Book Review: Crime and Punishment

In short, I maintain that all great people or even people who are slightly uncommon, that is to say capable of producing some new idea, must by nature be criminals–more or less, of course. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they ought not, in fact, to submit to it.

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

My mother grew up in Seoul, South Korea, in the sixties and seventies, in a time when her country was rapidly industrializing and Westernizing. What I heard of her childhood was small snippets or funny family stories that had become embellished over the past thirty, forty years. Still, there was this one summer she always recounts, during which she devoured Agatha Christie novels and literary classics in translation. When I was younger and less prone to reading classics, I remember my mom urging me to read more Dickens and Tolstoy.

The book she recommended above all, though, was Crime and Punishment. Until you’ve read this one, she told me, you haven’t read enough.

Crime and Punishment was the first book I tackled on my brand new Kindle Paperwhite, which afforded me an enjoyable reading experience. Thankfully enough, it was not the first piece of Russian literature I’ve encountered. That honour belongs to Anna Karenina, which I spent a good month lugging around from place to place. And let me tell you, Russian literature is hard to get into. For those of us not so familiar with Russian history, politics, and naming conventions, it is a struggle. In both novels, there is a large cast of characters, many of whom are called three or four different names. It gets confusing, to say the least.

Anyone who knows me well will likely tell you about my interest in crime, which I can’t really explain. Maybe it has something to do with an interest in the extremes of human nature. Whenever I see news reports of murders, especially serial killers, I can’t help but wonder: What are their motivations? How could a human being possibly justify killing another person, let alone tens or hundreds?

I think that’s why Crime and Punishment, despite being written in an era and country not my own, struck a chord with me. To be honest, I thought that the book itself could be unnecessarily convoluted at times, but I kept reading. The justification that Raskolnikov gives for his murder, his theory of mankind, is one of the most horrifyingly logical justifications for murder I have encountered.

In the novel, Raskolnikov’s theory consists of the idea that there are two types of people: the extraordinary, referred to as “Napoleons”, and the ordinary, whom he often calls “lice”. Lice must live within the confines of societal norms and cannot cause harm to others, or hope to achieve anything great. However, Napoleons can, and often must, cause harm to others, including murder, in order to achieve greatness. Greatness often comes from realizing new ideas, unthought of in previous generations. In order to realize these new ideas, Napoleons have to transgress pre-existing boundaries, and transgressing these boundaries implicitly identifies them as criminals.

The duality of human nature is a commonly explored theme in literature, with stories like Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray taking the theme to literal levels. The way that Dostoevsky represents duality was refreshing to me, in that all of the characters were both morally good and bad to certain degrees, often inexplicably so. I found the character of Svidrigailov particularly interesting–that he was implied to be a cold-hearted murderer, but also fronted the money for the children’s orphanage fees. Many of the novel’s characters and plot points can’t necessarily be explained through logic, which I appreciated. It was closer to what I feel real life is like–random.

I loved Raskolnikov’s chaste relationship with Sonia, a young woman driven into prostitution by her family’s poverty, and how they read the Bible together. The existence of such an innocent relationship in a book otherwise filled with horrors was one of my favourite parts, and what makes the book worth reading:

“The candle-end was flickering out in the battered candlestick, dimly lighting up in the poverty-stricken room the murderer and the harlot who had so strangely been reading together the eternal book.”

Whenever I read novels in translation, I can’t help but wonder if I’m getting the same amount of meaning as I would in the original language. But this book is enough of a classic, with universal themes, that I don’t think it matters too much.

YES OR NO?: YES. This book is a classic. That being said, I definitely don’t think it’s for everyone. It is an investment, since it takes a long time to read, and the Russian naming conventions take time to get used to. But if you’re fine with esoteric language and interested in classics in general, I would definitely recommend it.

Book Review: Sputnik Sweetheart

Sputnik Sweetheart

Still, the time I spent with her was more precious than anything. She helped me forget the undertone of loneliness in my life. She expanded the outer edges of my world, helped me draw a deep, soothing breath. Only Sumire could do that for me.

Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami

I remember the first time I encountered Murakami. I was maybe fourteen or fifteen, and I was spending the summer in Seoul visiting relatives. On my uncle’s bookshelf there was a copy of the Korean translation of Kafka on the Shore. The bookshelf was in a room that was my bedroom during my stay.

I remember gliding my fingers over the spine, reading the premise on the back cover, and sliding the book back into place. It sounded intriguing, but I didn’t trust my deteriorating Korean comprehension skills to be able to make sense of it.

Years later, I still haven’t read Kafka on the Shore, in Korean or otherwise, but I have accompanied Murakami’s characters through unexpected phone calls, ear fetishes, encounters with enigmatic, unconventionally attractive women, and many other motifs that reoccur in Murakami’s world.

Those who are not fans of Murakami complain about the overuse of these motifs. “Can’t he do something else? Doesn’t he have any other ideas?” I’ve heard these complaints from acquaintances who enjoyed their first Murakami work, tolerated their second, and had the magic wear off for them by their third.

For me, these motifs make diving back into Murakami like visiting an old friend, albeit a quirky, lonely one who spends more time with books than people. And I would attribute the repetition of the motifs as proof that all these stories exist in a preferable, parallel reality (another of Murakami’s favourite motifs), rather than the author’s lack of new ideas.

I received Sputnik Sweetheart for Christmas, from a close friend who shares my love of Murakami. And, true to form, it contains characters with literary aspirations, pianists, unrequited love, and numerous other Murakami tropes.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I loved Sputnik. At barely 200 pages, it made for a quick read that easily distracted me from the crowded, uncomfortable reality of my morning commutes.

One of the factors that set Sputnik apart for me was the characters. There are only three key players in Sputnik: the narrator, identified only as “K”, Sumire, and Miu. At the surface level, all three are simple reconstructions of the usual Murakami tropes: the introverted protagonist, his quirky love interest, and the mysterious, wealthy older woman.

But as I continued to read on, the characters developed into more than the usual tropes. I’m not sure why, but loneliness and unrequited affections, often part of the pervading atmosphere in Murakami’s world, felt more acute with these three characters than with any other Murakami cast.

K felt lonelier to me than any other Murakami protagonist. In fact, he didn’t even feel like a protagonist. When I was learning about different types of narrators in elementary school, I remember my teacher struggling to come up with an example of a second-person narrator (maybe other than Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby) or simply telling us that there was no such thing as a second-person narrator. For me, K, while not exactly a second-person narrator, certainly felt like a 1.5-person narrator. His story revolves exclusively around Sumire. Unlike many other Murakami protagonists, who seem to be magnets for interesting occurrences and attractive women, once Sumire was removed from K’s life, there was no one else.

Maybe I also felt K’s unrequited feelings for Sumire more acutely because they simply are more unrequited than any other such relationship. K loves and desires Sumire, but Sumire desires no one but Miu, and appears to have no desire for men in general. Yet K remains a faithful friend to Sumire, and acts unselfishly to maintain their relationship, which is, to him, the most important in his life. K’s inherent unselfishness made him, to me, one of the most intriguing Murakami protagonists, despite his otherwise lack of personality.

YES OR NO?: A definite YES. Even as a seasoned reader of Murakami’s work, I was completely invested in Sputnik as I read it. I’d also recommend it as an introduction to Murakami, as the plot and characters are both fairly easy to understand, and it is light on the surrealistic elements, while still familiarizing you with all the usual tropes.

Book Review: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants

With a secret like that, at some point the secret itself becomes irrelevant. The fact that you kept it does not.

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

In late October, the Vancouver Public Library held its annual book sale. I’d never had the chance to stop by in previous years, but this year, I visited the sale twice, and it exceeded my expectations. There were thousands of interesting titles, many in pristine condition, and I managed to pick up three novels, at an unbelievable $0.75 each: Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, and Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants.

Although Water for Elephants was the last book I picked up at the sale, it also happened to be the first one I read, for a simple reason. I do most of my reading commuting to and from work, and the other novels were simply too heavy for me to lug around each day. Water for Elephants is a slim, 331-page paperback, making it the lightest of the bunch, but it was not a quick read like I expected it to be.

Water for Elephants is a dense read, filled with intricately detailed descriptions. Gruen’s narration provides the reader with vivid images of the Great Depression contrasted with the cheap, artificial glitz and glamour of circus life. As any good book should, it provided me with a glimpse into life in that era, with the necessary terminology and background. Luckily enough for the reader, Jacob is unexpectedly thrown into circus life at the beginning of the novel, and I learned circus terminology along with him, making it vastly easier for me.

Despite the circus setting, the narrative is dull, and, to be honest, predictable, although there is somewhat of a plot twist. It’s the age old story of a young man, in this case Jacob, taking a risk by abandoning the life he knew, meeting a beautiful woman married to the wrong man, and falling in love. Marlena, the object of Jacob’s affections, is one of the flattest characters I’ve had to encounter in a long time. She is the beautiful, long-suffering wife of an erratic and violent man, who is mostly demure but a staunch believer in animal rights. She is unfailingly kind and hopes for the best, and there was nothing about her that was unpredictable as a character.

I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of the animals, which isn’t something I encounter in most books, where the animal characters are included more as afterthoughts, scenery, or as plot devices. In Water for Elephants, there is a plethora of animal characters, ranging from the exotic circus animals to the average canine companion. Jacob and Marlena care about the animals deeply, which is what unites them, and as a reader, I was drawn to sympathize with the poorly treated animals more than the poorly developed human characters. That being said, I suppose this isn’t a book for those who aren’t interested in animals.

Much of the dialogue is corny, and the relationship between Jacob and Marlena feels contrived. When I read a book, I tend to carry around a pack of Post-Its with me, to mark passages that I find insightful or prose that I find especially inspiring. In this book, I think I left less than ten Post-Its all together. Although the descriptions of the circus and its performers were intensely detailed and drew me in, the lack of a compelling plot, compelling characters, and just plain good dialogue made this book a lacklustre read for me.

Even August, who I personally thought had the most potential to be an interesting and memorable character, was not given enough time to develop his personality fully. Although I appreciate the attention that Gruen gives to the animals, who are often neglected in other works of fiction, I thought that a little more time could have been spent in fleshing out the human characters, who paled in comparison to their animal companions.

YES OR NO?: YES, but definitely not a strong yes. I didn’t have to fight to finish this book, and I didn’t dislike it or anything, but it was simply unmemorable. If you’re interested in animals or the historical context of the book, I would recommend it, but other than that, it’s not a must-read.

What I read in 2014, and what I hope to read in 2015

I’m happy to say that despite various jobs, schoolwork, and other commitments, I happily surpassed my goal of reading one book a month in 2014. I managed to get through twenty-three titles, mostly novels (with one collection of short stories and one Gladwell pick):

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  2. Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
  3. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
  4. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell
  5. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
  6. A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon
  7. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid
  8. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
  9. Small Island, Andrea Levy
  10. Taipei, Tao Lin
  11. A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin
  12. A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin
  13. Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
  14. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Haruki Murakami
  15. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami
  16. A Wild Sheep Chase, Haruki Murakami
  17. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
  18. Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson
  19. Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart
  20. Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson
  21. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
  22. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  23. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

2014-12-25 01.42.20 1-1It seems strange to end off the year without mentioning Christmas. Happily enough, this Christmas, I received some excellent gifts to fuel my literary interests. Murakami was the author who dominated my year, especially my summer, which was spent poring over tales filled with cats, jazz cafes, solitary protagonists, and surreal happenings. Out of all the books I read in 2014, I would say that Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage was the one that left the biggest impact on me, with its subtle melancholy and not-so-subtle nostalgia. And in 2015, this obsession with Murakami will continue, since one of my friends was kind enough to gift me a copy of Sputnik Sweetheart.

In 2015, though, I hope to get even more reading done, especially with the help of my brand new Kindle Paperwhite, which I received for Christmas. I’d previously been ambivalent about e-readers, preferring the feel of crisp new pages and the simple smell of books to a screen, but after having used my Kindle consecutively for a week, I can definitely see the benefits. The Kindle is so light, a huge plus for people like me who use their long commutes for reading. It also has a very long battery life, and its Vocabulary Builder is too convenient for words (pun not intended). Although I still love the feel of a real book in my hands, I look forward to the new year with my new Kindle.

Happy New Year, and happy reading in the new year!