Brothers Karamazov: Part One, Book Two

brosThis book is definitely written in a specific way. What I mean is that Dostoevsky employs some interesting literary devices. I mean, he basically tells you the plot of the book. Who does that?

When I mentioned this to BJ, he told me that this was written as a serial. The chapters (according to Wikipedia) which was published as a serial in The Russian Messenger from January 1879 to November 1880.

So that makes sense! Dostoevsky needed to keep people’s interest so he needed to write it in a way that extremely foreshadowed the action to come. Take this scene for example, where Aloysha (who is one of the brothers) is heading over to meet his family for lunch, just after a debacle of a meeting with the local staret. He meets up with a ‘friend’ on the path who offers this as exposition:

Someone’s going to get hurt in your family. It will be something between your brothers and your wealthy father.

Then he mentions MURDER! Ok, thanks for the heads up, dude. I was like, that’s odd to basically let a huge plot point out of the bag so early. But then BJ mentioned the serial thing, and I was like, got it!!

Also, as predicted in my first post, the brother represent different aspects of society. And, lucky for me, the same ‘friend’ from above let’s us know what those exactly are:

The whole of the Karamazov family problem boils down to this: you’re sensualists, money-grubbers, and holy fools!

That makes it easy.

The thing that is unexpected is this is a very funny book. Besides the sassy narrator, there are actually LOL parts. At one point, in the debacle meeting they are discussing a woman of ill repute:

Maybe her fall goes back to her youth, to her repressive background, but she “loved much”, and Christ forgave her that loved much…’ ‘It wasn’t for that kind of love that Christ forgave…’, the meek Father Yosif objected querulously.

I can literally see the meek Father Yosif giving a wave of his finger saying, um yeah….not so much.

Because Dostoevsky wrote this in smaller pieces, there is little (at least up until now) rambling on for pages about philosophy. This approach makes it very readable.

There is now the introduction of a woman, who may or may not be a prostitute (you can read more about that in BJ’s post here). And an upcoming murder. How is that for keeping your attention?

Through Book Two

The great reading project has advanced to the end of Book 2.  We have just finished the rather raucous visit of the Karamazov Brothers to the monastery, in which we find out, in my Mother’s words, “we can’t take [these people] anywhere.”  With the exception of the odd section where the starets is talking to some random supplicants outside the monastery, what we really have going on in this section is more exposition.  The narrator gave us the basic facts in the first section and in this part we get to see the whole family in action.

And it is pretty remarkable.  These are some very screwed up people–reality-show-screwed-up.  Jerry Springer screwed up.  If you don’t me…and the fracas at the Monastery wasn’t enough on its own…allow me to present you with the legendary Battle Grushenka.

Dmiti, played here by Yul Brynner, uses guitar playing trick on Grushenka.

Grushenka is a woman who, we learn, shares her love.  Just to show how easy she is, she actually has Pyotr and Dmitri fighting over her, and doing it in front of the starets and any number of priests, monks, or acolytes, not to mention the other two kids and their cousin.


I checked on Goodreads and there was a poll and 53% of the people who voted said she wasn’t a prostitute, which is said to be the right answer.  Once it gets to be a question, you’re not in real good shape.

I did a little research and couldn’t find any examples of fathers and sons having sex with the same woman, except for Oedipus and some clips on PornHub where there’s reason to doubt that the people involved are even related.

So these guys are more depraved than that.

The end of the book is really well put together.  Alyosha is outside the room where the rest of the family is inside of lunch.  He is talking to the town gossip for the purposes of exposition, because Dostoevsky has made it clear that Alyosha is way too dense to figure out anything for himself.

Anyway, as they are talking, the door bursts open and the rest of the family comes storming out.  Then, Dostoevsky takes us back inside to find out what happened.

One last note.  Everything you read about the book talks about how dark it is.  Right now, it seems too farcical to be truly dark.  Perhaps my own dark view of humanity has made it impossible for anything else to be darker, but this just doesn’t seem like something you’d still be finding dark more than a century later.

Of course, there’s 900 more pages and (spoiler alert) (not really) no one is dead yet.


The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah

vintageThe story follows Kate as she is studying for her Master of Wine exam (which is apparently super hard). She travels back to Burgundy, France to spend some time with her family (who are wine makers) and to get a feel for the wines of the region. During her visit she uncovers a picture of a girl and some notebooks which start Kate and her family on a quest to find out more about this mystery girl.

The story of the girl is woven in the novel through journal entries that she made when she was young, prior to and during the German occupation of France.

There are so many layers to this novel and the author handles them so well they they never become burdensome or too much. On one level the book is about coming to terms with your past and embracing your history – even if that history is uncomfortable.

The book is also, obviously, about wine. One of my favourite movies is ‘Sideways’. In it, one of the characters Maya, played by Virginia Madsen, when asked how she got into wine, she talks about what was happening the year the wine was made, about the weather and the sun and how the winemaker was. And that she could taste all of that in the wine. This book reminded me of that speech. The way the author speaks and  portrays the winemakers and the process shows their love of the land, and of their heritage and of the craft of winemaking.

The love of the land and of country is also echoed in the story of the girl in the picture. What would you be wiling to do to save and protect  your land and your heritage? And when does the line of right and wrong get blurred?

I really enjoyed reading this book. For me it was a page turner. It is sometimes difficult to follow a story when it flips back and forth between history and ‘present day’. The author did a great job in keeping the stories separate, but intermingled. I never felt confused, or that the narratives didn’t belong together.

If you are interested in wine, or France or WW2, or just want a compelling and interesting story, this book if for you.

I gave it a 5/5 star rating on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from Edelweiss for a fair and honest review. (Thanks Edelweiss!)


The NY Times Reviews a book I reviewed

optimistic decadeI have kind of been waiting for this to happen.  One of the things with Netgalley is you get the books early and then the grown-up critics weigh in later.  This happened recently with The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel.

First, one of the things about reading a book early is you get the book before any of the validators on board.  It could be a relatively obscure indy….or it could get reviewed in the New York Times Book Review.  You’re forced to read it on its merits, and not on whether other people found it important.

The book has been widely reviewed, in fact, in all the big places.   I gave it 3-stars, which is also the most common rating on Goodreads as well.

I had it in the “like but don’t love” category, like most readers on Goodreads.

I thought that the book did a great job of creating a sense of place and had well-done characters (with one exception).  I liked many of the themes, I just didn’t think it came together as a compelling, thrilling read.

So what did the New York Times think?

Their reviewer was Zoe Greenberg, whose day job is in the NYT Opinion section.  Of course, the Times doesn’t give stars, but I’d say their review is more positive than the unwashed Zeitgeist.

I thought the most interesting thing that Greenberg notes, that never occurred to me, is the parallel between the exodus into the camp and the Zionist exodus.

Is this a book about the failure of Zionism, an exploration of the limits of idealism or a literary coming-of-age novel? It’s a bit of all three. Most interestingly, it doesn’t just rehash the story of the Holy Land we already know, but imagines a new, subversive ending. Despite the emphasis on the land — its particular specialness and beauty — the devoted of Llamalo come to a radical conclusion: It’s not about the land at all.

Which is to note that there is a heavy influence of Judaism upon which the book draws.  Greenberg goes on to identify the book’s focus on mitzvah–which are actions (often routine) which develop sacred significance–as the true test of faith, as opposed to occupying a holy place.

I agreed with Greenberg that Abel is highly perceptive as well as the rather jaundiced eye that Abel turns toward the book’s liberal activists, teetering delicately on the line between gross over-drawing and winking sardonically.

Anyway, I guess the New York Times did OK.  HA!

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

fires.jpgBefore I moved from Toronto, I put myself on a ‘no book buying’ period for a few months. It’s not because I didn’t want books. It was because I didn’t want to have to move the books. I was already worried that the moving people were judging me.

I did have some gift cards that I needed to use up, so I made an exception and did a book buying expedition. This is one of the books I got. As I am sure you know, as a book lover, there was (and is) a lot of buzz about this book. So I thought, why not!

And, as usual (if you are a reader of my reviews) I didn’t look at the synopsis before getting it. I had no idea what the book was about. Except that it might be about little fires….everywhere.

Not to spoil it for you, but I loved this book. It was excellent.

I don’t want to go into the story and what it’s about – you can look it up if you want.

The book is about family, both blood and chosen. It’s also about the paths that people take in their lives and what the consequences are and how other’s choices can make us question what we have done. Does that sound cryptic? I don’t mean it to be.

I had no idea how this story was going to unfold, and I love that in a book. It always impresses and fascinates me when an author can weave multiple characters and story lines through each other and take you to a place you didn’t think you would end up. It’s literary genius, in my opinion.

I really cared about the characters and changed my opinion of them as the book progressed. As I was supposed to. One of the themes of the book is that you really don’t know what someone has gone through and it’s easy to judge them because you don’t know.

This was one of those books that you can’t stop reading it because it’s so good, but you don’t want it to end at the same time because you are invested in the characters.

I would highly recommend this book. Go and get it. Read it on the porch, at the beach or at the cottage. You will thank me.

Review: Angel

AngelNovelI mentioned a few weeks ago that I love to troll the re-introduced classic shelf and read really good books that have been forgotten over time.  Part of it is a chance to return to my modernist roots, and part of it is just a love of reading, whether the book is in the public eye or not.

I picked up Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (yes, the OTHER one) at Literati recently after hearing about it on the New York Times Books podcast. Having just finished it, I can report that it is an absolute delight.

I don’t like to do too much in the way of plot summaries, but suffice it to say that this is a book about a woman who is the worst successful writer in the world, but doesn’t know she’s the worst.

The most important thing I would say about this book is that it is funny.  It isn’t Catch-22 or Confederacy of Dunces funny, it is more of a very English dry wit, like a London gin, marked by the ability to keep an absolutely straight face when telling the story and assassin-grade command of observation and detail.

Even as dry as it is, though, the entire book is funny.  The situation is funny, the people are funny and the events are funny.  Even as the story draws out to its conclusion, the book doesn’t lose any of its energy and Taylor doesn’t spare her characters, who remain as obtuse in the end as they were in the beginning.

When you read fiction about writers, you can’t help but try to understand what it is that the meta-writer wants to say about the nature of writing an art.  In Angel’s childhood, we see a truly powerful imagination.  Her Aunt works in “Paradise House” as a servant, and Angel imagines what Paradise House must be like.  From that moment, the mind of a Romance author is born.

Sadly, nothing is done to cultivate those powers of imagination.  Angel brags to interviewers that she doesn’t read.  What results is pure mawkish romance fodder that finds an audience of people who long to imagine the insides of mansions and the lives of the rich.

Angel considers herself one of the great writers of her generation; critics bang their heads against the wall at the errors and contradictions embedded in a book set in Ancient Greece.

Taylor is a great writer, showing incredible ability and technique in this story.  She tells it with a deft touch.  If you overwrite this story, you end up with a farce.  If you lose that “straight face,” and act as if you know its funny, the joke disappears.  Taylor never wavers in her discipline to tell the events factually and let the humor arise organically.

So, this is a very good book, one I think people would enjoy reading and a reminder that we can never know the number of great books and great authors who are lost to obscurity.

Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons by Mike Reiss, Mathew Klickstein

springfieldI have been a Simpsons fan from the beginning. I am old enough to remember them on the Tracey Ullman Show (that makes me older than Bart but younger than Grampa). I didn’t know much about the behind the scenes of the show. I did know that Conan O’Brien used to write for them (and did one of my favourite episodes Marge vs. the Monorail. Sing it with me…monorail! Which I do every time I see a monorail!) So I was intrigued to read about how the show works and get some behind the scenes gossip.

The book is written by Mike Reiss who was one of the original writers on the show, along with Al Jean. his writing is…well exactly as you would expect. Sorta like a Simpsons episode. And it’s not a bad thing. I think that if the book was written totally seriously and straight it wouldn’t work. I was laughing out loud at many points in the book.

This book actually helped me to confess a secret I was holding from my husband. I had never watched the Simpsons Movie. *GASP* Luckily this was not a deal breaker. This situation was rectified, we both watched it and I got to experience Spider Pig. (Honestly, could not stop laughing for 10 minutes.) However….I digress…..

For me, I found the process of writing and producing an episode fascinating. The amount of work and time and effort that goes into one episode is mind boggling. I think it is one of the reasons that it is still on TV after 30 years (wait….what??? Maybe I am closer to Grampa’s age than I thought!) The number of jokes that are pitched and rejected is amazing. Ok, I know what you are going to say….it’s not as good as it used to be. I get it, and so does the author. You try coming up with original material for 30 years.

I think that if you are a fan of the show, or of the writing process, you will enjoy this book. If you are a super fan – I can’t speak to how much ‘original material’ the author talks about or reveals. For me, I found it interesting and engaging.

I gave it a 4/5 star rating on Goodreads.

Full disclosure: I received this eARC from Edelweiss for a fair and honest review. (Thanks Edelweiss!)