Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 by Joseph Frank—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

The fourth of Joseph Frank’s five-volume literary biography on Dostoevsky, The Miraculous Years covers the time from just after the failure of the writer’s second literary journal, Epoch, (and the financial burdens that failure would incur), through his meeting and marrying his second wife Anna, their exile abroad to avoid debt creditors, and the author’s return to Russia four years later. The works covered, with both context and analysis by Frank, include Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, The Idiot, The Eternal Husband, and The Devils; Dostoevsky’s writing so prolifically, and under such stress as is elaborated in the book, makes the choice of title obvious.

Because the biography’s later volumes deal with Dostoevsky’s heavier masterpieces, and because the book almost immediately approaches Crime and Punishment with the depth of analysis for which, in previous volumes, readers had to wait until the end, The Miraculous Years is, from a literary criticism standpoint, the densest volume so far. With his usual ability to present great literature in generally manageable terms, Frank provides many details of the circumstances and behind the major novels covered (which, often due to writing deadlines and sometimes censorship, Dostoevsky was not always able to lift up to his own standards of expression). While the intervening details of Dostoevsky’s life are, as always, essential (his courting of the heroic Anna is a delight to read, and the context for his famous feud with Turgenev, the Dostoevskys’ travels in Europe, and the explanation of sources behind The Devils are all excellent), the readings of the novels and novellas are in-depth and comprehensive.

While at times Frank’s historicist interpretation tries, in my opinion, to link the books too exclusively to events and literature (essays, letters, etc) contemporaneous to the times, the readings give a solid basis for reading the books in context, and Frank’s explanation of the overall structures (and Dostoevsky’s stated but rarely fulfilled intents therefore) of the books provide an enlightening foundation from which to understand the works. It would have taken several rereads of the works for me to recognize the schema Frank points out in approachable prose. For those most interested in better understanding Dostoevsky’s great works, this volume is worth waiting for (or skipping to).

Replika: Sky’s Mission by Hugo Bernard—Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

“The arithmetic of suffering was not an easy matter to resolve.”

Replika: Sky’s Mission by Hugo Bernard is a post-apocalyptic SF novel centered on one alternative: will characters remain in their current life and try to improve (or merely endure) it, or will they enter Replika, a worldwide simulation that was balanced long ago with just the right parameters to mimic human existence while making it more bearable? With a tight cast of characters—who at times double due to their having separate existences inside and outside of the simulation—a great balance of action, drama, and philosophy, and excellent narration, Bernard’s book is an outstanding contribution to the SF genre.

Replika: Sky’s Mission is primarily a story about parents and children. The drama between the younger characters, foremost of whom is mid-20s Sky, and the older, wiser scientists Omar and Sky’s mother, Vi, comprises much of the book’s tension, with the latter contrasting Sky’s reactionary opposition to technology with their own ambivalent nuance. Having lived their lives around and in some initially unclear ways contributed to Replika, Omar and Vi have learned the boons and threats of tech and human nature, and they’ve learned what science can and cannot do—hopefully not too late. This leads to the book’s central conflict (and the upcoming trilogy at large): the attempt to send Sky into Replika to somehow contact her brother, Hugo, and attempt to bring down the whole simulation.

Furthermore, the book’s deuteragonist, Morgan, whose connection to the others is initially unclear, must himself choose between the future he wants with his reporter girlfriend Aviva and his obligations to his bedridden mother. This choice becomes paramount when a terrorist attack on Paris causes France—and Aviva reporting there—to go silent. Like many intergenerational stories, both Sky’s and Morgan’s conflicts involve themes of duty, unfulfilled expectations, and resentment between parents and kids. The questions regarding what the parent generation is obligated to leave the next is made more complex by Replika—and its paired promise of bliss and dereliction of life in the real world—being part of the equation.

Besides being a good story, Replika: Sky’s Mission is very well-written. The first aspect of Replika that stood out to me was its worldbuilding. Set long after a climate-related but generally undefined apocalypse, the world outside Replika is filled with ruined buildings, overgrown forests, migratory sand dunes, and suspect water sources, the descriptions of which are always given in relation to the humans (and psychology thereof) that have somehow survived.

Furthermore, rather than use the story’s premise as an excuse to describe fantastic worlds, as other simulation-based books do (to be sure, Bernard does this, though not gratuitously), the author keeps a solid focus on those outside of Replika. This creates a salutary suspense about what Sky’s experience will actually be like once she enters Replika, where all her memories will be removed when she will be given a new life.

When the story actually does enter Replika, the transition is so subtle that one learns the story has already described several scenes from within the simulation. The blurring of the lines between inside and outside of the simulation mimics well the experience of the characters, and it added an unsettling but not unpleasant depth to the plot. I don’t know if Bernard had Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation or his critique of The Matrix movies in mind (I, myself, only know of either through hearsay and summaries), but Replika: Sky’s Mission reminded me of what I know of Baudrillard’s work (I’ll refrain from elaborating to avoid spoilers, but iykyk).

More technically, too, Replika holds up. The close-third-person narrator rarely, if ever, intrudes in the explanations of characters and their motives, and it offers a good amount of humor and irony, depending on the character. Furthermore—and one of my favorite aspects of the book—the flow and phrasing of the prose was both varied and well-paced. Bernard’s choice of analogies is also excellent, with his unstrained metaphors rarely, if ever, feeling like narrative intrusion.

Though Replika: Sky’s Mission is first in a trilogy, the tension of its conflict is resolved without the book’s feeling unfinished, and there are several threads and hints to be taken up in the sequel. For now, I’ll recommend the first installment to fans of simulation-based SF, and I plan to read (and hopefully review) the second as soon as it’s available.

How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents by Jimmy O. Yang—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

As the title suggests, How to American is comedian and actor Jimmy 0. Yang’s story about coming to America from Hong Kong at 13, being cast in Silicon Valley, Crazy Rich Asians, and other productions, and all his experiences in-between. I listened to the audiobook, read by Yang, himself.

The narration and the stories aren’t for kids, but this was a great listen/read. Besides being genuinely funny, the book follows Yang’s process from being seen (and seeing himself) as an immigrant to the US to being not only a legal citizen, but also finding the balance between being simultaneously American and Hong Konger. His take on Asians avoiding characters with accents—which he believes reinforces the negative stereotypes of those accents, rather than broadening them as markers of an authentic, relatable experience—is insightful and very down-to-earth. In this and other commentary on his experiences, Yang emphasizes the uniqueness of America, as well as the cultural differences between its and Asian cultures.

In this way, Yang’s autobiography connects with other works about the Asian American experience. Were it not for the language (maybe even despite that, for older students), I might consider pairing the book with other, more self-consciously serious works as a synthesis exercise—as well as to show students that comedy can be just as thematically deep as drama.

How to American is honest but perennially optimistic, and, like Mike Judge says in the foreword, it makes me proud to be an American. It definitely made me appreciate Jimmy O. Yang, whom I’ll be watching more intently now. I normally don’t go in for Hollywood autobiographies, but comedians’ memoirs are a different story, and this was a fun first.

Pride and Prejudice (Norton Critical, 4th Ed.)–Goodreads Review

Summary and review of critical back materials; originally posted on Goodreads.

Literally one of the greatest novels ever written, and second only to The Brothers Karamazov, Pride and Prejudice needs no encomium from me.

The Norton Critical edition has some excellent end-of-book criticism, which includes:

D.A. Miller, “No One is Alone,” from Jane Austen; Or the Secret of Style (2003)

Discusses the break between Austen’s style and her characters, with the former being omniscient and the latter being little-knowing. Recounts how Austen’s style developed from reading 18th century writers like Sam Johnson and how she novelized several aspects of their articles. Discusses the paradox of Elizabeth’s marrying Darcy (Miller sees it cynically as an unfortunate contradiction) by supposedly eschewing the very wit (or “impertinence”) that made her unique.

Jeff Nunokawa, “Speechless in Austen,” from Differences 16 (2005)

Discusses the timelessness in Austen (both narration and characters), whose writing seems to have no idea of the enormous cultural changes that arte to come in the 1800s. Nunokawa identifies this confident changelessness as being part of why we read P&P, which, despite readers’ approaching it with nostalgia, has very little actual nostalgia within its pages. Discusses, like Elfenbein below, Austen’s use of space-as-social dynamic. He also contextualizes and discusses silence within P&P, and how Darcy must learn to open up because it is through sociability and inclusion that one succeeds in P&P. In Austen one can only know themselves through social interaction, and so Darcy’s attempting to only speak when he has something perfect or great to say ironically reduces him. Finally, examines the certainty of tone often used by both Austen’s narrator and her characters.

At times syntax/language felt a bit overwrought, but it may be because it’s an excerpt and, its being the first article I read after finishing the novel, I was still reading with Austen’s rhythm.

Andrew Elfenbein, “Austen’s Minimalism,” from The Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice (2013)

Examines how and why Austen leaves out descriptive details; identifies her as not being a realist (as has been said) because of this selectivity. Contextualizes Austen with Johnson’s 18th century advice to make writing timeless by avoiding too many details; shows how Austen nuances this by using detail to enhance beauty of characters/scenes like the then popular picturesque school (which suffuses the book – see Knox-Shaw below). Identifies rooms and the outdoors not as physical places but as identifiers of distance and a context for the social interactions that make up the book. One of the best articles in the edition, both for historical context and argument flow.

Peter Knox-Shaw, “Pride and Prejudice, A Politics of the Picturesque,” from Jane Austen and the Enlightenment (2004)

Identifies the Picturesque as finding a medium between the Burkean-Romantic poles of pacifying Beauty and provoking Sublime. Follows the picturesque as a running metaphor through the book for Elizabeth and Darcy’s love, and thus, for Elizabeth’s breaking of gender stereotypes/politics. Argues that, like the picturesque, Elizabeth’s development depicts a nuancing of (if not campaign against) conventional beauty, while showing that beauty and attractiveness are not synonymous in the book. In conjunction with the other articles on the picturesque, Knox-Shaw’s was one of the more enlightening articles in the material.

Felicia Bonaparte, “Conjecturing Possibilities: Reading and Misreading Texts in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,” from Studies in the Novel 37.2 (2005)

Places Pride and Prejudice within the contemporary philosophical debate between the rationalists and the empiricists. Establishes how Pride and Prejudice identifies Jane Austen as an empiricist in the line of David Hume due to the book’s consistent focus on skepticism regarding secondhand accounts, texts, and assumptions. Stresses how often characters’ epistemology is discovered to be faulty, and how the book encourages a general skepticism regarding first impressions. Argues that the Bennet sisters each, in their own way, undermines one’s ability to interpret reality with certainty, and that Elizabeth’s developing a “practical empiricism” is “the bildung of the novel.” Goes further to argue that Austen was even an early Nietzschean post-modernist in how she incorporates her characters’ mutual and self-reflective interpretations into their construction of, rather than deduction of, reality. Probably my favorite of the edition’s essays, for its historical context and depth of substance, as well as readability.

Vivien Jones, “Feminisms,” from A Companion to Jane Austen (2012)

Argues that, despite her focus on primarily women characters and their circumstances, Austen should not be classed as an early feminist because of her reaffirmation of marriage, which Jones interprets as an endorsement of the patriarchal structure she sees throughout the book. Identifies Austen, rather, as a postfeminist author, who (she thinks mistakenly) argues in her characters and scenarios that the inequalities facing early-19th-century women had largely been dealt with and that many problems experienced by women can be surmounted not by societal revolution and polemic but by individual reflection and reformation. Identifies Elizabeth as being in the vein of Mary Wollstonecraft, but Austen as aligning more with the conservative female writer Hannah More. Accuses Austen of contextualizing the benefits achieved by Wollstonecraft within a conservative/Tory context of twenty years later that reaffirms the social structure. P&P as conservative reinterpretation of previous feminist ideals through the onus for individual, rather than broader social, reform. In my opinion, Jones’s view that Elizabeth’s marriage is a renegging on her previous independence (rather than a full expression of it) misses the point of the book, which his her growth out of her own pride and prejudice.

Janet Todd, “Jane Austen’s Hero,” from The Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice (2013)

Argues that Darcy’s place in society allows him to begin the book as a boor, whereas Elizabeth’s requires her to adapt through the book. Sees Elizabeth as having no individuality in either Darcy or Collins’s eyes. Follows Duckworth’s Marxist reading of the book’s property entail (refuted below by Macpherson), applying it to gender and property. Like Jones above, interprets her growth out of her pride and prejudice as a negative, a product of her social standing and gender, and thus misses the point of the book.

Elsie B. Michie, “Social Distinction in Jane Austen,” from The Vulgar Question of Money: Heiresses, Materialism, and the Novel of Manners from Jane Austen to Henry James (2011)

Interprets P&P as Austen’s attempt to find the proper relation to wealth. Reads book as a response to Hume and Smith’s writings on the problematic effects of wealth on English society. Elizabeth as the opposite of Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine, both of whom present the negative effects of status via inherited wealth (shallow, arrogant, etc). Examines the growth of manners to replace the traditional virtues of the landed aristocracy (both shown in said characters). Points out how Elizabeth’s manners, as well as her disregard for inherited virtue or status, make her attractive despite her lack of apparent beauty. Looks at what Darcy’s growing attraction says about him. A good essay for understanding and contextualizing the different dynamics in the Elizabeth-Lady Catherine interactions, as well as the changing social mores of the time.

Sandra Macpherson, “Rent to Own: or, What’s Entailed in Pride and Prejudice,” from Representations 82 (2003)

Lays out the laws of property entail that undergird the plot—and, Macpherson points out, ironic humor—of P&P. Debunks Duckworth’s Marxist view that the book’s society is structured along class and gender lines (see Todd, above). Showing how entail cannot be blamed on any one person or group, explains the implicit joke in both Mrs. Bennet’s expecting something to be done about the entail and Collins’s continual apology for it (both of which Austen’s readers would have seen as ridiculous jokes). Reads Austen as not being against entail, per se, because it is an image of social obligation, not one of exclusion. Examines Austen’s contrasting renting vs owning as makers of different personalities and virtues (vis Bingley and Darcy). One of the more enlightening, historically based, and easy/fun to read of the back material; possibly my favorite, contending with Bonaparte.

(Skipped Andrew Maunder’s essay because it pertains only to the illustrations in the 1894 edition and the effects they had on P&P interpretation)

Tiffany Potter, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” from Women, Popular Culture, and the Eighteenth Century (2012)

Reads Seth Grahame-Smith’s book/reinterpretation, P&P&Zs, as more than a pulp piggyback off of Austen. Presents book as a concretization of the implicit, unspeakable aspects of P&P, with the zombies being “a literalization of the threat of a social death in spinsterhood…in opposition to the socially constructed life-and-death quality of the marriage plot.” Interprets several moments from Grahame-Smith’s book as a way to help understand Austen, such as Lydia’s becoming an “unmentionable” zombie as an image of the unspeakability of her adultery in Austen, or the steady death to zombiehood of Charlotte as a picture of her intellectual death in marrying Collins in Austen. An interesting piece that treats P&P&Z seriously, though Potter ultimately interprets certain aspects of Austen (e.g. Jane and Elizabeth’s marriages) negatively.

The Friar’s Lantern by Greg Hickey—Goodreads Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com and Reedsy Discovery.

“If you think you can beat the computer, that you can actually win, that’s when you’ll lose. Victory is a mirage, a will-o’-the-wisp, ignis fatuus.”

A choose-your-own-path (CYOP) novel that follows the seemingly disparate dual plots of a scientific study and a murder trial, The Friar’s Lantern by Greg Hickey is an engaging, entertaining examination of free will and biological determinism. Although the two storylines may at first seem distinct, they intertwine in both thematic and concrete ways to form a single experience pervaded with the question of whether our conscious individual choices really are as willful and clear-cut as we assume.

The fact that Hickey concretizes all of this—logic, philosophy, and contemporary real-world psychological research—into a CYOP novel, where the story one experiences is simultaneously a choice by the reader and a plotline predetermined by the author, adds a layer of self-awareness to the work that only increases its depth. This is underscored by the fact that the title of The Friar’s Lantern, another name for the ephemeral will-o’-the-wisp used within the story to describe the elusive idea that one might be able to outsmart a computer, thus stands not only for the determinism that forms the book’s central theme but also for the genre as a whole.

However, the novel’s depth does not mean it is inaccessible as entertainment. To be honest, I have not read many CYOP novels, so I came into the experience with little to compare it to. If I note any novelties or gripes, I am fully aware they may be unique to me—and they may be exactly what readers of the genre expect. While I initially tried to read all paths simultaneously, I soon stopped approaching the book as a reviewer and started enjoying it as a reader, devoting myself to one storyline before going back to read the others. To avoid spoilers I won’t name my path; I’ll only say that once I settled on the ONE I wanted, I did not deviate.

While the initial branches differed on binary lines, with little divergence, they eventually weave into completely different events before returning to (and then turning away from) essential shared moments. At first I worried the side characters’ actions and dialogue would simply mirror the opposite choices of the reader—thus changing their characters according to caprice—but I soon found that this was not the case, and that the characters develop consistent identities. Meanwhile, something I did not notice until near the book’s end was the lack, so far as I could find, of gender markers for the reader-protagonist. While I, of course, had imagined a male, I realized I could have as consistently imagined a female going through the story. I assume all of this is to be expected from the genre, but it was nonetheless gratifying to find such subtleties upon going back after my first finish. However, I would have nonetheless liked more interactions with and background of the characters apart from the philosophical questions at the book’s core.

However, the book has its flaws. One aspect of the book that jarred me from the first page is the amount of physical description in the scene-setting. I usually dislike so much description, but I assume this is a trope of the genre, where the narrator must lead the reader through what they are seeing in order to make their choices. Still, the descriptions can interrupt and run long, with some analogies being pulpy and abruptly hyperbolic, and at times a bit dated (the book explicitly takes place in 2012, of which one is reminded by comparisons and remarks relevant to that and the previous year). However, these detractions are minor, and others may overlook them more easily than I. I can’t imagine it’s anything but precarious to narrate the thoughts and reactions of one’s reader.

I enjoyed this read, especially after I let my choices guide my experience. The fact that the topics discussed are, through the course of the novel, cited in psychological studies, which Hickey names and incorporates for dramatic potential into the book, was fascinating, and it marks the book as an excellent example of literature’s ability to concretize and work out the implications of scientific peer review for a great reader experience. Although I give the book four stars due to the few stylistic noted above, the book was a great read, and, if indicative of the genre as a whole, not my last CYOP novel.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book for review from the author.

Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler—Goodreads Review

Originally published on Goodreads.com and Reedsy.com.

If I could sum up Bourbon Empire in one idea, it would be that myths are no less real for being myths—in fact, that might make them more real, as far as the experience is concerned.

In Bourbon Empire, Reid Mitenbuler traces the history of America’s favorite drink, whiskey, from its first distillation in the new republic, through its becoming a symbol of the American spirit in the industrial revolution, past its joint status as black market item and loophole product during Prohibition, into its importance as a symbol of the West during the Cold War, and to its present status in the global drink industry. Throughout his detailed, and often humorous, recounting of the key figures and periods of the drink’s—and America’s—history, Mitenbuler keeps an eye on the role that legend and myth play in the perception of taste, often returning back to the motifs of the big name brands and how they acquired (or maneuvered) their ethos and cache.

This is one of the most charming aspects of the book. While he does pull back the curtain on certain key aspects of the whiskey industry, then and now, Mitenbuler does not do so maliciously, as if trying to invalidate the drink’s history. He recognizes, from the first chapter, that myths—even myths we know are not literally true—can still be an essential and enjoyable aspect of the experience. One can know that the image of the pioneer farmer distilling his corn into bourbon was, by the mid-1800s, a myth, and that most bourbon was being made in large distilleries, and yet still enjoy the link between the whiskey’s taste (which tastes little now like it did then) and that first image of the pioneer. In this way, the book mixes romantic idealism with the realism of its subject, and the result is a charming read or listen.

However, this does touch on one of my few gripes with the book. Despite his awareness of myth’s ephemerality, Mitenbuler ironically accepts as fact the myth that the late-19th-century industrialists like J. D. Rockefeller were little more than unscrupulous and cynical social darwinists, which is flat incorrect. Rockefeller was a public and private detractor from that view and did much to counter its influence; I encourage readers interested in a nuanced presentation of Rockefeller and his times to read Ron Chernow’s Titan.

However, as Mitenbuler’s account is about whiskey, and he is using the Rockefeller myth for figurative comparison to describe unscrupulous whiskey distilling of the “Gilded Age,” it does not detract much from the book, overall. Yet, because of this, and, one wonders, other glosses, I would not recommend the book as a replacement for a serious history (of course, it’s not trying to be that). In context, though, Bourbon Empire provides many excellent details of figures that history students may not have heard of. As a literature tutor, I found much to inform my unit on Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Bourbon Empire is a fun and engaging overview of American history through the lens of our national drink. Having previously enjoyed similar accounts, and generally appreciating the view that the local economy is a prime mover of history, I would recommend this book, especially, of course, to those who enjoy or are curious about whiskey.

Capitalism in America: A History by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com and Reedsy.com.

“America prospered, in large part, because it accepted that destruction is the price for creation. The world’s most liberal bankruptcy laws allowed companies to go out of business. The world’s biggest internal market allowed people to move to places where their skills would be more generously rewarded. The United States accepted that ghost towns and shuttered factories are the price of progress.”

As its title says, Capitalism in America covers the history of the United states with a focus on its economic setting and growth. From the joint stock companies of the English colonists (which they identify as a wholly new invention in a world where mercantilism was taken for granted) to the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, Greenspan and Wooldridge lay out the circumstances leading to, the benefits produced by, and the reactions against the free (and at many times not-so-free) market of the United States. I listened to the audiobook version read excellently by Ray Porter.

One of the unifying themes of the book is the necessity of creative destruction for growth. As great as the major leaps of the market were—spurred on by the mutually reinforcing and liberating inventions of like the Lowell Mills, the Bessemer Process, the steam engine, the telegraph, and many others—they meant that investments in previous processes, industries, locations, and jobs were and had to be liquidated, adjusted, or left behind. The authors, thus, also follow the growth of reactionary movements such as the populist Grange Movement and the unionization and regulation of the Progressives—all the while citing the benefits and, more often than not, economic drawbacks and ironies of such things.

However, being a general history, the book does not focus only on the turn of the 19th – 20th century (though the surrounding events and precedents set the stage for later discussion). Honestly elaborating on the dreadful economic impact of plans like the New Deal, the authors nonetheless lay out the social and presidential merits of actions by presidents like FDR to slow or stave off the destructive elements of the market (and give that president, perhaps, more credit than one might expect, or is due). The authors also go through the rest of the 20th century and early 21st, describing the relative economic plans of the Cold War and post-Cold War presidents, which many times diverged from their respective executive’s party affiliation or persona. The book ends at 2019, noting the various economic benefits of President Trump’s deregulation agenda, as well as the looming effects of his administration’s declining to cut entitlement spending. While the fact that the authors could not foresee the sudden economic downturn caused by the 2020 lockdowns, etc, or the inflation of the 2020-2024 administration lends a bit of irony to the final chapters, such events do fit within the book’s final prediction of recession, as well as within the broader themes of economic cycles.

As an AP US History teacher, I plan to recommend this book to my students, if not use it in class. Besides some parts which discuss elements of market economics (e.g. when the 2008 mortgage loan bubble is discussed), the book is clear enough in its language and consistent enough with its themes to be readable by non-economists (and even those aforementioned parts are manageable and made clear within context). While Greenspan takes a generally conservative view of America’s economic history, he is, nonetheless, quite even-handed in his treatment, which may be what some readers are looking for. I was tempted to give four stars because of a few minor gripes, but I decided those were due to my own differing views on some of the book’s topics and not due to any deficiency in the book, itself.

An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews – Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

A biographical history of the USSR’s most successful covert agent, An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews follows the life of Richard Sorge, a German by name but a Russian communist by conviction who set up spy rings for the Soviets in China and Japan during the age of Stalin and leading up to World War II. Blessed with a death-defying daring, a seductive savoir-faire, and a perfect cover, Sorge was a formidable asset in the Soviets’ war against fascism – or he would have been, did not the very traits that made him so singular cause the communist regime, and Stalin, himself, to distrust him.

Based on newly-declassified records, Matthews’s history is as meticulously researched as it is readable. The focus is always on Sorge’s character, and the chapters are drawn together through a narrative that, after we have gotten to know Sorge, begins to obscurely hint at the book’s ending. Rather than spoil anything, this foreshadowing maintains a suspense that parallels Sorge’s daring character. And yet, though it can be read as a character study of a Soviet James Bond (alcohol, motorcycle rides, and romantic liaisons punctuate the book’s elaboration on how Sorge established his spy rings), An Impeccable Spy consistently maintains a peripheral view of the main events of the twentieth century of which we have read and/or heard of in school.

Foremost among such events was, perhaps, Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s plan to break the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact and invade Russia. While the conventional story is that, despite the similarities between their ideologies (which Sorge discovers, finding as he does how easy it is for a communist to pose as a fascist), Hitler betrayed and took Stalin by surprise, Matthews shows that not only had Sorge sent intelligence of Operation Barbarossa to Moscow, but Stalin had prepared for such a possible attack. However, for reasons established by Matthews, Stalin – who had by that time begun his party purge, from which Sorge was spared by distance – had begun to distrust Sorge. Thus, Matthews draws on a theme common to both his nonfictional and fictional works: the incompetence of the suspicious self-cannibalism of communist bureaucracy.

I read An Impeccable Spy as part of my goal to better understand Matthews’s other work, especially his historical fiction. However, a few hours into the audiobook (excellently narrated by Mike Grady), An Impeccable Spy became one of my favorites of Matthews’s contributions to the scholarship on 20th-century Russia. As with his other works, I plan to recommend friends and students read An Impeccable Spy for an entertaining and well-documented look at the eastern side of the Iron Curtain.

Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865 by Joseph Frank – Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

“[E]verything takes refuge in the flesh, everything is thrown into fleshly debauchery, and, to supply the lack of higher spiritual impressions, the nerves and the body are goaded with everything capable of arousing the sensibility. The most monstrous perversions, the most abnormal acts, little by little become customary.”

Thus Joseph Frank recounts Feodor Dostoevsky’s foresight of what life will become if the radical socialists’ materialist worldview were to be adopted across Russia and Europe. Beginning at Dostoevsky’s return to St. Petersburg after a ten-year exile in Siberia and Semipalatinsk and running until his brother Mikhael’s death and the failure of their second journal, Epoch, The Stir of Liberation focuses less on the events of the Russian author’s life than the previous two volumes of Joseph Frank’s biography on the author. Instead, it follows the journalistic and ideological bouts that formed the core of what would guide Dostoevsky’s later masterpieces.

After recounting the circumstances of Dostoevsky’s return, Frank explores the brothers Dostoevskys’ first literary journal, Time, as well as the values underlying it. While his time in prison had shown Dostoevsky the incompleteness and foolhardiness of utopian socialism, the author still sympathized with the stated goals of the radicals of mid-century Russia. The journal’s alternative method for helping the Russian peasantry raise their standard of living — pochvennichestvo, a broad plan to educate the lower classes by an educated upper class through authentically Russian art and literature — is a major theme in the book, as is Dostoevsky’s initial impulse to conciliate between the other, alternatively more radical and conservative, journals of the time. Subsequently, in this volume readers will find a more theoretical explanation and exposition of Dostoevsky’s view of art, as well as the view of the radical socialists, foremost among whom was Chernyshevsky, introduced in the biography’s second volume. The ideological back-and-forths between the journals — both Time and, after its bungling censorship, Epoch — constitute much of this volume (this may or may not appeal to readers; I found it engaging and, under Frank’s pen, understandable).

Along with recounting the adventures of the Dostoevskys’ journals, Frank follows the key events in Dostoevsky’s life that accompanied and gave him fodder for his pieces, such as his first trip to Europe (which does not line up with his/Russia’s expectations), his affair and travels with the student Apollinaria Suslova, the long-expected death of his wife, and the sudden and completely unexpected (to him) death of his brother. Out of these events Frank explains such works as Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, The Gambler, and, in an explicatory chapter that, alone, makes the volume worth reading, Notes from Underground.

Frank’s long focus on this last work is outstanding — unsurprising, considering its being Dostoevsky’s first GREAT work in his later apocalyptic themes. Giving background sources and influential interpretations since the work’s publication, Frank couches Dostoevsky’s satirizing the socialist-materialist of Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? (the polemic that inspired many in Russia to become radicals, and V. I. Lenin’s favorite book) in the underground man’s inability to live out his grandiose creed. Covering each section of the work, Frank presents a unified reading that elucidates Dostoevsky’s most obscure book, placing it squarely within the arguments of its day while showing how it relates to the author’s later timeless novels.

While others might not enjoy this volume as much as the more event-based volumes of the biography. I found it to be the most engaging yet. The Stir of Liberation shows the processes by which Dostoevsky hashed out his worldview and applied it to the Russia of his day, and it shows Dostoevsky in the years when he took the lessons and experiences he had in Siberia and articulated them into full literary understanding. Fans of literary theory and philosophy of art — not to mention political theory — will have much to enjoy in this volume.

Stalin’s Children by Owen Matthews—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

“It was much easier to live by one’s myths and to continue to believe in the ultimate wisdom of the party than to speak out and risk disaster.”

A family memoir by previous Newsweek Moscow Bureau Chief, historian, and spy novelist Owen Matthews, Stalin’s Children follows the author’s family as they eventually unite in the marriage of his parents, despite coming from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. As he recounts the personalities and formative events of his family members, Matthews offers a unique, multifaceted view of Russia under the Soviets, constructed from both family members’ accounts and records from the previous USSR. Reaching from the beginning of the Russian Revolution to the present day, Stalin’s Children offers a nuanced understanding of the Cold War, with the focus being on the love story between his Welsh father and his Russian mother.

As in Matthews’s other works, a core theme of Stalin’s Children is how good people were able to live under and in spite of an oppressive regime. Contextualizing many of the book’s events through Solzenitsyn, Matthews mixes an honest contempt for the Soviet system and its failings with a sympathetic respect for those who lived under, and at times supported, it. Admitting, and at times lauding, the pragmatism of his grandparents, Matthews’s sympathetic perspective nuances the negatives of the Soviet structure by separating actual Russians from it and telling their stories. Matthews further maintains his multi-faceted honesty when describing his own time in post-Soviet Russia, which he does not present as automatically good because more nominally free. Throughout, Matthews recounts the major events and trends in twentieth-century Russia while keeping a Dostoevskian eye on the humanity of his characters, and he offers many insights into the Russian social culture and personality. As he writes, “To survive and be happy, Russians have so much to bury, to willfully ignore. Small wonder that the intensity of their pleasures and indulgences is so sharp: it has to match the quality of the suffering.”

Central in the book is Matthews’s mother, Lyudmilla. As a backdrop to his mother, Matthews describes the popular antihero of his parents’ generation, Kompromis Kompromisovich, who was a tribute to the men and women who successfully negotiated the disappointments of Soviet life by millions of small compromises. His mother Lyudmilla was not such an antihero: “where the most [Lyudmilla’s] contemporaries could aspire to is to get by, Milla believed that her will could conquer the world.” By the time she meets Matthews’s father, Oxford professor Mervyn Matthews, Lyudmilla has been established enough as a presence that one is unsurprised by her daring.

Hearing about Lyudmilla was especially enjoyable because, personally, I’ve always enjoyed the acerbic humor Matthews often includes in his characters, especially regarding the ironies of the Soviet system. Hearing about her and her capacity for such humor felt like a finding a much needed puzzle piece in understanding Matthews’s writing.

Matthews’s presentation of his father (whose description and background are just as well-rounded as are ‘Milla’s) is just as worth reading. Describing his father’s defiance of the KGB regarding Milla as noble & principled, Matthews finds it incomprehensible; “If I’d been forced to choose between being separated from the woman I loved and signing a paper saying I would work for the KGB, I would have unhesitatingly signed on the dotted line. Whatever my private feelings for the KGB, I would have considered the cause of my personal happiness supreme above all others.” In this and other moments, Stalin’s Children incorporates not only the genres of history and memoir, but also love story, with characters no less grand and romantic for being real. Indeed, with the hindsight the author uses in recounting the time period’s brutal circumstances, Matthews’s parents are shown to have been moreso.

As I’ve said, I approached Stalin’s Children so I could better understand Matthews’s other work, especially his fiction; it certainly helped with that. However, it also does much more, providing insight at many levels of focus and genre. Throughout, it gives a full perspective of the central figures’ choices, motives, and psychologies, never losing the sympathy, understanding, and honesty of a family member. If you’re looking for an account of what it was like to live in twentieth-century Russia, both before, during, and after the Soviet state, Stalin’s Children should be your next read.