BJ’s year in review…

OK, so a reading year in review, following up on Barb’s review.  I actually wasn’t too keen on this topic, but then when I looked back at the books I read, I discovered little nuggets of unexpected pleasure when thinking back on the books of 2018.  Let me recount them.

karamFirst, our big-impossible-reading-project was Brothers Karamazov.  It was the best of the 3 books we have done so far.  It is a compelling book that can be read on so many different levels but still works as a straight story.  Its characters and story are still relevant today.  I honestly think anyone could read this book.

We didn’t blog about going to see Hamilton in November, but that certainly falls onto the literary scale.  Especially since I was one of those nerds that read the Chernow biography about the time that Lin-Manuel Miranda did.  The show was great.  Hard to believe you can exceed expectations that are as high as the ones we took in the door. It was a lifetime memory.  It also links into this year’s reading because grantone of the books I got for Christmas last year was the Chernow biography of US Grant, which was, of course, very good.  Grant is a great character because he is so multi-faceted.  Also, it shed excellent perspective on the Grant Presidency, which usually is labeled as “corrupt” and then skipped over.  Lastly, the book also doubles as an education of the times he lived in.horse

I read two award-winning books.  The first was A Horse Walks Into a Bar, which won the Man Booker.  Books that win that award can be dicey–I’m sure they have high literary quality but they are often allergic to readability.  This book was really good.  It was presented in anless original way and gradually revealed the pain that often is behind humor.  I also read Less, which won the Pulitzer Prize.  It was deserving as well.  A great story and a great character about life in the twilight.

I also read a couple books that probably don’t go down as literary but were fantastic red sparrowreading experiences.  Red Sparrow is a smart spy thriller, along the lines of The Americans.  The challenge is to not make the characters be cliches–you don’t need “The Russian Guy.”  Also, Putin is a character.  The other CAA bookone was Powerhouse by James Andrew Miller.  I’m a big fan of Miller’s oral histories and also a closet Hollywood-people-behaving-badly junkie, and this history of CAA was difficult to put down.

When I look back on the books I read, I see a couple of my rankings that don’t seem to stand the test of time.  One is Ohio, which I gave 5 stars but maybe was a 4 in retrospect.  Or maybe I’m influenced by later ratings from other readers.  And then there was Who is Rich, which I gave 3 stars but remember more fondly now.

I did do a reading challenge.  With the Brothers Karamazov, I tamped down the goal to 12 but I actually read 18.  Goal for this year is 20, plus Ulysses, #4 in the series.

99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret

9780374906047Finished my first non-Brothers Karamazov book.  It was the highly acclaimed Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.  Like a lot of people, I was intrigued by this book from watching the crown, where Margaret sort of steals the show.

Side note:  many of the people in this book would have felt comfortable around Pyotr Karamazov and the Windsors might rival the Karamazovs in dysfunction.

It’s gotten a ton of positive recognition.  It made the NY Times 100 notable book list, NPR, and several others.

I enjoyed it fine.  I ended up giving it 3-stars…but I enjoyed it.  One thing I recognized from reading the book is that while those of us here in the US we’ve come to bemoan the rise of our TMZ-infused celebrity culture, that kind of thing has been going on a long time in Britain, with the Royals occupying the stage.

So, there’s a bunch of different references to British tittering scandal culture that kind of went over my head, which probably impacted the enjoyment of the book.  Beyond that, I just wasn’t raised with the “you’d never do that in front of a royal” stuff that you might if you were raised in Britain.

For example, after meeting a bunch of Americans, the Queen was asked how it went.  She said, drolly, “I’ve shaken a lot of hands.”  Apparently, you’re not supposed to touch her.

It was a very good book for titillating detail of how a woman–who was not raised to be in the line to the throne–made her way through life as a second fiddle.  It’s classic younger sibling birth order stuff put into a blender.  In many ways, she was a train wreck…heavy drinking and smoking and reckless behavior and callous treatment of people…it was a pretty bumpy ride.

The book’s real accomplishment is taking someone who was always defined by those things, and giving you a little understanding of the loneliness of that particular life.  I know, they are first world problems and people have had to deal with a lot worse, but if you’re going to take the time to decide she was a mean bitch you can at least try to see how anybody else might have ended up that way in the same situation.  You should see some truly kind things she did.  And if you’re going to live vicariously through the royal family, you should do it through a real lens and not a Disney cartoon.

Last interesting point.  In Britain, the book was titled “Ma’am Darling:  Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.”  Isn’t that interesting?  I suspect that people here wouldn’t really grasp what that was referring to, but I always think it is interesting when the titles of books are different for relatively narrow slices of readership.

It was good for me.

russian-drinking-bogatyrs_0So, book challenge #3 has been completed.  The Brothers Karamazov has joined War and Peace and Infinite Jest on the list of conquered unreadable books.  There will be another post answering the seminal question of whether everything you need to know is contained within its pages, as asserted by Kurt Vonnegut.

For now, a few thoughts.

This is the best of the books we have read in this series.  I say this for a couple of reasons.  The most important is that the book is funny.  At times, it is laugh-out-loud funny.  Mostly you hear how dark and depressing Doestovsky is, but his humor is underrated.  That includes broad humor, physical humor, ironic humor, the whole gamut.  He has an eye for the ridiculous.

It is also a book that is relevant to our times.  You can feel perfectly comfortable in its pages with very little transliteration.  Much of the action comes out of Jerry Springer or Maury Povich, the trial at the end is right out of the Seinfeld finale.  The addiction to sensual pleasures and the prevalence of false piety and pseudo-intellectualism come right out of our newspapers.

Lastly, the book can be read on many different levels.  At one level, it is a crime procedural.  It can be also read as farce, tragedy, as a spiritual primer, as a psychological textbook or social commentary.  You can slice this book however you like.

But, one thing can’t be lost.  War and Peace was about history–the role that people played in creating history…and then it was about free will.  The Brothers Karamazov is about psychology.   Why do people do what they do?  How do they become so fucked up?  What is the relationship between everyday human life and true, pure spirituality?

The story is also strong and easier to follow than War and Peace.  The characters are easier to follow, once you break the code of all the Russian nicknames.  The serialized format actually helps a reader by providing shorter sections and occasional summaries, which provide the same conveniences to a modern reader that I suspect they did to a Russian reader in the 1880s.

It’s way better than Infinite Jest.  We’re not even going there.  The books do not belong in the same paragraph.

I honestly would recommend this book to someone looking for a challenging read.  Barb and I have discussed that we might read it again because we suspect it is the kind of book that would reveal many clues and nuance on a second reading when you have a better idea what to expect.

This is a work of true brilliance.  Its understanding of the human condition is unfailing.  Dostoevsky saw the world as it was and, it turns out, still is…and probably always will be.  Because of that–and because it is a pleasure to read–this is a book for any book lover.

 

Chapter 12: The Verdict

trialThe guts of the book are done.  The long saga of the Karamazov brothers has reached its conclusion.

This is a very difficult section to summarize because it is chock-full of stuff.  No matter how you want to read this book–as a procedural, as a tragedy. as social criticism or as a psychological study–the trial section of this book has plenty to keep you talking.

For me, here’s what it made me think about.

First, we know Dmitry didn’t do it.  Much of this book has been about the failures of society, of the structures that humans build to manage their lives.  It’s about the trap of worldly, sensual pleasures and the need for goodness and spirituality.

This can be seen in the Grand Inquisitor’s speech about the Church no longer needing Christ, as well as the reaction to the Starets rotting corpse, the lunatic ascetic that lives in the monastery, etc.  There is pure truth, but society’s institutions perpetuate themselves and not anything true.

The trial is a very good example.  The entire trial goes on, with long eloquent speeches by the lawyers, before a gawking audience, and a procession of loony witnesses.  It takes all of a day into the middle of the night, with evidence and a jury of peasants and drama…all of it to decide whether Dmitry killed his father.  Which we know he did not.  The day is about whether it can be proven that he did it or not….not whether he did it or not, which is unknowable except in Dmitry’s heart.

But who believes the accused?

For a pop culture reference, it is very reminiscent of the Seinfeld trial.  Every rogue element of the story finds his or her way to the stand and 950 pages of drama plays out.

So I know a lot of prosecutors, and they often say that the people they convict are usually guilty of many other crimes that they were never charged with.  The current charges notwithstanding, they are sort of in a criminal class.

Dmitry is much the same way.  He’s not convicted by the actual commission of the crime, but he is convicted by the way he lived his life–the anger and the threats and the drinking and stealing.  When all that is added up, he lived a life where he very well could have killed his father, regardless of whether he did or not.

Imagine, for example, the reaction if Aloysha was accused of the same crime.

In other words, when you get hammered and write a letter describing how you’re going to kill your Father and then he’s found dead, you’re going to be in trouble.  Fortunately, few of us will ever write that, much speak it out loud or even think it.

Furthermore, we know that Dmitry had an awakening, realized the toxic presence of the fallout from his actions.  The problem is that it came too late for him to be saved from being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, but could have, which is enough for this flawed system, which had to answer for the corpse.

So, if someone asks you what the verdict is of the trial, you’d be within your rights to say “it’s more complicated than that.”  He wasn’t innocent, but was he guilty?

Book XI: The Devil Speaks

christ-tempted-by-satanThe drama is racing forward now.  We had all sort of assumed that Dmitri had killed his Father–as he had often promised to do and might well have done…or might have done had someone else not gotten to it first.  The trial awaits.

Ivan is back in town, and some sort of fever has robbed him of his vaunted reason.  He talks to Smerdyakov who confesses that he did it, but implicates Ivan with moral guilt by telling him that he (Ivan) knowingly let the murder go ahead.  There’s a lot of discussion of fake seizures, real seizures and then a chance to wonder who’s the fool in the conversation.

Then, after a big scene we’ll talk about in a minute, Aloysha shows up to inform us that Smerdyakov has hung himself.  Ivan’s fever rages; he had been counting on Smerdyakov confessing to save his brother and now he’s left with a story that only he heard and he doesn’t think anyone will believe.  He has some kind of non-Karamzov urge to help his brother that he must have inherited from his mother…he also offered to help Dmitry escape to the United States…but now that’s presumably all gone.

Or, not.  The trial awaits in the final book of the novel.

The interesting part from a philosophical standpoint is Ivan’s conversation with the devil, which occurs inside a feverish nightmare.  For my money, this is as good as the Grand Inquisitor scene–which also came out of Ivan’s head.

First, the portrayal of the devil is fascinating.  The devil does not show up with horns and a red suit or in a flash of fire.  He’s a guy.  He feels underappreciated, he’s a bit snarky and a bit whiny.  He’s just a guy.

Which, of course, is the whole point.  In fact, he says “…suffering is the very stuff of life. Without suffering, what pleasure would there be in life?”  You cannot have good without evil or virtue without sin.  The battle between good and evil drives life forward and both reside within us.  It can manifest itself as it does with Aloysha or with Dmitry, but good is there and evil is there.  And, you don’t have to think of evil as something extraordinary or monstrous.  It’s pedestrian and every day.

You can decide if that’s dark or not.

Then, the devil makes a point that I think shows the incredible prescience of Doestevsky.

People will unite in order to derive from life all that it has to give, but they will seek purely earthly happiness and joy. Man will extol himself spiritually in godlike, titanic pride, and the man-god will be born.

Who among us can argue–despite the apparent rise in religiosity in the West–that the man-god is here, that most people view themselves as the center of the universe and arrange the rest of the pieces to rationalize that view?  We have a local church that has a billboard that says “You matter.”  (In contrast, my son works at a camp that teaches the kids that “I am third.”)

Then, this.  See David Foster Wallace.

Triumphing repeatedly and totally over nature by his will and his science, man will in consequence experience a pleasure so exalted that it will replace for him all his former expectation of heavenly bliss

Remember then, this is the devil speaking as he outlines his vision of his world

Every man will discover that he is mortal and that there is no resurrection, and he will accept death proudly and calmly like a god. Out of pride he will desist from protest, accept the transience of life and love his fellow man, expecting nothing in return. Love will satisfy only a moment of life, but the mere consciousness of its brevity will fuel its flames as strongly as it was once dissipated in the hope of an eternal love beyond the grave…”, and so on and so forth, and more of the same stuff. Charming!’

Which is charming except, of course, we’ve seen enough of the Karamazov brothers to understand that it isn’t very likely it will turn out like that, and if you doubt it, somebody out there killed his father.

On we go.  One more section and an epilogue.

Book 10: The Power of Contrast

circleSo, Book 9 was all about Dmitri.  We see him being questioned by the investigators in the death of his father.  His battle with the investigators is over the circumstantial evidence of his guilt–but it really is a reckoning with how he has lived his life.  Every part of the story has burst from the chaos that is the wanton and immoral life that Dmitri has chosen to live.  Unlike Dmitry, we cannot help but see:  you will reap the fruit of the seeds you sow.

Book Ten is very interesting, in that it seems to have no place in the book.  Plot-wise, we were driving forward.  Now, 680 pages in, we finally get to the meat of the story–the death of the Karamazov father.  What happens in the next Chapter?  We pick up a subplot line where no one mentions anything about the murder.  Instead, we are at the sick bed of a child, and we learn about the internal politics of teenage bullies in Russia.

There does seem to be a point, though.  It’s the power of contrast.  We see how Dmitri was living his life.  In this section, we see the type of man Aloysha is.  He’s all the whiter for the darkness of Book 9.

Aloysha has been organizing the children to visit the sick child every day.  He has accompanied them as well.  He has also successfully encouraged one particular young man to make his first visit.  There is a heartwarming scene with a canine reunion.  Aloysha is a veritable Father Flanagan to these young men.  They note that he doesn’t talk down to them or insult them.

Not to put too fine a point on it but Dmitri spends his time stealing 3,000 roubles to chase Grushenka and plying the peasants with food and wine, while Aloysha was taking teenage miscreants to the sickbed of an ailing/dying child.

I assume that we have the big trial coming up next, which promises more of the dark side of the story and the family.  I think Doestevsky wanted to take a second before that starts to show that alternate paths do exist, even people who are cursed with the same genes and the same family.

Election Day Political Books

So it’s Election Day, and I’m hoping that most of you are voting today or already have.  Either way, it’s a good time to review some of my favorite political novels.

There are a lot, but I wanted to highlight four that you may or may not be familiar with.

AdviseandConsent1stEdAdvise and Consent by Alan Drury is a classic.  It is the inside story of  (wait for it) a confirmation battle in the US Senate for a nominee for Secretary of State.  Obviously timely, it was referenced on occasion during the recent Kavanaugh fight.  It is an excellent book. that shows us that cutthroat and ruthless personal politics didn’t start with the Trumps or the Clintons or the Bushes.  It won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie with Henry Fonda.

 

TheLastHurrahA second book that is also well known is The Last Hurrah.  It is the story of Frank Skeffington, an old-school ward politician who runs one last time, only to find out that the world has changed when he wasn’t paying attention.  It contains an interesting bit of policy analysis (kind of) about how the New Deal changed the business of ward healers, who had formerly provided assistance to the needy…for a price.  This book was made into a Spencer Tracy movie.

GayplacesmallThe third book is nearly unknown.  It is by Billy Lee Bratton and is considered by many to be the best political novel ever written.  It’s called The Gay Place and it contains three novellas set in Texas in the orbit of an LBJ/Huey Long-like figure and in the era of “Beef, Booze and Blondes” politics in Austin.  It is indeed a great book that shows the political life in the most real sense…how power and personality shape the politics, not policy.

Here’s my favorite quote:

The truly able, it appeared, had only so much time to squander on disillusion and self-analysis. Then those destructive vanities were turned round and put to the business of doing what had got to be done. The truly gifted, as opposed to the merely clever, were too busy running things to be bothered.

sundayThe fourth is a little lighter and has won no awards.  It’s called the Sunday Macaroni Club…and it’s a delightful book that tells the story of a corrupt Philadelphia politician and one of his particular henchmen.  If you have been in politics, you know this guy.  It’s funny and it’s true.  Great beach read.

Oh, I forgot All the King’s Men.  And probably a bunch of other ones.  But for today, there’s your reading list.

Dmitry Faces the Music

lanoire_detectivesartworkAfter the non-stop, rollicking action of the last section, Dostoevsky clearly felt that he had to pull back on the throttle a little bit and give the reader a break.

In this section, Dmitry is questioned by the prosecutors who are investigating his Father’s murder.  This is no easy task.  It has already been established that Dmitry is impulsive and wild…crazy, most would say.  Add to that the fact that he almost certainly DID kill his Father and every piece of evidence is 100% incriminating, and Dmitry’s mind is hopping around like an exposed wire.

First, he is informed by the prosecutors that he doesn’t have to answer any questions. You have to figure that they sort of wished he would take that route, because unlike many interrogations where the criminal snarls “you can’t make me talk, copper,” Dmitry is more than willing to talk and talk and talk.  And talk.

You have to give the investigators credit, because they doggedly pursue their questioning.  The key issue is one we noted when reading…how exactly did Dmitry go from pawning his guns for 10 roubles and then all of a sudden have 3,000 roubles to throw the party of the century?  And, there’s an empty envelope in the father’s room which formerly held 3,000 roubles?

Dmitry is working all his faculties.  He claims it wasn’t 3,000 roubles but was actually 1,500 roubles and that he had just been boasting about having 3,000.

This section is a little trying.  We are talking a minute examination of Dmitry.  There’s a section where he says he had a purse around his neck and the prosecutors are trying to catch him in a lie.  And they work every detail of that purse.  Where did you get the cloth?  What did you do with it?  Where did you get the needle and thread?

Even inside this tedium, though, the picture between these investigatory bureaucrats ridiculously trying to make sense of the ludicrous story Dmitry is making up as he goes along is pretty funny.

The outright funniest scene is when the investigators inform Dmitry that they will have to strip search him to make sure that he doesn’t have the remainder of the money on him.  Dmitry is trying to present himself as an officer and a gentleman and takes great umbrage at this.  He doesn’t end up totally stripped, but he is standing in front of the investigators and some average citizens in his underwear, wishing he had put a clean pair on that morning.

The second thing is really interesting.  A slight diversion…in listening to the latest episodes of Serial, they mention how defendants in the court are treated differently once they have a prior arrest–it is referred to as having “the stink” on you.

Well, you can see that here.  Dmitry arrives in style, in a carriage, followed by another carriage filled with champagne and fancy snacks.  Now, he leaves in the equivalent of a wheelbarrow.  When he arrived, he was treated…well…like a man bringing free liqour…and he leaves being treated like…well…a man who is suspected of killing his Father.

Dostoevsky is clearly a master of the human condition.  One of the things he has accurately captured is how people can love you, and then something happens and they can instantly switch to “I never liked him anyway.”  Dmitry is one example and the putrefying Starets is another.

On we go.

Book 8: Dmitry Has Issues

crime sceneBook 8 is one for the ages.  Honestly.  I can only imagine what it was like when this little bombshell dropped in the homes of subscribers to the Russian Messenger.

What I imagine is that it had tongues wagging.  I don’t think people had water coolers, but where ever people gathered, I imagine them saying “did you read that?”

And I can imagine they couldn’t wait for the next issue to show up, kind of like “Who killed JR?”

Essentially, after a long period of time following Aloysha around, we now switch to the opposite side of the spectrum and follow Dmitry while he has what in today’s world would be considered an “episode.”

The objects of the madness are, of course, Grushenka, and money, a related subject.  She’s not on the most stable ground herself—or, she’s the only one in the book who is and she’s running circles around these other dopes.  Either way, Dmitry has a well-known obsession with her.  Like many self-destructive people, he is ready to change…tomorrow.  In fact, his idea is that once has he Grushenka, he will go on the straight and narrow.  They will move to Siberia and live a life of purity and hard work.

Grushenka says she buy into this as well, claiming that she cannot wait to work the dirt with her hands, but she may just be playing the odds after her long-distance soldier crush turned out to be a dud.

So, you’re rolling along, watching this darkly hilarious scene unfold and escalate in intensity and ridiculousness.

Until the end, when the story takes its key turn.

First, I’m not sure how spoilers work in books that were published in 1880, but this is one.  I’m not even sure if it counts because anyone who is reading this book probably knows that Dmitry is accused of killing his Father.

So a couple things about that from a literature standpoint.

First, Dostoevsky does something very interesting when we are in the part of the action where the murder occurs.  Remember, we are in Dmitry’s head.  As we see it, he is spying on his Father and then he wakes up with 3,000 rubles, a bludgeoned servant and blood everywhere, including on a pestle, the purported murder weapon.

We wonder where he got the money and therefore know that something has been omitted, but then we don’t know what until the final part of the section when the police show up and accuse him of murdering his Father.  This is the first time we learn that the Father is even dead.

It is an odd way to frame a mystery, but it moves it into (I assume) a question of consciousness of evil/madness as well as the manifestation of evil, a philosophical whodunit, as in whodunit and who are you and who am I?

The other literary-type thing is that Dostoevsky has chosen to have his key event happen just past the mid-way part of the book.  There have been hints all the way along, which I assume were designed to keep readers reading.  I don’t think, however, that there’s any modern novelist who would have done this.  It certainly would have been a rough day in the MFA workshop.

People are still reading The Brothers Karamazov, so it has to work.  The challenge from a writer’s standpoint is for Doestevsky to pay off all that exposition in the second half of the book–particularly the parts involving Aloysha.

Read on, Macduff.

Book Seven Extra: Grushenka and Alyosha

aloysha and grushenkaSo stuck between the putrification and mysticism of Book Seven we have an equally incredible scene.  Ratikin–the squirrelly little seminarian–talks Aloysha into going over to visit Grushenka.  From a plot standpoint, I think this is perfect because it puts some space between the scenes taking place next to the Starets body.

Even with that, we get a pretty show-stopping surprise when Grushenka sits on Alyosha’s lap.  If there’s a scene you didn’t expect to see, this would be it.  The irony of the scene is painfully obvious on a couple levels.  First of all, the woman who has slept with both Alyosha’s Father and his brother and who is the object of a battle between them–one that has left her fearing that Dmitri is hiding in the bushes waiting for her.

Alyosha, meanwhile, is the only Karamazov who is a virgin or in any way virginal.  Any way.

So, we can’t be surprised at Aloysha’s reaction to having Grushenka on his lap.

…the woman who was now sitting on his knees and was cuddling up to him evoked in him a completely different, unexpected, and peculiar sensation, a sensation of some huge, unprecedented, and open-hearted curiosity…

A sensation?  Oh, indeed.

She even confesses that she had meant to seduce Aloysha (for a Karamazov Hat Trick) but has decided not to.  (Trust me, he’s the winner in that arrangement).

Beyond broad humor and pure entertainment value, this scene does serve a purpose.  Remember, the Starets told Aloysha to go out into the world.  He did not want him retreating to the monastery.  With Grushenka on his lap, Aloysha reports that the experience leaves him “without any of his former terror,” which I assume means he is ready to marry and join the real world for the first time.