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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 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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You can read an Alice Munro story anytime you want

This post is just to say that you can read an Alice Munro story anytime you want. Even right now! A few possibilities:

  • The New Yorker: Do you have free articles left at The New Yorker? Use one. Do you have a subscription? Even better, binge away – there are 61 stories dating back to 1977. Are you at your limit for free articles? I’m sure you know ways around that. For instance, I found out that you can borrow issues in Libby. If you don’t know where to start, here’s a guide to some of her stories available online.
  • The library: Your library system probably has many Munro books, available right now, for free. Sixty-five in Edmonton, some with immediate ebook and audio access. There are, in addition to the major collections: book club kits, translations (in Chinese, Korean, Polish, French, and Spanish), early works, biographies, books for which Munro wrote a foreword, and books for which she acted as editor.
  • The bookstore: Dozens of Munro books are in stock at my local chain bookstore, and while she’s not on hand at Glass, I know they’d order her in. If you order a newer edition, be aware that Penguin Canada has, for some reason, updated the cover art on a few of her books recently. I think they look kind of gross.
  • Other: You could, of course, start a paid ebook or audiobook at any time. And you’d be hard pressed to find a used bookstore in Canada without a few of her books kicking around. Even outside Canada, I’ll bet you have pretty good access to a recent-ish Nobel winner.

That was a long preamble just to say that you could read a Munro story at any time. I’ve been thinking about this since reading her 2001 collection Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage. I was feeling sappy about such a profound and entertaining reading experience, partly because I could have read it anytime in the past twenty years, but I put off till now. So I just want you to know, you don’t have to wait.

I don’t say this in a “life is short, read good books” kind of a way (though you probably should). Or in a “read her stories to develop empathy” kind of way (though if anyone’s writing can help with this, it’s hers). And definitely not in a “put your phone down and read for *self care*” kind of way (though again… perhaps…)

But more in a, “isn’t it amazing that you can?” kind of way. In a moment, on a whim, for free, you can be reading a story by arguably the world’s greatest living writer.

The closest approximation of the feeling I’m trying to convey is probably this iconic meme from Da Sharezone. I’m not saying you have to, but I think it’s important to know that you can. You can leave! Or you can read Munro.

friend ships….court ships… etc

Let’s also have a moment of appreciation for an author who did, indeed, “hit da bricks” (she hasn’t published much, if anything, since her Nobel win in 2013) rather than limp on, gathering up awards and distributing hot takes. I don’t know what Munro would post on Twitter, and given the proclivities of some of her contemporaries, I don’t want to know.

2021 Year in review

Clausen, George; Reading by Lamplight (Twilight: Interior); Leeds Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/reading-by-lamplight-twilight-interior-38362

Remember last year, when I lamented reading “only” 44 books, but chalked it up to the pandemic? Well I’ve done it again! Exactly 44 books read.

At the end of 2020, despite being in the thick of the second wave, I was making plans. Not just for reading/blogging, but in general. After all, vaccines were coming and all would be well. A few waves and variants later, and recently reeling from another round of school closures, I’m wary to say the least.

This article about new year’s resolutions and perhaps choosing something you like doing but don’t always make time for resonates with my early 2022 mood. Forget reading; I might resolve to watch more movies, something I rarely make time for. I have Rachel’s recommendations to guide me, and my kids are old enough that I can sometimes watch something decent with them, too. I got to watch Dune in theatre with the 12 year old, before Omicron took hold.

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The Franzen Project: Tier ranking all of Jonathan Franzen’s books

I first tried to read all of Jonathan Franzen’s books as a project in 2017 and failed. I did, however, have a few runs of Franzen in February, and wrote some highly entertaining (IMO) posts.

It wasn’t the pandemic that pushed me to finally bring this one home in 2021. It was a combo of the Mr. Difficult podcast, a fellow Franzen enthusiast I met on Twitter, and good timing. Having got my greedy hands on a Crossroads ARC (thanks Jenn!), I realized that the ranks of true Franzen completists, already fairly small, would contract again as people catch up on this latest novel.

I was going to do a full ranking, but, despite what you may have heard, his works are pretty diverse, and a meaningful ranking would be difficult. Plus, ranking more than 5-10 items is not good practice (trust me, I write surveys for a living). Then I remembered a modified ranking methodology I learned from my kids, in a video about ranking doors. Yeah:

Further research reveals that “tier ranking” is a Thing in the gaming world, typically used to rank playable characters or levels, and you know what, I like it! Behold:

Books by Jonathan Franzen Tier Ranking

A+ Tier

  • Crossroads (2021): Elite Franzen. Have you all noticed the usual haters have been awfully quiet this time around? Yeah.

A Tier

  • The Corrections (2001): Could move to A+ upon reread. Dysfunctional family coming together at Christmas time is his forte. Does get a little “quirky” at times but if you are into his quirks it’s all good.
  • Freedom (2010): We all need to talk about Patty. And birds.
  • The Discomfort Zone (2006): Essential (well, only) memoir.
  • How to be Alone (2002): Essential essays, mostly written before he was a Great American Novelist.

B Tier

  • Purity (2015): Enjoyed it while reading, but unmemorable.
  • Farther Away (2012): Uneven, great on personal subjects (parents, DFW) but a bit boring on others (birds)

C Tier

  • Strong Motion (1992): Interesting because there are early iterations of some of his favourite themes, but a big old mess.
  • The Twenty-Seventh City (1988): Apart from a memorable scene of existential dread set in a mall, a slog.
  • The End of the End of the Earth (2018): Maybe because I’d read most of them before? Didn’t make an impression.

D Tier

  • The Kraus Project (2013): There are actually several things I appreciate in this hybrid translation, cultural commentary, and memoir, but unless you are a BIG Franzen fan, and/or have a DEEP interest in early 20th century German literature and thought, I would stay far, far away.
  • Spring Awakening (2007): Franzen’s translation of a early 20th century German play, so see above: unless you are a TRUE completist, and/or have a real interest in this kind of thing, I would not recommend. At least it’s short!

You can make your own Franzen tier ranking here, check out other book-related rankings, or, create your own template! I would love to see more literary rankings, as the existing ones are pretty much all YA/MG in nature…

And please argue with me below if you would do this ranking differently!