Thursday, September 1, 2016

Book #63 - The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

It took me five long months to finish this latest book on my list.  FIVE months.  That's a long time, even for a middle-aged man with encroaching senility like me.  And so to celebrate completion of this very long, very Russian novel, I'm drinking a rather non-Russian drink, a gin martini.  Now, you might think that if I wanted to commemorate the completion of this Russian classic, I would drink a true Russian drink.  Perhaps a vodka martini, skipping the martini part and just drinking the plain vodka ice cold.  Or maybe sipping on a White Russian, or a Black Russian (does anyone in Russia actually drink those drinks?  I rather suspect not).  But perhaps the gin martini is indeed appropriate, because surprisingly, the martini has appeared in two crucial moments in US/USSR relations.  One came during the Tehran Conference, the first strategy meeting held during World War II between the "Big Three", Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill, in the Soviet Union's embassy in Tehran, Iran from November 28 to December 1, 1943.  In order to help break the ice, Roosevelt, a big gin martini fan, made Stalin his first ever martini.  When FDR asked him how he liked it, Stalin famously replied: “Well, all right. But it is cold on the stomach.” And during the cold war it was President Dwight Eisenhower who introduced Nikita Khrushchev to the drink, causing Khrushchev to remark that the martini was "America's most lethal weapon".  So clearly my justification for drinking one should be apparent.  Sort of.  And if not, what the fuck, it tastes delicious.  This one is made with Tanqueray No. Ten gin, which is a delightful gin, and makes a great martini, in my humble opinion.  I like it much better than "regular" Tanqueray.  Anyway, where was I?  Stalin...FDR...oh yeah, Dostoevsky.

Did I mention that this book took me five months to read?  At 776 pages, that's about 155 pages per month, or about 5 pages per day.  Woah.  You're probably thinking that my brain is totally fried from years of gin and whiskey and daydreaming about Chloe Sevigny, and that my reading skills have naturally decaying into a slow crawl, and thus it would probably take me five months to just read a Chinese restaurant menu,  let alone a dense philosophical Russian novel, but I swear it's not that.  Or is it?  How could I tell if my brain is slowly collapsing in on itself like a black hole?  Argh.  Regardless, this book was a very slow read for me.  Ponderous and heavy and philosophical and laden with meaning, 98% of which probably flew right by me like an F-35 flying full speed past a caterpillar.  I wish some literature professor(s) somewhere would wrote a series of books called "Cliff Notes for Adults" where people like me could go and read about what they had just read and get a good explanation of all the complexities and meanings that are flying right by their overworked and under-trained heads.  Because this book has been called one of the greatest novels ever, if not the greatest, and I feel like much of it, if not most, was lost on me.  Sigh.  My martini is empty.

OK, I just took a break and solved that problem.  Anyway, the plot of the book is about the Karamazov family:  the father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, his three sons, Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, and his illegitimate son Smerdyakov.  Fyodor, the father, is a total decadent and drunken asshole.  But a very wealthy decadent and drunken asshole.  He sired his three legitimate sons from two marriages, but can't seem to remember which son was from which wife.  And frankly, it doesn't really matter because he doesn't give a shit about his sons, and took no part in their upbringing.  He's too busy counting his money, drinking himself silly, and trying to seduce young women (with the help of his money).  One night he got very drunk and sexually assaulted a mentally handicapped woman named Stinking Lizaveta, resulting in the birth of his illegitimate son Smerdyakov, who he keeps around the house as a servant.  And one of the young women he's lusting after is Grushenka, who his son Dimitri is in love with.  As you might imagine, this is a sore spot between the two, to put it mildly.  Fyodor is decadent and disgusting, and no one seems to like him, but what the hell he's rich, so he gets away with a lot.  Until he gets murdered.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Judging from the character and behaviors of Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, you would hardly think the three are brothers.  Dmitri takes after his dad...he's a sensualist, and loves to spend his rubles on the booze and the bitches.  Wooo, if you want to have a good time, then party with Dmitri!  Dmitri is engaged to a woman named Katerina, but he dumps her to pursue Grushenka, who as I mentioned his father is also chasing after.  And Dmitri is in a big fight with his father over his inheritance.  In other words, there's bad blood between Dad and Dmitri.  Real bad.  Early in the novel, Dmitri rushes into his father's house and assaults him, and threatens to come back later and kill him.  I mean, this family put the fun in dysfunctional.  Then there's brother Ivan, the cold-hearted rational intellectual.  Ivan thinks a lot about God and how terrible he is because of all the suffering in the world, and WTF God, that's just not cool.  He's not sure if God is just evil or if there really is no God.  His ideas eventually lead to his father's murder after which he descends into madness.  But again I'm getting ahead of myself.

And then there's the third legitimate son, Alyosha.  If anyone is the hero of this novel it's him.  Alyosha is the exact opposite of his father...loving, kind, devoutly religious, and wise.  He's almost a saint, and in fact when the novel begins he's studying at a monastery with an elder named Zosima to live the life of a monk.  But the wise and saintly Zosima, on his deathbed, commands Alyosha to leave the monastery and live his life out in the real world.  So he does, which certainly makes for a better novel, because otherwise he would just pray and study in the monastery through the whole thing.  Everyone loves Alyosha and recognizes his love and wisdom, and Alyosha loves everyone right back.  Yep, he's definitely the odd one out in this family.

Meanwhile Dmitri, also known as Mitya (everyone in this novel has like eleven different names), is busy trying to scrounge up enough money to run away with Grushenka.  He has some money, but he took this from Katerina who asked him to send it to her sister.  Mitya is wild and crazy and passionate, but at the bottom has a good heart, so he wants to pay Katerina back and not feel like a criminal.  But one night he goes to his father's house, thinking Grushenka is there, but she's not.  He sees his father through the window, and clearly sees Grushenka is not there, so he leaves.  But on the way out, things happen, he clubs his father's servant with a brass pestle, leaves the servant for dead, and takes off.  Next thing you know he's got a bunch of money and is throwing a wild party at an inn where Grushenka and a former lover are hanging out.  Mitya thinks she and her old lover are gonna get back together but no, she declares her love for Mitya and they decide to get married.  WOOO!  Then the police barge in and arrest Mitya for the murder of his father.  Whaa??

Did he do it or not?  Doestoevsky's writing makes it unclear...what exactly happened that night at his father's house?  The murder happens "off camera" and we don't learn about it until the police barge in.  Where did Mitya get the money to throw a wild party at the inn?  But we soon learn he's not guilty.  Then we learn who really did it (spoiler alert: Smerdyakov).  Apparently Smyerdyakov was inspired by Ivan who kept saying that if there's no God then who cares what any of us do because there are no rules, so Smerdyakov kills Pops.  Smerdaykov confesses this to Ivan and then kills himself soon afterwards.  Ivan has a breakdown, no doubt inspired by guilt, and becomes physically ill with fever.  There's a trial and Mitya is found guilty, because frankly it really looks like he did it even though he didn't.  The book ends with Alyosha plotting a way for Mitya to escape to America with Grushenka by paying off some of the guards who will be hauling him off to Siberia.  Does this actually happen?  We don't know because the book ends and Dostoevsky is dead so we can't ask him.

This book was not an easy read.  The first half, in fact, was really slow and ponderous for me.  Then it picks up because, well, MURDER!  And then it slows down again.  The novel is weighty with questions of faith.  What is faith?  What does it mean to have faith, and what does it mean to lack faith?  Alyosha has faith, and truly believes in God, goodness, and love.  And by doing so he inspires others and brings out the best in them.  Ivan, on the other hand, has doubts.  He tries to logically determine whether there's a God or not, and can't do so, which leads him to reject God and religion.  But when explaining this logic to others it leads to the murder of his father, and seemingly to his madness at the end of the novel.  Faith involves a leap into the irrational, Dostoevsky seems to be saying, but by taking this leap the practical results are good for man.  Hmm, recalling my college philosophy class, this reminds me of Kierkegaard, who talks about a leap of faith.  Faith is not rational or logical, which, as a scientist, bothers me a bit.  But in the end Dostoevsky strongly makes the case that faith is better than the lack of it.  Hmm, let me ponder that over another martini...

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Nana (Emile Zola)

Relationships are hard.  Really hard.  And I should know because I recently broke up with my girlfriend.  That was hard too.  I don't know if I did the right thing.  I thought I was when I did it, but now I'm sad and lonely and heartbroken and missing her.  Fuck.  In a lot of ways we were bad for one another but in a lot of ways we were good.  See what I mean?...this shit is hard!  Fuck.

To help drown my abundant sorrows I'm drinking a Tanqueray Bloomsbury Gin martini.  I picked a bottle of this gin up at a local liquor store since I'd never heard of it.  Turns out it's a limited edition gin from Tanqueray, based on a recipe from Charles Tanqueray’s son, Charles Waugh Tanqueray, who took over the family business after his father’s death.  Why the hell couldn't my family have been in the gin business?  Actually it's probably for the best, since if they were I'd probably be dead by now.  Anyway, this martini is quite delicious, but since it's a limited edition I'll probably never see another bottle of this gin again, which is too bad, but fortunately not fatal since there are other gins I love out there.  Are you listening, Hendrick's?

Fuck.  Heartache really sucks.  You'd think the booze would help, but it just makes the pain a little more duller rather than taking it away.  I must keep drinking...

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah, relationships are hard.  And when they end it's even harder.  Everyone gets their heart broken...just listen to popular music...about 75% of the songs are about heartache.  Or at least that's what it seems like to me as I type through my Tanqueray haze.  Hey, that's a good band name, Tanqueray Haze.  Except you'd get sued bigtime by the Diageo Corporation.

But you know who never gets her heart broken, and who instead breaks everyone else's hearts...and wallets?  It's Nana, the main character from Emile Zola's novel of the same name.  This book has sat on my shelf for years, and I finally decided to read it.  Good timing.  Nana takes place in Paris during the Second French Empire (1852-1870).  The novel opens in a Parisian theatre, where a mysterious new star named Nana is appearing in an operetta called The Blonde Venus.  Pre-show publicity has all of Paris talking excitedly about this Nana, but no one knows who she is.  When the 18-year old Nana takes the stage, she's not very good, and the audience is initially disappointed.  But then comes a scene where she appears as Venus, dressed in thin, see-through clothing.  At that point the audience is completely in her power.  Nana is so sexy and her body so perfect that she drives everyone insane with her sexual power.  From that point on she is pursued by many men of Parisian upper class society who want her as their lover.  And Nana is happy to oblige every one of them...for a price.  She is the hoe of all hoes of 19th century Paris.  The only real plot of the novel is how Nana uses and destroys each of the men that pursue her.  The novel is a litany of men who end up financially ruined because they gave all their money to Nana in exchange for sex.  She fucks them, uses them up, and throws them away.  They buy her houses, sell all their land to pay to go to bed with her, spend everything they own.  Then sometimes they kill themselves.  And she laughs when she breaks them.  She's certainly one of the most promiscuous characters I've encountered in literature.  She even has a fellow female prostitute as a lover.  In fact, one of the more funny scenes in the novel is when her current sugar daddy walks in on her having sex with her female friend.  He is appalled until she tells him not to worry, that all women do this to each other and it's just a thing all female friends do...they just never tell men about it.  His response is basically "Huh, OK.  Sorry I didn't know."  This book must have been a very titillating read back when it was written in 1880.  It seems much more modern than that, although it does get rather moralizing towards the end.

Nana is not a very sympathetic character.  Yet she's not totally unredeemed.  She can have this childlike innocence at times, and then this utter ruthlessness and heartlessness at other times.  She's quite emotionally damaged, and while she uses her sexuality to her full advantage I don't think she's evil at heart...she just doesn't think about the damage she's doing to the men who pursue her.  She's more thoughtless than evil.  Her attitude seems to be that it's their choice so why shouldn't she take advantage of them, which she does.  So bankruptcies occur, marriages are ruined, scandal is thrown about everywhere.  And she's an odd contradiction...she's not very smart, but she can be very cunning in her ways of managing to squeeze every last penny out of the men who flock to her.

It's obvious Zola doesn't approve of Nana or of the men who chase after her.  Yet he also seems to understand the incredible power of sex, which is why I think he makes Nana almost a caricature of female sexuality.  Men are like moths to a flame around her.  As I said, this novel seems so modern.  Not so much in the moralizing, but the realization that things haven't changed.  In Nana's time, women like her were called courtesans.  Nowadays they're called sugar babies.  There are websites today where young women can go online in search of sugar who will pay their bills and rent, men who will "spoil" them, in exchange for sexual favors.  This novel makes it clear that's the way it's always been...older men have the money and younger women have the sexuality, and a trade is made one for the other.  Zola didn't approve, and you might not either, but it's part of the human condition and will never end.  Unlike my past relationship.  Sigh.  Time for another martini...rock on, Tanqueray Haze!!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Book #62 - Confessions (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

Tonight I'm sipping on a can of Olympia Beer.  Yep, Olympia a can.  Olympia was once a popular beer in the Pacific Northwest, and in the 1970s Olympia Brewing Company was the 9th largest brewer in the United States.  You can even see Clint Eastwood drinking an Olympia in the movie "Magnum Force".  That's right, classic 1970s cool and manly Clint Eastwood, not the crazy old Clint who talked to a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention.  But then Olympia Beer faded.  Business mistakes were made, and the brewery got bought, then bought again.  Today Olympia is brewed by the Pabst Brewing Company and is hard to find.  And when you find it, like I did, you can enjoy that delicious golden taste, that, um...well, OK, it's kind of a swill beer.  BUT, and it's a big but, this stuff cost me $8 for a 12-pack.  Yeah, sure, I could afford a $15 six-pack of some limited-batch Belgian quadruple IPA, but when I see 12-pack of beer for $8 my inner college student kicks in and I just buy it.  Then I drink the swill and use it as inspiration to type out more swill, which you are now reading.  So be it.  Hold on, time for another can...

Oh yeah, that's delicious.  Well, OK, maybe not delicious, but it's definitely cool and wet.  I put a slice of lime in this one, which helps the taste, plus it prevents scurvy.  Yeah, that's it...I mostly drink this stuff for my health.

And speaking of health, I've been getting what seems like over 1000 e-mails a day, wondering where I am and if I died and if I will ever continue with this blog and my project of reading these 105 books before I die.  And by "what seems like over 1000 e-mails" I actually mean no e-mails.  Regardless, no, I am not dead, and no, I have not given up this blog or on my reading.  Nor have I gotten Alzheimer's or any other brain disease which is preventing me from finishing this project.  Um, at least as far as I know.  Although maybe the Olympia will have this effect...that remains to be determined.  But the reality is that I just haven't read anything on my blog list for quite awhile.  Sometimes you have to put down the classics and just read some crappy stuff for a bit.  You know, to cleanse the palette...which is exactly what this Olympia is doing.  Of course, it's also re-polluting my palette as well.

Anyway, to start out 2016 on a blog-positive note, I got a frenzy of inspiration and plowed through Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Confessions".  Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was a French dude and one of the philosophes, which was the name given to the intellectuals who spearheaded the Enlightenment in the 18th century.  The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that promoted reason and liberty and tolerance, and pushed back against the abuses of religious orthodoxy and absolute monarchy.  That much I knew before reading this book.  But aside from Voltaire's "Candide" (which it turns out was partially written in response to Rousseau's optimism) I'd never read anything by an Enlightenment writer.  This book wasn't a quick read, but I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would.  Indeed, it's one of those books that I almost enjoy more when I think back upon it than when I was first reading it.

Rousseau's "Confessions" is considered the first non-spiritual autobiography.  Augustine wrote his "Confessions" over a thousand years earlier, but that work is more about his religious and spiritual journey (or so I'm told...I haven't read it yet, but it is on my blog list).  Rousseau starts out his confessions with the words "I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself."  And while he doesn't confess as much as a more modern autobiography would, I can imagine that the details he goes into would have shocked the good folk living in the late 1700s.  It's like the equivalent of an 18th century reality show!  For example in the early part of the book he talks about two sexual proclivities of his.  One started when he was about 10 years old, and was boarding with a minister and his wife.  He got into trouble and the wife spanked him, and from then on he seems to have gotten greatly aroused by spanking, especially by older women.  He also as a boy had a penchant for exposing himself to women in public places.  Hehe, whatever turns you on, bro!

One of the fascinating things to me about Rousseau's life story is how different it was growing up in the 1700s than now.  Rousseau's mother died a few days after he was born, and he was raised by his dad until he was 10, when his dad had to flee Geneva (where Rousseau was born) to avoid a lawsuit. At this point, Rousseau's uncle raised him a bit, but then shipped him off to the aforementioned minister's to live for awhile.  At age 13 he apprenticed with an engraver who would beat him, so he ran away and met a Catholic priest who introduced him to a 29 year-old noblewoman Françoise-Louise de Warens.  He ended up living with her on and off (and eventually became her lover), but also wandered around the countryside supporting himself as a servant, as a tutor, or just off of various scams.  I mean the dude just totally bounced around.  There was no high school to college to grad school to job life-path like there is today.  It seems that people, including Rousseau, just had to wing it.  It made me wonder how many other geniuses like him just fell by the wayside because they couldn't figure out how to survive in such a harsh world.  It was also apparent that just knowing someone who could help you went a long way.  It was totally who you knew, who could recommend you to someone else, who knew someone who could help you, etc.  That still matters a lot today, but not as much as back then, I think, when no one had SAT scores or college transcripts to help back them up.

At the age of 31 Rousseau finally got his first "real" job, working as a secretary for the French ambassador to Venice.  Everyone there seems to have recognized his talent and intelligence except for the ambassador, who treated him like shit and stiffed him much of his pay.  He left in disgust after about a year and moved to Paris.  It was here that stuff really started to happen for him.  First, he met his girlfriend and eventual wife Thérèse Levasseur.  Thérèse was an uneducated seamstress, who he ended up knocking up about five times.  When they were born, Rousseau insisted that she give up the babies to an orphanage, which she did.  It's not clear to me why he insisted on this.  He says at various times in the book it's because he couldn't educate them like he wanted, or he wasn't rich enough to raise kids, or he simply didn't want them growing up around Thérèse's family, who frankly sound like a bunch of 18th century Parisian rednecks.  Regardless, the whole giving up his children thing strikes me as a dick move, as it struck some of his contemporaries too, apparently.

It was also in Paris that he met and became good friends with Denis Diderot.  Diderot is a key figure in the Enlightenment, and was the organizer of a huge project called the Encyclopédie.  The Encyclopédie was the world's first encyclopedia, and in it Diderot attempted to write down and systematize all the world's knowledge.  Diderot enlisted many of his fellow Enlightenment intellectuals and writers to write articles for the Encyclopédie, with Rousseau being one of them.  This, along with a winning essay contest entry he wrote about whether science and the arts were morally beneficial, won him widespread fame and regard as a writer.  He also wrote music, and had a successful opera called "The Village Soothsayer" performed in 1752.  Things were looking good for him after his early years of floundering about.

But his lifestyle of an independent writer and intellectual in 18th century France never really got easy.  He seems to have been often been dependent on rich patrons to put him up in nice country houses where he could write and think real hard.  (Side note - it cracks me up that it appears that country houses in those days were located a mile or two outside of town, where today you would probably find strip malls and fast food franchises).  And as his fame magnified and his ideas became more well known, he was persecuted by local authorities everywhere for his writings, which the conservative authorities of the day found shocking and sacrilegious.  His books got burned and warrants were issued for his arrest.  Indeed after the period covered by the "Confessions" (they end in 1765 and Rousseau died in 1778) Rousseau had to flee the continent altogether and go hang out in England for awhile to escape persecution.  But what was even more of a problem was his falling out with various noblemen and noblewomen and patrons and fellow intellectuals.  This was one of the more confusing parts of the "Confessions" for me.  Rousseau has falling outs with a lot of people, including his old buddy Diderot.  Rousseau claimed that Diderot and a mutual friend of theirs, a journalist named Grimm, conspired against him.  To me it seemed like, yeah maybe that happened, but it also seems like Rousseau could be a bit of a prickly character himself, so it made it hard for me to believe one could get the whole story from this book alone.  Rousseau also gets in fights with wealthy patrons.  He seems to have hated the idea of being dependent on anyone, and even declined a pension offer from the king of France just because he wanted to be an independent thinker and his own man.  Admirable, yes, but one does have to play the game to get along.

One other thing that's hard to glean from this book alone is exactly why Rousseau became such a popular figure among the people, and why he was so reviled by the authorities.  For this, I would have to read his other works.  I may do this, but if I do it will be awhile (after all, I have to finish my reading for this blog!).  Alas, I will just have to take this part on faith for the time being.  But regardless, this book was a fascinating look at life in the 1700s, and you really feel like you get to know Rousseau, warts and all.  I only wish he were here, so I could offer him a cold can of Olympia and ask him why the hell he abandoned his kids, as we sat back and watched some soft core spanking porn on Cinemax.  Knowing him as I do from reading this book, I think we'd have a good time...until he tasted the Olympia.