Weekly Assortment 24 – 30 May 2021

Early in the week I gazed into the bathroom mirror and spoke my own name three times. I was wondering if my self would appear. It didn’t. 

My main read last week was Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, which I somewhat neglected so am only a third complete. On the side I pressed on with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, at a leisurely pace, and concluded my re-read of ‘The Poems of Yuri Zhivago’. 

The Poems?

I decided, after finishing Doctor Zhivago at the start of the month, to read one of the cycle of poems that conclude the book per day. My aim was simply for better comprehension than I would have gotten reading twenty-five poems consecutively; I did not know, though, “what I would get from” the poems, if anything, since poetry really is not a strength of mine. 

So what did I “get from” the reading? 

Not a whole lot. There were a few stand-out poems – primarily the religious ones – and several brilliant lines (in keeping with the novel as a whole). Most of the poems, though, did not differ substantially from the others. They do echo well the conclusions, or main themes, of the prose novel preceding them – but they seemed more like a shadow of that awesome book than, as the translators state in their introduction, its “true outcome”. 

I don’t, as a matter of fact, doubt the translators (I’m sure, actually, that they know better). The prose novel does indeed build to these poems; the fictional author (Yuri Zhivago) is engaged in writing them throughout; and the ‘Epilogue’ features characters speaking about the poems in-world. Yet the book, to me, felt complete at the end of the Epilogue and the poems did not re-frame, or re-contextualise, they merely recapped. 

One possibility, a probable one, is that I simply didn’t “get” the poems. Another, that I think also fair, is the inherent difficulty in translating poetry – can poetry really be translated? It is not, I know, necessarily easy to translate prose; but – and I say this with no translation experience whatsoever – poetry must be harder still. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky translated both the prose and poetry of the edition I read: the prose was “better”. Based, of course, only on the reading experience, not the accuracy of the translation, which I am in position to judge. 

I preferred the poems as translated by Christopher Barnes, which I found on the Toronto Slavic Quarterly website. The why is elusive, they just seemed to have a superior flow – which I guess matters as much in poetry as in rap. Also, they rhymed – not that that’s the be all, end all; but Pasternak’s originals rhymed, P&V’s do not. 

And that is all I have to say about the cycle of poems. I’ve probably done them a great injustice. 

Are You Experienced, Father? 

For the past few weeks, The Brothers Karamazov has been a reliable source of humour in my reading. Which fact might surprise some readers averse to classics, or Russians, or Russian classics. It’s funnier than you might expect. 

Typically the humour comes courtesy of the paterfamilias (a word I learned from a Dostoevsky work, quite possibly this one), Fyodor Pavlovich and his, let’s say, irreverent ranting. This week, however, the humour came from a different place entirely, a monk: Father Ferapont. 

Father Ferapont seeks God through suffering. He is a renowned faster, speaks infrequently, and is thus a contrast to some other monks, most notably the Elder Zosima (an important figure in the novel). I also get the impression that Ferapont is viewed by the other monks, including the monastery leaders, as a bit of sacrifice, in that he taking on the more traditional and burdensome display of faith allows the other monks not to – the food he is given by the monastery is described as “an offering”. 

What is the reward for Ferapont’s hardships? The man sees devils! He communes with the Holy Spirit! And the Holispirit (whatever that is)! Surely, then, his mode of Christianity is the correct one…

But there may be something else to these visions than the monk’s devotion. When praised by another monk for his steadfast fasting – “you eat just bread and water, and as much bread as we’d [i.e. the other monks] eat in two days lasts you a whole week” – Ferapont reveals he has another source of food… mushrooms. 

“I can do without their bread, I don’t need it at all, I can go to the forest and live on mushrooms and berries…” 

Mushrooms. ‘Shrooms. Thus, I find myself inclined to believe Ferapont’s visions (and a smidge envious of him, too). That is, I believe he “sees” what he says he does. I completely missed this detail in my first read of the book. Ferapont, though, may be in excellent company: we know well the effects of certain plants, I wonder only: what type was the burning bush? 

No Connection

The Vietnam War explains “Operation Rolling Thunder” lasted for three years, flew around one million flights, and dropped around three-quarters of a million tonnes of explosives on Vietnam. Robert McNamara (U.S. Secretary of Defense, 1961 – 68) reflected some years later that “Rolling Thunder” had been based on a fallacious assumption, namely that the “Viet Cong” would yield to the immense firepower. They didn’t, obviously. 

But that’s just background information. Do you know what I immediately thought when I read “Rolling Thunder”? Bob Dylan and his ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ concert tour. Makes sense, right? The pre-eminent chronicler, in my opinion, of the “Vietnam era”. But… no connection. 

Here’s Dylan explaining: “I was just sitting outside my house one day thinking about a name for this tour, when all of a sudden, I looked into the sky and I heard a boom… Then boom, boom, boom, boom, rolling from west to east. So I figured that should be the name.”  (CBS)

I guess it’s just a coincidence then, but it is a nice little correspondence. Dylan’s a bit of a myth maker too, so maybe he’s lying (I hope it’s not sacrilege to say that). 


When I read, earlier this year, Giles Whittell’s Bridge of Spies, what impressed me most was Whittell’s accounts of the precarious political positions of the leaders (Eisenhower and Khrushchev). Here were two nominally powerful men who seemed unable to meaningfully pursue the outcome (peace) they most wanted. The same thing is in evidence throughout Ward and Burns’ account of Vietnam.

Of particular note are these words from President Johnson (Lyndon, not Andrew): “A man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere. But there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam. There’s not a bit.” 

Despite this inner conflict though, LBJ’s presidency saw a huge increase to US military operations in Vietnam, including the previously mentioned “Rolling Thunder”. The Vietnam War and Bridge of Spies both attest to the fact that world leaders have to appease more than their own consciences: political parties, senates, parliaments, media, voters, etc., all have some effect on outcomes. 

The words LBJ spoke to his daughter Lucy one night, in a clearly ruminative mood, really struck me: “Your daddy may go down in history as having started world war three. You may not wake up tomorrow.” 

It is not only leaders who found themselves conflicted, however. McNamara, mentioned above, eventually came to consider any American involvement in Vietnam a mistake and had privately urged LBJ to “get out” somehow on several occasions. 

Nor were the soldiers, on all sides, without turmoil. The mother of Mogie Croker, a US soldier killed in the war, recalled: We were at dinner one evening… talking in generalities about the war. And [Mogie] said, ‘Of course if I were Vietnamese I probably would be on the side of the Viet Cong.’… I suppose Mogie was relating it to our American Revolution, that he saw their need for their own freedom. But as an American citizen, he also saw the larger picture of trying to prevent Communism.” 

Similarly, an ARVN (South Vietnamese) soldier, remembers coming under fire: “I didn’t want to die for these rotten people using these tactics… What did this have to do with the needs of the people in my village? I was ashamed and disgusted… so, yes, I hid my head and fired at random.

The Vietnam War (the book, that is) began with this statement from the authors: “There is no single truth in war, as this difficult story reminded us at every turn.” Only a third of the way in, I’m already convinced of the truth of this. An American intelligence officer is later quoted: “There were many Vietnam wars… I saw a different war from my friends who were in infantry units…” 

The many Vietnam wars…

So, yes there were many, and I can’t cover them all: I don’t think even Burns and Ward can do that. Here are just a few of those other wars. 

The family of Mogie Croker had their Vietnam war. They chose a burial in Arlington, not local, because, his mother said: “If he were buried near us, I would want to claw the ground to retrieve the warmth of him”. That’s brutal, this is bleak (sorry). 

Le Minh Kue, of North Vietnam, recalled “Even death becomes routine, and we had to live – so even during airstrikes we chitchatted. [In the interest of the revolution, she recalled, young volunteers were asked to observe] Three Delays: Don’t fall in love. Don’t marry. Don’t have children… But in fact… no one waited. Even in such chaotic times we enjoyed moments of peace and beauty.” 

If they had not then, surely, they would have given up the fight. A slight transgression, I do wonder how long people would have kept up the pretense of life stopping because there’s a deadly virus? Le Minh Kue says, we had to live – I’m not pretending to feel what she felt, but that I get. 

The journalists’ wars… 

The Vietnam War is remembered as the first televised war, there were journalists, print and television, aplenty. Seventy-four [American, I think, the book is a little unclear here] journalists and photographers were killed covering the war. Non-combatant status is not much of a shield, bullets and explosives are indiscriminate. 

One journalist, Joe Galloway, was forced to confront whether, not being a shield, non-combatant status was a pledge – and who would be pledged to? The “allies”, the “enemy”, humanity? When he came under fire and was instructed to man a machine gun, Galloway explained his non-combatant status. It was given short shrift: “Ain’t no such thing [as a non-combatant] in these mountains, son.” 

Galloway “settled in behind the machine gun.” I don’t think he can be judged harshly for it, war is a moral confusion. 

Lastly, I want to mention a man who has not been mentioned much in the book (so far): Horst Faas. The sole mention of him came in disturbing circumstances: “[U.S.] Lieutenant Colonel… Emerson… was tough, implacable, and relentless: he once offered a case of whiskey to the first man in his unit to bring him the hacked-off head of an enemy soldier. (When he made good on that promise the photographer Horst Faas immortalized the winner and his grisly trophy.)” 

Indeed. Well, I couldn’t find that photo – I’m not even sure whether “grisly trophy” refers to the whiskey or the head, I could find neither. But I did find Faas’ other photos and they are simply stunning. Vietnam has no shortage of incredible photos, some among the most famous of all time. Below is just one of Faas’, which captures, I think, something mentioned elsewhere in the book: “How can a place like this, so beautiful and enchanting, be at war?” 

The sun breaks through the dense jungle foliage around the embattled town of Binh Gia, 40 miles east of Saigon, in early January 1965, as South Vietnamese troops, apparently joined by U.S. advisers, rest after a cold, damp and tense night of waiting in an ambush position for a Viet Cong attack that didn’t come. One hour later, as the possiblity of an overnight attack by the Viet Cong diasappeared, the troops moved out for another long, hot day hunting the elusive communist guerrillas in the jungles. (AP Photo/Horst Faas) (SOURCE)

At war it was, and I’ll warn you that if you look up Horst Faas’ work it won’t all be pretty. I still encourage you to – there can be a strange beauty in ugliness – just remember it’s a war he’s photographing. (Also, if anyone does know the photo referred to in the passage above – whiskey or head – please let me know). 

On a lighter note… 

How can we end that on a lighter note? Maybe jarringly, maybe not. LBJ, as noted, was conflicted about the war, and tiring of the instability of the Southern Vietnamese government – they were in-fighting as much as they were fighting the North. Johnson wanted results in the war: 

He was interested in “high-sounding words” he told the Vietnamese, he wanted genuine achievements – what they called in Texas “coonskins on the wall.”  

Now, if only LBJ, like me, had watched ‘Archer’ he would have known that idioms don’t always land: 

Archer:  "take a knee"
[Noah:  "that won't translate.  It's like last week when you said..."]
Archer:  "lend me your ears"
[Noah:  "I can't do idioms - sorry"]
Archer:  "you don't change horses in mid…"
[Noah:  "Idiom! Idiom!"]
Archer:  "because your mouth has been writing checks that your butt can't cash" 
[Noah:  "Do you even know what an idiom is?"
Archer:  "colloquial metaphor"] 
(from Archer, ‘Heart of Archness: Part II’) 

Alas, Johnson had not seen ‘Archer’ – whether that had anything to do with ‘Archer’ not existing yet we can only speculate – SO Bui Diem, who heard LBJ’s colloquial metaphor, was left confused: 

“Nobody understood what ‘coonskins’ meant… So people in the Vietnamese delegation asked me, ‘You understand what it is?’ I didn’t and had to ask some Americans to explain it to me.” 

Thanks for Reading! If you made it this far, you’re a champion, this post grew legs and I have no desire to pare it back. 

Feel free to comment below about anything at all, even if it’s only tangentially related to what I’ve written. How has your reading been lately? 

Weekly Assortment 17 – 23 April 2021

Last week I read very little. I finished The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (15 – 17 April) by Douglass himself; and Kevin Macneil’s The Brilliant and Forever (17 – 20 April). Throughout the week I was reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov (see here) and some poems from Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago

I started Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War: An Intimate History (20 April – ) but read only 21 pages. Not for a lack of interest, just a matter of being distracted; I have actually really liked what little I’ve read so far. 

~Written by Himself~

After reading Frederick Douglass’ account of his birth into and escape from American slavery, the importance of the words above becomes clear. When early on, Douglass says “the means of knowing was withheld from me”, he is not referring only to the date of his birth; which, though, he is also referring to. 

Slavery was perpetuated in part, Douglass makes clear, by keeping the slaves ‘ignorant’. His master’s outburst at the idea of Douglass learning to read, suggests to Douglass at a young age that there must be a power in education – and he pursues learning craftily for many years, at great personal risk. Douglass’ drive for freedom was a powerful motivator; consider the willpower required for a – very often – starving youth to save what little real bread he was given to be exchanged with local white boys for a more valuable “bread of knowledge.” 

One book of particular influence, The Columbian Orator, an instructional book on oratory, collecting speeches, dialogues, etc., and, I gather, a popular school text in Douglass’ time. Among its pages Douglass found, ‘Dialogue Between a Master and Slave’ by John Aikin: in it a Slave successfully rebuts his Master’s arguments in defence of slavery, and for his efforts is freed. In addition to equipping Douglass with those arguments against slavery, it also taught him “the power of truth over the the conscience of a slaveholder.” 

Things would not be as easy as in the Dialogue, of course. Douglass’ book was written in explicit response to claims that he, as a former slave, could not possibly be so erudite (as he was). His critics also understood the power of Douglass’ truths, and they, like Douglass’ master before them, feared it. 

Written by HimSelf? 

From the power of truth to the impossibility of it. The Brilliant and Forever completely advocates for a Buddhist worldview, but that’s perfectly fine because it’s a great read that takes little time and will make you feel a little lighter. Anyway at one point a character, Ray – who, by the way, when he looks at people sees their face exactly as it will appear at the very last moment of their life – says:

“See, a book about the self has no meaning in this life wherein the self has no fixed form, no lasting identity. The self being an illusion, autobiography is innately fiction. In any case, it would be tedious to have just one self all the time.” 

Indeed, it would. The highlighted sentence is very similar to ideas I discussed previously regarding The Autobiography of Malcolm X

“Civilising Missions” and Good Ideas

Last week I watched ‘Apocalypse Now’ for the first time since having read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, by which the film was inspired. Coppola’s film takes the basic structure of Conrad’s novella, published in 1899, but sets it in the Vietnam War. It’s such an incredible film. From the very beginning of the film, though, as trees burned to the accompaniment of The Doors’ ‘The End’, I realised a lot of people I know would not have the patience for such a film. They would, at the very least, skip the burning trees, for being “pointless”: and they’d completely miss that ‘Apocalypse Now’ is a visual and auditory experience as much as a narrative. 

One of the dominant ideas of Heart of Darkness is the use of a ‘civilising mission’ to hide less pure motives for, in particular, colonisation. “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.” 

The idea? Perhaps it’s Christianity or democracy. The civilising mission tends to justify what would otherwise be regarded as atrocities, however. Such a ‘civilising mission’ is mentioned in The Vietnam War: An Intimate History with regards to French colonisation of Indochina (i.e. Vietnam): 

“The French claimed they had begun to amass their Indochinese empire simply to protect the Christian faithful and professed always to be undertaking a ‘civilizing mission,’ meant to bring material and cultural benefits to an allegedly benighted people. But their initial motives were less lofty… it provided the bright prospect for fortunes to be made through the exploitation of the land and its people… for the peasants who made up 90 percent of Vietnam’s population, colonial rule provided few benefits.”

While campaigning for the presidency in 1960, the year he won, JFK hinted at his own belief in civilising missions:

“American frontiers are on the Rhine and the Mekong and the Tigris and the Euphrates and the Amazon. There is no place in the world that is not of concern to all of us… We are responsible for the maintenance of freedom all around the world…

While their ‘civilising mission’ was mostly a lie, the ideals of the French did have some effect on the Vietnamese people, as Bui Diem remembered, it ‘sometimes seemed to him that he’d learned “everything” from the French – “their language, their culture. Studying their revolution taught me the difference between being a slave and being a free man.”’

Similarities can be drawn between that and Frederick Douglass’ story. He saw the American ideals of freedom, if fully applied, had much to be desired; likewise, he was inspired by the Christian message, despite the bastardisation of it he saw in the southern states. Slightly further back, the American Revolution itself can be thought of in a similar way, as taking the good ideals of an oppressor to their logical conclusion. Vietnam, Douglass, America, all sought from their oppressors only what their oppressors had promised: freedom. 

Closing Thought

Since this is a book blog, I’ll end with one of the many things The Brilliant and Forever has to say about reading. Literature is a major theme of the book: 

“The value lies in putting literature at the central place in our lives. If we begin with literature and work out from there, we come to know who and what we are. Literature has the same relationship to life that life has to death… The same imaginative impulse that helps us understand life through literature can help us come to terms with, and even appreciate, death.” 

Thanks for reading! 

The Brothers Karamazov, Part I

I’ve been reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov for the second time, to correspond with a read-along hosted by Arti at Ripple Effects. This is the first I’ve done a read along. 

Part I really sets a scene, establishing the primary characters and conflicts; conflicts of people and ideas, and people as ideas. By the end of Part I tensions already seem close to breaking. 

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the head of the Karamazov family, is dead from the very beginning. His “dark and tragic death” happened “exactly 13 years” before the writing of the book. The “author” explains in a superfluous note that this book takes place thirteen years ago, and is the first of a two-volume biography of Alexei Fydorovich Karamazov, of the two volumes it tells the story of the least interest. 

The Brothers Karamazov begins with a promise as to the fate of these two characters. Fydor, the patriarch, will be dead; and Alyosha (Alexei), Fyodor’s third son, will have a good, or great, life ahead of him. The sons of Fyodor, besides Alyosha, are Dmitri (Mitya) and Ivan, and these three comprise the Brothers Karamazov. There is a fourth, honourary, Fyodrovich, however: Smerdyakov. 

The rumours around Smerdyakov’s conception, if true, are truly damning of Fyodor. The boy’s mother was a vulnerable adult, who lived her life on the streets, always barefoot. Fyodor’s outbursts and orations are usually funny, as he has little concern for social conventions. But there are suggestions he wields buffoonery as a shield. Fyodor portrays all emotions convincingly: rage, indignation, meekness, but none are ever truly convincing due to the speed with which he moves between them. 

A drunken slip reveals, perhaps, that Fyodor will take whatever he wants so long as he can get away with it, He pursues bodily pleasure above all else. 

“In the whole of my life, there has never been an ugly woman, that’s my rule![…]For me there’s no such thing as an ugly woman, that alone is half the whole thing[…] Even old maids, even in them one sometimes finds such a thing that one can only marvel[…] The barefoot or ugly ones have to be taken by surprise…”

 Mitya, the eldest son, has a number of disputes with his father; it is this conflict that seems to threaten an imminent resolution, in one way or another by the end of Part I. Mitya pursues pleasure recklessly, wholeheartedly, without the shrewdness of his father; Mitya, however, believes. 

In a supposed attempt to resolve their disputes, Mitya, Fyodor, and the other Karamazovs attend the monastery. There a discussion, one of many (this is Dostoevsky, after all), previously interrupted by Dmitri’s entrance, continues in his presence; his only input into the conversation, on that topic, is described: 

‘“Allow me,” Dmitri suddenly cried unexpectedly, “to be sure I’ve heard correctly: ‘Evildoing should not only be permitted [if Atheism is true] but even should be acknowledged as the most necessary and most intelligent solution for the situation of every godless person’! Is that it, or not?”… “Exactly that.”’ 

Miracles, for Alyosha, follow from faith, which is noteworthy. The topic discussed above is not quite, as my input suggests, if there is no God, but if there is no belief in God; not so much if Atheism is true, as if Atheism is widespread. Without the belief in an eternal scorekeeper, Ivan posits, man would do as he wants. Such a person, could be concerned only with their own ends, affirming Aristotle’s general assessment: 

“…whenever people want to do something and have the power, they do it.” 

When Mitya later speaks with Alyosha he seems on the cusp of a revelation and a decision. He has faith, and from that miracles follow… hopefully. “When I [Mitya] tell you [Aly] to go to father I know what I’m saying: I believe in a miracle… In a miracle of divine Providence. God knows my heart, he sees all my despair. He sees the whole picture. Can he allow horror to happen?

Mitya perceives an injustice in the world, his father is a despicable man and yet happy in himself, and the God in which Mitya believes is just, He can’t allow it to continue. Is Mitya testing his faith, an ultimatum? If his miracle, does not appear then either, God is not real and “everything is permitted”; or God is real and wants a Mitya to follow the course he, theoretically, threatened. God would not allow horror to happen, and perhaps he’s preventing it through me? 

Dante’s Divine Comedy provides a model of Christian values – albeit, a medieval Catholic one, not the Christianity of Dostoevsky’s Russia, it’s a helpful model for thinking about Karamazov’s characters nonetheless. Heaven can only be attained by the proper exercise of both human reason and Christian faith, with the latter being of greater importance. Reason and faith, mind and soul, are preferred to bodily, earthly, pleasures. 

Alyosha, the “hero” of the book, is possessed of reason and faith; and his faith informs his reason, not vice versa. Alyosha is unique in meeting Dante’s standard, entirely. 

Mitya and Fyodor both tend toward earthly pleasure, but differ from each other. Fyodor, despite occasional and probably deliberate appearances, has no faith but is no idiot; his reason is wholly directed to the service of earthly pleasures. Mitya, as mentioned, has faith, but he is impulsive, reason does not rule over his body. 

Dante’s hell is not uniform, sins are punished according to their magnitude, and the geography of hell set out according to sin. The lower one descends into the pit, at the bottom of which the Devil is trapped, the worse the sins punished. A difference, essentially, is drawn between sins of weakness and sins of calculation or malice, the former being less reproachable. If Aly, then, is the “hero”, and the comparison is apt, Fyodor is furthest from him. Mitya is prone only to sinning through weakness, he just can’t help himself. 

Dante’s Heaven permits no Atheist, no matter how “not bad.” Ivan is the good Atheist, for him faith follows miracles, reason rules, and ruling precludes faith. But, if Mitya is having a crisis of faith motivated by the injustice or evil of his father; then Ivan, too, is having a crisis of faith, but motivated by the question of goodness. Despite his assertion that without a belief in God evil would reign, he does not believe it.

Despite his assertion, the matter is not “resolved” in Ivan. It cannot be resolved through the application of reason alone, only by reason informed by Christain faith, in, here, the soul. Ivan seeks evidence of course, he wants the matter resolved within himself “in a positive way.” 

The Elder Zosima, the family’s intended arbiter, who perceived Ivan’s conflict offers him these words:

“Even if it cannot be resolved in a positive way, it will never be resolved in the negative way either — you yourself know this property of your heart, and therein lies the whole of its torment.” 

The “author” who seems to reveal a lot in calling Aly the hero may not be as open as they appear. We do not know the moral stance of the “author”. Why does he recommend Alyosha to us? Would he agree with Dante that Aly is closest to God? Does he agree with Ivan’s claim, and is this book a response to what the “author” perceives as an imminent anarchy, following from the loss of faith among the general populace? 

The “author” shares in common with Fyodor an impregnable mask. His story raises many questions, the “positive” answers to which, it seems, might not be forthcoming. It has to be remembered that our “author” begins in confusion: 

“Being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution.” 

Those, at least, are some thoughts I had on The Brothers Karamazov, thanks for reading: be sure to check out the other posts on Part I on the Ripple Effects blog. Look forward, also, to hearing any thoughts you might have. 

**I’m reading and quoting a Vintage, 2004 paperback. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.** 

Weekly Assortment: 10 – 16 May 2021

Primary reads: The Terror, Dan Simmons (9 – 15 May), Narrative of the Life of…, Frederick Douglass (15 – 17 May)

Side reads: Doctor Zhivago: ‘The Poems of Yuri Zhivago’, Boris Pasternak; The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

This post in fact tends more towards being a series of reflections on Doctor Zhivago than any of the other books just mentioned; they do all, however, make brief appearances. I strongly recommend all of the above, though.

Life is a wedding… 

I continued reading a poem per day from Doctor Zhivago’s conclusion. The highlight this time was poem 11, ‘A Wedding’, which was the only one of the twenty-five that stood out during first and cursory readthrough a couple of weeks ago. The final two verses read:

“For life is only an instant, too, Only the dissolving of ourselves, Like the giving of a gift, Into all the others. Only a wedding that bursts its way Through an open window, Only a song, only a dream, Only a blue-grey pigeon.”

This is an idea at the very heart of the novel. Human lives are brief. But while those short lives last we get to be, we cannot but be, individuals. From the moment our bodies die, our individuality starts to fade. We “leave behind” those who knew us well, and for a time we live in them. Something of us may be passed down further, stories told, but usually not for very long. Before long all that remains of us is the collective. 

And people will be talking about you in the future – they will – but without knowing. They’ll talk about you and me, but reduced – dissolved – to parts of a whole that we call history. You will, no doubt, be regarded as part of “a people” – the way we speak of “Victorians” or “Ancient Romans”, someone will eventually speak of us. We will exist no more to be replaced by the “average life of the time”. That, I think, is how we dissolve into all the others. Beautiful, in its way. 

The trouble with history…

Human history reveals what we are capable of. The trouble is that that ‘are’ is not ‘were’. Every misdeed, every cruelty, in the whole of recorded history and longer still was committed by someone with exactly the same mental apparatus as you, I, are using now to read, write. 

What prompted this thought? It was a line in Frederick Douglass regarding an overseer: “When he whipped, he seemed to do so from a sense of duty, and feared no consequences.” 

A sense of duty, and without fear of consequences? Among the most famous experiments in psychology were those conducted by Milgram on obedience to authority. What prompting would an ordinary person require to administer a massive electric shock to another person? The answer, seemingly, is hardly any. All you have to do is absolve that ordinary person of responsibility for their actions, remove consequences. 

The trouble with human history is that we are all Nazis, overseers, witch hunters, and… well, just pick a human cruelty, you could do it. The point, of course, is not to be bleak, but to be vigilant; every coin has two sides (even those trick ones). The beauty of human history is that we are all Schindlers, all abolitionists, suffragettes, etc… 

“No Man Makes History”

I may as well stick with the theme, get this dark history out of my system now lest it cast its shadow over future posts (though, I make no promise to avoid it in the future either). The line above, no man makes history, is from Doctor Zhivago. History, Yuri Zhivago believes, is more akin to the vegetable kingdom than anything else – but I’m not going to get into that for now. 

Rather, I mentioned last week, that superstition played an important role in Dan Simmons’ The Terror – in particular the incipient threat that exists to those labelled a ‘Jonah’ by the crew of a ship. That incipient threat comes not from the fact of superstitions per se, but because, in Simmons’ words: 

“A mob is a brainless thing.” 

The mob as a unit, of course, has no brain. But the effect of a mob is also to render its members, if only temporarily, brainless too. No man makes history, the mob makes history – and no man controls the mob. It would be appropriate to mention Stalin here, but since I’ve mentioned Milgram and the Nazis above, I’m going to use Hitler. 

We operate our lives on fictions, which nonetheless have real consequences, and when enough people believe in those fictions, we consider them real. “The Jews” are such a fiction; “The Germans” too; Hitler, real; “Nazism” fiction. Of course, I’m sure you understand, my point is not that these things aren’t real, merely that they aren’t real. What is “real” both in the moment and in recollection is determined, largely, by the mob. What if every German soldier had said, “no, I don’t believe these stories”? 

That, of course, makes it sound simple, it’s not. The mob, once started, is not just dangerous to outsiders. As the mob, so society. Each person within the mob knows their own mind and the “mind of the mob” (if you’ll excuse the notion of the mob having a mind but not a brain, the “mind of the mob” might be thought an analogous to a creed, the tenets of Nazism for example, to stay on topic). No person within the mob, however, knows the mind of anyone else within it.

The mob member must initially assume that the other people there subscribe to the “mind”, that they believe the this or that for which the mob has gathered. The individual member of the mob, knowing what we know of the potential volatility of mobs, might hesitate to express a view other than that of the “mind”. 


Dissolving into all the others. The people on this imagined division of land, so many rotations of the earth around the sun ago, in honour of that imagined division of land, robbed people of that instant, that blue-grey pigeon that is life, that is all we get. 

But history is automatic, our interactions with each other are automatic. A chemical reaction. Things just happen. I read earlier this year, a book by Richard Dawkins’ Magic of Reality, in which he explained why it’s good practice to think like nature is sentient, and to act consistently with your thinking: 

“Our ancestors spent much time in mortal danger from lions [etc.], so it made sense to take a suspicious… view of the world… and to assume that everything was out to get him, a deliberate agent scheming to kill him.”

Dawkins puts it in evolutionary terms, explaining ‘scheming’ is not the right word (nor, surely are ‘deliberate’ or ‘agent’):

“There are enemies out there, shaped by natural selection to behave as though they were scheming to kill me. The world is not neutral and indifferent to my welfare. The world is out to get me.”

There seems little reason, however, to suppose that the above description applies to everything in nature but us. In other words, “deliberate” “scheming” and “agent” are misapplied to us. Our function – not purpose, automatic remember -, is to experience not to control, we are a product of senses. Boris Pasternak wrote: 

“Our perceptions are subjective… sounds and colours we perceive in nature correspond to something else, namely, the objective vibrations of sound and light waves. I argued that this subjectivity was not the attribute of an individual human being, but was of a generic quality, that it was the subjectivity of the human world and of all mankind.”

We humans are, generally, equipped with the same sensory equipment, we have a standard range of vision, for example; we expect that, with perhaps subtle variation, fish tastes like fish. We are equipped with fairly standardised hearing ranges, and are capable of the reliable production of certain sounds made with tongue and vocal cords (and air). We can communicate our experiences as people through art, and – we all think at least – explicitly through language. Our function is to experience. 

The automatic predator moves in cunning ways, why suppose – without explanation – our cunning is anything different from the predators? We are a sensory based consciousness, though, and observe what we are doing. We use language to communicate a narrative to ourselves, we name things, we name other animate beings, we categorise things, trees, fish, Republicans, republicans, Italians. 

We categorise ourselves on the basis of what we have observed our human animal selves doing, on what we have experienced. To categorise ourselves we use the same language, or languages, that we use to communicate with the others; which language, of course, we learned from the others. We categorise ourselves on the basis of the stories we tell ourselves. 

The stories we tell ourselves are descriptions of our interactions with the world. This crowd of animals is responding to particular vocal sounds, my story is matching their story. I am their story! Brief, brief. As Chaplin said, “dictators die” and “so long as men die liberty will never perish.” 

Pasternak says the same thing. I do, too. It can’t last because the story isn’t good enough, in human terms. Nor can it last, since it is a poor survival strategy for the human animal. The story and the strategy are the same, of course. We observe, with amazing perspicacity, that when we don’t make our imaginary land divisions fight each other, that less of the people on our territory die. Indeed, we are at less risk of dying. It works, obviously, during “peacetime” – it is safer not to attack your neighbour, it is safer for your neighbour not to attack you


Is always important. I really enjoy the way Fyodor Pavlovich in The Brothers Karamazov misapplies religious ideas in his tirades. The particular highlight was his defence of Grushenka, a woman of ill repute: 

“What shame? This ‘creature’, this ‘woman of bad behavior’ is perhaps holier than all of you, gentlemen soul-saving hieromonks! [Oh, yes, there are monks with him] Maybe she fell in her youth, being influenced by her environment, but she has ‘loved much,’ and even Christ forgave her who loved much…” 

That isn’t obviously what the scripture “means”, as one of those present, Father Iosif, points out, “Christ did not forgive that kind of love…” BUT! I say, Father Iosif erred and erred entirely. If Christ was a man at all, and not just a story, then he was nothing more than an animal who told a good story, to a crowd ready to hear it. What was his story? “Be excellent to each other”. Therefore, I think he would have forgiven her, isn’t that his main thing? 

Why be excellent to each other? Because it is the most effective survival strategy. It’s the neighbour scenario above. Life is an instant, and the most effective way of making that instant last longer – and we are, after all, “survival machines” -, so evidence suggests, is cooperation with our neighbours.

But “we” are not ultimately in charge of those survival decisions, we merely experience them, we add them to the narrative of us, the catalogue of our experience. We share experiences with the others like us, both in the moment proximity and later through language (or some other mode of expression). Consider, too, we share methods of having better experiences with one another (co-operation), not just in the sense of ‘here’s what you should do’ but also ‘here’s how you should think’. Our function is to experience, our body enjoys the feeling of pleasure. 

We are Pavlov’s Dogs but we know what ‘bell’ “means” – or rather we’re all agreed that a bell is what ‘a bell’ means; and we have many bells. ‘Here’s how you should think’ means this is which bells are the best. 

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you have any.

Weekly Assortment 3 – 9 May

My main read last week was Aristotle’s Politics (1 – 9 May). I was surprised by how enjoyable the Politics was, and some credit is probably due to the translators for that. As ever, I won’t be discussing the main ideas in this post. Here, instead, are some random things that interested me. 

Plato’s ideas are critiqued frequently in  the Politics. Never more entertainingly, I thought, than here: 

“It is strange, too, that Plato should draw an analogy from the animal world in order to prove that women should follow the same pursuits as men. Animals do not have households to manage.”

In many respects Aristotle was a very wise man. His recommendations for an infant’s diet are still used today: “it is evident that a diet abounding in milk is best suited to the physical development of children; and the less wine they are given the better”. 

He talks quite extensively about children, particularly their education. Essentials include reading, writing, drawing, gymnastics and maybe music. Definitely music; but only to a degree that enables the child to listen well to music. “We may add that if children are to be made to work away at musical performances, they ought equally to be made to work at the business of cooking – which is absurd.” Nothing approaching the complexity, that is, of professional performers – they weren’t well thought of in Aristotle’s day. 

Also, not a fan of the menial task (like cooking) is Aristotle. How much laziness factored into his justifications of slavery we can only guess. But I think “absurd” is a bit of a stretch – early cooking, with appropriate supervision, actually sounds like a pretty good idea. As, obviously, does having them work away at musical performances, despite the initial pains that route offers. 

I enjoyed this fragment of poetry that Aristotle shared: “Those who have loved exceedingly can hate / As much as they have loved.” Turning to the endnotes I discovered the poet’s identity is unknown, Aristotle attributes it to “another…one of our poets”. 

I recently mentioned that the idea that war is good for productivity, so to speak, has been recurring in what I’ve been reading. Aristotle points out a similar fact: “Although in most cities, most of the laws are only a miscellaneous heap of legislation, when they are directed, in any degree, to a single object, that object is always conquest.” At least, over time, we humans have been relatively consistent. 

That’s enough from Aristotle, each day last week I also read a separate poem from “The Poems of Doctor Yuri Zhivago”. I’d say the highlight was in poem 2, ‘March’. The author(s)* reminds us that good things can emerge from shit, describing “dung” as “the lifegiver and culprit of it all.” In a translation by Christopher Barnes it is “the source and author of this life force”. 

I have also been reading a section of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov each day, usually just a chapter of a few pages. It is a Herculean task not to read more; I’ve never read a book at such a pace. So far it’s good. Rather than talk about any substance of the book, I’m going to share something from the endnotes. Since idioms don’t translate (well, sometimes) the translators of Karamazov* substituted “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” in the text.” 

Dostoevsky’s original idiom was “Don’t take your ordo [monastic rule] to another monastery.” Now we all have a new idiom!

I started Dan Simmons’ historical horror novel, The Terror late last week, Sunday. I’ve now read around a third and so far think it’s great. Apropos to how little time I spent with it last week, though, I’ll be brief about it here. 

Sailors are a superstitious lot, so it’s said – and superstition seems an important theme in The Terror. I’ll probably mention that more in next week’s post. The most interesting instance has been the sailor notion of a ‘Jonah’. A person believed to bring misfortune to the ship. Referring, of course, to the biblical prophet. 

It’s also a great, if fairly standard, horror set up. Anyone can easily imagine the precarious position a “Jonah” would be in, if blamed for sufficiently bad circumstances, by a sufficiently excited crowd. It provides the story with “human horror” in addition to the fantastical monster and I like that it has both. 

“Human horror” I often consider to be more impactful in the moment than anything, no matter how gruesome, committed by a monster. The “monster” of course can be very effective; but I’d say it’s less immediate, because an effective “monster” is symbolic. 

Thanks for reading! 

  • Politics, Aristotle, tr. Barker & Stalley (Oxford World’s Classics, 2009)
  • Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky (1957, Vintage, 2011)
  • The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky (1880, Vintage, 2004)
  • The Terror, Dan Simmons (2007, Transworld Digital)

Reviews: April 2021

I had my most reading productive month of the year so far with April. Finishing five books, and nearly finishing a sixth. I’m glad I didn’t finish that sixth, Doctor Zhivago, until May 1st, because it would have been difficult to decide between that and my other book of the month which was…

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

What can I say about East of Eden? It had me gripped more fully than any book has for a long time, which isn’t to say that what I’ve been reading hasn’t been great, only that East of Eden is something else. Steinbeck uses this story to address the fundamental question of good and evil: is it merely a matter of fate, are the evil just born that way? It’s a question that, though ancient, must have had a newfound freshness – it was not, after all, too long since the world had been given a new personification of evil, one that remains unrivalled in the public consciousness to this day. 

Every character is manipulated by the author to make some point toward that central question and in that way are mere pawns. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, it is the characters that are the main attraction; they are all clearly defined and easy to care about. Steinbeck’s treatment of certain characters is surprising considering when he was writing. Lee, a Chinese servant introduced speaking pidgin English is revealed to be a highly capable philosopher, among other things, and his sub-plot sees him dealing with belonging to two worlds (Chinese and American) and thus, to a degree, neither. 

The majority of Steinbeck’s women are portrayed as suits the times: as mothers, wives, daughters etc. Despite adhering to this tradition, the work seems to critique the state of affairs, acknowledging that it is a state of affairs that ignores the individuality, even the internal world, of those women. Further departing from the tradition is the fact that East of Eden’s embodiment of evil is a woman. Cathy Ames has all the traits that we, today, would instantly call psychopathy, and it is the narrator’s opinion that Cathy was just born wrong. We don’t have to agree with him, however: we can ask whether Cathy’s limited options in the “normal” way of life, as lived by all the other women, led her down the path the narrator calls “evil”. 

Whether Steinbeck is describing nature, giving opinions on the times and progress, or making his characters engage in lengthy philosophical discussions a la Dostoevsky, it is always beautifully written. By the end of the novel it feels as if every question in life has been addressed, in some way; and whether one agrees with the book’s conclusion on the fundamental questions, it’s easy to lose oneself in the argument. I know there must be people who do not like this book, because there are people who don’t like every book; I simply can’t imagine how or why

(Goodreads rating: 5 Stars)

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

Rubenhold’s closing remarks are to the effect that the women killed by Jack the Ripper need to be viewed as individuals. But as much as The Five is a biography of five individuals, it is a social history of many. Despite unique beginnings, the five all ended up meeting the same fates, even before their deaths. The ways they got there were different in the particulars but similar: drink, divorce, grief, shame, all usually played a role. 

A conclusion, obvious from the facts presented by Rubenhold, is that the Ripper was not killing prostitutes but vulnerable women. Vulnerable because invisible, “fallen women”. They were, therefore, “just five women”, they could have been any five others, and there were many others available. Rubenhold brilliantly articulates the world that the five inhabit it as they lived it, while always contrasting it with the way it was presented by the media and, therefore, how it was seen by the upper classes. 

The press are a particular presence in the book. The number of journalists increased massively during the murders, tabloids took advantage and sacrificed accuracy for sensation. Since the five were prostitutes in the media, they were prostitutes in the public imagination, and the image stuck. 

It’s a completely engaging read. 

(Goodreads rating: 4 Stars)

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky

Manufacturing Consent is an interesting read. Chomsky and Herman propose a framework for understanding the U.S. mass media (which at the time included television, newspapers, and radio), a ‘propaganda model’. 

The first chapters set out this model, which sees the “raw material” of news (i.e. what actually happened) pass through a series of five “filters” before publication. The effect being that the media – as a result of free market forces, rather than conspiracy as we might immediately think of hearing propaganda – does not publish news that would be detrimental to “special interests”. The chief “special interest” is the state itself, the image of America as the bastion of freedom, the spreader of democracy.

It’s a convincing model, and those who are interested only in the model can really get away with reading the first two chapters alone. The remainder of the book is evidence in support of the model, Chomsky & Herman draw on reporting from a number of cold war events – most prominently the Indochina Wars: Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia. The evidence paints an unrelentingly bleak image of the media, to say nothing of the U.S. government; and there is a lot of it, it can become a bit repetitive and overwhelming. 

It feels a little quaint that the authors should go to such lengths to convince us of something that the modern reader is perfectly primed to accept. Yes, the media serves interests, on all sides. We all know that, don’t we? Even still the conclusions here are damning: the U.S. media completely failed to question the narrative of the American government, despite evidence being readily attainable (through, y’know, journalism) and despite conflicting accounts being reported abroad, by America’s allies! They were subservient to “official narrative” to a degree that exceeded even what the proposed ‘propaganda model’ would predict. 

I do recommend reading this one; but I definitely think that, especially if you have little to no interest in the cold war, that only the first couple of chapters are essential reading. A page-turner this is not, but the ideas are definitely worth knowing. 

(Goodreads rating: 4 Stars)

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

I’m not squeamish; I didn’t want to cry or vomit; but as an ardent advocate for the “John Wick Defence”*, Call of the Wild was an unpleasant read. At the very start Buck, the St Bernard mix, is dognapped, brutally beaten into submission and carted off to the snowy Yukon territory. There he is forced to work as part of a team of sled dogs, and like the rest of the dogs, reconnects with his primordial roots (i.e. before dogs were domesticated).

I don’t really know what to make of it. It’s beautifully written and London does make some interesting observations….

“Death, as a cessation of movement, as a passing out and away from the lives of the living, he [Buck] knew…”

“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.”

The lyricism of London’s writing aside, however, I can’t think of much else to recommend Call of the Wild. Whether Buck is taken at face value – as a dog – or as analogy – a human – I disagree with London’s premise that either of those things would be happier in their primitive settings. The latter, first, I think is quite simply absurd – society, as I see it, as I understand it, does not necessarily diminish what its means to be a person, an individual; humans are the social animal, to be a human in the absence of others, is not to be human at all.

Dogs, though, I can appreciate the argument more. I’ve often thought about it myself: would my dogs be happier “out there”? The answer is no. Their ancestors, Buck’s ancestors, may well have been. But modern dogs? Canis familiaris? No. Yuval Noah Harari points out the dog was first domesticated at least 12,000 years ago, and it has since been subject to such selective breeding that it really doesn’t make sense to suggest that the modern dog belongs in the wild. They simply don’t; no more than a tiger belongs in a cage.

To London’s credit he does make much of the link between man and dog, both ancient (in trippy visions) and modern (in the wonderful character John Thornton); but he portrays that cross-species love as a hindrance to the dog. And, well I just fundamentally disagree.

I’d recommend reading Jack London, perhaps The People of the Abyss, his account of London’s slums. And I’ll happily praise his writing here, but I just don’t think Call of the Wild was worth the time – and that’s saying something because it’s a really short book.

* The “John Wick Defence”

1. If a person (A) commits an offence against a person (B), it shall be a complete defence if person A demonstrates that they were acting in defence of or revenge of A’s dog from attacks by B.

2. There shall be a complete defence if A commits an offence against a person (C), if C were attempting to prevent A from taking measures against B.
— (a) This latter defence is only available if C has been given the opportunity to get the hell outta A’s way.

(Goodreads: 3 Stars)

A Prayer Before Dawn by Billy Moore

Well, I don’t know what I am meant to do with this book. It’s an easy read with a healthy amount of things happening. But it’s not for me, truly I don’t think it’s for anyone but Billy. In this book he comes to terms with himself, his past, his mistakes — but there’s little of philosophical value, say, to anyone who was not trapped in similar circumstances as Billy.

He belonged to that “real men don’t cry” group, he invalidated his emotions and in doing so broke himself. The book is him putting himself back together. But the lessons are obvious, only really suited, as I say, to others in the “real men don’t cry” mould. Perhaps, also to those who just enjoy a very routine drug addiction and prison story – I mean, seriously, you have seen this story countless times in countless films (probably books too, but I don’t read this type of thing).

I suppose I have nothing against A Prayer Before Dawn, it’s written okay, it moves at a brisk pace; it just didn’t give me what I want from a book. Isn’t it strange how mediocre can often seem worse than awful?

(Goodreads: 3 Stars)

And that was April, started off incredibly with East of End, got a bit grim for a while with dog abuse and the horrors of Vietnam; but ended on a high with most of Doctor Zhivago. Which is enthralling, and unless I’m much mistaken will be my book of the month in May – I can’t see anything topping it.

Thanks for reading!

Weekly Assortment 26 April – 2 May 2021

Read: Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (23 April – 1 May); (The) Politics, Aristotle (1 May – )

The Poems of Yuri Zhivago

Evidently, the majority of my reading week was dedicated to Doctor Zhivago. What a novel; what a journey. Those of you who have read it will know that the book ends with a number of poems credited to the main character, Yuri Zhivago. These poems, the translators Pevear and Volokhonsky say, are “not merely an addendum” but “are inseparable from the whole [novel] and its true outcome – what remains, what endures.” 

Naturally, I read them already, otherwise I would not claim to have finished the book; but reading poetry is not my forte, even less when it is poetry in translation. So over the coming month I will be tackling one of the twenty-five poems a day – what I will get from this I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out and will, obviously, share my thoughts here. 

Highlight of the Week 

Choosing a single highlight from Doctor Zhivago is rather like choosing which of my eyes I’d prefer to keep. However, the following is one of the many, many best lines in the book: 

Man is born to live, not to prepare for life. And life itself, the phenomenon of life, the gift of life, is so thrillingly serious. 

Gender Roles

The past few books I have read all touched on the roles it was acceptable for a woman to have in days past. Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, of course, was explicitly about this. A throwaway line in Zhivago struck me for its correspondence to Rubenhold’s work. Alas, I cannot find the line for quoting, but the matter was this: Lara, recounting her struggles in life, says something to the effect of, “But I never turned to drink, is there anything worse than a woman drunkard?” 

This view is arguably still prevalent today, somehow, we are led to believe, the alcoholic woman is worse than the alcoholic man. The same view was definitely in play in Victorian London. As Rubenhold points out, succumbing to the temptation of the bottle was one way in which a woman could earn herself the reputation of “fallen woman”. Those to whom that epithet applied were not judged kindly; in the Victorian consciousness all “fallen women” were equal, they did not think it worthwhile to differentiate between the addicted, the homeless, or the prostitute. 

It is this failure to differentiate between the “fallen woman” and the “broken”, or damaged, woman, that Rubenhold convincingly argues, led to all of Jack the Ripper’s ‘canonical five’ victims being identified as prostitutes, despite there being little evidence of this for the majority. It’s a notion that has embedded itself in the popular imagination, based, if Rubenhold is correct, entirely on assumptions about what a woman’s role in life should be. 

It should come as no surprise that Aristotle’s view on women is, let’s say, un-modern. He believed that by their very nature women had different roles to play, and he’s not referring to pregnancy. What he undoubtedly meant, I believe is echoed in a beautiful line from Doctor Zhivago about gender roles.

You understand, we’re in different positions. Wings were given you [a man] so as to fly beyond the clouds, and to me, a woman, so as to press myself to the ground and shield my fledgling from danger.

None of this, I know, is surprising; nor new to anyone. The final thing I’d like to point out on the “woman question” takes me back to the first weeks of April, when I was heavily invested in Steinbeck’s sensational East of Eden. Women, mostly, play a minimal role in that story – they are simply the wives of husbands, the daughters of fathers, and the mothers of sons. All the women are portrayed this way except for one: Cathy Ames. 

Cathy is, I suppose, the villain of the piece. Portrayed as a straight-up psychopath, before psychopathy was a thing, the narrator opines that she was born evil. Cathy, however, unlike the other women of the story, has power, and in her own right. I can’t help but wonder whether the evil Cathy carries out – and she definitely does evil – should be seen as a response to the prevailing gender norms. This isn’t Steinbeck’s conclusion but I think it’s an important consideration and, rather importantly, Steinbeck’s narrator – also called John Steinbeck, incidentally – is not omniscient, he has opinions, and they can be wrong. 

Love and Imperfection

I have one final connection to make between Doctor Zhivago and East of Eden, and this time it is a matter of love. In both, a character states that they love a person because of their imperfections, their humanity. 

Zhivago has: “I don’t think I’d love you so deeply if you had nothing to complain of and nothing to regret. I don’t like the righteous ones, who never fell, never stumbled. Their virtue is dead and of little value. The beauty of life has not been revealed to them.

While, Eden, puts it more simply in this exchange between Cal Trask and Abra Bacon: 

I think I love you, Cal.” – “I’m not good.” – “Because you’re not good.” 

They are not entirely parallel. The alternative in the case of Zhivago, the “righteous ones”, we could surely call liars, for the most part. In the first of Yuri’s poems, ‘Hamlet’, it is written: “I am alone, all drowns in pharisaism.” Pharisaism refers to the doctrines of the Pharisees; however, it has another meaning. “Rigid observance of external forms of religion without genuine piety” (wiktionary) It is therefore an apt word to describe the Russia of Doctor Zhivago, in which rigid outward adherence to the rules was required, and those without genuine piety had to express that as well. 

In East of Eden, though, Cal and his imperfections are a contrast to his brother, Aron [sic]. Aron is not a liar, certainly not, rather he is naive. He imagines a perfect world and cannot handle when reality does not match it. He imagines a perfect version of Abra, his girlfriend, which she can’t possibly live up to. Abra herself is not perfect, she is human; she sees in Cal someone else who is not perfect, another human. 

New Reading Project

That’s all for the Assortment, it’s probably one of the worst I’ve done but no matter. Now I’d like to share some other reading news. I won’t be parting from Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky just yet, and not just because I’ll be reading their translations of the Zhivago poems again. Rather I have decided to take part in a read-along of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, an absolute belter of a book, as translated by Pevear & Volokhonsky. 

This read-along will be hosted by Arti at Ripple Effects. I am really excited to read this novel again and the pacing is really quite perfect. The Brothers Karamazov consists of four parts and the target date for completing part one is 22 May. Full details at the link above. I have worked out my own reading plan for Part One – I will post it in the comments should anyone wish to take part. 


Okay, that really is the end of this Weekly Assortment. Next week, I will endeavour to make things a little more interesting. Aristotle’s Politics marks the beginning of a new cycle of ten books for me; Zhivago, therefore, concluded the previous ten. I will be posting a retrospective look at those ten books pretty soon; I will also be posting reviews of the books I finished in April. This week (3 – 9 April) I expect to finish Politics and begin Dan Simmons’ The Terror

Thanks for reading!

What I blogged (26 April – 2 May): 

  • Weekly Assortment 19 – 25 April – was dedicated mainly to the Victorian news industry, as the victims of Jack the Ripper saw sales of tabloid and sensationalist media skyrocket. 
  • My Next Ten Books – as mentioned above I am at the start of a “new cycle”. Check this post for the books included in that cycle and my initial thoughts on each. 
  • A to Z of Books – this was a tag (or meme, I don’t know which). A book related question for each letter of the alphabet, I had a lot of fun answering them. It also, to my surprise, became my most liked post – so it must be good… 

Books: (Links to Goodreads, not necessarily the same edition as those mentioned here.)

A to Z of Books

Question: did you read that as “ay to zee” or “ay to zed”? Or some other strange way… “ah to zuh” perhaps?

Anyway, I gather this is some sort of A – Z book doo-da. I just saw this on Classical Songbird and decided to do it myself. I loved the way Teresa explained the provenance of this meme, so here’s what she said:

“One of the blogs I follow recently posted their answers to some questions about reading, and I decided they looked like fun and I wanted to do them, too. I’m following a long chain of blogging with these questions. I saw the post on Gin and Lemonade, who got the idea from Rust Belt Girl, who saw it on a blog that got the idea from another blog who got the idea from another blog who got the idea from The Boundless Books Blog.” 

Author You’ve Read the Most From: I’m not entirely sure but I think Stephen King would be a safe bet. He’s probably the most prolific author that I’ve ever been obsessed with. 

Best Sequel Ever: The Godfather Part II is the best sequel ever. No doubt. That’s a movie obviously, but I don’t read many series. So I’m going to completely wreck the parameters of this question and say Mario Puzo’s The Godfather – on which both the first and second ‘Godfather’ films were based – is the best sequel ever. A sequel to itself.

Currently Reading: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. As translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky. Ba Da Ba Ba Bah, I’m lovin’ it. 

Drink of Choice While Reading: Coffee, or Magners. 

E-Reader of Physical Book: Olivia? 

Thanks, Olivia. 

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated in High School: Timothee Chalam– I mean Elio from Call Me By Your Name

Glad You Gave This Book a Chance: Actually I just answered this question on a comment on Waking Up On the Wrong Side of 50 (which is always worth a read). Here’s my answer and the circumstances that led to my reading it:

My disinterest in the genre of a book probably stems from an experience in primary school. All of the girls in my class were raving about a book, over the course a few weeks every girl read it. It was Jacqueline Wilson’s Lola Rose. The boys of the class were, of course, interested; but they couldn’t bring themselves to read it because it was a “girl’s book”, complete with cartoonish lipstick on the front cover. Naturally I thought that was ridiculous, I read it, I loved it, if I ever encounter a copy in a charity shop now I will buy it and read it again.

Hidden Gem Book: I went looking for a hidden gem. Couldn’t find it. I really have no idea, because I don’t know how many people read what I read… But one that I’ve literally never heard anyone talk about is Gregoire Chamayou’s Drone Theory. It’s a short, highly readable “polemic against the increasing use of robot warfare” (i.e. drones); really interesting. Pair it with the film Eye in the Sky.  

Important Moment in Your Reading Life: I don’t know that there is any one moment that stands out. Harry Potter got me into reading. David Copperfield got me into Reading. Lolita took the part of me that thought I was a good writer and disemboweled him in front of my eyes. But, hey, at least Nabokov wasn’t writing in his third language or anything… bastard. 

Just Finished: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold. Want to know what I thought? Follow me and find out when I post about it!

Just kidding, I wouldn’t do that to you. I found it to be a very thought-provoking read and highly recommend it. It wasn’t “perfect”, but pretty close. Almost as important as the fact it was a good read, is that it was a worthwhile read – if Rubenhold is correct, and she makes a great case, then the idea that Jack was a prostitute-killer must be reassessed. 

Kind of Books You Won’t Read: Poorly written ones. I don’t really have a “type” of book; or if I do it’s not my intention, I just read what appeals to me, and a whole lot appeals to me. The last book I bought (see below) is not a book anyone who knows me would ever have thought I would read. 

Longest Book You’ve Read: The Great Gatsby for sure. It was interminable. 

Major Book Hangover: I don’t get regular hangovers much less book ones. 

Number of Bookcases You Own: Two. One fiction (and poetry), the other non-fiction. 

One Book You Have Read Multiple TImes: Here’s the deal, man: everybody of my generation read HP multiple times. So I’m not going to mention it (wink, wink). Instead I’m saying John Stuart Mills’ classic essay “On Liberty”, which of all the political philosophy writing out there most closely aligns with my own views. Besides that, it’s also excellently written. 

Preferred Place to Read: Anywhere with a roof and without other people. 

Quote that Inspires You/Gives You All the Feels from a Book You’ve Read: There’s just too many. So here’s one from what I’m reading now (i.e. Doctor Zhivago): 

“And thus it turned out that the only true life is one that resembles the life around us and drowns in it without leaving a trace, that isolated happiness is not happiness, that a duck and alcohol, when they seem to be the only ones in town, are even not alcohol and a duck at all.” 

Reading Regret:

Except maybe not having read Nikos Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation sooner than I did. Though, if I hadn’t waited so long, I may not have enjoyed it so much… So I retract that statement. No regrets. 

Series You Started and Need to Finish: This is easy. Charles Moore’s three-volume biography of Margaret Thatcher. I read the first when it was released and have yet to buy or read the other two. 

Three of Your All-Time Favorite Books: Three is exactly the number of books that occupy the place of “my favoUrite book”. But I’ve said what they are elsewhere on the blog. So a different three? Hmm… Well my usual three are fiction, so here are some non-fiction (in no particular order):

  • Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.
  • Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 
  • Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. 

Unapologetic Fangirl For: There isn’t anything. Though, I don’t see any reason why a fangirl/boy should be apologetic if they do really like something. Non-bookish? Charlie Chaplin and Abraham Lincoln. Maybe.

Worst Book Habit: Whenever I finish a book I burn it. It’s a bad habit. And the costs of replacing the Kindle are really adding up. 

X Marks the Spot: Start at the Top Left of Your Shelf and Pick the 27th Book: Worth pointing out that of my two bookshelves the non-fiction one is leftmost, so I’ll do it on that? Why 27th, I wonder? My result is Robert Graves’ World War I memoir, Goodbye to All That

Your Latest Book Purchase: As I alluded to above, those who know me, know that I cannot stand football (or soccer, if you must; though I do prefer soccer for that knock-off rugby that passes for football overseas). Full disclosure I just don’t like sports, any of them. Football players, that’s another matter entirely, those I definitely like. Digressions, digressions, but I’m sure you guessed it by now, the last book I bought, a few days ago, is about football.

It is David Goldblatt’s The Age of Football: The Global Game in the 21st Century. Why? Just took my fancy – same reason I read any other book I read. 

ZZZ-Snatcher Book (last book that kept you up way late): I read late, generally. I suppose, then, I’d be looking for one that kept me up all night. That would be East of Eden by John Steinbeck which I read earlier this month. 

Well, that was fun. Hope you enjoyed reading, and thanks for doing so! Feel free to share your thoughts below. 

Edit: Turns out this was my 50th post! Woop!

My Next Ten Reads, May – June 2021

I started my last ten books on February 20 this year and am reading the last of those, Doctor Zhivago, now. Which means I’ll shortly be starting my next ten. For this post I have read each of the next ten books’ blurbs and “about the author” sections and compiled my thoughts. I think there’s a lot to be excited about: my first (and, sadly, only) horror of the year, three books from my homeland, two works of philosophy… 

Politics, Aristotle

In the Politics, Aristotle applies his knowledge of the “constitutional affairs” of the Greek cities, and by considering the way societies function, establishes how “successful constitutions can best be initiated and upheld.” 

Among the most influential texts in Western political thought. I’ve personally referenced the work during my studies, though never read it in full. More recently, I’ve seen evidence of the influence of Aristotle’s ideas in Ancient Rome (obviously) in Cicero’s Republic and Laws. Aristotelian principles were since incorporated into Christian theology by, I believe, Aquinas. 

I don’t have too strong a feeling in either direction about reading this, I expect I’ll enjoy it. 

The Terror, Dan Simmons

The Terror is a horror fiction account of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the ‘North-West passage’, the ‘most advanced scientific enterprise ever mounted’ at that time. For two years the ships, HMS Erebus & Terror have been trapped in the Arctic ice. Their crews now face starvation, scurvy and madness; and to make things worse are stalked by a creature, a ‘nameless thing’. 

I’m quite looking forward to this, it’s been a while since I read some horror and this is something of an epic one (921 pages!). I don’t know much of anything about the real expedition – except, the obvious: that it was lost… While I know of the TV adaptation, I have never watched it – though might once I’ve read the book. 

Erebus was the Greek god of darkness. How fitting that darkness and terror should go together. Perfect for a horror story.  Though, somewhat tempting fate for the expedition planners?

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass

I know little of the man but will be glad to. Paul Gilroy referred to the autobiographical tradition of ex-slaves in his introduction to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book I read late last year and which must surely be considered a descendant of this work in some way. 

As I said I know little of the man. These sparse details: born into slavery in Maryland, 1818; escaped to the north at 20 years old, and within seven years published this ‘narrative’ of his life, until then. I’m really looking forward to this one. 

The Brilliant & Forever, Kevin MacNeil

I picked this up from a charity shop because it was by a Scottish author and the cover is appealing. I have only just learned what it’s roughly about. 

The title refers to the ‘Brilliant & Forever Festival’ that happens ‘on an island like no other’. Competing in the festival this year, for ‘glory’ or ‘infamy’ are 13 contestants. Among them are three best friends, two are human and one is an alpaca. O.O 

It’s a satire, praised as hilarious, of ‘what we value in culture’ and our lives, and it explores integrity, friendship, and belonging. Apparently. Sounds intriguing. 

The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, Ken Burns & Geoffrey Ward

I don’t know if, as the back cover claims, this is the ‘definitive’ work on the Vietnam War. The intimate history covers the whole war, and is based on hundreds of interviews with people from all sides of the conflict.

I am slightly concerned about this one. It’s a massive read, which isn’t a problem in itself. But I gave up reading Bridget Kendall’s Cold War and the two books sound similar, whether they are I can’t yet say. Kendall’s book presented a very disjointed reading experience – hopefully, since the Vietnam War is more obviously a single unit than the whole of the Cold War is (indeed, Vietnam was part of the latter), this book will not be disjointed. I’m keeping an open mind, it might turn out to be incredible…

Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh

Blurbs of Trainspotting seem scarce. My copy has no blurb at all, nothing to indicate what this book is about short of the title; meanwhile, Amazon and Goodreads, have only the “choose life” riff as description. 

Fortunately, I know exactly what it’s about because (a) I’ve read it once and (b) I’ve seen the film countless times. Supposing, though, that a reader had to decide whether to read this book on the basis of the “choose life” riff alone, what would it tell them? Here it is, as appears on Amazon: 

Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing gameshows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yer mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life. 

I think there’s enough there to tell the potential reader two (and perhaps more) primary things about the book: its tone and its language. It would be hard to read that paragraph and not conclude that this was a piece of “subversive literature” (one of my favourite kinds), focusing on a counter-culture (which, indeed it does). The potential reader also gets their first glimpse of the Edinburgh vernacular in which the whole book is written. 

Okay, I’m not going to go on and on about a book I’ve already read, that’s too easy. Though I am really, really looking forward to reading Trainspotting again, the only reason I am reading is in preparation for the sequel (which I have seen; haven’t read). 

T2 Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh

T2 (a.k.a Porno) differs from Trainspotting in giving information about the book: mostly by clearly linking it to the past. “Years on from Trainspotting”, it says, and name-drops the returning main characters (who, because this is a film tie-in edition, also feature on the front cover). 

Now, I’ve seen the second Trainspotting film countless times, too. My now-husband and I went on one our earliest dates to see it; loved it, and since it has been one of our favourites to watch together. I do not have any idea how closely the film stuck to the book though. But I’m obviously excited to get round to reading this. 

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson

This book will probably have the most “current” subject matter of the books I’ll be reading this year. It’s a topic that has only increased in relevance since the book was released in 2015: public shaming and cancel culture. 

When the book first released Jon Ronson read an abridged version for BBC radio and I listened to that at the time. I can’t remember all of it in-depth, bits and pieces. I have previously read Ronson’s The Psychopath Test and that was a great read, very entertaining. I’ll be glad to revisit this one. 

The back cover hints at questions the reader should ask. What does cancel culture represent? Shame as a mechanism of social control? The democratization of justice? A war on human flaws? Are any of these things desirable? I have my own thoughts but they can wait until after I’ve read the book. 

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

From the first time I learned of Gentleman in Moscow’s existence I was interested. When I saw its spine amid the charity shop’s book display I took it without a moment’s thought. My recent reading has only made me more eager. 

In Moscow, 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is imprisoned indefinitely in the Hotel Metropol, arrested as an ‘unrepentant aristocrat’. The Russian Revolution is still under way but will end next year and see the establishment of the USSR. From his place of confinement the Count will watch decades of Russian history take place – how many decades I don’t know, the cover doesn’t tell. 

I am currently reading Doctor Zhivago which, of course, is based primarily during the Revolution; so I think Gentleman will be a nice companion piece of sorts, albeit with a gap of weeks or months between reading both.

The blurb ends with the question: “Can a life without luxury be the greatest of all?” I’ll have to read the book to find out. 

The Moral Law, Immanuel Kant

These ten books start and finish with two behemoth works of philosophy, Aristotle’s Politics and this, Kant’s Moral Law. “Few books have had has great an impact on intellectual history” than Kant’s “attempts to identify the fundamental principle, ‘morality’, that governs human action.” 

I’m already broadly familiar with Kant’s philosophy, though I have never read him in non-extract form. Though a very slim volume, I’m expecting depth, density. Despite having very little to add right now, this is one of the ten I’m most looking forward to. 


The book I am most looking forward to, right now, is T2 Trainspotting. It’s simple really: I love the first Trainspotting, book and film. I love the film Trainspotting 2. It stands to reason that I’d want to read the book, which is often better than the film. It is “just gravy” that reading T2 entails reading “T1” again as well. 

The book I am least looking forward to, at the moment, is The Vietnam War: An Intimate History. The reasons are those explained above, I am wary that it will feel similar to Bridget Kendall’s The Cold War. If the information is too repetitive, or too disjointed, I will find it hard to motivate myself through it. 


I will be aiming to read these books on roughly the following dates. 

1 Politics, Aristotle (1 – 5 May)6 Trainspotting, Welsh (3 – 7 June)
2 The Terror, Simmons (6 – 18 May)7 T2, Welsh (8 – 14 June)
3 Narrative of Life, Douglass (19 – 20 May)8 Publicly Shamed, Ronson (15 – 18 June)
4 Brilliant & Forever, MacNeil (21 – 23 May)9 Gentleman in Moscow, Towles(19 – 25 Jun) 
5 Vietnam, Burns & Ward (24 May – 2 June)10 Moral Law, Kant (26 – 27 June) 

Have you read any of these? Enjoyed them? Didn’t? (No spoilers though!) What are you reading now, what will you be reading next? 

Thanks for reading!

Weekly Assortment 19 – 25 April 2021

What I Read: The Five, Hallie Rubenhold (18 – 23 April); Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (23 April – ) 

‘There floats a phantom on the slum’s foul air,

Shaping, to eyes which have the gift of seeing, 

Into the spectre of that loathly lair. 

Face it — for vain is fleeing!

Red-handed, ruthless, furtive, unerect, 

‘Tis murderous crime, the nemesis of neglect

‘The Nemesis of Neglect’, poem and illustration, accompanied an article on London’s slums published in Punch, a satirical magazine, on 29 September 1888. Already Jack the Ripper had claimed two of his five ‘canonical’ victims; the next night two more were added, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes. 

The nemesis of neglect “reflected a consensus” among contemporary social reformers and commentators “that Jack the Ripper… had been spawned by the horrendous conditions that had been allowed to develop, virtually unchecked, in the East End of London.” (‘Jack the Ripper Tour’ website). 

In 1885, the Pall Mall Gazette published a series of articles by W. T. Stead: ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’, an expose on the child prostitution taking place in London’s slums everyday. He writes: “It is a veritable slave trade that is going on around us; but as it takes place in the heart of London – it is a scandal – an outrage on public morality – even to allude to it”. (Stead, ‘We bid you be of hope’). 

A prelude to the series, published July 4 1885, gives “a frank warning” to the reader: those who are squeamish or prudish had better not read the series. “The story of an actual pilgrimage into a real hell is not pleasant reading, and is not meant to be.” Naturally, therefore, Stead’s record of “abominable, unutterable” and “unimpeachable” facts was a complete sensation. A pilgrimage through hell may not be pleasant, but it will sell – this was as true then as it is today. 

The Illustrated Police News was one of Britain’s first tabloids and one of the earliest to take advantage of the “public’s morbid appetite for crime and sensation.” The illustrations, artistic interpretations of murders, disasters, suicides and executions from across the globe, are quite garish, especially for a newspaper. But there is something I like about them, too. Check some pages out for yourself, and learn more about the paper, at the British Newspaper Archive blog

Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly. The five. They were the perfect victims. Because they were unworthy victims. Rubenhold puts it bluntly: “Ultimately, no one really cared about who [these women] were or how they ended up in Whitechapel.” The fact of their deaths was all that was needed: the population of journalists in Whitechapel swelled during the murders, and the murders took the Illustrated Police News to its peak popularity. 

Press coverage of a ‘worthy’ victim will differ from that of an ‘unworthy’ victim qualitatively and quantitatively. The worthy victim is humanised, there is indignation and demands for justice; the unworthy victim, on the other hand, will not be. The death of an unworthy victim is tragic but no great loss; in fact, isn’t the victim somewhat to blame?

That was the grim reality of the times. While some could see the “phantom” hovering over the slums, destitution leading to crime, the dominant Victorian ideal would have little sympathy for Jack’s victims. It was their choice to inhabit the lower echelons of society, you see. Their choice to go wandering the streets at night, alone. The worst of it is that the victims might have agreed. 

Rubenhold repeatedly reminds the reader that the ‘five’ women would have internalised the values of their time. They would have believed they were “fallen women” and had reason to be ashamed. 

The Logic of War?

A similar notion cropped up in Doctor Zhivago and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

In Steinbeck: “A thing so triumphantly illogical, so beautifully senseless as an army can’t allow a question to weaken it.” 

Pasternak: “Yuri Andreevich told him how hard it was to get used to the bloody logic of mutual destruction, to the sight of the wounded, especially to the horrors of some modern wounds, to the mutilated survivors that present-day technology turned into hunks of disfigured flesh.” 

The logic or illogic of the military and war. I like Steinbeck’s explanation: 

“… in all of history men have been taught that killing men is an evil thing… maybe the worst sin we know. And then we take a soldier and put murder in his hands and we say to him… Go out and kill as many of a certain kind or classification of your brothers as you can. And we will reward you for it because it is a violation of your early training.

A Moral Quandary

I’ll conclude with this. On the evening of 8 September 1888, Tim Donovan turned Annie Chapman away from his lodging house. She was a regular, but could not pay for her room that night. After leaving she was murdered. Rubenhold writes: 

“Annie had specifically ‘asked him [Donovan] to trust her’ for that night’s doss money. This ‘he declined to do’. Had this incident become common knowledge [at the time], it’s likely that Donovan would have faced an even worse backlash from the public for his role in Annie’s demise.” 

I’ll leave the question open: was it morally wrong of Donovan to send Annie to the streets? Why? Why not? 

Thanks for reading what I think might be the shortest – which is okay, of course – Weekly Assortment yet!

What I blogged: Weekly Assortment 12 – 18 April 2021. I posted the previous WA very late in the week but it’s a good one, with discussion of Victorian workhouses, universal philosophers and John Wick. 

Sources &c. 

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