Readers, Writers and My Great White Whale (Dostoevsky)

I have this idea that a writer should be well read. Writers read. We fall in love with books, stories, characters and ideas. Through books we travel the world. We learn what good writing looks like while experiencing great love stories, horrors, and human achievements. We see the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity, while noticing the skill and craft of the storytellers.
Most writers want to emulate those authors in their craft and reach. We want to explore and expose the things we love and hate, the things we know and don’t understand, the places we have been and those we imagine, the people we have met and dream of meeting, or fear ever being near.
As readers, we want to experience everything, without the risks those experiences entail. And as a writer, we want to conjure up similar experiences for our readers.
So as writers, we read for the joy, but also as a student of the craft. We notice how great writers make things work. Sometimes we can see the trick because we are looking for them. Other times we are just amazed and must reread a passage or a book to try and see what the author did that was so great.
So reading must be the first thing a writer does. Read the good and the bad, because we learn from both. What to do, and what not to do.
Some brilliant authors inspire us and give us the energy to write and write like there is no tomorrow. For me Tolstoy and D.H.Lawrence light my fire. Other writers can demoralize us and send us into a funk. How can I ever hope to write so well? Early Joan Didion and Virginia Woolf do that to me. There are others in both streams.
Read to find which writers are which. Observe and learn from both, and save them for appropriate times.
Hemingway liked to say you had to read the greats, so you knew what you had to beat. Reading the greats sets the bar. High.
So I have a list of great writers and outstanding books I think a writer should read. I have been working through that list for over forty years. Getting a degree in English literature helped, and also exposed me to writers I might have missed, growing my list faster than I could read.
George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ left me in awe. And demoralized. I could never match this. Anton Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ left me laughing out loud, and energized.
And great new modern writers are adding to the canon and my list faster than ever. Cormac McCarthy and Neil Gaiman, Miriam Toews and Anne Tyler, Haruki Murakami and Stephen King. Danielle Steel and EL James. Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz. Every writer should have such a list that never ends.
Read what you might turn your nose up at to see why they are so successful. This summer I read a Colleen Hoover book. I thought it could have been so much better, but also saw what people enjoy in her work. Anyone can write a book that nobody will buy or read.
Read what will stretch you, challenge you, and might be over your head.
But I think there is a list of fifty or so books every writer should have read. Each year, I choose one and tackle it. And so to Dostoevsky. He has always been on my list.
I have tried to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work maybe a half dozen times. Each time I have stalled at about 100 pages. The Idiot. Stalled. Crime and punishment. Stalled. Notes from Underground. Hit a wall. The Brothers Karamazov. Stalled.
So Dostoevsky became my great white whale. (Yes, I have read Moby Dick. You should too.). This summer, I vowed to complete one of his novels. I chose ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ after doing some searches on Google, and asking a few friends for advice.
‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is not an easy book to read. I won’t read it again, unlike say ‘Anna Karenina’ which I have read at least three times, and love.
In keeping with my theme of writing book reviews for writers, my critique is more around the craft and the effect of the book on this reader.
My first complaint is the distance between the reader and the characters. I am a huge fan of close third person. I think this point of view best allows a reader to experience what the characters are thinking, feeling, and wanting. Novels written in close third person allow a reader to immerse into the novel and ‘become’ the character for that scene. First person does this too, but is limited to a single character, as jumping between two or more first person points of view just throws me right out of a story or book.
Tolstoy does this close third person well, and so I expected that from Dostoevsky, but no such luck. In ‘Brothers Karamazov’ there is a third-person narrator telling the story. Each scene is written with a similar voice and the reader is more watching the action than immersing into it.
Dostoevsky also has some ideas he wants to share. Intellectual, political, philosophical, religious. Fair enough, most writers have a strong moral position. We love things, hate things, are enthused and deflated by the world around us, and envision a better world, or a destroyed world, to highlight our beliefs. But the admonition to any new writer is to ‘Show. Don’t tell’. In ‘Brothers Karamazov’ there are long sections of didactic lectures, thinly veiled as conversations. About half way through the novel, I hit ‘Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima’ which went on too long and really didn’t have anything to do with the plot. Today, an editor would take it out. Other scenes went on far too long.
The sort of ‘Hero’ of the novel is Alyosha, which might be why I didn’t love this book. He is milquetoast. The oldest brother Dimitri is wild, passionate and active. The middle brother Ivan is intellectual, a bit aloof, maybe even a snob. They both have romantic relationships that are questionable. And of course the father Fyodor is nothing but passion. How young Alexei/Alyosha can be so removed and so lacking wants and needs to drive him forward left me scratching my head. I still don’t know what he wanted. He came close to something romantic with Lise, but then she was sort of written out of the story. Mistake.
Suddenly. So many writing coaches admonish against adverbs, with good reason. Dostoevsky seems to love ‘suddenly’. Nothing happens in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ but that it happens suddenly. Sometimes the adverb is used three or four times on a single page, such that I started laughing every time I saw it. If my search for the word is right, I count over 1,200 uses. I remember a quote from Mark Twain saying any time you use the word ‘Very’, you should substitute ‘Damn’. Your editor will remove the word, and then it will be right. This should have been edited out.
Right after Dmitri is arrested, the narrative goes off on a tangent about Boys. I felt like any momentum in the plot stalled, and I scratched my head over exactly what the point of that Book Ten was. Somebody tell me.
The trial chapters were painful. The entire book up to that point was replayed in detail. I felt like Dostoevsky was treating readers like school boys. ‘In case you didn’t notice this, here it is again’. Condescending on the part of an author is never a good look. A good rule of thumb is to assume readers are as intelligent as you, the writer.
And for how painfully long the book is, we don’t really learn what happens. We know who killed the father, Fyodor. There is a plan to have Dmitri escape to America, or somewhere. And the brother Ivan is deathly sick. Does Dmitri escape? Does Ivan recover or die? And what does Alyosha do?
And how about Grushenka? I felt she was the one character who might have lit the book up. I saw shades of a Becky Sharpe. But none of the women characters were well developed.
So I can tick the box and say I have read a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The effort was not really worth the reward. But I still have a list of great writers I need to sample. Any suggestions on what should be next?

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September 20, 2023

ISBN 978-1-250-78845-0

Review of ‘A Girl Called Rumi’ by Ari Honarvar

‘Journalists and historians tell us what happened. Artists and novelists show us how it felt’. By this measure, ‘A Girl Called Rumi’ by Ari Honarvar is a success. I felt the stifling fear of post revolution Iran as the reader shares the experiences of young Kimia in 1981. The fascist morality squads chastising, beating and murdering young girls for running down a street or showing a bit of their hair is felt in the gut. The horror of bombs dropping from the sky with air raid sirens wailing had my hair stand up, and the sudden death or disappearance of neighbours and friends as victims of war or the totalitarian state give the reader a sense of the constant dread people lived under. And still do.
Contrasting to the horror is a joyous escape through art, poetry and myth. The strength of family, the wisdom of elders and seers, and the thousand years of Persian culture are all experienced. The story of the Seven Valleys of Love is a beautiful vehicle to share the power of imagination. Does it really happen? Is it magical realism or magical imagination? Either way, it is magical.
I live in North Vancouver where we have a large community of Iranian expats. During the 2022 uprising, I had a conversation with my dental assistant while I waited for some freezing. She told me how her, her mother and children had gotten out of Tehran, but her brother had not. The brother had two teenage children, a son and a daughter, and they lived in fear that one or both would be caught up in the protests and the repression that the regime was inflicting. That story so closely parallels the story of Rumi, Kimia and her brother Arman. I felt queasy reading the story. It is so real and accurate.
A quote by Simone Weil is so appropriate of the Iranian Ayatollah State: ‘There is one, and only one, thing in modern society more hideous than crime, namely, repressive justice.’
Honavar weaves layers of history, Sufism, art, and poetry. I had heard the name Rumi but knew little. Now I know more and have good reason to dig deeper. That such a place as Iran would call to the expats to return is so understandable.
I can picture the Hoopoe birds and the Simorgh. The vibrant colours, the sounds, smells and tastes. The book is a sensory experience well worth the time and effort of reading. Five stars.

Review of ‘A Girl Called Rumi’ by Ari Honarvar

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September 7, 2023

Review of ‘The Simone Weil Handbook’ by Jacqueline Pearson

I had never heard of Simone Weil until I read a book review of ‘The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand and Weil’ by Wolfgang Eilenberger in The Economist magazine.
The comments about Weil piqued my interest. There is a lot to read about her, so I started with this short book by Jacqueline Pearson. It has whet my appetite and I will definitely seek more.

It is a quick, easy read and I recommend it for anyone like me who doesn’t know where to start.
She had such a short, tragic life. That Albert Camus thought so highly of her influenced me. He said in 1950 she was ‘The only great mind of our time’, and had created ‘a body of work whose full impact we can as yet only guess’.
I feel this book opens a door to a wonderful adventure.

Below is a short collection of Weil’s quotes that affected me.
So many wonderful quotes.

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.

When once a certain class of people has been placed by the temporal and spiritual authorities outside the ranks of those whose life has value, then nothing comes more naturally to men than murder.

A hurtful act is the transference to others of the degradation which we bear in ourselves.

All sins are attempts to fill voids.

I am not a Catholic; but I consider the Christian idea, which has its roots in Greek thought and in the course of centuries has nourished all of our European civilization, as something that one cannot renounce without being degraded.

The poison of skepticism becomes, like alcoholism, tuberculosis and some other diseases, much more virulent in a hitherto virgin soil.

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.

Liberty, taking the word in its concrete sense, consists in the ability to choose.

There is one, and only one, thing in modern society more hideous than crime, namely, repressive justice.

I definitely give this book five stars.

Review of ‘The Simone Weil Handbook’ by Jacqueline Pearson
ISBN 9781489125095

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September 5, 2023