Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Brothers Karamazov

At long last, I finished The Brothers Karamazov last night. It's been a looooong read, with a lot of ups and downs. It's a sprawling novel, with lots of characters, and covering something like 30 years, if you include the opening chapters about the birth and early lives of the brothers.

So, in any book of this scope, there's going to be some less-effective parts, and I think they're very different for different people. For instance, I looked at the SparkNotes when I was done, and they look at the court scene as a long anti-climax, with the real climax coming in the chapter before, where we find that Smerdyakov is the criminal. But I found that the most infelicitous part of the book -- it's obvious from long before that Dmitri is innocent, which really leaves Smerdyakov as the criminal. More importantly, Smerdyakov's dialogue with Ivan is just painful to read.

Smerdyakov accuses Ivan of engineering his father's death by encouraging Smerdyakov to kill him. And Ivan sees this as a blow to his self-image. Thematically, of course, this is important -- Ivan has to feel somewhat responsible for his father's death. But, as a realistic character study, it makes no sense at all -- more likely that Ivan would just say, "Smerdyakov, you're a madman, I see no reason to blame myself for anything you might choose to do."

Whereas I find the courtroom drama fascinating. Fetukovich, the defense lawyer, mounts a decent defense of Dmitri, until all of a sudden he ends up endorsing parricide if the father was as evil as Pavlov Karamazov. Fetukovich is correct about so much of what happens, and yet he's morally off-course -- Dostoevsky puts the reader in a tough position to try to sort out which side to take.

And what do we make of the two primary female characters in the novel? Both contain extremes of nobility and baseness -- both have a great capacity for forgiveness in the right circumstance, but in both it quickly turns into a thirst for vengeance. And, yet, don't we see the same in Dmitri Karamazov? Do the two women appear more contradictory because we don't see them directly, we don't follow them through their thoughts the way we get to see Dmitri.

I definitely plan to re-read this novel; it's just too big to get a handle on in one reading. But it's always going to be hard to set aside the kind of time it takes to read it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Jane Eyre, Kill the Lawyers, Caught Stealing

I finally finished Jane Eyre, which I've been listening to on the iPod for weeks.

It's always tricky trying to figure out what to say about a classic. On the one hand, to say it's fantastic (which I thought it was) ends up sounding facile. But it's hard to pick apart the different elements, especially with such a sprawling novel.

In some ways, I think, the novel is built around the different characters' religious viewpoints. I don't think that Bronte was trying to write an exploration of religious values, but it's striking how many characters have important religious views through the novel. In the early part of the novel, we see the hypocrisy of Rev. Brocklehurst contrasted against Helen Burns' Christ-like attitude (although, notably, Jane looks up to Helen, but can't emulate her). Rochester is, of course, almost anti-religious, willing to live in sin with Jane. St. John personifies the type who is as rough with himself in service to his religion as he is with others -- but, unlike Helen, he finds no repose in his belief system.

Helen Burns, I think, is a key character in this schema. If not, why is she in the book at all? She plays no plot role whatever. But she represents the religious ideal -- someone who finds comfort in her religion and uses it to comfort others. But it's also presented as something of an unattainable ideal; Helen dies within months of Jane's meeting her -- is this supposed to show that her ideas can't survive long in the earthly realm? And is that meant to be a critique of them? After all, Jane's morality tends more to the practical, although she still sets a high standard for herself.

Well, after all that lofty thinking, I wanted something nice and easy to read, so I read Kill the Lawyers, which was a fairly goofy entry in Paul Levine's Solomon vs. Lord series. I wasn't so blown away by this one -- Steve Solomon plays a huge part, and he's just not that interesting without Victoria Lord as a foil. I'm interested in the next one, though, because reviews say that she plays a much larger part.

Then I read Charlie Huston's Caught Stealing. It starts out a little arty, playing with perception and chronology, a bit like Baer's Kiss Me, Judas, but it soon settles down into a straight-forward noir story. But what a rush! The book doesn't even slow down for one second, from the opening line to the last paragraph. And there's nothing to jolt you out of the plot. Even though in retrospect there are some holes, Huston manages to move everything fast enough that you don't really notice. Maybe I'll pick up the next for beach reading in Belize...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

soldier of sidon, Storm Front

Gene Wolfe finally got around to writing the third book after Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete, and I've finally gotten around to reading it. I think it's tough to read a book that you've been waiting for so long -- almost 20 years, if memory serves. And then to have it not even resolve anything by the end is even worse.

So it's very hard to know what to think about this book. Soldier of Sidon is much less dense than its predecessors -- Latro doesn't make up names for every area they pass through, there aren't major leaders or major events going on around the periphery, and the lacunae aren't so glaring (with one major exception, where the party are taken prisoner). But that clarity comes at a price -- in the first two books, one felt that there was a lot to learn on a second or third re-reading. I'm not so sure that's true of Sidon -- it feels more like a WYSIWYG novel.

It definitely didn't help that everything seems to have been put on hold here -- what of Io? What of the triple goddess? What happened to Latro's memory palace? And so on. There are tantalizing hints that he can remember more than he used to, but what does that mean? Is he naturally healing? I think Wolfe really needs to get the fourth book out soon, not wait another 20 years...

I also read Storm Front, first of the Harry Dresden books. It was good enough to make me want to read more of them, but I think I want to withhold judgment until then.