The Insulted and Injured by Fyodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on

Dostoevsky’s first full novel after his release from the Siberian labor camp and his subsequent attempts to reenter the Russian literary scene, The Insulted and Injured incorporates many of the motifs and tropes popular in the roman-feuilltons of the time. Think Dickens at his most heartstrings-pullingly sympathetic, pathetic, and bathetic; often I found myself remembering Nicholas Nickelby, among others, though often without Dickens’s ironic humor.

A romantic narrator willing to sacrifice himself and his love for a young woman (Natasha), who, herself, is in love with another man (see Dostoevksy’s pre-Siberian “White Nights,” among others, for a similar love triangle plot), a poor gentry father who has cut off his daughter for indecently eloping with a neighboring aristocrat, that aristocrat’s princely father cravenly aiming, from his position of power and wealth, to ruin the honest and innocent around him, and a little girl of unknown heritage brought up in penury—Dostoevsky incorporates all these elements into the novel. With all this, the novel distills the popular trends of the time into a set of dual plotlines—the marriage quadrangle between the narrator, Natasha, the aristocrat Alyosha, and his intended Katerina, and the parentage plot of thirteen-year-old Nellie Smith—that, it is discovered by the end of the novel, are connected in more ways than merely through the narrator.

Rather than being a mere pastiche of the literary trends of the 1860s (which, certainly, it is, though it nonetheless held the attention of its dismissive public to the last installment), The Insulted and Injured shows Dostoevsky growing and experimenting with novelistic elements in ways that presage his later works. One can find in the book embryonic versions of later characters and situations, as well as maturation of previous ones. While it lacks the prescience and depth of Dostoevsky’s later works (he himself said there were only 50 pages in the novel of which he was proud), the novel nonetheless serves as an informative example of the author’s transition into those works. It also serves to show his tackling of the contemporary issue of women’s liberation, especially through the character of Natasha, who is disowned by her father for exercising what relationship autonomy she can; that issue, of course, would be further explored and addressed by Dostoevsky in his later works, form Notes from Underground to The Brothers Karamazov.

While The Insulted and Injured may serve as a good introduction for those coming to him from Dickens, etc, it is not Dostoevsky’s most Dostoevskian work, and one should not approach it expecting similar exploration of psychology, philosophy (there’s a bit of both, but not much), crime, politics, or other major elements that characterize the author’s most-known masterpieces.


Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 by Joseph Frank—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on

The second in Joseph Frank’s biography on Dostoevsky, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 picks up where The Seeds of Revolt leaves off. After being arrested for his participation in a printing scheme whose socialist literature was judged seditious by Tsarist censors, Dostoevsky waits in prison for his summary execution. However, in a staged act of magnanimity, the Tsar pardons Dostoevsky et al. at the last moment, sending them instead to different Siberian prison camps.

Dostoevsky’s experiences and revelations in his four-year term in Siberia and his subsequent service in the military following it are the focus of The Years of Ordeal. In prison the still young (late twenties) Dostoevsky meets many peasant convicts, who he learns are nothing like what he and other upper-class intelligentsia assumed, neither needing nor wanting liberation by the Western liberal elite. In his process of discovering the psychology of those around him, Dostoevsky discovers that such things as private property, clear social hierarchy, and the moral metaphysics established by Russian Orthodox Christianity are serious needs that make the peasant convicts stronger, more resilient, and more at peace than those in his own class. Throughout the book, and pointing forward to works like Crime and Punishment and The Devils, Frank tracks Dostoevsky’s growing realization of the revolutionary socialist perspective as both naive and self-destructive.

Following Dostoevsky’s time in prison, Frank depicts the man’s attempts to reestablish himself on the literary scene while fulfilling his obligations as a soldier in the provincial town of Semipalatinsk. Bringing in writing from the time and more recent diagnoses, Frank also examines Dostoevsky’s nascent epilepsy, which runs parallel to the writer’s relationship with his first wife, Marya Dimitrievna. Married to a drunk when Dostoevsky first meets her, Dimitrievna consumes the man and establishes many identifiable themes for in his later female characters.

As in The Seeds of Revolt, Frank follows the biographical chapters with an examination of Dostoevsky’s literature during the respective years. Articulating how the literary scene (often the only place to avoid censors and discuss politics in Tsarist Russia) had developed since Dostevsky’s arrest, Frank describes the ascent of men such as Alexander Herzen, who now occupied the place in Russian culture previously held by Vissarion Belinsky, and seminarian socialist N. G. Chernyshevsky. Dostoevsky finds that the upper class values and self-doubt he previously depicted and lampooned in The Double and other works now under full attack, with a growing divide between “weak” upper class deference to tradition and “strong” willfulness to disregard it. Into this divide (which places the previously gauche Dostoevsky among such writers as Turgenev and Tolstoy, who welcome him) Dostoevsky brings his recent prison realizations about human psychology and ideology, and one can see the development of such ideas as would inform his later works.

Frank ends the book with an examination of Dostoevsky’s writing during the time, namely Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo. (Because Dostoevsky would not write The House of the Dead until later years, Frank defers examining it, though he has quoted passages throughout to inform the reading of Dostevsky’s prison years.) Summarizing the books, Frank articulates how Dostoevsky’s ideas and themes have grown since Poor Folk and The Double, and he shows how time in prison has tested and nuanced Dostoevsky’s relationship with Romanticism and Naturalism (a major theme in The Seeds of Revolt), consistently hinting forward to Dostoevsky’s larger works.

Covering what Frank argues is the most formative decade of Dostoevsky’s life, The Years of Ordeal provides a fascinating look at not only how Dostoevsky became the writer he did, but also how Russia changed during these years. The work, thus, provides invaluable insight on the cultural, ideological, and political changes that would foreground Dostoevsky’s later masterpieces, as well as the later revolutions in later 19th and early 20th century Russia.

Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 by Joseph Frank—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on

Not for the faint of heart, Joseph Frank’s series on Dostoevsky reverses the “examine the work to understand the man” approach to biography and instead examines themes in Dostoevsky’s life that might inform our understanding of his work.

The first of Frank’s five-volume biography, The Seeds of Revolt examines elements of Dostoevsky’s childhood, family, early religious life, and initial presence in the literary scene of 19th-century St. Petersburg to inform his earliest works, such as Poor Folk, The Double, The Landlady, White Nights, and others. Leading up to Dostoevsky’s 1849 arrest, Frank identifies the cultural and political conflicts in Russian society at the time—among which are the move in Russian interests from German Romanticism to French Naturalism and the question of whether reform (specifically, the end of serfdom) should come from the Tsar or from the people.

Amidst these conflicts, a young Fyodor Dostoevsky developed his own ideas of Naturalistic social consciousness while maintaining (often to his social detriment) a conviction that Romanticism was not completely meritless. Recounting Dostoevsky’s moves between different social and literary circles, Frank deftly shows how he eventually embroiled himself in a plot to print subversive materials advocating that the liberation of the serfs should come from below. While presenting Dostoevsky honestly as a revolutionary, Frank never removes his eye from the implicit, abstract themes in the man’s work that show his psychological and literary progression as more than those of a simple social radical.

Despite the work’s length and weight of subject, Frank’s prose is eminently readable and his organization compelling. Prefacing Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg life (the bulk of the book) with chapters about his childhood and then ending the book with a focused look at the early works he has mentioned throughout, Joseph Frank offers a biography that does not read as a simply chronological biography, and he provides a context and jumping-off point that can easily prompt one to read not only Dostoevsky’s early work but also the next volume of the biography.

The Hammer And The Cross: A New History Of The Vikings by Robert Ferguson—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on

As the title implies, Robert Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross tracks the earliest interactions of Scandinavian and Danish vikings with the usually Christian post-Roman Europe. Following events from the 8th century attack on the Lindisfarne monastery in what would become NE England to the founding of Normandy in NW France, from viking expeditions to Spain and northern Africa to their establishment as the Varingian Guard in Kiev, Ferguson shows how the vikings shaped much of what became medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Presenting viking paganism and post-Roman Christianity in a cultural, often political, back-and-forth, Ferguson follows the eventual acceptance (and often full embrace) of Christianity by viking leaders from Denmark to Norway to Sweden. Taking the perspective that such oral cultures–usually written of by both antagonistic and, more often than not, sympathetic Christian writers–often carry more myth in their history than literal event. While he seeks to cut through the exaggerated stories of viking legends to describe the real men and women in them, Ferguson nonetheless sees a poetic value and usefulness in such legends, and he by no means attempts to reduce the size such figures have in the stories, then or now.

I had some idea of the influence the vikings had on European history, but I did not know that influence was so extensive and, after reading Ferguson’s book, so visible. One cannot study medieval history without studying the vikings, and whether one is a history buff or merely a fan of “Vikings” the show (which, though taking liberties with time and interpretation, ends up being quite based in the culture’s history and key figures over the centuries), Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross is an excellent read.

The Faith of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on

In The Faith of William Shakespeare, Graham Holderness argues from both biographical evidence and elements in his plays that Shakespeare was not, as others have argued, an agnostic, an atheist, nor a recusant Catholic, but a Calvinist Protestant in line with the reforming Church of England. Holderness is explicit about his aim and argument from the book’s Preface: “My own view…is that Shakespeare was, both as a believing individual and as a writer, a faithful Protestant.”

Holderness proceeds to introduce an interpretive summary of Calvinism and Catholicism in the English Reformation, though from a Calvinist perspective (he never gives the Catholic perspective on the doctrinal issues presented, including ones with which the Catholic Church agreed and which it had been teaching for centuries). He then identifies the tenets of his first chapter in Shakespeare’s plays to varying depth, focusing on one play per chapter. Starting paradoxically at the end of Shakespeare’s tenure (with a play on which he collaborated), Holderness examines Henry VIII, Richard II, Henry V, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. With each chapter he focuses on a different aspect of a play, whether explicit plot elements (HVIII, WT, Tempest) or language clues that he argues imply a Calvinist worldview (MM), among others. He is consistent in his argument, though he at times broadens it to show Shakespeare’s nuance with other religions (MV).

As can often happen, discussions about Shakespeare, especially his faith, often reveals more about writers, speakers, and audiences than about Shakespeare, himself. To Holderness’s credit, he is open about his book’s perspective, which agrees with several other writers on the topic. However, the work would be stronger if it devoted more time to admitting the limits of the Protestant Shakespeare argument.

A consistent problem with the book (though others may not see it as such) is not necessarily the argument, itself, but the supposed surety of its claims–for example, that more than following Protestant mandates on literary culture Shakespeare was a devout Calvinist and that this cannot but be seen in his plays.

At times this goes a bit far. Virtually every mention of the word “grace” in the focus plays is taken as an affirmation of the Calvinist tenet of Sola Gratia, and all elements that reference thankfulness for God’s providence or the Anglican Church are taken to be affirmations solely of Calvinism (the assumption that Anglican = Calvinist is another such package deal). Elsewhere, such as in his discussion of Richard II (which necessarily involves the Henry plays not mentioned in the book), he risks proving too much: in presenting Henry IV as a more pragmatic politician who reveals the supposed emptiness of the assumed divine mandate of Richard II, Holderness risks reading as Protestant the very Henry IV whose revolutionary actions create a series of upheavals which must be atoned for in Prince Hal’s restoring the majesty of the previous kings—all of which is ignored by Holderness in his reading of Henry V. At other times Holderness attempts to prove the negative that we can’t know Shakespeare wasn’t being sincere, despite the caveat that such outward signs of Anglicanism were requisite (to his credit, Holderness does reference, if briefly, other scholarship on the apparent Catholic recusancy of Shakespeare’s father). The supposed obviousness of Holderness’s findings of Calvinism in Shakespeare is reinforced by the lack of context which might weaken the argument, such as the real differences between Anglicanism and the Calvinism he describes, or the Greek tragicomic tradition which precedes the Church entirely, was common in the Renaissance, and was mimicked in Shakespeare’s Romance plots (read by Holderness as obviously Calvinist).

Again, Holderness’s argument may be true—and can certainly be supported—but to present his readings with such unconditional surety, unnuanced by at least even some concession, harms the argument, in my opinion. Catholics—or Anglicans, for that matter—might read the same passages and find in them signs of their faith as Holderness does of Calvinism. Protestantism is, of course, in the plays, but so are English Catholicism and budding Anglicanism. Ironically, eschewing a critical reading of his argument weakens it, besides presenting Shakespeare’s plays as implicitly hostile to the Catholic culture preceding (and still recusant in) Shakespeare’s generation. With this in mind, I would only recommend this book within the context of others.

(FWIW, I am neither Catholic, Anglican, nor Protestant, but Greek Orthodox; while I am not immune to my own third paragraph, I nonetheless do not to see in Shakespeare’s text the same exclusively Calvinist doctrines as Holderness, and certainly not with the same surety).

The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on

The Double, Dostoevsky’s second acclaimed novel after Poor Folk, examines the psychological split of clerk Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin. The story opens with a much anticipated and ultimately unsuccessful attempt by Golyadkin to join his superiors from work at a young woman’s birthday party. Walking through the foggy St. Petersburg afterwards, Golyadkin encounters another Golyadkin, his own double. As the story progresses, the protagonist realizes that, far from becoming an ally in his quest for social advancement, his double becomes his main obstacle, especially as he shows himself to be confident, poised, and daring–all the things our Golyadkin wishes he was. With the appearance of “Golyadkin Junior” the narrator increasingly hints that Golyadkin Senior’s interpretations and expectations of his world are unreliable, and that, far from being the hero of his own story, he himself might be something much worse.

The Double includes many elements common to Dostoevsky: an antiheroic clerk, an often self-contradictory St. Petersburg, unexpected meetings in restaurants and bars, and a steady break between a character’s ideal expectations and his reality. Dostoevsky wrote The Double in the middle of the Russian literary milieu’s transition from Romanticism to Realism, and it contains many elements of that transition–especially in the disconnect between Golyadkin’s interpretation of events and their actual significance (or lack thereof). What might have been a legitimate social battle between a virtuous protagonist and his malicious rival fifty years earlier becomes a study in psychological projection and perceptual unreliability, and it’s easy to see early studies of Dostoevsky’s latter characters who become their own antagonist, such as the Underground man and Raskolnikov.

Although one might expect a writer’s early works to lack the depth of their latter masterpieces, The Double stands out as a nuanced and sophisticated work. A major character worth studying (or teaching) in the book is the third person narrator; with his earnest treatment of the mediocre ambitions of his less-than-mediocre protagonist, Dostoevsky’s narrator highlights the absurdities and ironic humor of Golyadkin’s life, as well as of contemporary St. Petersburg as a whole–the daily life and mores of which are displayed throughout the work. Most importantly, the narrator (as well as everything else) makes the work ENTERTAINING, especially when one keeps in mind the unreliability of the narrator’s subtly winking presentation of Golyadkin (reminiscent of Austen’s limited omniscient narrators).

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on

Caveat: I’m an ESL teacher and grammar tutor who’s been playing with and thinking about the oddities of English grammar for years. Also, I listened to the audiobook (read by the author).

That being said, while it is an academic historical study, McWhorter’s book is eminently approachable. His witty, colorful narration can carry one over the technical grammar discussion—English’s odd use of the negative and interrogative “do” verb, or its use of the “-ing” verb ending, for starters. Even as he engages in the grammar, McWhorter provides references and perspective on where such oddities came from, ultimately arguing that the English we know was influenced by many other languages and demographies.

One section of the book stands out wherein the author describes the implications of his reading of English’s history. Recognizing how language is more often a practical tool than a means of cultural influence, McWhorter debunks the common claims that a culture’s language is key to understanding their unique perspective and that changes in language necessarily imply cultural conflict or oppression. Rather than language dictating culture, he argues, cultural change among the shared practical needs of people groups (who interacted, mixed, and lived simultaneously much more than current perspectives might suggest) affected the grammar and vocabulary of language, both spoken and written. In other words, while a language’s grammar and vocabulary might tell something of what its culture considers important enough to name, record, or label, they probably don’t imply a completely different metaphysical “worldview.” McWhorter then goes on to articulate why this might be a good thing—for people in general and grammaticians in instance.

Whether to non-academics or for use in a grammar or cultural studies curriculum, I definitely recommend the book, especially the audio version (read by McWhorter himself, it captures the wit of his off-hand comments and at times admittedly bad pronunciation).

Debunking Howard Zinn by Mary Grabar—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on

Mary Grabar’s book Debunking Howard Zinn explores the biographical, political, and historiographical aspects of Zinn’s life and writing to provide a greater context for understanding Zinn’s writing and advocacy for historical revisionism. Beginning with a biographical chapter examining Zinn’s early socialist convictions and engagement with the Communist Party of America, Grabar proceeds through each chapter of The People’s History of the United States, revealing omissions, misleading implications, and inaccuracies in Zinn’s work. At times she checks Zinn’s book against primary documents (such as Jefferson’s reviling slavery in his rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, Alexis de Tocqueville’s evaluations of mid-19th century America, and military documents and personal accounts regarding the wars of the 20th century), other historians (such as Gordon Wood and David McCullough, and several historians sympathetic to Zinn’s explicitly communist aims), and even Zinn’s own work outside of the book that contradicts its claims.

Grabar’s overall aim and effect, of course, is to deflate the aura of profundity that has surrounded Zinn’s work in American political and educational culture. Citing examples of public educators basing curricula on Zinn’s work throughout, Grabar tracks how the assumptions of The People’s History became so ubiquitous in American society, even to the point of influencing local and nationwide politics in recent decades. She also pinpoints key leaders who have based their agendas and platforms on Zinn’s “view from the bottom” interpretation (and, Grabar argues, re/misinterpretation) of history. Linking the dismantling of different social institutions and cultural assumptions in recent years, Grabar argues for the rejection of Zinn’s ahistorical influence on our culture.

As the title suggests, this book is not a history but, rather, an expose. It provides part biography, part summary, and part reference for contextualizing Zinn against historians. Grabar is open about the book’s aim. Having personally heard much of Zinn’s perspective growing up and becoming an educator in English and US history, I found the biographical timeline about Zinn most interesting and informative, as well as most effective in establishing Zinn as a political agitator and polemicist for the Left instead of a historian. I have used several sources Grabar references when teaching on the US founding, and I plan to look into other historical sources in the future.

Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on

I’ll preface this review with two caveats: first, I did not read this book. Instead, I listened to the audiobook voiced by Gary Sinise, and it was excellent. Second, I’ve been fortunate enough to drive across the USA more than once via different routes. Both of these made me thoroughly enjoy this book, and I knew within the first few chapters that it would make me want to do several things: enjoy more work by both Steinbeck and Sinise, find a dog like Charlie, and take my own road trip across America.

Of course, much has changed since Steinbeck made his trip. Indeed (not to jump ahead), this book or portions of it could be included in any course or high school study unit on the Civil Rights movement. What I found I enjoyed most — and which I would most worry would be missing were I to take my own trip — was the consistent theme of the mid-20th century sensibility of modesty, understatement, and yet humble pride among the people Steinbeck found in his travels. I don’t doubt this still exists, and that one might still trade a cup of coffee or whiskey for a trusty conversation wherein no names are needed nor expected. However, from my own trips I’ve found the KOA campsite has replaced the corner of farmland (though the respect for coffee and whiskey, perhaps, has not depreciated).

Not only Steinbeck’s descriptions of the Northwest or the South make this book worth reading, but his reflective commentary on America, as well as on the human person. Having grown up in and traversed California several times, I found Steinbeck’s take on returning to his home of Monterey especially poignant. I’d expect people from across the US, especially those with familial connections to the mid-west, would equally find enough homage and reflection to chew on. Conversely, I could also see myself using this book in my second-language English classes and tutoring sessions to give students and friends from other cultures a more personal view of the 20th century American ethos than they would find in a history book. Also, if you’re a dog lover, this book might be for you — Charlie is appropriately included in the title, his being a prominent character and occasion for commentary in the book. Definitely worth the read — though I’d also recommend the audiobook.

A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Barenbaum—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on

If I were to teach a class on Rachel Barenbaum’s debut novel (it would heartily stand up to such a thing), I would instruct students to look for two things: character conflict and layering. Really, those are the same thing. As Barenbaum reveals more about her characters and their values, their implicit and explicit conflicts become more and more visible, and we become more and more invested in the outcome. Before I knew it, I found I had been subtly drawn into the plot, and I enjoyed watching how Barenbaum did it.

Miri’s initial conflict is excellent: the first female surgeon, she assumes a lot of pressure, not only from the lives under her hands but also from the precedents she will set for future women and Jews in medicine. Her fiance, Yuri, too, has staked his reputation on her ability, to say nothing about her relation to her brother, Vanya, who has his own barriers to break. That all of this is set in Russia at the cusp of WWI makes the conflicts deeper and even more poignant.

Barenbaum’s prose is very subtle: she quickly builds context around the Jews’ plight without needing too much broad exposition of the times (I read her novel while halfway through rereading a work by Dostoevsky; the contrast in style was interesting to say the least). Having had to deal with it in my own writing, I greatly admired how much she must have resisted the temptation to include more than the few but consistent hints that, nonetheless, open whole other aspects of her characters. At first I thought she was a bit free with her rhetorical questions, but I soon realized they were probably the best way to drive the narrative without compromising the characters’ limited perspective. Her voice is consistent throughout the novel, and it’s very easy to fall into a rhythm with her story without being distracted by the narrator.

Barenbaum’s description of Kovno and the other locations (including several one-shot, time-period-specific moments) made me wonder at how much she must have researched the pre-WWI Russian Empire and visited the sites, or whether she had merely taken poetic license; both possibilities only increased my enjoyment of the book. Indeed, it made me want to travel to the sites to check and experience her descriptions of the locations and the weather for myself, as well as to do homage to the people represented by her characters (which might be an indicator of good historical fiction). Her incorporation of both Jewish and Russian folklore into the story further drew me into the settings and conflicts of the times, especially with the historical hindsight without which it’s impossible to read the novel. A sucker for the historical part of “historical fiction,” I found myself wanting through the first quarter of the book a more explicit description of Czarist Russia, but then I realized Barenbaum had provided it–in the form of the soldiers surrounding the Jewish characters. Again, though she could probably tell me all I’d wish to know, she only includes enough detail to tell her characters’ stories, and her plot benefits from that excellent-because-invisible discipline.

The contrast between Russian folklore and the paradoxical science and Jewish folklore of Vanya and Miri is an interesting theme. Whatever unnuanced dismissal of mysticism one might expect from the book is (again, subtly) undercut by Barenbaum’s division of the chapters and sections by the Jewish months and festivals. In other words, if one wants a simple “superstition vs science” division between characters and values, A Bend in the Stars might not be the book to read (or it might be the perfect book to read). By Barenbaum’s narration (and this might be more than a bit of interpretation on my part), the supposed “superstitions” of the main characters’ Jewish folklore are what give their lives structure, for good or ill, and it is these aspects of their identity — at times deeper than their respective expertise in surgery or astrophysics — which give them the tools to overcome the many obstacles that come their way in those areas.

In sum, I’ve already recommended A Bend in the Stars to several friends, both bookworms and science majors alike, and I hope it continues to gain traction in the reader community. Barenbaum’s use of character conflicts to drive the plot is exemplary, and I look forward to seeing what else she produces and how she grows as an author.