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review 2017-07-06 18:20
'The Idiot' by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoyevsky,Larissa Volokhonsky,Richard Pevear

Now that I’ve reached the end of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (this edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) I have begun to see it as the story of a man scandalized by a world that disappoints nearly every effort at goodness. A man, the prince and maybe the author, who, having ventured into the world, extended sympathy out to the people he saw but has been broken by them and retreated to a shell of conservatism and safety.


The (relatively brief) synopsis: A young man of the Russian aristocratic class, Prince Lev Nikoláevich Mýshkin, arrives in St. Petersberg after having been raised in Switzerland where he was treated for what we assume is epilepsy. It’s told that he has seizures and was an “idiot” as well, mute and developmentally challenged as a child from the sounds of it. Arriving back in Russia he becomes known for extending sympathy and withholding judgement and for this naivete the label follows him throughout the novel as a term of abuse. He encounters several groups of people his first day back that become the basis of his social circle in Russia. Among these, a rich merchant Rogózhin, who is bullish and immediate in pursuing his desires, the Epanchin family that serves as a sort of “straight man” (or family) tumbled about by these external forces, the Ívolgin family, and Nastásya Filíppovna, a beautiful young woman who has been sexually abused by an adopted father-figure and has grown to be a troubled figure who tends to sow chaos.


Driving the story along is a  tortured love triangle between the prince, Rogózhin and Nastásya Filíppovna, with Agláya Epanchin, the youngest and most beautiful of three Epanchin daughters, eventually being thrown into the mix.


This is all hardly a skeleton of this 610 page story and if I had one piece of advice to impart before reading this book it would be to remember that it was published serially and to view it more like a television series than today’s more plot-driven novels. Chapters, much like episodes, are little stories within themselves that involve our main characters but often do not move the main story arch forward, much like a sitcom that weaves tidbits of larger romantic plots into the self-contained 30 minute adventures.


So if you find yourself wondering how a 20 page reading of the suicide note of the prince's consumptive neighbor ties into these primary goals, it doesn’t really, but not everything has to. Much of it is a way to imagine the simple, kind prince into contemporary — for its time — debates and conversations, which can make it feel dated. But while the specifics have changed, the conversations never change that much: faith, government, sexual mores, frivolous lawsuits, and stab-happy rival suitors.


The prince handles himself well in many circumstances, though is often scoffed at for some reason not necessarily related to the argument. But stepping back now and taking the novel as a whole, especially the ending, the story leaves a rather bleak impression.


If you are one to read the introduction or footnotes you should be tipped off by the association between this book and “Christ’s Body in the Tomb,” a painting by Hans Holbein depicting a gruesomely realistic dead body about which the prince says, “A man could even lose his faith from that painting!” Dostoevsky seems interested in what it would take to do just that.


The sensitive characters of this story: the prince, Nastásya, even Aglya and Ippolit, get ground down by the world they encounter. It’s a world they wish to embrace but one that is full of awful people and acts, where goodness is nigh impossible. While those who thrive in this story are the savvy and amoral. They are practical folks like Iván Fyódorovich Epanchin or cynical like Gavríla Ardaliónovich, Lebedev and Evgény Pávlovich.


Rogózhin seems a special case to me, too sensitive to be practical but certainly not sympathetic. In the end, he too gets broken down but he recovers mentally if not financially. He lives in a passion for the now and these can bring him as far as the breaking point but he is not introspective and doesn't really care for others so he is not haunted by the deaths and misfortunes of others. Nastásya proves almost too much for him and drives him to a sort of ruin for him though he lives and even recovers his wits. He chases a desire, lets it consume him even to disaster, but he picks himself up, dusts off his shoulders and runs headlong into the next disaster.


I don’t know how soon I could read this again after the couple months I spent in this world, but I would be interested to. Dostoevsky uses many long monogoues broken up only with brief descriptions of tone or intention in the character that more often confused me than enlightened. I wouldn't be surprised if whole scenes turned on a new impression of how Aglaya, Varvára Ardaliónovich, Gavríla, and others spoke or bore themselves in these conversations if I were to read them again with foreknowledge and in a different mood. Were they mocking or playful, obtuse or merely cautioned.


Lizavéta Prokófyevna Epanchin (Aglaya’s mother) may be the most fascinating character to revisit as she is in so much of the book and may be the most dynamic character. Lizavéta is drawn strongly to the prince and seems fascinated by him, is dedicated to being his friend, but at times it seems she is ready to throw him over for his lack of social savvy and too forgiving nature. Aglaya too acts and speak in a way that confounded me often and as she became a love interest I wondered if her feelings was genuine or cruel or something else.


This confusion may stem from many things, the author’s intention, different understandings of the world over 100 years apart, but leading them is a narrator whose role wasn’t entirely clear. Dostoevsky, like Charles Dickins in A Christmas Carol, let the narrator fade in and out of the story and gave them unclear powers. The narrator is not a named character, but is self-aware. They break the fourth wall,  referencing what we know or can know and even expressing difficulty in describing characters or situations. They seem omniscient, recounting private goings on and the inner thoughts and motivations of various characters, but then at moments take up a voice and explain why they do or do not know the content of some conversation or event. One story came through some reliable gossips in town and seemed the most likely version of the story, another was recounted in testimony or written in a letter. At one point the narrator says they can’t know what was said in a private conversation though just pages before they write word-for-word a long private discussion between the prince and Nastásya.


It can frustrating in its inconsistency, but I’m being generous and will take for granted that Dostoevsky was using the uncertain narrator to heighten moments when other characters are kept in the dark. When our protagonist is trying to learn something, when the author wants to build tension for a reveal by leaking that something is coming but making you read through to discover what it is.


If you’re a fan of Russian literature I hardly need to encourage you to pick up a Dostoevsky novel but if you’re not I’m not sure this is the best introduction. The best I can offer is that it is very much of the 19th century, and if you enjoy society types such as Henry James, I think you’ll find much to like in The Idiot, only a lot more of it and perhaps a bit more philosophical. Don’t treat it as a race to the finish and allow that this novel could take a while. But overall expect a thought provoking and often moving story.

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review 2015-12-16 13:13
The Bride Prize: Allan's Miscellany 1839 - Sandra Schwab

I really liked this novella. It was a historical romance that did not sacrifice the history for the romance. It was sweet and light without being too fluffy. And best of all, the MC were middle class and working class (artist) - no dukes or earls. 4 stars and I would recommend.

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review 2015-05-01 10:01
Unfortunate mix.
On the Auction Block (Slave of the Aristocracy Book 1) - Ashley Zacharias

This would have been great as a PWP. With the W standing for "with".


It had a lot of dub con/non con, bdsm, slavery and humiliation stuff. Not exactly my cup of tea.

But it was mostly well done (if you take it as a fantasy) and the writing was better than with most of those books.


What I didn't like and didn't understand was the mix of a novel plot into this sex fantasy.


It was confusing. Sometimes it read like a strange and not really well thought out SciFi novel with an alternative society. And then it was just about doing the dirty.


The writing was really not bad, but the characters were basically not there.


So, not a good mix for me.


Maybe I'd think differently if the kink was closer to my own :-)



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review 2014-10-14 15:29
Stage Fright
Stage Fright - Gillian Linscott

Back with Nell Bray, the suffragette who continues to be one of my favourite sleuths. It is still 1909 (as it was during Sister Beneath the Sheet – see also Dead Man Riding) and Nell is in London, having recently completed her second prison term that year for "suffragetting" – taking Direct Action against the all-male government elected by an all-male franchise.


At a meeting of the "suffrage prisoners support committee" she is collared by Bernard Shaw and talked into sticking close to and protecting Lady Penwarden, whom Shaw believes to be in danger from her husband, Lord Penwarden.


What is his interest? Bella – Isabella Flanagan, Lady Penwarden's own name, the name she performs under – is the leading lady in Shaw's new play, Cinderella, which takes up the story of Cinderella five years after her fairy-tale marriage to Prince Charming, by which time she has had more than enough of him and is desperate for a divorce. It was written specially for her, because she is in that same position, desperate for a divorce from Lord Penwarden, but owing to the archaic divorce laws quite unable to obtain one. This is airing the aristocracy's dirty linen in public, which is just up Shaw's street. It also brings him once again into a head-on collision with the Lord Chamberlain and the theatrical performace licensing laws, a game Shaw always enjoys.


Lord Penwarden is, predictably, not amused.


I am not going to spoil it by telling you what happens, but I must say that having Shaw as a character in a story is an ambitious undertaking. A less gifted author might have put words in his mouth that would have him rising up out of his grave and coming to haunt her. Gillian Linscott, though, does him – and us – proud. He could – he would, I am sure – have said almost exactly what she has him say were he to find himself in the situations she places him in. (Ah, the god-like powers an author has!)


I love all these books, but for a Shaw fan (and sometime Shaw-scholar) like myself this was a special treat.  


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review 2014-10-03 22:25
Silent in the Grave
Silent in the Grave - Deanna Raybourn
Silent in the Sanctuary - Deanna Raybourn

To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.

I stared at him, not quite taking in tha fact that he had just collapsed at my feet. He lay curled like a question mark, his evening suit ink-black against the white marble of the floor. He was writhing, his fingers knotted.

I leaned as close to him as my corset would permit.

'Edward, we have guests. Do get up. If this is some sort of silly prank – '

'He is not jesting, my lady. He is convulsing.'


These are the best opening lines since Sylvian Hamilton's The Bone-Pedlar began with the words: "In the crypt of the Abbey Church at Hallowdene, the monks were boiling their Bishop" . You read this and you are hooked. And the author has no intention of letting you off the hook. (After a description of the guests pressing in around them, the narrator observes that "Edward was proving rather better entertainment than the soprano we had engaged".) What is more, in those few lines, you have the story – and the series – in a nutshell; for this "gentleman" is Nicholas Brisbane, a private investigator retained by her husband when he started receiving threatening quotations cut from (of all places) the Book of Psalms, the victim on the floor is said husband, and the twittering dumb blonde narrator is Lady Julia Grey, whom her husband had (understandably) not bothered to inform about either the threats or the investigator.


Fortunately, Jula turns out – once liberated from the confines of  Victorian marriage to a man with no interest whatsoever in her – to be far from dumb.


When Brisbane tells her who he is and why he is there, and that he believes her husband to have been murdered, she sends him off with a flea in his ear. But a year later, when her period of strict mourning over, she begins to sort things out, and promptly finds one such threatening quotation, cut out of a Bible and hidden in a drawer. She rushes to Brisbane – whom she has never forgotten (he is very attractive, tall, dark, strong and mysterious) – only to find that he is no longer interested in either her or her dead husband.


She proceeds to investigate on her own. And in so doing, leaves behind all trace of the repressed and conventional little aristocratic wife and emerges from her cocoon as a sort of Victorian goddess – unconquerable, unconventional and at least as sexy as the French courtesane, Hortense, whom she befriends. (The earlier Julia – the caterpillar – would not have been seen dead in the same room as Hortense!)


In Silent in the Grave, we also meet Julia's father, the Earl of March (a particular friend of the Queen's) and various other members of Julia's family – all eccentric and entertaining.


In Silent in the Sanctuary, the second in this new series, we get to know them all. It opens in Italy, where Julia has spent several months in the company of two of her brothers, one a musician and the other an artist. Lysander, the musician, has clandestinely married an Italian girl and must now return home to his father the Earl – who provides him with the allowance on which he lives, literally, like a lord – and face the music. They return to England all together, planning to spend Christmas at the ancestral home – and there Julia finds that Nicholas Brisbane, from whom she heard nothing during all the long months in Italy, has also been invited for the festive season.


Then a guest is murdered – in "the sanctuary", the old chapel dating from the days before the Reformation when their home, the Abbey, really was an abbey.


Julia and Brisbane find themselves working together once again.


An excellent combination of historical romance and detective story, beautifully written and perfectly set in their period. I can't see anyone who reads them being able to resist seeting aside all other books tbr and moving straight on to the third in the series – Silent on the Moor.

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