Novellas I Read in 2022 and am talking about in November #NovNov

Due to circumstances and reasons, I have not had a particularly fruitful reading or blogging year, especially since the summer, or early August to be precise. Properly participating in blogging events is too much for me right now, so please accept this lazy Novellas in November contribution. It’s my favourite blogging event and has a long and storied history. Shout out to Cathy and Rebecca for keeping the #NovNov train going!

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle, 173 pages

I liked but did not love this one. It got a bit message-y at the end. The messages were important and resonated with me (violence against women, abortion access, religion, aging, disability) but it was all very heavy-handed. I loved Elena and loved the depiction of tense moments with her daughter on their annual vacation. Their interactions were difficult to read, in a good way (think Rachel Cusk, Gwendoline Riley).

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au, 144 pages

Another strained mother-daughter relationship, further strained by travel, this made almost no impression on me. Sometimes a book can be a little too sparse. I think this was also going for a Cusk or Riley kind of a thing, but didn’t quite make it.

Helpmeet by Naben Ruthnum, 94 pages

This little horror book has its moments but unfortunately I pictured the uh, creature, as Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Also why are so many horror books about parasites, or something growing inside you that needs to get out…it’s all just pregnancy (remembers what it was like being pregnant and giving birth)… okay actually that does make sense.

Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson, 192 pages

You ever finish a book with a shocking or twisty ending, and immediately see how the whole book was building towards it, but question whether a whole book needed to be written for… that? I enjoyed reading this but was expecting it to build towards something a lot crazier. Very “so, there was a plot twist. That don’t impress-a me much.”

If I get my act together, I intend to try the buddy read for Novellas in November, Foster by Claire Keegan. It has a recent film adaptation, The Quiet Girl, perfect for my movie era, though I don’t know if I can actually view it in Canada yet.

“Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders / Spiderhead (2022)

This is the second of a very occasional series in which Rachel makes me watch a movie adaptation of a short story. In the first, I watched an adaptation of “Calm with Horses” by Colin Barrett, a morally complicated and tense masterpiece of short fiction from his collection Young Skins. The movie, Shadow of Violence, got the look and feel right, but all the moral shades of grey became black and white. That, plus the needless addition of a romantic subplot, reduced the movie to more of a standard thriller, if elevated by the acting and cinematography.

For my second assignment, I watched an adaptation of “Escape From Spiderhead” by George Saunders, a dystopian cautionary tale in the vein of Brave New World, or more recently, Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy, first published in The New Yorker and also in his collection Tenth of December. I expected that this middling short story would be adapted into a middling thriller and I wasn’t wrong. But I was surprised by how closely the film’s choices mirror those made for Shadow of Violence, starting with the needless title change to plain old “Spiderhead”. From there, just like in Shadow of Violence, we encounter morally flattened characters, an invented romantic arc, and a completely different, more palatable ending. 

Shadow of Violence was a successful adaptation because despite these annoying changes, the tone was maintained. In Spiderhead, the changes alter the whole tone of the story, from a dark but hopeful look at what it means to be human, to a straightforward thriller that verges on slapstick and schmaltz. 

I wish filmmakers would “acknowledge” that audiences can handle a little ambiguity!
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The Superfluous Brothers Karamazov Read-Along Part 4: Making Mitya a Murderer

Defence lawyer from Making a Murderer. Dostoyevsky could’ve written this

If you find yourself in perplexity, go to the master post for the read-along schedule.

Part 4 is a little longer than the other parts, and there’s also the epilogue to deal with (if we must), so there’s a lot to unpack. But like Parts 1, 2, and 3, there’s really only one thread I enjoyed. The trial was not only the culmination of the story, but a perfect example of Dostoyevsky skewering human foibles in a way that could have been written yesterday.

Actually, the chapters about pre-teen layabout Kolya were very good at conveying the shame of trying to act mature but going a step too far, and making yourself ridiculous in front of the adults. But I could take or leave the other kids’ stuff, with Illyushka and his friends/bullies – I think this was all supposed to connect to the never-written sequel.

So let’s turn instead to Mitya and his trial, which was just as juicy as any sensational true crime documentary. It reminded me of one in particular, “Making a Murderer.”

Much as I obsessed over Making a Murder, I found Mitya’s trial even juicier, and more satisfying, since we do find out who did it and why, two pretty key pieces of info that are obviously not revealed on the Netflix show. It also has a logic and moral centre that reality tends to lacks. The murder at the heart of Making a Murderer is senseless, and the victim is a blank slate, whereas we know the hearts and minds of all the suspects and characters here, and everyone, including the victim, is flawed.

The stories aren’t totally comparable. The whole premise of Making a Murderer is a corrupt justice system coercing false (?) confessions out of a dimwitted young man, whereas in The Brothers K, false confessions are given freely and repeatedly, by men of varying wits! The overwhelming evidence against Mitya, the various, hapless attempts his brothers and lovers make to help him, the celebrated experts and lawyers and overall spectacle of the trial “make” him a murderer, but in the end, the most damning piece of evidence against him is the one he wrote himself. If Making a Murderer is about people getting duped by the system, The Brothers Karamazov is about people duping themselves. 

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.

Both the book and the show revel in the spectacle a grisly murder creates. I was late to the Making a Murder party, but searching for gifs for this post revealed some of the odd ephemera that’s still out there. Dostoyevsky writes about the spectacle of a murder trial in ways that feel so modern. I’ve said it before, but he shows me time and time again that there’s nothing new in human nature, and while social media might amplify human tendencies, it doesn’t create new ones.

Women be watching true crime:

I even think that all the ladies, every single one of them, a-thirst as they were with such impatience for the acquittal of the ‘interesting’ defendant, were at the same time quite convinced of his complete and utter guilt.

Backseat lawyer-ing:

‘Oh for pity’s sake, do you really suppose they will not acquit him?’ one of our young civil servants was shouting in another group.

‘Of course they will,’ a resolute voice was heard to say.

‘It would be shameful, disgraceful, not to acquit him!’ the civil servant continues to vociferate… ‘If I’d been in the defence counsel’s shoes I’d have just said straight out: he committed the murder, but he isn’t guilty, and the devil with you!’ 

Lawyers’ dramatic monologues, the prosecution:

“Remember that you are the defenders of our truth, the defenders of our holy Russia…These anxious voices from Europe have already reached our ears. They are already beginning to resound. Then do not tempt them, do not accumulate their ever-growing hatred by a verdict that justified the murder of a father by his own son!…”

Lawyers’ dramatic monologues, the defence:

“In your hands lies my client’s fate, and in your hands, too, the fate of our Russian justice. You shall save it, you shall uphold it, you shall prove that there are those who care for its observance, that it is in good hands!”

Modern true crime creates the same circus of obsessions, hot takes, and easy moralizing. Making a Murderer and shows like it are compelling to watch, but leave me feeling hopeless, and vaguely guilty for having been so compelled. The Brothers K, and Dostoyevsky in general, can also be pretty bleak, but not hopeless. Because he doesn’t suggest easy answers, you don’t feel disappointed when they don’t come. 

When you finish The Brothers Karamazov and realize there’s still a whole epilogue to go

The Superfluous Brothers Karamazov Read-Along Part 3: Father Killer, Qu’est-ce que c’est?

If you find yourself in perplexity, go to the master post for the read-along schedule.

Reading Dostoyevsky can feel a bit like a Grandpa Simpson story at times. Back to the murder plot, please!

In Part 3, after some preliminaries with Alyosha, who is disillusioned when his hero Elder Zozima turns out to be just human after all (i.e. smelly), and after learning the phrase “to give an onion” (which was the style at the time) we finally get to Mitya’s money-making schemes, murder, and mayhem. When then kids say “last night was a movie”, I think they were talking about Mitya’s post-murder “spree” to Mokroye, complete with champagne, singing peasants, crooked card games, and white-girl-wasted Grushenka.

Speaking of disillusionment, I really felt for Grushenka when she realized the guy she had been pining for these past five years is… just a guy. With an annoying friend who won’t stop hanging around. It happens to the best of us.

In my scramble to catch up with the reading (don’t ask where I am in Part 4), I’ve been bouncing back and forth between the P&V and the McDuff translations, and was struck by a difference in what Grigory calls Mitya moments after the murder: P&V translate it as “Parricide!” while McDuff has him shout “Father-murderer!” This sums up the difference between the two translations, for me. P&V never hesitate to use an obscure or old fashioned word, but somehow, I think it works better than the awkwardly-hyphenated “father-killer”.

The latter chapters of Part 3 are a police procedural, with various officials questioning the drunk and disorderly crew at Mokroye. Things aren’t looking good for Mitya, and I don’t read murder mysteries much, so I can’t tell if the eventual court case will resolve itself the obvious way, or with a twist, or maybe not resolve at all.

This all reminds me of my favourite real-life parricide, Dennis Oland. If you’re not Canadian (and even if you are), you might have missed this story (I read about it in Shadow of a Doubt, a true crime book, in 2017). Prominent Saint John business man Richard Oland was violently murdered by his son Dennis in 2011… probably. All the evidence pointed to Dennis from the beginning, like Mitya, and Richard was not well liked, carried on with mistresses, and was known to be stingy, like Fyodor.  The book outlines in great detail how Dennis felt entitled to financial help from his dad – and how Richard was increasingly reluctant to give Dennis money. At the time of the murder, Dennis was sinking fast (he needed way more than Mitya’s 3000 roubles). There aren’t any brothers, and as far as I know there was no Grushenka between them, but both cases seem to point squarely at the son, with the exception of a few details. In fact, with the Olands, one of those details involves a door and whether it was open or closed – just like the gate at Fyodor’s house.

I get the feeling that the Karamazov case might end up like the Oland one – Dennis was convicted and went to jail, but was found not guilty on appeal. Officially, it’s resolved, but to this day I go back and forth between thinking he *must* have done it, and thinking there might be another explanation. I assume the Karamazov story will resolve too, but will we find out what truly happened?

(Another difference worth noting is that Dennis did not go on a “spree” after the murder. Security camera footage showed that he went grocery shopping, and, in true maritimer fashion, to Tim Hortons.)

Anyway, onward to Part 4, where we suddenly turn the story back to a bunch of school kids, for some reason. Dostoyevsky is trying my patience again!

The Superfluous Brothers Karamazov Read-Along Part 2: Was Dostoyevsky a longtermist?

If you find yourself in perplexity, go to the master post for the read-along schedule.

While feverishly reading Part II to keep this read-along on track, I took a Twitter break and stumbled upon this book review. The book is called What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill, a prominent “longtermist”, a philosophy associated with Elon Musk and other tech-bro luminaries. The quote that caught my eye was:

According to a study commissioned by MacAskill, however, even in the worst-case scenario—a nuclear war that kills 99 percent of us—society would likely survive. The future trillions would be safe. The same goes for climate change. MacAskill is upbeat about our chances of surviving seven degrees of warming or worse: “even with fifteen degrees of warming,” he contends, “the heat would not pass lethal limits for crops in most regions.

Longtermism says that ethical decisions should be made with the long-term future in mind. In application, this seems to mean using math and logic to discount the wellbeing of people who are alive today, prioritizing anything that makes it even slightly more likely future humans get to do things like colonize other planets, or upload their consciousnesses into a simulation (assuming we’re not already in one!)

MacAskill is saying that nuclear holocaust and climate disaster, and the horrendous suffering that ensue, aren’t that big a deal, as long as some humans survive and have “good enough” lives. 

As I went down this rabbit hole, I started seeing some connections to some of Dostoyevsky’s favourite themes, as one does.

  • Longtermism is based on utilitarianism, a philosophy that says right and wrong should be based on logical outcomes, as opposed to, say, religious doctrine. Dostoyevsky looks at utilitarianism in many of his novels, famously in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov tells himself that is was okay for him to murder the old pawnbroker because of the pain and suffering she caused, though a couple mental breakdowns later, he’s not so sure. 
  • Longtermism is also based on effective altruism, a much newer philosophy of the 2000s that suggests people use logical outcomes to figure out how to do the most good, and then do that. Using this framework, it’s okay to make money doing unethical things, if you donate some of it to good causes. This reminded me of how Dostoyevsky points out the hypocrisy inherent in a lot of charity in The Brothers Karamazov. For example, Zozima’s mentor donates the proceeds of his heinous murder-robbery to an almshouse “on purpose to ease his conscience regarding the theft.” 

To be very clear, in this era of “problematic authors”, Dostoyevsky was not exactly a proponent of utilitarianism, nor am I suggesting he’d be a proponent of effective altruism or longtermism, despite my click-bait title. I just can’t help but wonder [/Carrie Bradshaw voice] if he’d create a longtermist character if he were writing today. 

And maybe he sort of did, in Elder Zozima.

In Book 6, “The Russian Monk”, we hear Elder Zozima’s life story as interpreted by Alyosha. The parable “Can One Be the Judge of One’ Fellow Creatures? Of Faith to the End” first got me thinking about how Dostoyevsky would have had much to say about social media outrage cycles (and not for the first time), with the Elder advising us to stop doomscrolling and do something useful with our lives: 

“If the villainy of people arouses indignation and insurmountable grief in you, to the point that you desire to revenge yourself upon the villains, fear that feeling most of all; go at once and seek torments for yourself, as if you yourself were guilty of their villainy… you will understand that you, too, are guilty, for your might have shone to the villains, even like the only sinless One, but you did not. If you had shone, your light would lighted the way for others, and the one who did villainy would perhaps not have done so in your light. And even if you do shine, but see that people are not saved even with your light, remain steadfast, and do not doubt the power of heavenly light; believe that if they are not saved now, they will be saved later. And if they are not saved, their sons will be saved…your work is for the whole, your deed is for the future.

Pevear and Volokhonsky translation

Then it got me thinking about longtermism, and how it’s similar to to religious faith, even though the longtermists probably don’t see it that way. These guys are more Ivan than Alyosha. But religious and longtermist worldviews are both about sacrifice in the present for a future that may never come to pass.

And I can’t help noticing that these guys are all, well guys: the priests and monks demanding we sacrifice and be faithful, awaiting reward in heaven, and the philosophers demanding we put the interests of hypothetical, future people ahead of actual, living people (which, incidentally, sounds like a religious “pro-life” talking point).

It’s also pretty convenient that the Elders preach, but don’t have to deal with the messy business of living in society. Similarly, these overwhelmingly male philosophers want the future population to balloon into the “trillions”, but won’t be the ones carrying, giving birth to, or caring for all these babies (unless they’re quietly working on some sort of incubator pod in between rocket launches.)

Dostoyevsky died 135 years before “longtermism” became a thing, but he certainly thought about the future, how to do good, and how to determine right from wrong. Maybe longtermism is descendant of the nihilism, utilitarianism, and atheism he wrote about so astutely. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to write a planned sequel to The Brothers Karamazov, let alone a novel satirizing Millennial philosophy bros. 

(For an even more critical overview of longtermism, check out this article, which, not surprisingly, ties longtermism to men’s rights advocacy, cryptocurrency, and eugenics. Ferris Bueller was right!)

The Superfluous Brothers Karamazov Read-Along Interlude: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

And apparently, nobody expects their read-along to be derailed by summer vacation. I missed this Monday’s post on Part II due to travel, but I am done the reading, and have surprisingly little to say about Ivan’s Spanish Inquisition story, “The Grand Inquisitor”, despite it being the best-known part of The Brothers K, and thought to sum up its themes.

I’m more interested in talking about “The Russian Monk” chapter, where we learn the life story of the Elder Zozima – surprisingly, as it takes us away from the love triangles and murder aspects of the story.

So while I try to come up with something intelligent to say about that, and essentially bump the whole read-along schedule out by a week, talk amongst yourselves…

The Superfluous Brothers Karamazov Read-Along Part I: Like sands through the hourglass…

If you find yourself in perplexity, go to the master post for the read-along schedule.

Part One of The Brothers Karamazov could be called an infodump. Our narrator, after telling us who the hero of the story is (bit presumptuous), introduces us to the Karamazov patriarch Fyodor Pavlovich and each of his three sons in turn. We learn about Fyodor’s wives and how each son was brought up, and where they are today. But Dostoyevsky somehow brings us to the first crucial set piece of the book – the meeting with Father Zosima at the monastery – seamlessly. And from there, we are off, with outbursts and hot takes and accusations and of course, a love triangle (or two).

One of my favourite things in the world is to start reading a big, canonical, serious classic only to realize it’s about a love triangle. Dmitri isn’t our hero (apparently) but he is the central point in two rivalries: between him and his father, over “scandalous woman” Grushenka, and between him and his brother Ivan, over “good girl” Katerina Ivanovna. This is approaching Days of Our Lives-level shenanigans (recall Brady Black and his father John Black both being with Kristin, and later Brady and his *grandfather* Victor fighting over Nicole…)

Me trying to keep track of all these love triangles
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Nine links that will help you finish The Brothers Karamazov

If you find yourself in perplexity, go to the master post for the read-along schedule.

Today’s the day: start reading!

If you’re on the fence, or intimidated, take heart. I’ve read Dostoyevsky’s other major works (and a few minor ones), and relatively speaking, at least in Part I, The Brothers Karamazov has a manageable number of characters, is very plot driven, and is pretty light on philosophical debates. I expect that to change at some point, but so far, it’s not too hard to follow. As you’ll see, Part I is actually very juicy! I can’t wait to talk about it next week.

That said, there are a ton of online resources to help you get started. If you’ve found some others, please drop them in the comments.

Character lists

If you use one online resource, make it a character list, especially if you aren’t familiar with Russian nicknames and naming conventions!

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The Brothers Karamazov: Problematics’ Fav

When you find out Stalin had good taste in books and made hilarious annotations

Blurbs on classic novels are kind of, well, superfluous. While the contemporary blurb is rightly suspect, we understand why it’s there. But on a classic, what are we trying to do? Convince readers to give a struggling author like Dostoyevsky a try? A blurb from Sigmund Freud of all people on my Penguin Classics copy of The Brothers Karamazov confused me, but it also made me wonder if Dostoyevsky has any other famous stans, and hoo boy does he. But you can see why some of them didn’t get asked for a blurb. In order of problematic-ness:

  • Jonathan Franzen (not problematic despite his reputation). This actually makes a ton of sense if you’ve read Crossroads, which, like the Brothers K, is all about religion and lust and sensuality and guilt. Like Dostoyevsky, Franzen is planning at least one sequel; let’s hope that unlike Dostoyevsky, he’ll live to write them.
  • Nicolas Cage (beloved with a few problematic tendencies). An inspiration for this read-along, in fact. It’s too bad that Nic is too old to play Mitya now!
  • Hillary Clinton (??) This was just so random to me, and kept coming up in my search queries.
  • Jordan Peterson (problematic and annoying). Content warning: Jordan Peterson, talking about The Brothers Karamazov, does eventually get to an interesting point about beliefs versus action.
  • Stalin (problematic and evil). Apparently a lifelong book lover and prodigious annotator, but yeah, problematic doesn’t really cover it…

I couldn’t find the source, but I remember reading that Putin’s a fan too, so there’s that.

I’m not too concerned though. The Brothers Karamazov has been widely read since it was published 140 years ago, so it’s not that a lot of problematic people like it, it’s that a lot of people, period, like it, some of whom happen to be cringe, annoying and/or evil.

That said, I will need to come to terms with the fact that two of my personal all time favs appear on Peterson’s list of great books (Wuthering Heights and The Stone Angel).

The Brothers Karamazov: Choose your fighter

I’ve started reading ahead for my August read-along (I encourage you to do the same!) and immediately, the contrasting of the three brothers – one “sensual”, one “intellectual”, and one “spiritual” – puts me in mind of modern pop culture properties that encourage you to identify with one character above all others. From the babysitters club (I’m a Mary Ann) to Sex and the City (a Miranda), women in particular are encouraged to “pick a team” or “choose a fighter”. I’m intrigued by how this will play out with our Brothers K, especially with the narrator not-so-subtly telling us that Alyosha, the spiritual one, is the hero.

I’m more used to Dostoyevsky novels having one main character whose main characteristic is being depressed

But before you can choose a brother, you have to choose an edition to read. I touched on this in the announcement post, but now that I’m reading alternately from three editions, I can provide a little more guidance, especially the one I was sleeping on:

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