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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!

Novellas in November: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

As always, I encourage you to read Cathy’s and Rebecca’s reviews. I’m down to the wire here so this will be a short comment on a short book that needs no introduction. This is the fourth and final #NovNov buddy read, and I’d like to thank hosts Cathy and Rebecca for doing a bang up job. The buddy reads were a great idea! Check out all the posts linked here.

Ethan Frome is sometimes seen as a departure from Wharton’s other works, though in the Everyman’s Library edition I read, Hermonie Lee makes a case for linking Ethan Frome, Summer, and Bunner Sisters in one volume, and not just because they’re short. They’re also about working-class heros and heroines. There’s none of the social climbing (and falling) that mark The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and The Custom of the Country. Unrelenting poverty is the driving force of this story. Zeena and Mattie end up at the farm because they are both poor relations with nowhere else to go, and Ethan can’t leave even if he wanted to (and he sure does by the end) because he’s running the farm into the ground and couldn’t raise $50 if he tried (and he sure does try.)

It’s also about isolation and revenge. I was struck by the parallels between it and my all-time favourite book, Wuthering Heights. The framing device, the stark landscapes, the isolated house, the use of dialect, and most of all, the people, tied forever to the land and to a never-ending cycle of blame and regret.

The last line even echoes Wuthering Height’s iconic ending. I have a personal aversion to quoting last lines, but these are both so good, and I’m hardly spoiling anything. Feel free to stop here if you haven’t read one or both.

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Nonfiction November Week 5: New to my TBR

The final #NonFicNov prompt is hosted by Jaymi at The OC Book Girl. Despite some early efforts, I did not keep up with her daily Instagram challenge. For me, Instagram isn’t a place to post, it’s a place to see what my Millennial and Gen Z cousins are up to, and to indulge in hyper-local memes and cringe TikToks. Anyways, Jaymi encouraged us to keep track of the nonfiction books added to our TBRs in preparation for this week, which I did, until the 15th. So this will lean heavily on the first two weeks of the event. My new additions:

And that’s it! I didn’t do much reading (concentrated my efforts on novellas, the other perennial November book blog event) by enjoyed posting and reading. A huge thanks to all the hosts and participants.

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

This week’s #NonFicNov prompt is hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey,  and she challenges us to pair a nonfiction book with a novel. She suggests a historical novel paired with the real history, which is the best place for me to start. In the run up to publication of The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, third and final book in the Wolf Hall series, I took in a pre-Broadway run of Six in late 2019, and reread the first two books in early 2020. I was so ready. Unfortunately, my reading experience ended up being seriously dampened by early pandemic anxiety. A reread will be in order. But to make myself feel better, I indulged in a couple of Tudor nonfiction titles.

So if you liked the Wolf Hall series, you should check out:

  • Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of Henry VIII by Gareth Russell. Juicy and scandalous, but scholarly enough to bring some real insight into what the Tudor court was like for an eligible young woman.
  • The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives is a little drier at times (he has a lot to say about her possessions, textiles and drinking vessels and prayer books and whatnot), but not without controversy, as theories abound about who Anne really was and how much agency she really had. But this does seem to be the authoritative account, and has been since 1986.

And speaking of royals, fans of Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, or specifically the first book, Quicksilver, which is all I read, should check out the real life story of a minor character in Anna Keay’s The Last Royal Rebel: The Life and Death of James, Duke of Monmouth. He is portrayed as a lecherous rake in Quicksilver, and well, he basically comes across as the same in Keay’s history, but with some nuance. Great fun, and illuminating, if you read historical fiction set in this time.

Reading history (and not just royal history) to clarify and illuminate novels would be a fun project! It’s got me thinking about the world literature I’ve loved this year, like Independent People (20th century Iceland) and Demons (19th century Russia), and how they could probably be appreciated better with more background knowledge. I have a bit of a TBR going for Russian nonfiction, but wouldn’t know where to begin with Iceland.

I hope others are able to go beyond Katie’s suggestion of historical fictions/history, but I’m drawing a blank! I thought about suggesting various anti-social media books to go with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, but I’m going to save that for next week’s prompt…