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review 2015-02-02 10:35
Review: Team of Rivals
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln - Doris Kearns Goodwin

Abraham Lincoln had always seemed to me, an outsider flattening my nose against the fishbowl of American history, generally a big deal. In his story's oversimplified version, he kept his country together, freed slaves, and was all but deified upon his assassination. The man was, even if everyone else at the time didn't know it, "still too near to his greatness" as they were, "[h]is genius... still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us," as Leo Tolstoy put it, a veritable badass. Pitting him against vampires was redundant. The broad strokes of his life were already very well-known to me, burned into the public consciousness as they have been by more books, biopics, and occasional pop-culture references combined than any one person save Doris Kearns Goodwin with her superpowers of research and organization can know what to do with. Most people are usually content enough not to investigate any further.

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review 2014-10-13 12:59
Review: Crime and Punishment
Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky,Larissa Volokhonsky,Richard Pevear

Did Fyodor Dostoevsky know what fame and glory, to raise his status even more long after his death, awaited him when he began writing? My curiosity extends also to other authors in the same ballpark. Even if he had only an inkling, that still had to have provoked from him no small amount of dread. Very little can be said about Crime and Punishment that hasn't already been better said. Opinions have been exhausted, their points repeated, whole books written, feathers ruffled, epiphanies begotten, minds changed, and school assignments given. It's enough to give anyone mental constipation. But you can only stare blankly at your blinking text cursor for so long before you're waking up in the morning and thinking it's a good idea to go around axing faces and sundries, so here's the rub: C&P is 11-star material. Anything else to that singular thought, which has launched yet more of the same but frenzied and wordier, is extraneous. The first sentence, in which our shifty-eyed antihero leaves his apartment building in a state of "[indecision]" towards some unnamed bridge, aroused my curiosity; the crime, Dostoevsky's description of which is as engaging and breathtaking as it is horrifying and even comical, secured my attention. If Dostoevsky were an airline pilot, don't expect the seat belt sign to go off anytime soon.

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review 2014-09-12 11:43
Review: Dead Souls
Dead Souls (Everyman's Library, #280) - Nikolai Gogol,Larissa Volokhonsky,Richard Pevear

We can thank our lucky stars for writer's block, as we'd likely have set fire to the Dead Souls manuscript ourselves if Nikolai Gogol hadn't. Had he, overcome with religious fervor, forged ahead with his plan and complete this three-parter, separated into volumes each of crime, punishment, and redemption, and not starve himself to death, we might've had on our hands a literary misfire it seemed like he, previously so promising, wanted to unleash upon us expectant and unsuspecting masses. Fortunate is everyone, then, that the first (and undeniably best) volume, where Dead Souls plays out its main story, can be taken as more or less self-contained. The second one, while still dazzling in places with great writing, sparkles less so than its predecessor not only because of disjointed chapters, missing words, and lost pages, but also because hints of a crazier and preachier Gogol, already exasperating his friends and fans in real life, start to emerge then in the text. In his later years, he had at one point consoled a critic who had recently lost his wife by this bit of classiness: "Jesus Christ will help you to become a gentleman, which you are neither by education or inclination—she is speaking through me." Another instance: Gogol advised in letters to his readers that "[t]he peasant must not even know that there exist other books besides the Bible." Village priests, he recommended, should accompany them everywhere, and even be made their estate managers. Lovely! It's all a little odd and, considering the incense-smoky shrine to him I'd constructed in my mind after his short stories had so brain-tinglingly won me over, thoroughly disappointing. For all that, on the bright side, what Gogol lit on fire was at least none of the first volume, leading even Vladimir Nabokov to conclude, in his chapter of Lectures on Russian Literature on the author, that "[Gogol] was destroying the labor of long years" not to cleanse himself of the sins he thought his books were, but "because he finally realized that the completed book was untrue to his genius." After that, it's hard to be mad at the guy.

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