The Idiot

Russia, mid-1800s.  When Prince Myshkin returns to his native country, he is young, naive, and not fully recovered from the physical and mental illnesses that had sent him to Switzerland.  A sudden inheritance plunges him headfirst into the Russian aristocracy, and he is unprepared for its gritty reality.  Torn between the woman he loves and the woman he pities, Myshkin must face the world for the first time in his life, to either rise above prejudice or be forever labeled "the idiot".

This was my second Russian lit read, after Eugene Onegin.  I was taking the "History of Russia & the USSR" this fall, so it seemed a good time to read some more Russian lit.  I was drawn to The Idiot, moreover, due to its being Dostoyevsky and because of its "saintly" hero, which, according to the back cover, is the reason why Dostoyevsky wrote it.  Overall, I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.  Recommended?  Not sure.

While not necessarily a saintly hero, Myshkin is certainly a suffering hero. Rogozhin, the psychotic anti-hero, sums it up in one line: "Your compassion is stronger than my love."  Myshkin's life consists of two goals--one, an unrelenting pursuit of happiness and sanity, and two, changing the world through his overwhelming attitude of compassion.  These two forces in his life are sometimes at conflict with each other, especially when his compassion gets the upper hand.

As for being an "idiot", nothing could be farther from the truth.  It's just that Myshkin doesn't use his wits towards dishonesty or evil, like some of the other characters do.

I read Alan Myers's translation, in which Myshkin is often just called "Prince".  I think this is very apt, because Myshkin, to me, represents a kind of fairytale prince, or "Prince Charming", if you will.  There is an almost Cinderella-story going on between him and the deranged Nastasya Filipovna.  Nastasya is a beautiful woman who, as a child, was adopted and abused by a sick, perverted man, Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky.  Society, of course, views Totsky as forgivable and Nastasya as a fallen woman to be despised.  Myshkin is the only one who vows he will always respect her.  He goes further than that--out of pure compassion, he offers to marry her for who she is, in what must be the saddest, most beautiful proposal scene in world literature.

In another sense, Nastasya and Myshkin could be viewed alter-egos of the same character.  They were both middle-class citizens who received large fortunes, they both lived in innocence until hurt by external evil, and they both lost their mental stability after their disturbing experiences.  If there is any difference, then it is in their initial reactions--Nastasya turned to apathy, almost to the point of cruelty, and Myshkin turned to mercy, love, and compassion.

There is a certain amount of social commentary in The Idiot, even in its main characters.  Totsky can be viewed as both a literal and figurative descendant of the serfdom era, in which Russian aristocrats could use their power and wealth to get away with exploiting the serfs.  The Yepanchins, on the other hand, can be viewed as a foil to Totsky--they are a middle class family who, though wary of social norms, are not afraid to associate with people of lower social status.  They are not wealthy, but they are respected; and, unlike Totsky, the Yepanchins represent the then-modern reforms which came about in Russia during the mid-to-late 19th century.

Realism, on the whole, is the very "dominant image" of this book, which is otherwise quite gothic.  The main plot--or subplot, depending on your viewpoint--is Rogozhin's obsession with Nastasya, and its gothic tendencies defy realism even at its ultimate end.  Still, while Rogozhin lives in his own fantasy world, Myshkin's story ends in another cold dose of realism.  There's a scene in which Myshkin, despite his sense of foreboding and his best efforts, accidentally breaks a precious Chinese vase, and, parallel to the vase, he goes on to have a nervous breakdown.  Rogozhin escapes even death, but Myshkin can't escape his own mental imprisonment. 

There is, then, a persistent lack of poetic justice in The Idiot, and I think that is why I was disappointed in the ending.  The book is 600+ pages long, but it didn't seem like anything had been accomplished in the story.  The message is pessimistic and depressing.  Hence, the 4.5 stars.  It kept my attention and gave me a lot to think about, but I'm not sure if it was worthwhile or not.

Thoughts on 'The Idiot'

I am getting very close to finishing this book, and so far, it has been both fascinating and (to my knowledge) truly original.  I have a feeling it's going to end badly--but then again, the plot has not been predictable.  It keeps shifting from scene to scene, focusing on specific characters and their problems, with no continuous plot except the day-to-day life of Prince Myshkin, a very noble character.

There is the common theme of searching: each character is looking for something, and no one has found it yet.  Rogozhin, the anti-hero, is trying to win the love of Nastasya, a mistreated and embittered woman.  She, in turn, is trying to escape from her past and find real happiness.  The middle-aged Yepanchin couple tries (unsuccessfully) to be conventional, and the youngest Yepanchin daughter is looking for independence.  Even Lebedev, a wannabe lawyer, makes it his business to hunt around for gossip. 

And Myshkin?  He searches for stability, peace, and, above all, goodness.  His unfailing, philanthropic love is the source of a lot of his misery, but he doesn't let that stop him.  He stands by his guiding principles and does what he can for others.

The irony of The Idiot is that, of all the characters in the book, Myshkin is the sanest, even though everyone calls him an "idiot."  They live in their own fantasy-worlds; perhaps he only seems different because he survives in his own reality.  He also tries to see the good side of people, but he's not naive.  He knows when a person hates him, and he grieves for them.  There's a powerful scene in which Myshkin goes to visit his would-be murderer, with an unabashed, courageous attitude of humility.  While he does not quite befriend his enemy (or rather, vice-versa), the result is "a soft answer turneth away wrath."  Whether he will again be in danger of losing his life is unknown, but for the time, he comes away a victor through his simple act of goodness.

All in all, I've been way more impressed by this book than by my attempted reading of Crime and Punishment.  Myshkin is 180 degrees different than Raskolnikov (main character in Crime and Punishment), but there is certainly a similar feeling behind both books: the sense of a disjointed, perverse society and how an alienated person reacts to it.  Raskolnikov may be the rule, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't try to be the exception, the Prince Myshkin, if you will.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

...I there became acquainted with a Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. This young gentleman was of an excellent—indeed of an illustrious family, but, by a variety of untoward events, had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it, and he ceased to bestir himself in the world, or to care for the retrieval of his fortunes...Books, indeed, were his sole luxuries, and in Paris these are easily obtained.
This is our mysterious introduction to Charles Auguste Dupin, who stars in a short story trilogy written by Edgar Allan Poe.  A sort of French Sherlock Holmes, Dupin lives reclusively in Paris with apparently no aspirations, except the gaining of knowledge and the solving of puzzles, via probability and logic.  In the first story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the gory murders of a mother and daughter have baffled the Parisian police force; and when the police give up, Dupin must step in and find the killer.

I first read the Dupin stories many years ago and found them, compared to Sherlock Holmes, very boring and difficult to read.  Most likely, it is because Dupin's narrator is no Watson, eager to write a tale of adventure--instead, he is a rather serious-minded person who begins his story with a short lecture.

Fortunately, however, I enjoyed it this time around; and I became an instant fan of Dupin, with his eccentric nocturnal habits and grave, analytical demeanor. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars, subtracting half a star due to the anticlimactic ending.  The murder details are also very Edgar Allan Poe, if you know what I mean...

Nathaniel Hawthorne / Secret Sharer / Hunted Down

The Secret Sharer
by Joseph Conrad
Overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars. 

What would you do if you found out your roommate is a wanted criminal?  This is the narrator's dilemma after he rescues a man, Leggatt, from the ocean and brings him aboard his ship.  The narrator finds that they share not only a similarity in rank, but a similarity in appearance; and this strange coincidence helps influence the narrator's tough decision.

I really enjoyed this short story--the writing style was amazing, as always, and the story itself was more figurative than literal.  Good read.

Hunted Down
by Charles Dickens
Overall rating:  4 out of 5 stars. first impression of those people, founded on face and manner alone, was invariably true.  My mistake was in suffering them to come nearer to me and explain themselves away.
So states Mr Sampson, 'Chief Manager of a Life Assurance Office', who believes in the truth of first impressions.  And one day, he has a particularly bad first-impression--that of Mr Julius Slinkton, a handsome, middle-aged gentleman with his hair "parted straight up the middle".  Even after they strike up an acquaintance, Mr Sampson has ominous premonitions about this man, and fears for the victims of a crime which has or will inevitably occur.

This was a very good mystery short story, written in a style similar to, but somewhat unlike, Dickens's novels.  The style is concise and fast-paced, and the atmosphere is wonderfully eerie.  I only wish that the plot had been a little less predictable and the story a bit longer, more detailed.


Personal Recollections of Nathaniel Hawthorne
by Horatio Bridge
Overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars.  

Just what the title says...a biographical book about Nathaniel Hawthorne, by his college friend, Horatio Bridge.  It focuses on Hawthorne's college years, careers, family life, and personality; and it's written in a respectful, accessible style.  I highly recommend it for anyone who'd like to learn more about him, especially if you're looking for an "eye-witness" type of biography.  It's also an encouraging read for young authors who struggle with self-doubt, like Hawthorne initially did.

Sylvie and Bruno, volume 1

{Note:  I only just found out that Sylvie & Bruno is a two-volume book--I read vol. 1 and thought it was the entire story.  In any case, I'll be reviewing this in two parts, and treat vol. 2 as a sequel.}

Outland: a crazy, fantastical world, where the government is about to be taken over by a conniving official, his wife, and his ferociously unruly son.  It seems the wrong place for Sylvie and her brother, Bruno--two fairy-children whose loyal love keeps them together no matter what.  Meanwhile, real-world character Dr Arthur Forester has fallen in love with Lady Muriel Orme, a lady of sense and cheerful character.  Arthur is hesitant about expressing his feelings; and when the handsome, charismatic Captain Lindon comes to visit, Arthur fears he's lost all chances. 

Lisi Jar
By Leafnode (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno is much like the Alice books, highlighting nonsense and riddles, and featuring children as the main characters.  A unique difference, though, is that Sylvie & Bruno is 1/3 fairy story, 1/3 magic realism, and 1/3 romance.  The setting changes abruptly; and while at first this is confusing, its whimsicality becomes intriguing, pulling you along through quirky plot twists.

The title characters are very extraordinary children.  Sweet and patient Sylvie, who never gets truly angry; and Bruno, whose rambunctiousness is happily equaled by his affection and good-intentions.  Granted, I've never met siblings who were always this sugary sweet, either individually or together; but they are fairies, after all.  ;) 

The narrator (i.e. Carroll) is quite a major character--an elderly gentleman with a tendency towards matchmaking, befriending fairies, and falling asleep at awkward moments.  The romantic subplot, if a bit fast-paced, fit in surprisingly well; and with it, there are some Christian themes mentioned, including a relevant mention of the importance of reverent, non-stagey worship services. 

Now, according to Carroll's preface to vol. 2 and Wikipedia, there is also supposed to be a "Theosophical" basis for the book.  I couldn't say for sure how important it is in the story...I tend to read heavily between-the-lines and if it was there, it was not evident unless you were looking for it.  He seemed to only use it (if ever) in connection with his book's hypothetical idea, "What if fairies were real?"  Of course, I haven't read vol. 2 yet; but vol. 1 seemed suitable reading to me.  And I was pleasantly surprised at the intelligence of the romantic subplot--the characters talked about real issues, not just everyday fluff. 

As serious as these subplots sound, they only form the smaller part of the story--the fairies and nonsense/logic are the book's focus.  One of my favorite parts was the "Outlandish" watch, a time-travelling device.  With this watch, and a neat piece of logic, Carroll solves the Grandfather Paradox...perhaps a bit too logically (à la Mr Spock).  ;)  That chapter also includes the scene with the hunted hare--and yes, I cried.  If you never read this book, I'd recommend the second half of Chapter 21 alone; it's bittersweet, depressing, simple, and profound, all at once. 

I really did think the ending was the end.  But I'm going to read vol. 2 (Sylvie and Bruno Concluded), and would certainly recommend vol. 1 to anybody who values childhood imagination and innocence. 

5 out of 5 stars.

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

Cole Thomas Romantic Landscape with Ruined Tower 1832-36

Thus, I had so long suffered in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among "The Band''---to wit,
The knights who to the Dark Tower's search addressed
Their steps---that just to fail as they, seemed best,
And all the doubt was now---should I be fit?
And with these pessimistic thoughts, the narrator--Childe Roland--sets out on a byway to find the infamous Dark Tower, from which none of his friends ever returned.

This is a very odd poem, to my mind.  Robert Browning quotes a phrase from King Lear and uses it as both the title and the centerpiece, but in the most literal sense--bringing the hero no farther than the Dark Tower.  The imagery is gothic and gory..."Drenched willows flung them headlong in a fit / Of mute despair, a suicidal throng / The river which had done them all the wrong"....."As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair / In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud / Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood".  Unlike Poe's wallowing morbidity, Browning's doom and gloom has a sharper tinge to it--the terror is not buried, but quite alive in the narrator's mind. 

I liked the poem, but not so much as to put it among my favorites.  Roland's dreary, almost fatalistic outlook is difficult to relate to.  He never once seemed to have any hope of survival; he appears to run headlong into danger just for the sake of it.  The other thing I disliked was the brevity of the poem.  It stops just when it's getting good; and it adds to the impression that Roland meets his end, just like all the other knights did.

Is there a message in it?  The note to my editions says:
"Childe Roland" symbolizes the conquest of despair by fealty to the ideal.  Browning emphatically disclaimed any precise allegorical intention in this poem.  He acknowledged only an ideal purport in which the significance of the whole, as suggesting a vision of life and the saving power of constancy, had its due place.
Others' interpretations can be found at Wikipedia.  I prefer the one above, though it didn't present itself as the message, in the poem itself.

Overall rating:  4 out of 5 stars.

Poems / Three Men in a Boat / Through the Magic Door

Poems in Two Volumes
by William Wordsworth  
Overall rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Just what the title says: a (incomplete) collection of poems, by Wordsworth.  Some are narrative, some are world events-inspired, and many deal with nature (particularly flowers).  The Prelude was not included, but the book contained a decent selection, overall. 

Sometimes I just find myself in the mood to read poetry.  If you have these moods, too, then this is a nice, relaxing read.  It's not nonstop epically wonderful, but there are some gems here and there.  Certainly gives you a good sample of Wordsworth's work.       

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) (1889)
by Jerome K. Jerome
Overall rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars.  There is one use of a racist word.  I read a public domain and presumably unedited version, though, so this might be omitted in other editions.

Victorian England.  Looking to get away from the daily grind, three friends--and Montmorency, a fox terrier--spontaneously decide to go on a boating trip, up the river Thames.  "J.", the narrator, alternates between reminiscing about past excursions and describing the present trip, with all its ups-and-downs, incidents, and hilarity. 

This book was a blast--I was sad to come to the end!  The antics of George, Harris, and J. made it both fun and laugh-out-loud funny to read.  From managing their canopy-covered boat, to opening a can of pineapple...the book is a series of hilarious events.  Don't read this in a quiet zone.

Recommended if you enjoy late-Victorian lit and old-fashioned, clever humor.

Through the Magic Door
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars.

Ever wished you could travel back in time and interview the author of Sherlock Holmes?  You can.  This non-fiction book reads like a conversation with Conan Doyle, as he discourses on literature, history, and authors, to be found on his own bookshelf of favorites.  Dr Johnson, Napoleonic wars, boxing heroes, and more--Doyle covers a wide range of topics, including his own thoughts on writing.

Personally, I loved, loved, loved this book.  Conan Doyle writes with such enthusiasm and so conversationally that it's quite a page-turner.  I enjoyed hearing his opinions on other books and authors; and he was very fair about it.  He was really good about naming the pros and cons of others, and he avoided saying too much about his contemporaries.  Also, he never once mentioned his own books (though if you've read Brigadier Gerard or Sherlock Holmes, you'll find a couple of nods toward them).  Finally, he ended by talking about fellow Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson, which I thought was a nice touch.  Great read.

Recommended for fans of Doyle and/or British lit.

The Marble Faun


By Andreas Tille (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Lightmatter colosseum
By Aaron Logan ( and [CC-BY-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

StPetersBasilica Keyhole 2
By AngMoKio (selfmade photo) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Via appia
Kleuske at nl.wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

I went to Rome this summer; Hawthorne was my tour guide.  I saw catacombs, cathedrals, gardens, tombs, fountains, picture galleries, countryside--he described it all, with great detail.  And we met some interesting people, too.

Magnus Selbstbildnis 1827

There was Kenyon, the American sculptor, studying the statuary and working on a portrayal of Cleopatra.  He's a "well-informed" gentleman, with an unfortunate tendency to go off onto long, philosophical discourses whenever he has an opportunity to do so.  It is very like him not to choose a Roman legend as his subject...wherever he is, his truest thoughts seem elsewhere.

Cecile Mendelssohn Bartholdy

They revert often back to Hilda.  She is a New England girl; and she has a gift for copying the classic paintings.  That is how she makes her living in Rome.  Ironically, while capturing perfectly the masters' art and dedicating her life to its study, her own artistic originality is neglected.  In her personal life, she is upright, optimistic, and rather naive.  I find her easy to understand.

Adolf Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel 037

Hilda's friend is a mysterious painter, known only by the name of 'Miriam'.  Nobody knows where she comes from.  She's beautiful and independent, but her life is haunted by a strange acquaintance of hers, who follows her wherever she goes.

And finally, there's Donatello--a cheerful young count, with apparently not a care in the world.  They say he resembles the Faun of Praxiteles, and that, under his curly hair, he has pointed ears.  He fell in love with Miriam and would do anything for her, but he also has a capricious streak in him that is very dangerous. 

NMS Mackie Nymph and Faun detail 1
By photo: Ad Meskens, sculpture Charles Hodge Mackie (Own work) [Attribution, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Marble Faun is very similar to Moby-Dick.  Two-thirds of it is history, sightseeing, and in-depth descriptions.  I felt some pictures would have been helpful in the description department--I've never actually been to Rome, and so I could only picture it vaguely.  In the end, you feel as if you know Rome, inside and out, and simultaneously don't know it at all.

The other 1/3 of the book is one intense story.  You can think of it as a tragedy of star-crossed lovers, or you can think of it as a biblical's both.  Hawthorne's Gothic tone shows up as well, in some very poignant scenes, such as Donatello in the forest, or Kenyon at the carnival.  Altogether, Hawthorne took an epic theme--the Fall of Man--and studied it through the lives of four characters.  The garden of Eden, the temptation, sin, guilt, and punishment are all there. The Marble Faun is often described as fantasy, but I'd hardly call it that--the truth in the book far outweighs the fantasy elements.

Overall, I give it a solid 5 out of 5 stars.  It takes patience.  Sometimes the descriptions were as wearisome as taking a city tour in Converse shoes (just speaking from experience, here).  But the story itself holds so much truth, and moments of genius, that I think it was well-worth reading.  :)

Under Western Eyes

Under Western Eyes (1911)
by Joseph Conrad
Overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars

By his comrades at the St. Petersburg University, Kirylo Sidorovitch Razumov, third year's student in philosophy, was looked upon as a strong nature—an altogether trustworthy man. This, in a country where an opinion may be a legal crime visited by death or sometimes by a fate worse than mere death, meant that he was worthy of being trusted with forbidden opinions.
Forbidden opinions...those are precisely what Razumov wishes to avoid.  An illegitimate son of a Russian nobleman, Razumov lives alone and has no expectations in the world, nothing except what he can earn through persevering work.  Content with his life, he tries to ignore the revolutionists on campus and instead turns his energy towards earning "the silver medal", by which he can better his academic standing.  But one day, he comes home to find an assassin hiding in his rooms, expecting aid in escape.  Razumov's reaction ruins his life as he knows it, and drives him to insanity with his own hatred, fear, and conscience.

At a glance, one would say that Under Western Eyes is about secret agents and the Russian revolution, but taken as a whole, that's not quite the focus of the book.  It is much more a ghost story than a story about revolution.  And the actual, intended point of the book seems to be to portray how Russians and Westerners perceived things--namely life and politics--during the times this was written.  As such, and with the characters' abstract style of speaking, it's not really written for 21st-century readers.  You'd at least have to know the Russian history concerning that time to fully appreciate this illustration; and as of now, I don't know enough about the subject to say whether it's an authentic portrayal or not. 

But intriguing, fascinating?  I'd say so.  As I've mentioned before, nobody writes about psychology/human nature like Conrad; and it's through human nature--something that makes us all related--that he did a great job depicting different viewpoints.

Personally, I could hardly put the book down.  Conrad has the power all writers wish for--of pulling you along breathlessly through the story, even if it's during an excruciatingly long dialogue between two rather boring characters.  His use of phrases, remarks, and word choice to achieve subtle but powerful effects is, I think, at its height here as well.

But to me, the greatest strength of Conrad's style is all condensed in his protagonist, Razumov.  Razumov has the heart of a hero and the head of a villain; he is, in a sense, the worst and best character of the book.  More importantly, he's human.  And not like the self-deceived characters of many novels, whose human-ness is usually unrepentant vice, self-justified and glorified by society.  But rather, Razumov is an honest human; whatever he does, good or bad, he is inwardly honest about it...there's even an ironic sense of honesty in him when he's up to his neck in lies.  His last journal entry (or confession, if you will) has got to contain some of the most brilliant and heartbreaking paragraphs in literature.  Spoiler:  As wretched as he is, I think he's ultimately a hero.  There's that verse about "the wicked shall prosper"; and, sure enough, Razumov had a chance at earthly happiness after all his deceit, hatred, and evil intentions.  But in the end, he chooses to repent.  Again he loses everything; but he accepts his punishment and miserable future.  While other fictional characters would give up, for even lesser reasons, Razumov did the right thing, and that takes real bravery.           

The plot is secondary to everything else in the book, but it's still interesting and rather complex.  The first part follows Razumov, the second and third a young lady named Nathalie Haldin, and the last part ties everything together.  As for the minor characters, half of them are boring and the other half are the ghosts in the ghost story, resulting in some very chilling scenes.  Nobody thinks of Conrad as famous for his characters; but certainly, each one has their own voice and makes an impression on you.

The ending isn't exactly what I'd call a happy one--"pure misery" was my mental note.  Yet it was also strangely excellent.  There was the very good and the very bad, all wound up together in a sort of poetic justice; and it left me convinced that, however depressing it seemed, there couldn't have been a better ending written for it.

Round the Red Lamp

Round the Red Lamp, Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
My overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Round the Red Lamp is not a novel, but a collection of short stories.  Each is somehow connected with doctors and their work, of the late Victorian era; but beyond that, they hold few similarities.  Nostalgia, romance, horror, comedy, science-fiction, realism--the genres vary drastically from story to story, with plots ranging from the heartwarming to the nerve-wracking.  And oftentimes, the reader can only guess at what is Fact and what is Fancy.

The subject of Victorian doctors may sound, at a glance, boring; but I found this book to be a real page-turner and excellent reading (with a couple of exceptions).  I especially loved the "day in the life" stories that seemed firmly based on reality (i.e. "His First Operation", "A Medical Document"), and the hilarious "A False Start", about a young doctor desperate for patients.  "Lot No. 249"--a creepy, Egyptian mummy story set in Oxford--is probably my favorite.  And "A Physiologist's Wife" was another one that stood out to me, such a sad story.

As in the Sherlock Holmes series, Doyle's writing style is particularly powerful in the short story format.  Within a few pages, you can go from disliking a character to liking them; and the action flows naturally, with plenty of witty dialogue and vivid, but efficient, description.  The characters, too, are very life-like, especially for a short story.  I don't know how he does it, but it's genius... 

Recommended for anybody who likes late-Victorian lit.

Eugene Onegin

 "  Noise, laughter, bowing, hurrying mixed,
Gallop, mazurka, waltzing—see!
A pillar by, two aunts betwixt,
Tania, observed by nobody,
Looks upon all with absent gaze
And hates the world's discordant ways.
'Tis noisome to her there: in thought
Again her rural life she sought,
The hamlet, the poor villagers,
The little solitary nook
Where shining runs the tiny brook,
Her garden, and those books of hers,
And the lime alley's twilight dim
Where the first time she met with him. "
Eugene Onegin's portrait by Pushkin

Eugene Onegin
by Alexander Pushkin
Edition:  Oxford World's Classics, paperback
My overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars. 

Bored by the dissipation and drama of his youthful life, Eugene Onegin withdraws from society to his inherited estate in the Russian countryside.  His only friend is Vladimir Lensky, a young, romantic poet who is engaged to Olga Larin.  Her older sister, Tatyana, is a plain, quiet introvert.  She takes more interest in books and the countryside than anything else, until she meets Onegin.  Onegin has shut his heart to true love and second-chances, but Tatyana doesn't know this; and she writes him a spontaneous but sincere love letter, then waits feverishly for his response.

This is one of those books that makes you ask yourself "Why didn't I read this years ago?"  Actually, I only heard about this story via Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin "Polonaise" and "Waltz" (excellent music).  The synopsis sounded great, so I got the most convenient library copy and started it soon after I finished Blithedale.

First of all, the translation--it was a little too contemporary for me (words like "girlfriends", "zen", and the overuse of "modish" were rather irritating).  But it was a good translation, so far as I can tell.

Now, the story.  Well, where to begin?  If popular "doomed love" stories like Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, or Gone With the Wind left you *facepalming* in frustration, then you should give Eugene Onegin a try.  It's got all the drama of those other ones, but it's way more romantic, melancholy, and climactic in general.  The rhythmic, half-mournful, half-humorous poetry (in which the whole book is written) also helped make it a page-turner.  The story itself was very sad, but beautifully written--half fantasy, half realism.  And the ending!  It was one of those climax endings, but it felt realistic and complete.

The two protagonists were pretty flawed, but they were also likeable.  Onegin is the anti-romantic-hero--so disgusted by his previous experiences of love (in reality, just infatuation), that he's converted his emotions to pride, and his life to solitude and idleness.  At the same time, he's a grey character; in his selfishness there are glimpses of goodness, of a "better self", so to speak.  We never get to completely see his better character, though Tatyana seems to.

Pawel Petrowitsch Tschistjakow 001

Tatyana is the real main character.  She is probably the best portrayal of a heroine that a male author ever wrote--her weaknesses, strengths, and personality were brilliantly written and very believable.  When put to the test, she's a strong character who lives by her principles, putting duty and her parent's wishes before her own.  But it's not easy and she's not perfect; half of her is "sense", the other half "sensibility".  She's really a great, three-dimensional character.

Human nature, society's expectations, and virtue make up the triangular conflict of Eugene Onegin; and there's a lot in the story that's open to interpretation, so whether you like it or not may depend on your interpretation.  I was literally thinking about the book for a week afterwards.  It makes you think about life and people's choices; and it actually makes me grateful to live in a modern-day society.  And the book is a "tragic love story", but in some ways, it's also inspiring, because the tragedy isn't the ultimate end.  It doesn't have to be the end; and that was one point in the book that seemed very clear to me.

The Blithedale Romance

The Blithedale Romance
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Edition:  Oxford World's Classics, paperback.
My overall rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

19th century New England.  A group of men and women set out to establish "Blithedale", a community of farmers whose aim is to set an example to the world of their peaceful, profitable, and simpler life.  Blithedale is led by three celebrities:  Miles Coverdale, a poet and the narrator; Hollingsworth, a philanthropist; and the elegant "Zenobia", an author and women's rights advocator.  They are also joined by a strange, timid girl, Priscilla, whose very existence and loving personality changes their lives--or rather, it helps bring to light the true characters of those around her.

This book was not originally on my reading list; I chose it at random at the library, because I'd been wanting to read more Hawthorne and it looked very readable.  I really didn't know what to expect.

As a work of American literature, I think The Blithedale Romance is hugely underrated.  Not only is it easy to read, but it gives some excellent glimpses of American life/culture during Hawthorne's times.  The story, too, reads like a mystery novel, with a great climax and a heartbreaking ending.  Unlike certain other 19th-century American lit, this book is not lofty, verbose, or slow; instead, it's fast-paced, concise, and elegantly readable.

The word  "romance", though relevant also in modern-day meaning, would nowadays translates to "fantasy".  Rather than describing life in detail at Blithedale, Hawthorne simply uses the "community atmosphere", as well as a rather unlikely plot, to make a study of the four main characters.  They certainly make it an interesting read.

Miles Coverdale is a much more participating narrator than one would expect...mostly because he's just plain nosy.  He makes it his business to delve into people's secrets, then he feels all hurt when nobody wants to confide in him (ha!).  He's certainly an unusual narrator and oddly likeable at times. 

Priscilla is a bit of a mystery.  Her personality is simplistic; at first she's likeable, but later on she gets to be irritating. 

Hollingsworth may well be more of a mystery than anybody else.  He's a man who has turned all his devotion to his philanthropic cause, leaving his personal life greatly drained of emotion, humanity, and conscience.  Not cool.

Last but far from least, Zenobia.  She's an anti-heroine, but one can't help but have a little sympathy for her.  Her story is as tragic as any Thomas Hardy book, only more subtle and very poignant.

As for the plot, there's a sort of love rectangle going on, a couple appearances by the enigmatic Professor Westervelt, and some weird magic show subplot that isn't ever explained.  Though ambiguous plots are fun to write, I wish Hawthorne had explained everything more--it's a trifle frustrating.  The ending, too, was sad. One thing I did like about the book, though, was that it reads like a movie or a play--there's a heavy touch of drama and mystery in it.  It would make an excellent costume drama!

Now, I subtracted 1/2 star for some of the plot elements and the fact that the narrator is very annoying at times.  Other than that, it was a good read, and I recommend it!

The Shadow-Line

The Shadow-Line, A Confession
by Joseph Conrad
Edition:  Oxford World's Classics, paperback
My overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars.  Recommended.

A young merchant officer finds his career taking an unforeseen turn, when he is suddenly promoted to becoming captain of his first ship.  What he doesn't know is that its last captain died a deranged man; and the ship's second-in-command, Mr Burns, is still haunted by the memory. And when the voyage starts to go very wrong, the new captain realises he must fight something different than physical hardships, if he is to lead the ship safely to port.

This is the third story by Conrad I've read, and maybe even the best.  It is only about 130 pages long and very readable, but Conrad's signature style--full of eerie atmosphere, eccentric characters, and intense narration--was strong from start to finish.  At the same time, The Shadow-Line has a very youthful narrator with an entirely different "voice" than Marlowe (the narrator of several Conrad books).  Another thing that impressed me was the perfect flow of narration, which covered a lot of time but didn't feel rushed or abrupt.  And he could depict each setting very clearly and poignantly, without wallowing in superfluous description.  I don't agree with everything he says, but Conrad's writing style is pure genius, in my opinion.

This book feels like a portrait of one event in the narrator's life.  The title would confirm this--the "shadow-line" refers to the "line" which a person crosses as they go from youth to "grownup".  This is the overall focus of the book, but unlike similar books, I wonder if there might be something else underlying this story.  There is certainly a strain of mystery--and even ghost story--in the whole thing, especially in the characters--what it is that Captain Giles leaves unsaid, what made the ship's former violinist-captain go crazy (and no, it wasn't the violin-playing, lol), what kind of person the ship's steward really is, etc.  This is the brilliant realism of The Shadow Line...some things we'll never find out.  

Another theme (foreshadowed again by the title) is the power of guilt.  Without describing this subplot, I will say that it's very well-written.  I don't get the impression that the narrator was self-pitying, and he didn't run away from his responsibility. 

I loved the bittersweet ending, too.  Unlike Heart of Darkness, which ends in as much mystery as it began, the ending of Shadow-Line felt complete, and the themes of the story were pretty clearly defined.  So not only being a short, page-turner read, I think The Shadow-Line was a very worthwhile one.

The Master of Ballantrae

The Master of Ballantrae
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Edition:  Dover, paperback
My overall rating:  3.8 out of 5 stars

Charming, conniving, cruel, yet loved by almost all who know him, James Durisdeer is the oldest son of a Scottish nobleman, and destined--as he believes--for a life of fame, success, and power.  Against others' wishes, he leaves his estate and sets out to become a soldier, only to find that his immoral and wasteful lifestyle leads him to ruin.  He takes out his anger on his younger brother, through whom James means to drain the Durisdeer estate of its wealth.

But apart from James, this book is as much about Henry Durie, who is the younger brother and the more responsible of the two.  Like Guy Morville, Gregor Samsa, and Frodo Baggins, Henry is an upright young man with a strong sense of duty, a person whose consistent goodness is just as consistently persecuted by evil.  Unlike saintly Sir Guy and stoic Frodo, however, Henry is more of an average guy, who heart is torn between hatred, brotherly love, and the seeming impossibility of forgiving his enemy.

This was a very strange book, in that its purpose is not easily defined, that the narration and settings vary vastly from one chapter to the next, and, too, for the fact that the ending was rather anticlimactic.  Was Stevenson trying to make a statement, tell a memorable story, and/or portray character traits of people he had met?  I don't know.  I was struck, though, by Henry's love, which (within the realms of his sanity) ultimately overpowered all his suffering and bitterness.  Even James's charisma and tenacity, which made it to the end of the book, can't hold a candle to Henry's noble character.

In summary then, it was a rather depressing book, but in some ways worthwhile.  On the other hand, there was a lot of profanity, and the book wasn't particularly page-turning, so I wouldn't give it a higher rating.