incident that would support Dmitri’s claim about having 1500 of the original 3K roubles from Katerina in a pouch about his neck. Grushenka outs Rakitin as her cousin (an interesting late stage reveal), further discrediting the little weasel.

Ch 5: Unexpected Catastrophe. Catastrophe, thy name is Ivan. When he finally takes the stand, Ivan is initially reticent, begins to leave, then pulls out the 3K roubles*, begins to rave that Smerdyakov did it and is removed into medical care. Katerina jumps into the fray, pulling out the damning letter from a drunk Dmitri, raving, and is removed into medical care. In this translation, the letter is referred to as “Proof beyond all shadow of a doubt” which makes much more sense to me than the Pevear’s “mathematical proof.” Dmitri shouts; the judge shouts back. Grushenka shouts. A very loud chapter.

*Not for the first time, I imagined Dmitri trailing FP, like the little paperboy on the bike in Better Off Dead, shouting, “Thee Thousand! Three Thousand! I want my three thousand!” Am I alone in this?

Some thoughts on Smerdyakov. Ivan’s reaction to the devil in the book 11 reminded me of his weird reactions to Smerdyakov in all their previous encounters–he is unsettled by ugly truths, has violent impulses and is talking to someone about something that no one else will believe. We were told that FP could have been the father, but not that he was.

Could Smerdyakov be….THE DEVIL?!

Ch 6: Prosecutor’s Speech. Character Sketch. Oy, this was a long one with those pages-long paragraphs. Kirillovich makes closing arguments. This is the first of four chapters he takes to do so. He introduces us to the idea that we are all Karamazovian–capable of extreme highs and dreadful degradations.

Ch 7: Background History. In a nutshell, prosecutor says Dmitri did it, and his past behavior indicates premeditation.

Ch 8: More About Smerdyakov. In a nutshell, he says Smerdyakov didn’t do it, Dmitri did, and that he doesn’t believe Dmitri checked back on Grigori.

Ch 9: Psychology Let Loose, Galloping Troika, The Prosecutor’s summing up. The end of the closing argument, which is so taxing that Kirillovich faints after, which would not have surprised me in a non-consumptive character after 4 chapters of blathering on. In a nutshell: Dmitri did it, and convicting him would stop Russia from going to hell in a handbasket, or “galloping depravity” which phrase I liked a lot. The end of the chapter has the public commenting on K’s comments, which reminded me of the chorus aspects in Dickens’ murder mystery, Bleak House.

Ch 10: Defense Counsel’s Speech: All Things to All Men. Psychology cuts both ways. Fetyukovich gets some laughs, while Kirillovich had gotten applause.

Ch 11: There Was No Money, There Was No Robbery. Yep.

Ch 12: Neither Was There a Murder. More accurately, there was not a murder by Dmitri but could’ve been by Smerdyakov.

Ch 13: Truth Perverted. Says even if Dmitri _did_ kill his father, FP was such a terrible person that it didn’t count as patricide. (Pevear uses “parricide” which can refer to the murder of either the mother/father, where Avsey uses the more specific and familiar and readable patricide for murder of one’s father.) Says Russia is a chariot, not a runaway troika.

Ch 14: Trust the Peasants! (referring to the jury) Fetyukovich is applauded. Kirillovich, again conscious, is outraged and argues back. Fetyukovich responds calmly. Dmitri again declares his innocence. Jury goes out, returns quickly (which we all know is a bad sign in a murder case, thanks to L & O) and declares him guilty on all counts. Guess what happened? “A terrible chaos ensued.” The men rub hands in glee, the women wring theirs in distress. Dmitri yells then cries. Grushenka shrieks. Dmitri is led away. Again, a very loud chapter, which closes with the chorus again.

“Twenty years down the mines.”

“At least.”

“Trust the peasants!”

“They really did for poor old Mitenka!”


This was our penultimate section! We’re in the home stretch, with just the Epilogue and the Introduction to discuss next week.

What did everyone else think?

“The Giver” by Lois Lowry

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

Ah, to revisit books of the past. I last read The Giver in the mid 90’s before I had kids, and before I went to grad school, and before I read all the books I’ve read since then.

The Giver depicts a utopian society in which all members are regulated, safe, fed, housed, and cared for. When young Jonas is selected to be the Receiver of Memory, we slowly learn through his eyes what the costs to this “utopia” entail. It ends with a famously ambiguous scene, that I was disappointed to learn that Lowry explains in a later book. I only read one sequel, Gathering Blue, which didn’t propel me to read the rest.

Superficially, The Giver is a Good Book, a Classic. Jonas is easy to relate to, a sweet kid who learns and is pained by dark truths. But the conflict at the end hinges on one of my least favorite cliches, the YOUNG CHILD IN PERIL. Jonas makes a “choice” that’s not really a choice–it’s obvious. I wanted that choice to be more complicated, to have more consequences. And it does have a possible consequence in its ambiguous ending, but only one for the individual, not for the many.

I said this in my review of Matched, but a good dystopia should make the conflict between freedom and safety more complicated, as Ursula LeGuin did in her story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas“. The benefits of safety are dismissed too easily by white kids of privilege. Of course they’d find it easy to dismiss. But what about people who’d undergone poverty, starvation, war, etc? Mightn’t they make a different choice? And might not they be considered in a white-kid protagonist’s decision? Not in these books.

One interesting thing to me: I read the ending differently this time. I made a note when I read it last time what I thought happened, and this time I felt the opposite. There is power in that ending, which is why I wish Lowry had left it ambiguous.

Edited to add: The world of The Giver is communist, so much so that I was often reminded of the North Korea from Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, e.g., when announcements were made by loudspeaker and people disappeared under a cloud of euphemisms.So then isn’t The Giver at its core just: “Communism is Bad; Individuality and Freedom are Good. Go, ‘Merica!”?

I just finished reading The Karamazov Brothers, and one line from the famous chapter ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ reminded me of The Giver and the other dystopian novels because it sums up the central conflict:

And they will come to understand that freedom together with an abundance of earthly bread for all is inconceivable, for they will never, never learn to share among themselves. (317, Oxford World’s Classics)

“Matched” by Allie Condie

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

I’m on a dystopian bender lately, so I was curious to see the world Allie Condie imagined for her Matched trilogy. I didn’t realize it at the time, but was reminded by a reviewer at Goodreads, that the Matched dystopian future is largely that of Lois Lowry’s Newbery Award winning The Giver. Yes, Condie expands on it, somewhat, but the building blocks are the same: totalitarian government, mates and jobs chosen for individuals, restrictions on activities, and constant surveillance.

Condie’s protagonist is Cassia Reyes, a 15 year old girl. Like Jonas in The Giver, she slowly comes to realize the restrictions of her world, and the freedoms that have been taken away. The catalyst in this teen book marketed to girls, though, is a chaste love triangle. Cassia is matched with her best friend Xander, but a glitch in the system says she is also matched with Ky, who has a complicated history. It’s a similar triangle to that of The Hunger Games, with Xander as Peeta and Ky as Gale, though this one will end with Cassia and Ky together. No need to read the next two books for that. For that matter, probably no need to read this book–one can just tell from the back copy.

I was not at all moved or interested in the love triangle. I found it predictable and dull. Cassia was not a particularly interesting narrator to me. I longed for flawed, impulsive, gawky Meg from L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, even as Cassia’s world reminded me of the one in that book, Camazotz.

The plot turns over a supposedly difficult decision Cassia has to make. I found the decision contrived, Cassia’s action (and its complementary better action) predictable, and the result also predictable, although it was meant be be moving and involving.

What interested me in this book were aspects of the world Condie expanded on from the Giver: how 100 works were chosen from each art, so that all citizens could have a similar cultural legacy (which reminds me of E.D. Hirsch, who I never liked, precisely because of the totalitarian, exclusionary, privileged bias his campaign for Cultural Literacy implied to me.) and how works survived beyond those that were selected.

I was also interested in how the society let individuals opt to be Matched or Single. The benefits of being Single were never explored, and I wished they had been. And this is an example of the overall problem I had with the book. A good dystopian tale pushes the reader to examine the compromises between freedom and safety. Ursula K. Leguin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” did this back in ‘73, and hers was an homage overtly to William James, and perhaps less consciously to Dostoevsky, who I happen to be reading now, in a lovely weird bit of synchronicity.

But in Matched, like The Giver and The Hunger Games and even A Wrinkle in Time, the deck is stacked, and the utopian society is a straw man. There’s not enough complexity to it, not enough benefit seen of the other side, to make it interested and complicated. And the lesson it’s conveying of the importance of individual freedom, choice, and creativity is pretty worn by now, having been explored more presciently in such works as Brave New World and 1984. Many would say it’s a lesson worth telling again and again. In Matched, I just wished it were surrounded by a better, less derivative story.

“The Brothers Karamazov” Book Eleven

Monday, August 12th, 2013


Welcome back to the summer readalong of Dostoevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov. At 93 pages, “Book Eleven: Brother Ivan Karamazov” is the second longest section of the book, which will be book twelve, next week. And remember all those early books where stuff didn’t happen? I think it’s because Dostoevsky packed it all into Book 11. boy howdy, did things happen this week. Additionally, I think an appropriate subtitle might be Varieties of Mental Illness because we got a whopping load of that this week. And now, my slapdash, irreverent summary.

Ch 1: At Grushenka’s. Alyosha goes to see Grusha, who has been ill with distress. I was bothered by the contradiction between:

“There was no trace, for example, of her former frivolity.”

And, a few lines later:

“Grushenka still had not lost her former youthful gaiety.”

Am I wrong? Is it Dostoevsky? Is it the translation?

Maximov is staying with her, and I loved the description of him as a “wandering sponger.” We learn that Grusha and Dmitri have been fighting and are jealous: she of Katerina, he of her former Polish lover. We learn that Ivan and Dmitri are plotting something.

Ch 2: An Ailing Little Foot Alyosha is our everyman and the eyes through which we see most of what happens in this section. He goes to the Khokhlakov’s. Mme has a hurt foot, and has been receiving the attention of Perkhotin, but now that weaselly Rakitin is trying to worm his way into the affections of this rich widow. She is anxious because of a libelous (because it’s in print, right?) piece tying her and Dmitri romantically. She’s also anxious because of the rivalry between Perkhotin and Rakitin. She informs Alyosha that Ivan came to visit Lise, which upset the girl.

Ch 3: A Little Demon. Does this describe the visions Lise is having, or herself? In any case, I think Lise is on the Crazy Train, leaving Bi-polar on her way to Schizophrenia. She admits having dark thoughts to Alyosha, which include an ugly anti-Semitic dream about Jews eating children. Alyosha says he understands her dream of demons, which only makes her more enraged so she slams her finger in the door purposefully.

Ch 4: A Hymn and a Secret. Alyosha visits Dmitri in jail. Dmitri wants to be a martyr, and die for other people’s sins.

I wondered who is the “them” in this sentence from p 587:

“Me, friends with Mikhail? No, not really. Why would I be, the swine! He considers me…a scoundrel. And he doesn’t understand jokes–that’s the main trouble with them.

Later, as he continues his ranting, Dmitri moves away from Christianity and says he’s sorry for God, because of the advent of science.

Chemistry, brother, chemistry! Move over a little, Your Reverence, there’s no help for it, chemistry’s coming!

Though it’s not mentioned directly here, Dostoevsky was influenced by the works of Lyell and Darwin:

Then Dmitri goes into a roller-coaster series of mood swings over the next few pages: worried, hot, excited, rapture shifts to breathless pale, trembling and tearful. Two pages later he’s laughing almost gaily. On the next he’s glum and terribly worried. And the next paragraph made him sound completely CRAZYTOWNBANANAPANTS:

He looked around, quickly went up to Alyosha, who was standing before him and whispered to him with a mysterious air, though in fact no one could hear them: the old guard was nodding on his bench in the corner, and not a word could reach the sentries.

“I’ll reveal our whole secret to you!”

And in the next two pages he’s in a frenzy with a feverish look, pleading, and then a page later is suddenly quite pale in the frenzy, and finishes by almost swooning.

I found this scene exhausting to read; how must it have been for poor Alyosha to experience?

Ch 5: Not You! Not You! Alyosha finds Ivan leaving Katerina’s, and declaring he doesn’t care for her. Ivan rips up Lise’s letter, asks Alyosha who he thinks murdered their father, then runs off. Ivan decides to go see Smerdyakov.

Ch 6: The First Visit to Smerdyakov. In a time flashback, Ivan has a psychologically twisted confrontation in the hospital with his half brother, who is suffering in the aftermath of the attack he claims happened on the day FP was killed.

Ch 7: The Second Visit. Smeryakov accuses Ivan of being complicit in FP’s death. Katerina provides a letter from Dmitri that sounds like a plan to have killed FP that is repeatedly referred to as “a mathematical proof.” Again, is it the translation, or an archaic usage, because it seems to me that scientific or concrete would be more fitting.



Smerdyakov did it! He pulls out the 3K roubles to prove it and accuses Ivan of being the mastermind. Ivan says he’s going to tell all. On his way out, he helps a peasant he’d knocked unconscious, earlier. He decides he’ll put off confessing till the trial the next day, then returns home to stare at an empty couch.

Ch 9: The Devil. Ivan Fyodorovich’s Nightmare. In which Ivan boards the Crazy Train. Understatement:

things will go badly. (635).

Ivan has an imaginary conversation with the devil, in a long chapter that reminded me a great deal of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, though a quick search doesn’t turn up evidence for Lewis’ book being influenced by this chapter. It goes on and on until finally brought to a close by–guess who?–Alyosha! at the window. Poof. Devil gone. A says that Smerdyakov has hanged himself.

Ch 10: “He Said That!” In which Ivan raves, and Alyosha prays for him.

I found this one of the most engaging, forward-moving of the book sections so far. So many revelations! So much crazy!

What did everyone else think?

“Brothers Karamazov” Readalong Book X: Boys

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013


Welcome back to the 10th week of this Brothers Karamazov summer readalong. This week’s section Book 10: Boys was short but introduced a seemingly important new character, 14-year-old Kolya Krasotkin. I’ll try to keep this week’s summary short, too.

Ch 1: Kolya is 14, his father died, he’s indulged by his mother but admired by boys for pranks such as lying down under a passing train, has a trained dog named Perezvon, and, in one of the author’s frequent Oh-By-The-Way comments, we learn Kolya was the one stabbed by the sick boy Ilyusha (son of “whisk broom”) whom we met way back in Book IV.

Ch 2: Kids: Kolya likes little children and often looks after the children of his mom’s friend, neighbor and single mother, the doctor’s wife. But this night, he’s trying to get out of the house, has to wait for the servant Agafya to return to watch the kids, and is snippy with her when she does finally get back.

Ch 3: A Schoolboy. Kolya meets up with another boy, Smurov. Ilyusha has fallen ill since the rock throwing incident, and has cried out for a dog named Zhuchka and a visit from Kolya. On the way, Kolya attempts to interact with the peasants in the market to show his open-mindedness, but they see him for the ignorant child he is. At Ilyusha’s, he sends Smurov in to fetch Alexei out to him.

Ch 4: Zhuchka. The dog Ilyusha longs for is one he injured in a prank that Smerdyakov showed him. Ilyusha felt guilty, Kolya cruelly broke ties with him, but this made Ilyusha a target of bullies (Kolya had previously protected him) leading to the stabbing, rock throwing and present illness. Kolya is eager for Alexei’s approval.

Ch 5: At Ilyusha’s Bedside. Kolya goes in, sees all the other schoolkids, is welcomed but alarmed at how sick Ilyusha is, then is strangely cruel to Ilyusha, and calls in Perezvon to do showy tricks; he claims its the missing Zhuchka.

Ch 6: Precocity. Kolya attempts to impress Alexei with his worldliness. Like the marketers, Alexei recognizes a young, ignorant, awkward boy and is kind. Kolya is reassured by this.

Ch 7: Ilyusha. The doctor, sent and paid for by Mrs. Khokhlakov, is disdainful of the poor house and family. He recommends expensive and difficult traveling cures, then dismissively announces that Ilyusha will die soon. Kolya feels terrible (rightly, IMO) about not having visited little Ilyusha. This chapter is extremely sad–there was a lot of dust in the room that got in my eyes when I was reading this, as Alan Sepinwall sometimes says.

So, we get Kolya, who may appear again, and obviously has some redemption he’s looking for. Ilyusha probably won’t recover. (In this, he reminds me of poor Little Jo in Dickens’ Bleak House). It’s an intriguing short diversion from the main murder/Dmitri plot to which we’ll return in next week’s longer section.

Only 3 sections to go!

What did everyone else think?

“World Made by Hand” by James Howard Kunstler

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013


My friend M from Mental Multivitamin recommended James Howard Kunstler’s novel, World Made by Hand, years ago. I saw him speak at a book festival after the sequel was published. He was an engaging, if irascible, speaker who had no qualms about criticizing Minneapolis streets and its downtown. Coming from any other artist, this might be construed as an insult. Yet JHK (whose last name is unwieldy to pronounce and whose mispronunciation might be misconstrued by my kids) is a writer of both fiction and non-, with a focus on suburban sprawl and energy (mis)use. So while his critique might not be polite, it was, perhaps, true, and I wish I could recall whether he discussed exactly what annoyed him about downtown Minneapolis other than the one-way streets, and Nicollet Avenue which is, like one of the big tree streets in Philly–Walnut? Chestnut?–closed to car traffic but open to bikes buses and emergency vehicles.

In World Made by Hand, JHK merges his two areas of non-fiction interest into a fictional tale of a future upstate New York. The oil has run out, bombs have been dropped, illnesses have devastated the population, and those who remain now live in post-industrial communities of various sorts: agricultural communities, religious enclaves, lord and serf, ruler and subject.

The narrator is Robert Earl, a former computer man of a certain age, who is a woodworker, fiddler, widower and all-around decent, hyper-competent guy. Soon after he and his friend Loren, the town’s preacher, encounter a religious group about to settle in the town, an act of violence occurs that shakes the town and Robert out of complacency, putting many gears in motion that play out interestingly over the course of the novel. One question that plays through till the end are whether the religious group is benevolent, malevolent, or perhaps both. This intertwines with the other question of whether the initial act of violence will be ignored, or taken up in a return to justice.

The tensions and drama pulled me through the novel briskly. I very much enjoyed pondering JHK’s vision of a post-oil society, and recognizing some truths that would have been obvious had I ever had occasion to give them thought before: something as simple as no black pepper, or how bicycles would not be useful because parts would be irreplaceable after time, but more critical would be the roads disintegrating.

We didn’t have coffee anymore, or any caffeinated substitutes for it. I made a pot of rose-hip tea, which was our chief source of vitamin C, and fried up three slices of Jane Ann’s brown bread with plenty of butter in a cast-iron skillet that I had owned by entire adult life–I actually remembered buying it in a Target store… (25)

Alas, sometimes the description became more preachy, when the narrator related opinions on oil consumption, suburban housing, and more. A handful of times, I could feel JHK’s soapbox underneath the narrator’s feet, and I wished for a better integration of lesson and story.

A few other things kept me from full-on loving this story. There is a dearth of female characters, but those there are don’t interact (i.e., fails the Bechdel test) and three of the four most prominent sleep or want to sleep with the narrator. This reminded me of Stiegg Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist–a dashing journalist and detective who was irresistible to women. I would have appreciated it if Robert had been less idealized, and like JHK, and surrounded by better developed characters. There were plenty of potentially interesting characters, but we learned so little about them in this book that I can only hope that fleshing them out is part of the sequel, The Witch of Hebron.

As the book winds up, there are elements of horror, magic, and the grotesque brought in that reminded me of Stephen King. These were interesting, but perhaps contrary to what I felt worked best–the complex communities and lifestyle changes that develop in the wake of a post-oil USA. Again, perhaps the surreal elements get fuller treatment in the sequel, but I felt these elements both added and took away from this story.

With these concerns, though, I still recommend the book. It has me thinking on energy use, and curious to read books such as Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (Weisman is a blurber for this book) and Maggie Koerth Baker’s Before the Lights Go Out. I plan to read the sequel, The Witch of Hebron. And in the meantime, I’ll be thinking about what kind of skills it might be useful for me to brush up on in case the lights go out in our lifetime. Because blogging sure wouldn’t be one of them.

Brothers Karamazov Book IX: The Preliminary Investigation

Saturday, July 27th, 2013


Welcome to the summer readalong of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. This is a little early because of various scheduling snafus. We’re on week 9, which finds us in Mokroye, where Dmitri has just been accused of murdering his father.

My favorite line in this section was one describing the deputy prosecutor Ippolit Kirillovich:

It appeared the whole trouble with his character was that he had a somewhat higher opinion of himself than his real virtues warranted. (452)

Overall, I found this section much easier to read than previous ones, and that it moved at a faster clip. I suspect this has a lot to do with the murder that was talked about for the first half of the book finally happening, albeit off stage in the last book. In this section, we get details.

Ch 1: The Start of the Official Perkhotin’s Career. This picks up where book 7 left off, with Perkhotin banging on the door at Grushenka’s. Fenya tells him about Dmitri’s earlier visit when he was covered in blood. Perkhotin thinks about going to Fyodor’s house, is afraid, but visits Mme. Khokhlakov’s instead. She tells him she didn’t give Dmitri money, and in a weird twist, Perkhotin finds he fancies her:

“She’s not as old as all that, ” he thought with pleasure. “On the contrary I might have taken her for her own daughter.”

And then our narrator drops another Foreshadowing Bomb: this incident:

served as the foundaiton for the whole life’s career of that precise and accurate young man, which is still recalled with astonishment in our town, and of which we, too, shall perhaps have a special word to say, once we have concluded our long story of the Karamazov Brothers.

Withholding little cusser, is our narrator.

Ch 2: The Alarm. Perkhotin goes to the house of MMM, the commissioner of police (which phrase I will forever and always associate with Jim Gordon, of Batman), who was having a party with several other important people, had been interrupted by Marfa with the news of FPs murder. Marfa in fact had not slept the sleep of the drugged, but had been awoken by Smerdyakov screaming in a way that usually signalled the beginning of one of his epileptic fits.

Ch 3: The Soul’s Journey through Torments. The First Torment. These torments refer to the interview with Dmitri. We’re back at the inn in Mokroye, where book 8 ended. Dmitri learns that FP is dead but Grigori is alive. He admits to wounding G and denies killing FP, though does say he has said he wanted to many times. Grushenka bursts in and loudly proclaims her guilt. Dmitri has wild mood swings and shouts a lot.

Ch 4: The Second Torment. Dmitri rambles. They question him about the pestle and he offers this convincing answer:

“I grabbed it to keep off the dogs. Or because it was dark…Or just in case.”

Ch 5: The Third Torment. Dmitri is questioned about details when he got to FPs, whether the gate was open, what the signals were and who knew them, and whether Smerdyakov might have done it. Yes, he cries, then changes his mind and says no, he’s a coward. That Dmiti. He’s solid a a rock. Then they start counting the money and things get fishy.

Ch 6: The Prosecutor Cathes Mitya. They tell Dmitri that Grigori’s story contradicts his and that G said the gate was open. They show him the empty envelope from FP’s house, which had “for my chicky” added to its inscription to Grushenka. (Is Grushenka the chicky he’s referring to?)

Ch 7: Mitya’s Great Secret. Met with Hisses. Dmitri tries to say that he had only 1500 roubles that night, not the 3K he’d been loudly claiming. the 1500 were what was left from last month’s 3K from Katerina Ivanovna, and he’d been saving them in an amulet around his neck. They don’t believe him.

Ch 8: The Evidence of the Witnesses. The Wee One. The numbers don’t add up. Dmitri falls asleep, and dreams of a poor woman holding a baby out in the wild. He wakes and signs an affidavit.

Ch 9: Mitya is Taken Away. Parfenovich reads Dmitri the statement and tells him he’s under arrest. Grushenka appears and says she’ll stay with him. He’s taken away. Most won’t meet his eye, but Kalganov shakes his hand, then weeps when Dmitri is gone, convinced of his guilt.

Dmitri seems to be off his meds with mood swings for the record books, and is his own worst enemy, and witness. Completely not believable, and yet, since I don’t know yet what happens, I can speculate. I don’t think he did it with teh pestle in the bedroom. Smerdyakov? Ivan? Someone else of the many people who hated FP?

What did everyone else think?

See you back here in a week. The next section is only 48 pages, so it’s a good week to catch up if you’re behind.

Fairest v2: The Hidden Kingdom GN

Saturday, July 27th, 2013


The long-running comic-book series Fables is one of the more consistently entertaining ones, and I liked the first storyline of Fairest, so thought I’d give the second one, Fairest: The Hidden Kingdom, a try. The theme of Fairest is to focus on backstory of the “pretty princesses.” And interesting backstory it is, with much darker, more kick-butt background than is imagined by little girls playing Disney dress up.

The image above is from the last issue in the storyline. I use it instead of the front or back cover images, which I found more, oh, what word am I looking for here: trashy, salacious, slutty… Just, not for me. One of Rapunzel’s past lovers was a woman, and this story revolves around that relationship. Sometimes I wonder if the creators of Fables are doing equal-opportunity love, or to pander to those who’d snicker and drool behind their hands. I choose to hope for the former.

Rapunzel gets a message via a fleet of killer origami cranes, the first of many visual nods to Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazoaki. After she escaped from the prison tower of her youth from her adoptive mother (Frau Totenkinder in one of her many guises), Rapunzel spent a lot of time in Japan. I read a brief interview with the author, who said that Japanese ghost stories obsessed with hair seemed a natural fit for Rapunzel. She goes in search of one part of her past, but of course things turn out sideways, and she doesn’t get the happy ending she’d imagined. Along the way, we’re given more tantalizing hints about Totenkinder, my favorite character from the Fables-verse.

Like volume 1 about Cinderella, good, and worthwhile but not required reading, and better in pieces than as a whole. Better to start at the beginning of the Fables graphic novels then to jump in here.

“Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse

Saturday, July 27th, 2013


1986. I’m in a class called “The Problem of God” at a Jesuit university taught by an atheist who’d been raised Catholic. One of the required books is Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, and the paper we were required to write on it was in response to the question: “Is it possible to be in the world and not of it?”

I am abashed, because it’s a cliche, to say that this book and some of the others like it jolted me out of the mostly complacent beliefs I’d been raised with in the Episcopal church. I didn’t run out and say I was a Buddhist or get a bumper sticker, but I started saying that I was raised Christian rather than that I was a Christian. Interestingly (or not) nearly 3 decades later, I’m not much more defined in my beliefs. I still wander and wonder, unsettled.

is a fairy tale, based on the life of Gotama Buddha, written by Hesse, a German Protestant. Most Buddhists agree this isn’t a good book about Buddha or Buddhism, but interesting perhaps as a German Protestant’s understanding of Buddhism. Like Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, it’s become a beloved book that perhaps belongs better in pop culture or self help than in religious studies.

Siddhartha and his friend Govinda go out from his wealthy home and become ascetics, then part ways when Govinda decides to follow Gotama Buddha and Siddhartha says he much go his own way, a response in harmony with the Buddha’s teaching that there is no one truth, no one teacher and each person’s answers lie within. Siddhartha wanders, then becomes enmeshed in life when he takes up with a courtesan (an interesting woman, yet the book is obsessed with her lips that look like a ripe fig, and isn’t she really just a variation on the Hooker with a Heart of Gold? and on the sexy older woman who teaches the young man The Ways of Love.) Siddhartha becomes nauseated and suicidal, but listens to the river and reaches a form of enlightenment not unlike the Buddha’s.

This is a lovely little story, stereotypes of women aside. It’s accessible. But I think too often it’s taken as Buddhism, rather than a little sliver of a story about Buddhism written by a white man who wasn’t a Buddhist. And the inaction that is ultimately validated seems antithetic to a world of increased justice and peace.

Some other reviews I found interesting included Keely’s on Goodreads, and one at The Open Critic.

“Buddha” by Karen Armstrong

Saturday, July 27th, 2013


I have a confession to make. Buddha was the first book by Karen Armstrong I’ve read. I minored in religion as an undergrad, and went on to get an MA in religious studies. People have been telling me to read Karen Armstrong ever since A History of God came out. Armstrong is a former Catholic nun, a self-described “freelance monotheist” and well-known as an author of books of world religions. And now, I’m feeling kind of vindicated and no longer that guilty about not reading her books. Because I was not that impressed by her Buddha. It was, to me, “unskilled” in many ways, to use a phrase she deploys in the book.

At the beginning, she sets out the challenge of how to do a biography of a person for whom there is so little historical record. The idea of taking the myths and stories and trying to tease out the commonalities into something approaching fact is an interesting one. Alas, the book was more focused on historical details of The Axial Age on one hand, and some oddly specific psychologizing of its subject, such as what he felt and why he left his wife and child. And Armstrong’s no-comment, no-sympathy treatment of the abandoned wife and child curiously dispassionate to me.

Armstrong started to lose me about page 50, though, when she referred to “yoga” in a way that didn’t make it clear that it is a complex system, not the series of exercise poses that many people know it as. She then goes on at page 56, to describe the “yoga” of the Buddha using negative, restrictive terms such as: “force, bludgeon, denial, cut, refusal, exclude, radical denial, invulnerable, control, impervious, suppress” to decribe “yoga”. Additionally, she uses only the male pronoun, unqualified, to describe any practitioner of yoga. Her source, in the notes, is simply Yoga by Eliade, and all her quotes are from the same source. This is in the paperback edition, so I can fairly criticize BOTH author and editors for such a slack-ass citation. The full citation should have included the full title:
Yoga: Immortality and Freedom by Mircea Eliade and have indicated that it was first published in 1936. Why does Armstrong use a scores-old source written by a white man when she might have used modern critical scholarship by practitioners? Yes, Eliade is one of the most famous figures in religious study. He’s best known for his writing on the sacred/profane, and origin myths. But along with Joseph Campbell, who Armstrong also references in her notes, I think of him as the type of superficial, outsider scholar that is included in most first-year college religion overviews, or on PBS specials, or in pop-culture. I wanted a better source, and to know whose translations of the ancient texts she was using, and why.

Edited to add: I also wondered at Armstrong’s uncritical take on the caste system, presented simply as “this is what it was” rather than as the colonially constructed system posited by Nicholas Dirks in his Castes of Mind.

Finally, I found Armstrong’s book dull and slow, surprising for such a short book about such a fascinating person with such a vast store of myths and legends. Frustrated and disappointed, I pulled out my freshman college copy of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha to compare and contrast, which I’ll write about in another post.

For a more compassionate take on the book that still raises concerns, see this review at Tricycle.

“Dirt Music” by Tim Winton

Saturday, July 27th, 2013

Dirt Music by Tim Winton was a selection for one of my book groups, chosen by an Aussie ex-pat. I’d never heard of Winton, or his books, so this was one of those good choices that I might never have come across otherwise.

Dirt Music is set in Western Australia. It is told in alternating chapters and sections between Georgie Jutland, the dissatisfied girlfriend of the most powerful man in a small fishing town, and Luther Fox, the last remaining member of a family plagued by infamous bad luck. Georgie and Luther come together and apart, and fight against their families, the past and their conceptions of luck and fate. The writing is evocative, and includes lots of Aussie and fishing jargon that I liked to puzzle out in context. Georgie felt more like a man’s ideal of a woman than an actual woman to me but I enjoyed that she was complicated, frequently unlike-able, and didn’t follow a predictable path of redemption. The ending, though, was far too themes-hammered-home and ’splodey for my taste.

The Brothers Karamazov Book VIII: Mitya

Sunday, July 21st, 2013


Welcome back to the summer readalong of The Brothers Karamazov. During Book VIII (the longest book thus far), we move past the halfway mark, plus the event that’s been foreshadowed for four hundred pages finally happens! Well, kinda sorta.

Ch 1: Kuzma Samsonov: We’re back with Dmitri again after so many pages of Alexei wondering on and off where his brother was. He was off having bad ideas, such as that he must pay back the 3000 he owed to Katerina Ivanovna in order to clear his slate to run off with Grushenka, and goes to Samsonov, Grushennka’s patron, to ask for the money. Samsonov tells him to so see a guy, Lyagavy, but he’s setting up Dmitri, who wonders if he’s being set up, then thinks, Nah. Alas for Dmitri…

Ch 2: Lyagavy. D spends a lot of time and money to track down Lyagavy, who is drunk and passed out. Everyone almost dies of poisonous fumes, D falls asleep while Lyagavy wakes and gets drunk again, and when HE wakes, D finally twigs that he’s been duped by Samsonov.

Ch 3: Gold Mines. Plan B. He goes to Mme. Khokhlakov’s and asks her for money. She says she’ll make him rich, which is what he wants to hear but then as she goes on (and on) we learn that she’s only going to get him a job as a miner. D (rather understandably, to my mind) storms out, then accosts Grushenka’s maid for her mistress’ whereabouts though she claims ignorance, and he takes a perfectly harmless gold pestle with him as he heads out the door.

Ch 4: In the Dark. Here’s where stuff finally happens, except what exactly happens is, shall we say, in the dark. Dmitri goes to his father’s, worried that Grushenka might be there. She’s not, he calls his father to the window and…

the narrative breaks. Grigori wakes from his drugged sleep, his back still hurting, and goes after the intruder (Dmitri) who tries to flee. Grigori grabs D’s foot before D jumps the wall, D hits Grigori in the head with the pestle, blood everywhere (because we all know from watching TV that head wounds bleed a lot) and D throws down the pestle, goes back to Grushenka’s, and they finally ‘fess up that she’s gone to be with her officer.

Ch 5: A Sudden Decision. Dmitri goes to his friend Perkhotin’s house. He pawned his pistols there earlier. Perkhotin is suspicious but does nothing when he notices that Dmitri is a. covered in blood b. waving around wads of cash and c. acting manic. Dmitri orders a bunch of stuff to be sent ahead to Mokroye, where Grushenka is, then spends more money on a coach to follow. Perkhotin goes to Grushenka’s house and knocks a lot.

Ch 6: Here I Come! Dmitri contemplates shooting himself with the pistol he took back from Perkhotin, is welcomed by the inn merchant at Mokroye who remembers his last drunken spending spree, and sees Grushenka with Kalganov and Maximov from earlier chapters, plus two men, one tall and mysterious, the other short, round and smoking a pipe. Grushenka is surprised to see him.

Ch 7: The Former and Indisputable One. Things get awkward. Grushenka is angry with the Poles because they’re talking to her possessivly in Polish, they’re angry at Dmitri, who proposes a toast to Russia, he’s angry with them because Grushenka’s with them and they’re winning at cards, Dmitri offers them the 3000 (which he no longer has in full) for Grushenka, they get angry with him, the innkeeper reveals they’ve been cheating at cards, they storm off in a huff.

Ch 8: Delirium. The peasants get the party started with all of Dmitri’s supplies. Dmitri and Grushenka declare their love, imagine running off together when suddenly the police show up! accusing him of murdering his father! Dmitri is confused!

But he didn’t murder his father, did he, fellow readers? He only konked Grigori on the head, right?

Waitaminnit. But then, where did all that blood and money come from, the reader wonders?

Hmm. Something finally happened. Fyodor Petrovich seems to be dead. The police think Dmitri killed him.

What do YOU think?

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

Friday, July 19th, 2013

oceanAfter a less-than-stellar review in Entertainment Weekly, I was going to skip Neil Gaiman’s latest, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. But Amy at New Century Reading said it was good, and my friend had it for sale in the comic shop, so I bought and read it.

The book is short and disturbing, like much of Gaiman’s work. Young boy meets interesting people, adventures and bad things happen, adults are thoughtless and cruel, boy grown into man struggles to remember the sacrifice made by a young woman on his behalf.

Oh, did that sound like Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending? Because the two books felt awfully alike to me, though Gaiman’s is narrated from the point of view of a seven-year old, and Barnes’ by a man who is emotionally about seven.

Short and strange, it felt like both and neither a book for adults and children, though except for one sex scene and some gruesome threats, I’d say it skews more toward children. There were many elements that recalled Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time to me.

“Maddaddam” by Margaret Atwood

Friday, July 19th, 2013


I hate advance reader copies. They’re ugly, full of typos, and whenever I’ve gotten one in the past, I’ve ended up reading it after the book came out in its proper form. Often, after it came out in hardcover and even paperback. So, I tend to avoid ARCs. Except when a friend says, “would you like an ARC of the new Margaret Atwood?” And then I’m all in.

Maddaaddam is the third book in Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, which began with Oryx and Crake, which I initially disliked, a great deal. It was followed by The Year of the Flood, which I loved, and which cast all events in Oryx and Crake in such a different context probably because it was narrated by two smart, interesting women, as opposed to the emotionally stunted, wilfully obtuse Jimmy, who narrated the first book. I loved Year of the Flood so much I re-read Oryx and Crake, which made much more sense to me with more of hte puzzle shown.

Maddaddam doesn’t even pretend to be a standalone novel. There is a 4-page recap at the beginning of the ARC that summarizes what happened in the previous two books, and from there the reader is plopped right down again this futuristic, mangled Earth and the cast of characters from the past, which expands further in this book. It’s told mostly from Toby, one of the narrators of YotF, and who is now one of my favorite fictional characters, ever. Sometimes it’s in third person, about Toby. Sometimes it’s in first person, being narrated by Toby, and sometimes she’s telling the history of Zeb and finding out how all of his puzzle pieces fit into what went before.

I tore through the books 400 pages in two days. I took unwilling breaks to take care of myself and my family. I stayed up late to finish it, and had tears leaking down my face. This book is full of memorable characters, an epic battle, unlikely allies (which I was sad were given away on the back cover, so if you want to read this, I recommend just plunging in), love, loss, survival tips, and a makes me continue to think long and hard on what the differences are between utopia and dystopia, and the type of potential futures shown by different authors, and how differently male and female authors have handled similar ideas.

After I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I wondered why so much of dystopic literature, and really, so much of literature generally, was about the father/son relation. I have a masters degree in religion, so there is the obvious answer that it’s a reflection, inborn or learned?, about the human struggle to understand the Father/Son relation. Where is the mother/daughter relation, I wondered after reading Gilead and The Road. Whither is the female, I wondered after A Canticle for Leibowitz and Oryx and Crake.

They are right here, in the three books of the Maddaddam trilogy. I flat-out, full-on loved this book, this universe, and these characters. And I about exploded with geek joy when I found out Atwood is coming to the Twin Cities for a reading series this fall.

“The Brothers Karamazov” Book VII

Monday, July 15th, 2013


Welcome back to the summer readalong of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. This week we read the pleasantly short Book VII, about our hero Alyosha.

Ch 1: The odor of corruption. Alas, Zosimas sh1t smells like anyone else’s when it leaves his body after death. Many are saddened that his body did not decay in a miracle manner. But many are gleeful, schadenfreud-ishly exulting in his crude humanity. This includes the Obdorsk monk and the crazy Father Ferapont.

One of those modern glimmers that spooks me a little: a monk confessed once to Zosima that he was seeing unclean spirits. Z advised prayer and fasting but when that did not help, he advised “a certain medicine.” (335) which sounds awfully modern to me.

Alyosha leaves the monsastery.

Ch 2: An Opportune Moment. The narrator goes on about Alyosha and how he is troubled, but has not lost faith. The intrusion of the narrator is interesting, and bears further reflection for me. Rakitin finds A face down on the ground, tempts him with a sausage (”sausage”? coded language?) then takes him to Grushenka’s.

Ch3: An Onion. Alas, for an editor, here! Is Grushenka’s benefactor/savior/old man alive or dead? Hard to tell from this chapter. A few footnotes would’ve helped, or a more clear translation, or something, because his name is revealed as Samsonov on 343, then on 344 he’s called a great businessman (now long deceased). P 345 talks about his wwill, and when he had one foot in the grave and was amused by FP’s infatuation with her, but then not so amused by Dmitri’s, and advised her to avoid the latter and string along the former and get in HIS will, and then Samsonov died five months after giving this advice.

But then he’s alive and perhaps well on 344 (gah!) because Grushenka has lied to Dmitri that she’s spending the night doing business (”business”?) with Kuzma Kuzmich, who is Samsonov. WHAT? The author/translators could have made it more clear that, in what I think I grasp, that K Samsonov is alive when Alyosha goes to see her, but will not be for long, and will be long deceased by the time the narrator is telling the story. Poorly done, author/translstors/editor, poorly done.

At Grushenka’s, it comes out that G begged R to bring A many times before, as they both, for different reason, want G to seduce him. (So Rakitin’s a pimp. But a monk. Not a good guy.) A is not aroused when G sits on his lap, and she jumps off when she learns his elder is dead and he’s grieving. He sees this as an act of kindness from her, like the giving of an onion in a fable. She is leaving to be with the soldier who disgraced her years ago, and tells A to pass on to Dmitri that she loved him for an hour, and to never forget her. A real prize, no?

He returns to the monastery and the place with Zosima’s corpse and has a dream/vision that merges Zosima talking to him with the tale of Jesus’ first miracle, the turning of water to wine at the wedding of Cana. (Note that this first miracle was an occasion of joy, a wedding, not one of sorrow, like curing or revivifying someone.) He falls to the ground outside in rapture, in contrast to when Rakitin found him in Chapter 1 of this Book, and three days later leaves the monastery.

Once again, the narrator has teased but withheld the terrible event. We’re nearly halfway through the book. Maybe in Book 8, next week?

[Book 8, annoyingly, begins prior to the events of Book 7, and has to do with Grushenka and her old man Kuzma Samsonov, who is not yet dead. I was annoyed by the confusion of the order of events. This is a very muddled middle, IMO.]

What did everyone else think? Were you as annoyed as I was by the dead/not dead and out of sequence transitions between 7 and the next book, 8?

“Around Beauty” by Barbara Barry

Friday, July 12th, 2013


See, sometimes I surprise you, right? Have I ever included a decorating book before? I don’t think I have. And if you saw my house, you’d know why: because decorating is not a priority. It’s more like an expensive foreign country I dream of going to someday, if I can ever get the laundry done, my articles written, and my book groups prepped for. Oh, and if I could afford it.

Over a decade ago, when I worked for a department store, I tried to learn about furniture. One of the few things that took was that I liked the style of designer Barbary Barry, both in furniture and china. A helpful furniture salesman told me that Barry’s style was highly influenced by Eileen Gray. At the time I think I imagined reading up on these women, spelunking in furniture and antique stores, and somehow living in a grownup’s house. Instead, we had a kid, I resigned that job to stay home with him, then we had his brother. And now my sofabed upholstery is hemmed with masking tape. (Hey, at least it’s hemmed, right?) My swivel chairs jingle tantalizingly when they’re shifted. (What’s inside there? Legos? Quarters? The earring I lost three years ago?) But still, a girl can dream. And so, I borrowed Around Beauty by Barbara Barry from the library.

And a lovely book it is. Heavy, with rich photographs on thick paper. With nice, large, accessible text that I didn’t expect to read, but somehow found myself halfway through the book without even noticing, though appreciating and continuing on. Barry shares anecdotes and photos from particular clients, her life, and her own home. She writes about her creative process, and the things that inspire her. I wished for a few more photos of interiors and fewer (hey, just realized as I was typing that that “a few less of” isn’t grammatically correct!) of California flora. I wished for perhaps more solid detail on her life. For example, when she writes that she knew someone in a past life, she’s using metaphor, right? But this is a lovely, diverting book, the kind that is pretty inside and out. A perfect coffee table book. For those of you who have a coffee table, and would buy a book to put on it.

Me, I’m taking this back to the library tomorrow.

“Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh

Friday, July 12th, 2013


I’m trying to balance my Brothers Karamazov summer read with shorter, funner books. During my Shelf Discovery reading project last year, I never got back to Louise Fitzhugh’s classic Harriet the Spy, but she’s waited patiently, so I recently pulled her off the shelf.

It was a joy to meet up with Harriet again, she of the notebook, spy clothes of jeans and sweatshirt, and capital letter observations, many of which are hilarious, but many of which also are thoughtless and cruel, and these two things aren’t exclusive.


Other than Harriet, my other favorite character was her nurse/caretaker Ole Golly. Interestingly (spookily?) Ole Golly quotes from Dostoievsky on page 22:

Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.

Which is from section (g) in Book VI, Chapter 3 “From Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima” of Brothers Karamazov. WHICH I JUST HAPPENED TO BE READING AT THE SAME TIME. Odds on that, please?

Alas, Ole Golly and Harriet part ways, and without her guidance, Harriet gets into trouble when her school friends discover what she’s been writing. They ostracize her, in a section of the book that was painfully easy for me to remember/empathize with. Gah. Middle school. It’s one of the reasons I chose a K-8 school for my boys.

The book is odd, in that it doesn’t follow a clear crisis/realization/redemption outline. By the end of the book, it wasn’t clear to me that Harriet was much the wiser about WHY everyone had been so hurt by what she’d written. But she also refused to conform, and did not become domesticated, which is a far more important conclusion to me. A little self insight is better than none, even if she was still perhaps too callous by the end, especially of her treatment of the family cook, and those of different socio-economic class around her. Then again, she’s 11. The upshot for me: still overly dense/cruel (Asperger-y, unempathetic?) by the end, but improved, and without caving in and becoming something not herself. Odd, funny, sad, and good, it’s also an intriguing look at the upper class of NYC in the 50’s/60’s.

The Brothers Karamazov Readalong: Book VI

Sunday, July 7th, 2013

brosk6Who’s still with me? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

(That joke will never not be funny to me.)

I had so much trouble making it through Book V that after I finished I plowed right on through the shorter Book VI so I wouldn’t get behind. I still haven’t fallen in love with reading this, so I think it’s better for me to read it at the start of the week then at the end of it.

Wondering: Is the Grand Inquisitor chapter like The Council of Elrond? My husband said he got stuck on that chapter in LoTR the first couple times he read it, but then came to appreciate it later. That is, until Hugo Weaving was cast as Elrond, and about that, he is still bitter. (It came up when we re-watched Captain America last week.) Does Grand Inquisitor get better on better acquaintance? I thought I might try to re-read it, but have not yet worked up the gumption to do so.

Book V ended with Fyodor Pavlovich convinced that Grushenka was coming to visit him, though discerning minds suspect something entirely different is coming. Alas, whatever it is, we will have to wait AGAIN for it, because we’re back with the elder monk Zosima.

Ch 1 The Elder Zosima and His Visitors. Listeners gather at his deathbed. I particularly liked the description of this man:

quiet and taciturn, rarely speaking to anyone, the humblest of the humble, who had the look of a man who has been permanently frightened by something great and awesome that was more than his mind could sustain. (283)

Zosima says to Alyosha that he was worried about Dmitri, and that A reminds him of his own brother. Narrator interjects to say the upcoming pages are from Alexei.

Ch 2 Biographical Information of Zosima. a. He had an older brother who became holy and died. b. Zosima went into the military. c. Zosima became worldly, loved a girl but was rejected, challenged his rival to a duel, then didn’t shoot, to the consternation of many. Perhaps the time of the Decembrist uprising, so there’s your soundtrack for this part of the novel. d. Z was visited by a man who he urged to tell the truth about a dark past.

Ch 3 Talks and Homilies.Was anyone else spooked by this in e.?

the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. (313)

He then goes on to say the unity is an illusion, and that “they live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display.” That science makes people worldly and that monks aren’t disconnected, but rather MORE connected.

f. A Dickensian tirade against abuse of children, especially in factories. Servants and masters are equal.

g. Prayer is good. Then, Dostoevysky finishes this segment with what sounds a lot like a personal statement of philosophy/theology:

Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in your dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it. So I think. (320).

On retyping this, I am strongly reminded of Battlestar Galactica. I am also reminded of the final chapter of The Screwtape Letters (as I was by Ivan’s confession in Chapter 4 Rebellion from Book V last week.):

when he saw them he knew that he had always known them and realised what part each one of them had played at many an hour in his life when he had supposed himself alone, so that now he could say to them, one by one, not ‘Who ARE you?” but “So it was YOU all the time.” All that they were and said at this meeting woke memories. The dim consciousness of friends about him which had haunted his solitudes from infancy was now at last explained, that central music in every pure experience which had always just evaded memory was now at least recovered.

h. again, everyone is equal. all are guilty (except children.)

i. Z speaks of heaven and hell, says to pity suicides though the church forbids it, then narrator jumps back in to say that the listeners were then shocked when Z suddenly died. Also, something is coming in the next book that is “unexpected…strange, disturbing, and bewildering”

Will we FINALLY get to what’s been foreshadowed for so long? Join me here next week. Same bat time, same bat channel…

Bunch o’ Books

Friday, July 5th, 2013

Boy howdy, have I gotten behind on blogging. I blame summer vacation and round-the-clock kid caring. Or, if I’m honest, I blame myself. Either way, I’m rather slower on the writing than I’d like.

Hey, lookie, I made a strawberry rhubarb pie yesterday, and it didn’t suck. So, that was one of the things I was doing when I wasn’t writing. I might need to practice my pie crust, cause it didn’t come out as well as I would have liked. You know, I’ll practice pie crust in all my free time. img_20130704_191039_626

Anyhoo, in reading related news, here’s what happened:

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. For one of my book groups. Thought this was would be a fun fast read. Not fun, not fast. Made me furrow my brow, think, and after I was done, re-read it and take notes and think some more. I read this in my 20’s and found it fast and fun. Is this what growing older does–makes me see how serious and complicated this slim book (and this short life) really is?

One of the many things that stuck out was a new denizen of Hell declaring: I spent most of my life doing neither what I ought nor what I liked. (Ch XXII). And then it goes one to describe pretty exactly what it feels like to while away time on Facebook. Very aware of trying to do either what I ought or what I like, not Nothing with a capital N. And try to strike a balance between those. That’s all. Nothing big, really.

I did find it very funny when Screwtape got so angry he changed into a centipede.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. Oh, so THIS is what I was missing when I didn’t like Oryx and Crake. HERE are the fully realized female characters, who have Bechdel-test passing conversations. Like a puzzle piece that expands on Oryx and Crake, which I felt compelled to re-read immediately.

Oryx and Crake was so much better after having read Year of the Flood. Plus, I noticed this time that Jimmy/Snowman, a marketing and word guy, was put in charge of the care and schooling of a bunch of new creatures, which illustrates one of my personal theories, which is that marketing and religion are bound up in one another. They’re both about fear of death, but one is more about distraction, the other (depending on which flavor) about struggling to understand it. (Have I mentioned before that my undergrad degree was in marketing, and my grad degree in religion?)

Sweet Tooth v 6: Wild Game. A satisfying end to an engaging comic-book series. A good story, well illustrated and well ended, which goes a long way to mitigating my disappointment in the end of the ongoing series.

Death Comes to Pemberley. Because I was intrigued that Jenna Louise Coleman of Dr. Who was cast as Lydia, and Matthew Rhys of The Americans was cast as Mr. Darcy, which was much better news to me than the bizarre news that Vincent Kartheiser (aka Pete Campbell) is Darcy in the Guthrie Theater’s Pride and Prejudice stage adaptation. That is just wrong.

So, Death Comes to Pemberley. Austen fan fiction, which is a no-no in my book, but by P.D. James, a hugely respected English mystery author. I thought that sounded promising, even though many people I trusted were lukewarm on the book. I read along at a thumping pace and was having a grand time till I got to within spitting distance of the end, and WHAM. Everything that had been working–clever treatment of old characters, introduction of new ones, clues dropped for mystery–hit a wall. Hugely overcomplicated explanation of the mystery that went on so long that I ceased caring, then capped by a long convo between Mr. and Mrs. Darcy that had all been included in ways before, and might be theoretically significant but, woo, was it dull. So, I agree with everyone who said “it was only OK” except that it was more like “it was great till it wasn’t, then it really kind of sucked at the end, which made me question the investment I’d made in the whole book.” Can’t recommend.

But my disappointment in that was helped by reading two smashing good graphic novels in a row.

Heck by Zander Cannon is about a former high school hero who discovers a gateway to hell in his basement, then starts a business to convene with dead loved ones. There’s a tiny mummy sidekick named Elliott and a nice girl (or is she?) named Amy. Cannon’s Dante-an envisioning of Hell is an entertaining landscape, and Heck (short for Hector) is a good, noir-y hero. It’s available online at Double Barrel, but this hardcover edition by Top Shelf is really sweet.

Next was Crater XV by Kevin Cannon, who is the studiomate of the aforementioned Zander, but unrelated. It’s a sequel to Far Arden, which I liked, but this one I just loved. Army Shanks, a retired sea man from the Canadian Arctic, is back, here trying to help a young girl get to space. This story is woven with several others involving space travel, orphans, mistaken identity, evil plans, femme fatales, fake science missions, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some stuff. A fun read, often funny, sometimes sad, but at least not tragically so, like the end of Far Arden was.

I know both Kevin and Zander, and they’re good guys, so I’d probably recommend the books even if they were only OK. But they’re REALLY good. And the Top Shelf HCs are really sweet. So you should buy them, ‘k?

The Brothers Karamazov Readalong: Book 4

Monday, June 24th, 2013


Welcome back to our section-a-week reading of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. We just finished week 4, book 4, which puts us about a quarter of the way through the book. Woo hoo! Apologies for the lateness of this post. This is my super busy week of the summer, with 3 kid activities a day. If I make it through this week, I think I’ll be OK.

Disclaimer: I am reading BK for the first time, and this is not (as you’ll soon see) a rigorously academic discussion of it.

In the “From the Author” section that opens the book, Dostoevsky asks himself what’s so notable about Alexei to make him the hero of the book. The answer is pretty clear to me by book four. Alexei is the only sane character in the book. He might also be the only one who doesn’t shout all the time, requiring multiple exclamation points. All the other characters are loud, and shout-y, and act capriciously, with mood swings that have to be read to be believed. But not Alexei. He just wanders among them, sometimes confused, always tolerant. He’s a good listener and well liked. Doestoevsky’s right in that these don’t seem exemplary. UNTIL HE’S SHOWN IN THE MIDST OF A BUNCH OF BAT$H1T CRAZY PEOPLE.

So in this week’s Book IV: Strains, the adventures of Alexei are as follows:

Ch 1 Father Ferapont (who then is not even discussed till the end of his chapter.) Zosima wakes and preaches ramblingly to Alyosha and others. I had trouble with this phrase: “his voice, though weak, was still quite firm.” Weak and firm are opposites. Quiet and firm would have worked better for me. Mostly Z says to love one another. Shocking. The monks are awaiting a miracle. Then we shift to Father Ferapont, who fasts, says little, is grumpy and either very holy or very crazy. or perhaps ingesting too many forest mushrooms. This made me laugh:

today he announced that a fool would visit me and ask improper questions.

In Chapter 2 Alexei goes to his father’s, discusses the love entanglements that go far beyond a triangle, because we have both Katerina and Grushenka and two of the three legit Karamazov brothers plus their father. Love pentagon? I may need to try and map this, perhaps with a ven diagram. Alyosha kisses him goodbye, which seems to startle Fyodor.

In Chapter 3 he comes across some schoolboys who are tormenting a sickly kid. A tries to intervene, and for his trouble the sickly kid throws a rock at him and bites his finger to the bone. Most people would be annoyed, but Alexei is merely confused.

Chapter 4, At the Khokhlakov’s (having just re-watched Arrested Development, this name always makes me think of the family’s chicken dances. Hmm. Bluths and Karamazovs. Maybe not so different. Anyhoo.)

Lise acts strangely to Alexei, though perhaps not if we remember she’s an adolescent who seems embarrassed by her mom. They worry about his injured finger.

In Chapter 5, he visits with KI and Ivan in the drawing room, and finally is so exasperated by their duplicity that he calls them out and everyone gets very huffy. KI asks him to give some cash to a man who Dmitri had offended.

In Chapter 6 and 7, we learn the man is the father of the boy who attacked Alexei earlier. Dmitri humiliated him publicly. His wife is ill, as is one of his daughters, the son is now ill, and he refuses the money out of pride.

I’m finding the book enjoyable enough to read, but I think I’m still getting my sea legs with its Russian-ness. I’m not yet having fun with it, and I sense that potential here. Perhaps just wishful thinking? Then again, I’m really having fun with these recaps, so I think I’m on my way.

What did everyone else think?