I have a lot of siblings. I have a lot of nieces and nephews. And I have a LOT of cousins. Put them all together and you have centuries worth of reading. Hence, family book club, starting with Brother #3.
Andrew is number five out of the six of “kids” in my immediate family (I’m the baby. Like you couldn’t tell.). He is married to a very lovely lady, and neither of them have time to read these days because they’re way too busy holding down full time jobs while chasing after their 3.5 and 0.5 year old boys. Back in the day, however, he and his wife used to read all the time, especially to each other in romantic fashion under the trees/stars/sunset/etc. while the rest of us tried to figure out whether we were nauseated or jealous. Andrew introduced me to many, many good things, including graphic novels, Heroes, the Optina Elders, and perfectly buttered toast, to name a few. Big brother rocks.
He also wins for being the first to respond to my request for favorite book titles. The two that most interested me were:
“Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always for those who love Neil Gaiman’s terrifying children’s books .”
“The Brothers Karamazov for those who love the church, complicated Russian downers, and so I can look smart.”
Hooooooboy do I love all of those things. Even the books!
The Thief of Always is a fantastic book, and certainly merits its own post, but I think for today I’ll focus on Dostoevsky. In fact, the latter half of this post should probably be titled “Dostoevsky: A Love Letter”. You’ve been warned.
Back in the day (2008), I was fresh out of college and working my very first job in Princeton, New Jersey as a General/House Management intern at a theater. As ill-suited as I turned out to be for the work, I still count this as one of the happier periods of my life. Princeton was the birthplace of our Orthodox women’s book club, meeting weekly at Small World Coffee (amazing!) for breakfast. We took great works of literature apart in chunks, analyzing them from an Orthodox perspective. (Then we would talk about boys/life for the last half hour. It’s all about balance.) It was in this context that I encountered Dostoevsky. Our first book was Notes from the Underground, and when it was my turn to lead, I chose The Grand Inquisitor section from The Brothers Karamazov (Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, of course).
Andrew introduced me to The Brothers K. years ago through this same passage, citing it as the most important part of the book. His retelling of The Grand Inquisitor was one of his ways of introducing me to the concept of good and evil, and the bizarre fact that we often choose evil even with Good staring us straight in the face. Certainly, it’s a section that stands well on its own, and we can argue about how important the context of the larger book is another time. At any rate, Andrew has always been the storyteller in our family, and this particular story had me hooked.
The Russian playwright Elena Skorokhodova said in an interview that “A true artist should transform the world, inspire it, uplift man above his animal nature, raise his thoughts to heaven, and reveal to him the image of God that is within himself.” Dostoevsky fulfills this description, but he also performs another critical function of the artist: forcing man to face his animal nature before showing him the heights he can attain. Reading Notes from the Underground can be an incredibly painful experience as you recognize and even sympathize with the sins of “the underground man”. The book is relentless in its portrayal of a man who deliberately turns from morality, from God, and towards self-destruction again and again and again. If I hadn’t had the book club to read it with, I doubt I would have made it through.
The Brothers Karamazov is a more balanced experience. The Grand Inquisitor section is offset by the Father Zosima passage, the three brothers demonstrate different human archetypes while retaining the soul that sets Dostoevsky’s characters apart. I recommend reading it with a friend to sort out some of the thornier passages (especially in the Dmitry section, which is practically impossible to do on your own), but everyone should read it even if you don’t have a friend who’s into complicated Russian downers. Hey, I’ll read it again with you, if you really want.
I want my next Dostoevsky to be The Idiot, but I don’t have it in paperback yet, and I’m getting- well, a little bored with my kindle. The sameness of the format is making it hard to stare at after a few hundred hours. Anyone interested in a read along?
So, good choice, Andrew. Who’s next?
Currently reading: To the Lighthouse (finally moving away from those wretched and seductive YA novels- hopefully a good sign)