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).

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.

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.

Red Traitor by Owen Matthews—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

“There was not a moment of Vasin’s waking or sleeping days…where Vasin was not surrounded by reminders of the power of Lieutenant General Yury Orlov. He felt as trapped as a dragonfly in glass.”

Set in 1962, less than a year after the events of Black Sun in which KGB investigator Alexander Vasin narrowly averted a nuclear disaster, Red Traitor by Owen Matthews follows Major Vasin as his successful rise in the KGB has meant just so much more scrutiny from among its ranks. Following the threads (real and invented) established at the end of Black Sun, Vasin must maneuver GRU Colonel Oleg Morozov into revealing himself as a possible American spy while the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds in the Caribbean, all the while keeping himself abreast of the machinations of his own boss, General Yuri Orlov. The Moscow-based espionage plot that makes up half of the novel incorporates many of the themes, suspense, and gambits that made Black Sun excellent.

“‘That’s how our glorious Soviet Motherland works. Punish the innocent, leave the guilty at their posts.’”

To the investigative spy plot of Moscow, Matthews adds another plotline following submariner Vasily Arkhipov, who a year previous was among the only survivors of the K-19 submarine nuclear reactor accident that left most of his crew dead and him with a promotion. Selected for his prowess of surviving the traumatic ordeal of K-19, which has left him cautious of all things nuclear, Arkhipov is given fleet command of a secret group of submarines sent to run the US blockade of Cuba and, if threatened or cornered, to use the “secret weapon” of a nuke carried by each submarine. Paralleling Vasin’s “integrity vs party line” conflict from Black Sun, Arkhipov must avoid running afoul of the Party, embodied in his rival Captain Savitsky, while shrewdly trying to disobey orders and prevent nuclear war.

“In politics, there are things you do for show and things you do that really matter. The R-12 deployment? That matters.”

Though its deuteragonists never meet, Red Traitor moves back and forth between them to form a plot that is suspenseful and multi-faceted. Compared to Black Sun, which focused on the single location of secret nuclear facility Arzamas-16 to no less excellent effect, Red Traitor incorporates much more of the “historical” in the historical fiction, and the cinematic feel of the scene shifts—each foregrounded by place and date—shows Matthews deftly expanding his narrative style to meet the needs of his subject matter. Drawn from Matthews’s non-fiction work and from accounts of those who lived through the ordeal, the frequent details of KGB and GRU spycraft and the detailed descriptions of life on Soviet diesel submarine B-59 form a consistent setting that conveys one easily into the characters’ experiences. Though the scene-shifting form took a bit of getting used to, it ultimately made the dual-plot work well, especially nearing the book’s climax, and while the climax was not as cathartically hard-hitting as was Black Sun’s (possibly due to Red Traitor’s being more closely based on the history than the former book—and there, thankfully, NOT being a nuclear blast in the Caribbean), the book’s ending prepared the way for the Vasin trilogy’s third installment superbly.

“[An] idealist or a pragmatist, Sasha…What is your diagnosis of yourself, please?”

If Black Sun was a novel about Vasin’s discovery of the immorality of the system in which he is a cog, Red Traitor is a novel about his trying to uphold his own already compromised principles against the guttural, impulsive, self-centered chaos embodied by his boss Orlov—whom he is now fully aware he could become without difficulty. The book has many parallels, both within itself and with its predecessor: just as Vasin has his Orlov, Morozov has his boss Serov (no less unprincipled than Orlov), and Arkhipov’s conflict very much resembles many of the issues experienced by Vasin in Black Sun. All of these serve to reinforce the sense of oppressive, ever-watchful weight inherent in the Soviet system, where every success and favor comes with a hook (a consistent motif through the book).

Paradoxically, the frankness and irony with which Vasin and others admit the faults, if not malignity, of their system yield an air of dark humor to the book, even in its most tense moments. Drawing on his mother’s Russian humor described in Stalin’s Children, Matthews captures and maintains the fact that the Russian people and the Russian Soviet system were not synonymous. Another motif I found similarly endearing was the camaraderie of the sailors, whose easy manner, salutary superstition, and genuine friendship stood in stark contrast against the self-consciously forced comradeship of the book’s other relationships.

Though I have not read many Cold-War-Era spy or submarine novels, Red Traitor was an excellent read. I loved seeing Matthews’s utilizing elements from his non-fiction work for dramatic effect, as well as his expanding his novelistic style. The Author’s Note, wherein Matthews lays out exactly how much of the book is historically based (a vast majority of it is), was particularly useful, and I plan to recommend the book to my history students, as well as to anyone else who asks.

*Disclaimer: I received advance copy of the book from the publisher for review*

Uncle’s Dream by Feodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

“This was what distinguished Maria Alexandrovna from her rivals: at critical moments she never allowed any concern about a possible scandal to prevent her from doing something, on the principle that success justifies everything.”

Dostoevsky’s first work after leaving Siberia for his participation in an illegal socialist printing scheme, Uncle’s Dream follows the attempts by provincial antiheroine Maria Alexandrovna to secure a marriage for her daughter, Zinaida Afanasyevna, to a local aged prince. Drawing on Dostoevsky’s new experience of the provincial life in Semipalatinsk, whence he had been stationed for four years’ military service after leaving the labor camp, Uncle’s Dream provides lighter fare that the author hoped would not run afoul of government censors. The result is a rare glimpse at Dostoevsky the comedian and a work that introduces several things that would become staples of the author’s later work.

From the first page we meet the unnamed omniscient gossip narrator (a type he would later use in Demons and The Brothers Karamazov), whose presentation of events and mixed prescience and lack of self-awarness create a consistently earnest yet ironic tone. Consistently descrying the perniciousness of gossip and rumor in in the intimate terms of gossip and rumor that draw the reader in while maintaining the implicit compliment of dramatic irony, the narrator confesses a soft spot for his protagonist, Maria Alexandrovna, who is herself so adept at gossip and rumor that she exerts an implicitly threatening influence in her community. Indeed, though she is at best of the middling class, Maria Alexandrovna stands as a kind of Napoleon figure in the book, willing to dispense with good form and respect if it means achieving her ends.

This is made clear through the motif of Shakespeare—who, ironically, is brought up by Maria Alexandrovna more than any character in the book. She consistently references doing away with Shakespeare, whom she implicitly blames for her daughter’s romance with her brother’s tutor (a possible lampooning of Heloise and Abelard, with the roles reversed?). Shakespeare becomes a touchstone for how Maria Alexandrovna sees Romanticism, at large; thus Uncle’s Dream shows, if ironically, Dostoevsky’s considering the liabilities of that literary movement, as well as the possible character and motives of some who might want to leave it in the past. And yet, despite Maria Alexandrovna’s supposed desire for Realism, she is consistently shown as the character most adept at weaving Romantic perspectives and dreams to cajole others into doing what she wants.

This is the core conflict of the book: Maria Alexandrovna tries to manipulate others—highest of which being a humorously decrepit prince—to achieve her ambitions, and in so doing she must maintain the balance between her own capacity to deter threat via rumor and her own growing vulnerability to it. The results are hysterical, and Dostoevsky’s exploration of the psychologies involved—not just that of the provincial gossip, the ambitious herridan, or the decrepit prince, but also of the resentful daughter, the foolish suitor, and the hapless husband—underlays the comedy with that which, in my opinion, is best in Dostoevsky.

I’ve previously recommended that people new to Dostoevsky start with Crime and Punishment, but now I might recommend Uncle’s Dream. There’s hardly a page where he isn’t making fun of somebody, including his own narrator, and what the book lacks in philosophical musings by the characters it makes up for in sharp psychological explorations of those who, with almost Austenian irony and despite their banal setting, reveal some of the 19th century’s central questions and conflicts of values.

The Landlady By Feodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted at Goodreads.com.

Dostoevsky’s first focused study into the character type of the dreamer, The Landlady follows Vasily Ordynov, an denizen of St. Petersburg whose search for a new apartment and his desire for love find their object in Katerina, landlady and wife to the domineering mystic, Ilia Murin.

Like several of Dostoevsky’s pre- and post-Siberia characters whose inner lives take over and sabotage their real experience, Ordynov is a weakling who nonetheless (or therefore) possesses the tendency to extremize his interpretation of the world in ways that allow Dostoevsky to use the language of the steadily passing Romanticism in a growing Realist context. Thus, though set in mid-19th century Petersburg, the novella features the enigmatic Murin, who, due to both scenes where he obviously controls his co-dependent ward/wife Katerina, as well as scenes where he presents himself as little more than a humble, if much misunderstood, peasant, may or may not be a manipulative old sorcerer.

I enjoyed The Landlady, especially when read among Dostoevsky’s other pre-Siberian works. At times engaging and pathetic, the work shows Dostoevsky exploiting the mid-19th-century move from Romanticism to Realism (not to mention the cultural attempts to move from Old Russian mysticism to a European-influenced enlightenment) in a way that redirects the Romantic forms and tropes into a new, ironic direction. Though it lacks much of his post-Siberia surety and forcefulness, The Landlady also foreshadows many other figures and themes in Dostoevsky’s later works, from Raskalnikov to the Grand Inquisitor.

An approachable and engaging read, and, though unique in its content, indicative of many topics and tropes found in Dostoevsky’s work.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy—Goodreads Review

Originally published on Goodreads.com.

Consistently within people’s choices of the top five novels ever written, War and Peace follows the impetus and results of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, presenting events through their impact on the book’s characters and reinterpreting them according to the unnamed narrator’s metaphysics. Its breadth of cast, scale of scenes, and consistently near-perfect choice of analogy for the moment show Tolstoy as among the best at his craft, and the book rightly belongs on any list of necessary 19th-century reads.

Part of the Russian Naturalist-Realist school, Tolstoy eschewed the selectivity, emotion, and idealization of early 19th-century Romanticism for a presentation of life as it is. As such, Tolstoy’s depiction of life is brutally, even cynically, accurate: his presentation of his characters—with faults and all—undercuts their values and desires in a way that shows even the best characters as all too human. His multi-faceted depiction is not a painting that omits the accidents and highlights the essentials of the subject but a photograph that presents the subject as-is, depicting the warts as being as essential as any other quality. Thus, his style of representation conflicts with one of the central premises of the novelistic form, as such, and at several moments the book comes off more as a piece of journalistic history than a plot-based novel.

Nonetheless, the selectivity of the novelistic form breaks through: though the narrator’s external focus and refusal to speculate into the deeper psychology of his characters make it take a while, he does layer his characters through the book. However, because of the book’s core thesis—that human action is impotent in the face of a people’s collective history—War and Peace depicts less a “conflict-climax-resolution” plot than a “things happen to characters and they concede to change” progression. The fact that the climax of one of his main characters (only implicitly presented as the protagonist, though his being such is debatable), Pierre, involves conceding the impossibility of achieving one’s values is indicative of the work as a whole.

As a metaphysical novel, which seeks to give a complete understanding of human life, War and Peace moves between specific scenes of the lives of the characters and broad discourses on the philosophy of history. The latter explains the presentation of the former: because Tolstoy’s narrator sees human life not as a result of individual choice, values, and will, but of historical determinism, the individual values, desires, and choices of his characters do not influence where their lives lead. He more often presents his characters as passively reacting to things that happen to them, rather than actively achieving their values through consistent choice and integrity amidst unforeseen obstacles.

War and Peace was worth reading, though I wouldn’t include it in my top ten novels. Personally, I wouldn’t want to confuse length for profundity. While a broad view of life and a humble view of one’s own self and presumptions are good and worth fostering, Tolstoy’s didactic elaborations on historical philosophy are not only patronizing (all historians got it wrong, guys), but implicitly nihilistic, in that they argue that the characters, values, and choices he spends 1300+ pages describing (and, implicitly, the reader and their own values and choices) are ineffectual in the grand scheme of things.

The effect this has is not one of wisdom in the fact of historical determinism (which the narrator at several points calls God) but of nihilism. His characters cannot achieve their ideals because such a thing is not possible according to the book’s metaphysical assumptions. When a character does choose a value, the narrator presents them as implicitly naive—as if reality will teach them better. Frankly, I’ll never forgive him for how he treats his implicitly Romantic heroine, Natasha—not in how her life changes (notably because of a FAILURE to pull off a chosen course of action, itself a result of misplaced Romantic idealism on her part), but because of how he undercuts her even in her character’s climax. The narrator can allow no character to have a moment of aspiration that is not in some way tainted by some failing. Because of the book’s consistent assumption of determinism, the implicit capacity of humans to achieve virtue despite their natural deficiencies or vices—the central premise of the novelistic form—is not only absent but argued as being impossible.

Thus, for all its wonderful breadth, description, and narrative quality, War and Peace eschews the previous Romantic conception of mankind (that mankind’s essential nature inheres in our highest ideals and virtues, with deficiencies and mundanities being mere accidents) and presents the opposite view: that that which is low, imperfect, and impotent is the essential in man, with greatness being at best an anomalous illusion, at worst a pretext for and enabler of evil. Rather than being wisely accurate, the book’s perspective comes off as cynical and degrading, if not deeply vicious, in that the prescribed passivity before the impulses of collective history would, later in the century and early in the next, enable worse depredations than those Tolstoy depicts in his lampooning of Napoleon.

(*Of course, my review should not be taken as an implicit endorsement of Napoleon, though I think Dostoevsky does a better job debunking the value of his legacy than does Tolstoy; to Tolstoy’s credit, the central conflict of War and Peace is contained in its first lines, with Napoleon being an antichrist figure and symbol of the European movements threatening to upend the values and social structure of Russia—which, nonetheless, are presented in collectively deterministic, not individual, terms).

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

My second Vonnegut, I’ll let others review the book more thoroughly. However, while I don’t know that I’d call myself a Vonnegut fan, his style is excellent and his satire sharp (if at times reductionary), and several of these stories will make their way into my teaching curriculum. Of note among them:

“Harrison Bergeron”: America finally achieves equity—by punishing any upward-moving difference. The strong must wear weights, the beautiful must wear masks, the intelligent must wear in-ear thought interrupters. An excellent prediction (prophecy?) of the sacrificing of greatness, uniqueness, and ability for strict egalitarianism, and how doing so only fosters mediocrity and ressentiment.

“All the King’s Horses”: “AKH” features Colonel Bryan Kelly who has crash landed in Asia with his family and men. Captured by guerillas under supervision of the USSR, Kelly must play a game of chess with the guerilla leader, Pi Ying, with his men being killed as he loses his pieces. What follows is provides an examination of the responsibility of those in the military who must strategize with men’s lives, as well as a general critique of militarism in the vague parameters of the Cold War.

“The Euphio Question”: Scientists discover and broadcast a radio frequency from deep in space which causes anyone who hears it to experience absolute euphoria; tapped for marking as a new form of entertainment, the frequency subsequently becomes similar to a drug, dragging people’s lives to a halt. An excellent examination of drug addiction, as well as implicitly of the assumption that drugs are simply a problem of the lower classes.

“EPICAC”: A retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac with a supercomputer supplying poetic lines for its overly analytical handler in love with his lab-mate.

“Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow”: The invention of anti-gerasone has made dying of old age a thing of the past; subsequently, cities have sprawled (with the outskirts of Chicago being in Iowa), families have soured, and the old man just refuses to die. A humorous motif is the central family head’s will, which has been changed so many times it resembles little of the sombre document it once was. A satire that borders on the absurd, “T,T, and T” questions the presumption that we should want to live forever.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

A reflection on the pre-WWII English upper class and of Oxford University, Brideshead Revisited follows captain Charles Ryder as he and his battalion are sent to Brideshead Castle in Wiltshire during the final years of the war. Returning to Brideshead provokes the memories in Ryder that make up the content of the book.

The main bulk of the story follows Ryder at Oxford, where he is befriended by a young aristocrat, Lord Sebastian Flyte; their relationship introduces Ryder to the Marchmain family at Brideshead and their way of life. In the intervening scenes, Ryder maneuvers the Catholicism of the Marchmains (Ryder is an agnostic), the homosexuality of Sebastian’s eccentric friends, and Sebastian’s alcoholism, as well as the romantic prospect of Sebastian’s sister Julia. Throughout, Ryder negotiates his own beliefs and desires with those around him, and he discovers, often after the fact, the roles that friendship, art, and religion can play in adding beauty to one’s life (though it’s not as cliche as I probably just made that sound).

To be honest, I don’t think I got all I could out of the book, so I’m hesitant to say more than this brief summary. The close male-male friendship of Charles and Sebastian — which has homoerotic overtones and arguably provokes Charles’s initial love for Julia — was one of the best articulated aspects of the book. For better or worse, Charles becomes a part of the Marchmain family, and their reliance on him in dealing with Sebastian’s addictions, as well as the discussions on Catholicism (a consistent motif) that result from his pursuit of Julia really drew me into the relationships of the characters. Being a remembrance, the book consistently has an elegaic tone, which Jeremy Irons brings out excellently in the audiobook version.