Monthly Archives: September 2014

Stoner: Read from September 20 to 30, 2014

“I thought I could do it quietly without upsetting anyone.”

How much of life do you lose if you never impose on anyone else? How much selfishness should you indulge in, drag others into? Can you ever really be alive by always being polite, never being a bother, letting life carry you along like driftwood? These were some of the questions, and hard truths I had to face while reading this remarkable novel. And I use the word remarkable not because I want to toss a superlative around, but because the book is remarkable. In fact I think a case could be made for this almost forgotten novel to be considered in the conversation of Great American Novels.

Stoner is a unique literary ‘hero’. He is an American mid-western farm boy from a hardworking, moral farm family. In a Steinbeck novel the Stoner’s would be backdrop, the sort of family he’d mention in passing as being one of the unspoken for millions America is made up of: the hard working, quiet, self sufficient, good and decent Americans who are the salt of the earth. Yet William Stoner is different; he’s a man apart. Though he knows farm life, he’s not particularly attracted to or interested in it, he only does it because life has, until yet, not offered him anything else. But when he’s given the chance to go to college he discovers he has a passion you wouldn’t normally attribute to the farm: a love of literature. He discovers he is not a man meant to bend his back all day, but to use his mind instead.

This discovery occurs suddenly, without warning and from a man long dead. It is William Shakespeare who almost literally speaks to him. “Do you hear him?” Professor Sloane asks him in class. Shakespeare speaks to you across three centuries. Shakespeare has imposed himself on Stoner, has grabbed hold of him, and changed his life.

But this is not the story of a man necessarily bettered by the experience of discovering education and art. Though Stoner decides to pursue a life of education and teaching, you sometimes wonder what his life would have been like had he not made this discovery. Would he have wound up like his parents, perhaps, but when WW1 broke out he may have gone over to France and not come back, or come back a changed man. There’s a lot of potential ‘what ifs’ at the beginning of one’s life.

And this book is all about potential.

That’s why it’s so startling at the end of the novel when he realizes he’s 60 years old. Though we’ve lived his life through the course of the novel through all his failures, and modest successes, we are hit with the cold reality that there is just not anymore time left. He’s made all his choices and, as he keeps repeating “What did you expect?”

Yet this is not a cynical or angry novel. Even in moments of quiet, suffocating despair, of years of a failed marriage, failed relationships, failed career opportunities, this is not a book about a man who is just a sad case for us to pity. William Stoner is like so many very real people, he’s a person trying to get by in the world, trying to do some good, but not quite able to bridge the gap between his own internal passions and heat with other people’s heart and their warmth. He’s closed off, he lives in his own mind, and he always looks for reasons why he can’t act, why he shouldn’t say or do a thing because he doesn’t feel it’s right, or his place to do so. He is not a bold man, but rather a man who works hard, does the best he can with what he has, and then, in the end, must accept those choices.

Artistically the novel is a marvel. From the sparse and clear writing, to the near meta-fictional exploration of how literature and books can help us explore the human condition while at the same time needing to withdraw from humanity to experience these books. In the end he holds his own book in his hands and though the contents of that book might not paint a clear picture of the author, it does, as least, offer proof that he existed and contributed even just a little bit to the human species. Or in the dedication of Katherine’s book, the initials W.S. are all that is left between the two of them, a fragment, but at least something.

There is continually subtle word play, the use of a line such as “He felt a distant closeness to her”, distant closeness in opposition but right next to each other, or him describing his marriage as a stalemate, is he the mate who is stale, is she, are they both? There is the repeated imagery of masks and mask like faces, which in less talented hands would have been a bit heavy handed, but here fits the characters and the tone. Even when the novel pushes the boundaries of imagery, such as with his description of the poignancy of a lone grave enhanced by the vastness of a desert, it never feels out of place or forced. Every word is necessary.

And structurally the novel is near perfect in that this is a first person account written in the third person. We are close to Stoner but never too close, we are always kept at a distance. The narrator is most likely Stoner himself since only twice do we ever get a POV shift, both times with his wife in acts of self discovery, as if their will and imposition spills over into the narration and forces us to have to come to terms with another human being.

This is the true art of the novel, the life we live with Stoner, the slow wearing down upon him, his reasoning for acting, or more often not acting, and the understanding we get of this person who to an outsider would seem a cantankerous and impossible man to know. We learn a little about what it means to be William Stoner, and perhaps, to better see the world through the intentions of the people around us.

The novel is sad but never pessimistic – it’s realistic in the best possible use of the word. This is the sort of book a writer like Raymond Carver would immediately relate to and even write about. William Stoner is a sort of mythical American every-man, a man of the earth who is also educated, a man of many faces whose expression never changes, a man never quite sure of his place in the world but is willing to work damn hard to keep what he does have. Stoner was remarkable in that he was completely unremarkable.

We even get in the end the book’s, and perhaps our own culture’s unspoken philosophy about the meaning of life when he is with the doctor, “it was foolishness, he knew, but he did not protest, it would have been unkind for him to do so.”

Stoner is very much a book that will appeal to people who love books and love book learning, however, there is a warning here I believe, and that is the more we learn, the more we try to know, the more we will discover how little we actually known and understand and that there will never be enough time to read and to learn all we need to know because the rabbit hole never ends. Perhaps we would be better off putting the books down and going outside and imposing ourselves on the world. Perhaps Stoner could be read as the great anti-book, or, at least in a meta sense, a slight nod towards American anti-intellectualism; too much knowledge could be bad for you.

At the very least, the book is pretty clear about never being able to ever understand another human being by just reading books about them. Stoner read his whole life away and barely made an impression on any human he ever met aside from his wife, Finch, Lomax, and Katherine Driscoll. Perhaps if he’d found a place to put down his cap and gown from his college graduation he might have lived more.

Yet in the end these are the choices of his life and we are reminded of our own choices, our own mortality and our potential. It would be easy to feel a bit defeated at the end of the novel, to think life is just sort of pointless and full of misery, and in a way it is, but it isn’t, too. In the final pages we watch Stoner hearing the teenagers laughing as they walk across his lawn, barely touching the ground, and we long to be with them, not him. We long to live better, but we also understand our limitations.

page 80 of 752 of My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen

Here he contrasts two intimate relationships of his: his father, icy, sad, disaffected, and cautious from a life surrounded by depraved men, and his friend, Nick, his life-long friend whom he shared a like mind and faithfulness. The image of his father, the dying hand touching the cradle, the only peace the man knew is touching.

87% done with Stoner

Masks, numbness

The poignancy of a lone grave enhanced by the vastness of a desert.

I’ve been so involved in this book that I stopped taking notes, I just wanted to drink it all and experience these characters lives as they happen.

I can’t help but wonder about Grace. I mean I get why she turned out the way she did, but we never get to know her, she’s a total mystery like Edith … who never really existed

page 21 of 752 of My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen

Right from the beginning we get a near first-hand account of being in Moscow when either Napoleon or Rostopchin burnt it down.

“He [the eldest brother] was one of those grotesquely odd creatures who are only possible in Russia, where life is so odd as to be grotesque.” And what a character, too. Lawsuits over a wall and a violin, tossing an ikon, terrifying the peasants. Mix of old rough among new culture.

69% done with Stoner

“How you make it sound! Sure, everything you say is fact, but none of it is true. Not the way you say it.”

If we didn’t know Stoner, if he were a character in a novel about, say, Finch, what would we make of the Lomax and Walker incident. How do they interpret life and the people around them – how would they understand Stoner? We get Stoner’s POV, but is he right? Can we always side with his interpretations?

46% done with Stoner

We get one POV shift, Edith gone sexual crazy. The next is her self discovery after her father’s death. Her mirror was flaking off in parts so that she was imperfectly reflected or not reflected at all. Like William she does not know herself. Everything else is his story is from his point of view but it’s like a 1st person narrative written in the 3rd. Detached. This is how he saw (or didn’t) see the world.

36% done with Stoner

What a great entrance for Lomax! He’s like Masters come back out of the French meat grinder as this near rockstar professor with the broken body.

Knowing something through words that could not be put in words.

Their marriage was like “a long truce, a stalemate” = stale mate.

Every time something good is about to happen we get a lot of color imagery, the bad with lack of color, paleness, washed out, winter

25% done with Stoner

They let life lead them around out of their own control. They misread each other all the time.

“He felt a distant closeness to her” distant closeness.

“His words were smothered and he could not hear what he said.”

Did making love cause her to be sick or was it the champagne? Both, perhaps, but it’s supposed to be sadly ambiguous.

Prohibition coming.

Why did Sloan cry with news of the war ending?

13% done with Stoner

So the question is why didn’t he enlist, not only not enlist but sign for exception? He speaks of indifference and he’s also no idealist, however I think he just didn’t want to go. I think he has no meaning in himself unlike in all his books. He isn’t really a fully formed person, and he’s looking for that meaning outside him.

The Story of the Malakand Field Force: Read from August 23 to September 20, 2014

“It was a strange thing, to watch these conspicuous forms toiling up the hillside, dodging this way and that way, as the bullets cut into the earth around them; but with the experience of the previous ten minutes fresh in the memory, pity was not one of the emotions it aroused.”

If I told you I was reading a book about a mountain war in the Swat Valley region of Afghanistan against religious extremists whom no matter how much talent and treasure you throw at them ever seems able to conquer or defeat them and that most of the arms given to any Afghan allies just winds up being used against you at the end of the day, you would be forgiven for thinking I was talking about a contemporary book and not one written over 100 years ago with Winston Churchill as the narrator. And this is what is so striking about the book: that the same war is still going on today.

This book is one of the ultimate examples of there being nothing new under the sun. Literally every single point Winston Churchill makes about his observations about his time in the forward push into the Afghan region at the end of the 19th century can be applied to today’s war in the region. From religious extremism that fuels an endless wave of brave young men to literally throw themselves against the bullets and steel of a vastly more powerful enemy, to the splintered alliances and feuds of the local tribes which everyone takes advantage of to keep them from uniting less they become a truly formidable foe, to the moral dilemmas of burning villages to starve out combatants, or the light years wide gulf between Western values and Eastern Islamic values.

And when I wasn’t shaking my head at the similarity to today’s conflict, I was in awe of the absolute and astounding ignorance and racism that is so idly tossed about by Churchill. Here are an entire population of human beings written off mostly as savages. He makes no bones about this, he sees all these people as less than human. Yes there are exceptions when some of the tribesmen act honorably, but he mentions this not as a matter of course, but almost as if he’s shocked to find an honest man from Afghanistan.

But I’m not going to write this book off as useless because in its ignorance we can learn quit a lot.

This is a work of nationalistic propaganda. Churchill doesn’t even try to hide this fact and he does an excellent job of turning his experiences into the fuel that fires the imaginations and romanticism of young British men to go fight for glory and honor. Everywhere in the book are the brave, stoic, and cheerful British fighting against dangerous odds, but always victorious. Yes some men die, but there is still glory in it all and no young man will be forgotten. And through this propaganda we can begin to understand the propaganda used on the tribesmen themselves. Where Churchill calls men up to the flag out of a sense of duty, the Afghan uses religion as their fire to fight.

Yet he fails to see any real similarity between the two opposing ideologies even when he clearly draws the distinctions. He explains the courage of the young British soldier is rooted in sentiment and even vanity. Yet the tribesmen find courage in religion and their conviction of eternal reward will always be stronger than the abstract constructs of race or military division. The British must invent methods to induce courage; the tribesmen are born with it.

And after all these mountains are their home, they fight and die for their own land whereas the British are, in the grand scheme of things, just trying to maintain a buffer region between British India and Russia. The British couldn’t care less about the Afghans or their history or their struggles. When he muses of the ancient history of the land he remembers Alexander the Great leveling whole great cities that are now completly forgotten. In fact he believes everything in this region, once dead, is forgotten to time. It never occurs to him that the people living her might actually have long memories.

Churchill also fails to understand why the tribesmen are so willing to stand up before all those terrible British guns time after time after time only to be mowed down instantly. He seems to think they are idiots, but what do the tribesmen think? They see a bunch of cowards with guns hiding in trenches and behind stone barriers instead of charging out gloriously onto the field of battle. Where Churchill wonders how the tribesmen could possibly be so ‘savage’ as to mutilate the body of an injured soldier, where he wonders why they only attack when the British retreat, why they only take advantage of weakness, aren’t they wondering just the opposite?

He speaks of the virtue and vitality of military camp life, of no worries for the future, of the memories and friendships formed in the British army, of the good it does the body, and then adds how much everyone wants to go home regardless of these positives. But don’t the tribesmen love the former as much as we the later?

It’s this gulf of understanding that after over 100 years has still not been crossed or even properly surveyed. He believes dealing with the tribes on an individual basis, of utilizing silver over steel (as he puts it), of playing one tribe against the other will pacify them, make them desire comfort and western values. And this has been the policy ever since and it hasn’t had any effect we were hoping for. We fundamentally misunderstand these people because we believe in order and comfort whereas they do not. They live in the most rugged spot on earth, why would they suddenly want comfort and stability? And using them as a buffer against Russia has only exacerbated the issues for us by arming these tribes who then after saying “thank you” use those weapons to fight us. They know they are being taken advantage of and they resent us for it – as they should.

And while we may scoff at the Islamic idea of religious superiority, here in this book, without any political correctness to temper what we still know to be true, is the racist attitude we still hold over these people, what he refers to as “… the prestige of the dominant race “. We may not say so in that language today, but that ancient racism, that terrible misunderstanding and division between cultures is what fuels this fight and will continue to do so for another 100 years.

For as glorious as the battle seems in this book, for all the bravery he writes here and all the moral high-ground he believes he rides his polo ponies on, this is a very sad book. It’s a sad book because it exposes how little we all understand each other, how much hatred and ignorance fuels our imagination just as much as romantic visions of glorious heroism can. There are no winners here.

Eugene Onegin: Read from September 12 to 20, 2014

One of the major undercurrents of classic Russian literature is the exploration of freedom vs. the constraint of society. While this theme is by no means unique to the Russians (or even the Western 19th century), Russia’s society at the time under Tsarists rule was far more restricted, far more smothering, routine, and conservative than most other nations. Perhaps these constraints are why Russian literature has enjoyed such success in and out of that country because the rules of society are well defined and easily learned by the reader and so all a writer must do is create a character who decides to break one (or more) of these rules and they instantly have a story with drama.

I kept thinking about constraints and restrictions during this novel whenever the rhyme scheme was particularly clever or when the main characters would attempt to remove themselves from society: either Eugene whiling away his days in isolation or Tatyana immersing herself in books. The entire structure of the novel, the AbAbCCddEffEgg scheme, never ceases or breaks form – it is, in a sense, Russian society itself: unbending and regimented, yet beautiful in its own way if you can learn to accept the structure. And of course this is where the drama for our heroes derives from, from the desire to break from that structure.

Eugene is bored with everything. Nothing in society interests him because he believes himself to be better than society. He is vain and shallow, he has only a topical knowledge of what’s going on in the world. When he’s given the chance to escape society he’s equally as bored in the country with all the provincial customs and less than cultivated neighbors. His fault is that he’s a combination of banality and self-important individuality. He knows how to play the game, he knows the rhyme scheme of society, but he’s not creative enough to break the rhyme.

Tatyana, too, is apart from society. She spends all her days reading books, but they’re all terrible romances that can teach her nothing about how the world really works. She believes she’s being cultivated by immersing her self in the books of the English at the expense of her own country – a language she can’t even read or write in. She believes she has found something superior to the Russian ways of doing things, when in reality she’s only fooling herself. She is Russian and her fate, like the rhyme scheme, is structured and preordained for her.

In fact everyone in this novel eventually has to settle for what Russian fate has in store for them. Lensky is literally killed by the rules of the game. Tatyana’s mother long ago accepted her lot, her nanny, too, had long ago at the age of 13 been married off. And while their emotions about their lack of control over their fate is complicated (we never really get her nanny’s true feelings about this though I get the suspicion Pushkin was attempting to show the perverse treatment of peasants), when it comes to Olga, we get a character who is more than happy to play within the rules. In fact Olga may be the only happy (or at least happier) character in the story. She knows the game, accepts it, and tries to make the best of it for herself.

And so Eugene and Tatyana are just as doomed as the nanny. They are both forced, one way or another, to abide by the rules, to give up and give in and play the endless game of banal society with its silly rituals and traditions and empty conversation and vapid personalities.

Perhaps this is the best insight we as foreigners can have into how Russian society really thinks. All through Russian history their society has been strongly regimented, either under the Tsars or under communism or now under Putin’s neo-authoritarian control. The Russians always seem to have to contend with the fact that Russia is too large, too powerful, too unforgiving to fight against and that all would be better if you just gave yourself up to the comfort of the controlled society and do the best for yourself within those rules, vapid and insipid as they might be.

And in some ways there is a lot of appeal for living under such structure because you can always know what to expect, there are no surprises and you do not have the stress of having to forge your own path anew as you do in other more democratic countries. The Russian society will provide the rhyme for you, whereas in the West you have to figure out a rhyme for yourself. (as an aside the documentary My Perestroika deals with this loss of comfort from the regimented rules of communism quite wonderfully).

But I don’t believe Pushkin is making the case that a strictly rhymed Russian society is the best, highest, and most noble of options. Eugene and Tatyana are quite miserable in the end for having tried to forge their own path. They both love each other but she will not break the rules anymore and he, through his own vanity and self righteous, has managed to pretty much exile himself from society. They both fought and they both lost.

Pushkin does not offer any solutions but he does clearly show us what is going on in Russia at the time, something nobody else had been capable of doing before. His genius was exposing Russian society for what it was – a regimented, stifling and controlling environment nobody can escape happily – which later writers and artists were able to use as the blueprint for affecting change. After Pushkin came Gogol who in Dead Souls was able to subvert the conception of how landowners used their serf labor, later still was Tolstoy who in Anna Karenina explored many of the same themes to show how little in Russian society had changed, especially for women, but that it was possible to escape by turning back to nature. Dostoyevsky explored how corrupt the society was, how infected man had become with sin and that the only solution was personal revolution – though what he envisioned and what really took place were the exact opposite of what he had hoped for.

Aside from Russia, however, can we learn anything about our own society in our own time – close to 200 years later – from this book? Does Pushkin speak to any universal themes larger than just Russia? While I, as an American, have a wildly different set of experiences than a Russian my same age, I too can relate to the idea of what it means to either take part in the rules of society or be pushed away by them. My culture may be very different, but I must still go along to get along, I must be able to find happiness within the rules or else be miserable because there is no escaping society, not though living in the woods or in books or by travelling abroad. None of us are special enough to not have to take part in society, none of us are better than anyone else. We must all take part in society and the harder we fight against it the more likely we will be doomed by it.

A funny saying these days is ‘Don’t be basic’ which means we acknowledge there is a lowest common denominator to our society but we should always be looking for a way to do better, too.

8% done with Stoner


For the first time in his life he is aware of loneliness. Art is revealing his human condition. He rebels a little against the Foot’s (feet= labor) by demanding his own time. He’s like Adam and Eve who has eaten from the fruit of the tree. He is no longer a beast of burden, but a human being.

He carried around his cap and gown because his education is useless for his old farm life

90% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

“Courage is not only common, but cosmopolitan.”

He explains the courage of the young British soldier to be rooted in sentiment and even vanity. Yet the tribesmen find courage in religion and their conviction of eternal reward will always be stronger than the abstract constructs of race or military division. The British must invent methods to induce courage;the tribesmen are born with it.

71% done with Eugene Onegin

It’s worth noting that so much of this story is about everyone other than Onegin. Even on the morning of the duel he sleeps in, gets ready in a hurry, and then on the first shot kills his rival. He then disappears into the winter.

I love the ode to old age, though bemoaning turning 30 from my POV is laughable, but still. The image of the two trees with roots entwined is beautiful as is the peasant with bast shoes.

57% done with Eugene Onegin

Ch4 Shows how he trivializes the society of young women with their albums and social platitudes, but all he’s doing is drinking wine and growing a little bitter.

Ch5 (and a lot here) can be read parallel with War and Peace for a look at (high) society – so much is identical.

I love her nightmare and how it alludes to Onegin becoming cruel and dancing (all the stomping men’s boots) with her sister. A duel indeed

80% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

He’s got politics on the mind but his ideas are naive and too narrowly focused, though his heart and honor are in the right place.

He speaks with a soldier who had an arm amputated and he wonders what that man’s future will be like, how he’ll get a measly pension, drink the money away, die a pauper. He is angry that the ‘richest nation on earth’ can’t or won’t take care of its soldiers.

History repeating.

38% done with Eugene Onegin

Chapter three works around in he theme of Tatyana not knowing how to love. We get the images of more experienced lovers playing coy with their “prey”, her old nanny who most likely is choosing not to remember her old flames, and how Russian ladies can’t even express themselves in the Russian language

After her letter we get the image of the captured butterfly, the trapped hare, and ends with a cliffhanger. Anxious

24% done with Eugene Onegin

This chapter introduces the other characters, and like Evgenii they too are bored with country life. Vladimir, only 17, is too smart for these country folk, the lady Larina hated it at first but is now old and worn down, Olga would do well in Petersburg, and even Tatyana escapes through books and being pensive all day long. Nobody has any activity worthwhile – Tolstoy would say to go to work in the fields!

16% done with Eugene Onegin

Unlike the characters in Tolstoy whom have a chance to start a new life in the country, Evgenii is bored by the third day with all the hills and trees and lack of streets with shops and balls. Simple living alone will not cure this character. And to be so young and already so bored with all of life’s luxuries!

The language is beautiful – you can feel the pulse of St Petersburg and the snow and the Neva. Fairy tale

The Brothers Karamazov: Read from August 02 to September 10, 2014

I wonder what inspired Dostoyevsky to write this novel? During the trial it is mentioned that there was a woman in St. Petersburg who had given birth and then killed the infant, hiding the little body and then later it was discovered she had done this numerous times. I wonder if, assuming that story is true, Dostoyevsky began to wonder about how difficult it would be to forgive someone like that, to see into their heart and find something good. This novel is, after all, about that very idea, the idea of never being able to know what goodness really lies in another persons heart and how difficult it is, or even how inappropriate it is, to judge anyone, no matter how evil they have been.

The novel ends with a promise, a promise that all the boys and Aloysha will never forget each other, never forget little Ilyusha, and never forget the goodness of their childhood memory together. Even, if later, they grow cynical or do many terrible things, Aloysha asks them to always remember this one good moment in their life because it may save them someday, just as an onion almost saved another sinner. Those small moments of goodness could, at least in the eyes of God, be the one link to salvation for even the most terrible sinner.

The novel also deals with the questions of faith and belief and it is these parts I found most fascinating because Dostoyevsky makes the strongest case I’ve yet heard that counters the scientific arguments of logic and reason. And while I think Dostoyevsky was too hard on science and too opposed to the good science can do for humanity, he does show how logic and reason can absolutely condemn an innocent person. At times I wondered if Dostoyevsky was trying to tell us it would be better just to forgive all criminals and then let God figure it all out later.

And that’s the real issue here: forgiveness. How difficult is it really to forgive someone. Not just any regular sinner either, but a person who has done something horribly terrible. And what sort of world would we live in if we did, in fact, forgive everyone easily? A world where we forgive a terrorist or the rapist of a child? Can we even imagine such things? In the character Smerdyakov we have someone who is cunning and ruthless and who takes advantage of the people around him, but we never really know why he does what he does. Smerdyakov is the closest character to the ‘main villain’, but we never get his own thoughts, we only see him through the eyes of others. He is difficult to forgive because we don’t know him, yet this is exactly they point Dostoyevsky is trying to make: we MUST forgive Smerdyakov, he is in the greatest need of it as Father Zosima alluded to earlier in the novel.

Dostoyevsky is not foolish enough to think that we can always forgive, however. He knows we will always be carried away by our emotions and passions. He knows those passions will lead us to do terrible things and to also condemn others, too. He quite clearly sees the onion layers that make up human interactions, the dual nature of all people who can be both good and bad at the same time. He knows how complicated people really are. But he also plants that seed of doubt in our mind while reading this novel as to if we really are qualified to pass judgment on any person. He wants us to know that nothing is what it seems and even when we are positive we know a person we might very well be wrong about them. He’s showing us the danger of gossip, of judgment, of not walking in another person’s shoes. And he’s also showing us how we are all conflicted, how we ebb and flow between goodness and sin and even how what we perceive in others as sin might actually be virtue as in the case of little Ilyusha and his father, Captain Snegiryov, or even the Grand Inquisitor who though his actions go against God he is actually doing so because he is for God.

Then there is the faith question, the tricky nature of how faith works. Here he shows us that if God himself showed up at our doorstep and said “I am God, here I am”, we would actually doubt the existence of God even more. But the lack of any proof of God, the absence of proof is the very thing that is needed for their to be faith. If we know for certain there is the possibility of salvation at the end of life then what point would life have since that would take away our own free will? We would already know beforehand if we are saved or doomed so why bother going through the motions?

The book even goes so far as to make me want to be a better person. I found myself questioning my own opinions and judgments of others while at work and out and about town. I started wondering what sort of life each person I saw was really living, how good or how bad, what tragedy or joy they were dealing with. I started to wonder if perhaps you could just do away with all the different religions in the world and have everyone read this novel instead.

And even as I write this it does sound rather absurd and I can imagine anyone reading this saying “Well clearly this person has a religious agenda”, but that’s not the case. In fact there is no way I could convince you that I don’t have an agenda because you can’t see into my own heart and know how I really feel about this subject. All I can say is that I was sincerely moved by this novel and that it makes me want to look at the world differently and that I had a better understanding of belief and faith than when I began the novel.

This book is not some “depressing Russian tome”, but aside from its philosophical and theological nature it is a well plotted family novel and murder mystery. Like all of Dostoyevsky’s other works it’s wordy and characters seem to speak in long speeches, but it’s never boring – even when it is. Dostoyevsky also makes a great counter to Tolstoy in that Tolstoy allowed you to see into a character’s mind where Dostoyevsky is always more interested in looking into his heart.

This is a novel of great compassion and is one of my favorite reading experiences I’ve ever had.

98% done with The Brothers Karamazov

So the trial went right into the night, until past 1 am. I’m assuming that’s how it really was in Russia at the time? But then it only took an hour for the jury to reach a verdict. And whose side do you come down on: cold logic or the passionate plea? Wasn’t passion what got everyone in this mess to begin with? So we have to meter our passion, temper it with wisdom.

20 years. He’s lucky it wasn’t death.

96% done with The Brothers Karamazov

Here the defense presents the facts as we, the reader, have learned them and yet even though we know they are true they don’t actually seem very believable against the case the prosecutor made. The truth is nearly unbelievable because it goes against our own common sense.

And so should a person be judged by the accumulation of his sins, by the sheer weight of them, or is each one unique and independent?

76% done with Stoner

The affair with Katherine Driscoll is just heart wrenching. What would I have done? Would I have been as powerless, too? Life just keeps beating him down the way his parents beat the soil of their farm down until they were consumed by it.

I don’t know how many times I’ve thought “if this were a novel than it would have worked out different”, forgetting I am reading a novel. The reality is almost too much.

93% done with The Brothers Karamazov

The speech by the prosecutor is one of those moments in literature where it would be easy to pass it off as a misfire or, more bluntly, a really boring bit. However it is these moments, like the descriptions of the landscape in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the scientific observations of the whale in Moby Dick that encapsulate the whole point of the book. Here it is used to show that logic can’t lead to faith.

And in this proof of his argument is the wonderful description of the condemned man measuring the distance to the gallows and thinking how much time he has to this street and then to that and that it’s not so bad … all the way to the rope. Here there is faith against logic.

So the whole book is about how society (that’s why this is a murder mystery with a court scene) is drifting away from what Father Zosima hoped would be the future of Russia towards the more secular and scientific future of no morality. Dostoyevsky is trying to show that you can’t have faith with reason, that logic and absolute proof can’t lead you towards absolute belief. He is saying belief and truth start from within and can only be seen by ourselves. Nobody else can see our truth because each person’s truth is different – only we know where our heart is (the money bag) and what the truth even if we can’t prove it.

90% done with The Brothers Karamazov

So why does Smerdyakov kill himself (and Fyodor)? We get a lot of talk all through the novel about how Smerdyakov is a terrible person (stinking, as his name suggests), but isn’t he the most in need of pity? The only person who seemed to show him any respect was, ironically, Fyodor (trusted with the money, sent him to school, told him the knocks). Doesn’t his suicide (off-stage, too) show him miserable and lonely?

86% done with The Brothers Karamazov

So then if God or the Devil were to appear to you, wouldn’t that not actually be good enough evidence to prove they exist since the whole point of faith is to do so without proof. Perhaps that’s why Dostoyevsky frames this whole novel around the search for truth because even being able to see the truth soes not mean what you are seeing is, in fact, true (the eyes deceive).

We have to have faith Dmitri is innocent?

83% done with The Brothers Karamazov

Ivan is the one character most plagued by doubt. The story the devil tells him about the nose, about how man missing his nose is free not to be led around by the nose but, in fact, does want to be led around by the nose and is, again in fact, being led around by the nose he doesn’t have is a wonderful analogy. And I just thought of Gogol’s ‘The Nose’.

He both believes and doesn’t. He doesn’t want to commit.

81% done with The Brothers Karamazov

Smerdyakov is endlessly fascinating. He, too sees that Ivan would feel responsible for his fathers death, but unlike Alyosha who tries to calm his conscience, Smerdyakov takes full advantage of him. And, really, isn’t Ivan partially responsible for the murder? He did know something was going to happen and all he had to do was stay to prevent it. Turning your back to a wrong is still a decision to participate.

49% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

Great moment of insanity where at the top of the hill he and the men pretend to order cold drinks from a clean, European waiter and then listen to a peasant name the villages below which they realize the man is just making up the names but it didn’t matter because the made up names are now the official ones. He ponders how often this had been the case all through history.

78% done with The Brothers Karamazov

It is not you. Now how could Alyosha have known Ivan felt himself to be partially guilty for his father’s murder? Did Alyosha have those same feelings, too?

When Dmitri goes on so passionately and eloquently about how he will go to Siberia for ‘all men’, as if he’s a martyr, I didn’t believe him. Everyone loves to talk but they say little and Dmitri kept contradicting himself, ending with the escape to the US plan

43% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

I like he follows up these thoughts of time and empire with the image of the swift river and the camels being drowned and swept down in it.

Great image of the telegraph wire terminating at the shack and him remembering bring at the other end in London in the club with the noise and traffic and cigarette smoke as news just an hour away from this “primitive” land came in.

41% done with The Story of the Malakand Field Force

He wonders if the British will go the way of the Buddhists with no trace of them in time but then hopes it will be at least remembered that they brought in more crops, the death rate was lower, and civilisation had come to the Frontier for a time. But if the Muslims were to vanish they might hope they people would remember they they brought a morality to the Frontier.