The House of the Dead

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Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Genre: Realism, Semi-Autobiographical Fiction, Classic Literature
Setting: Siberia, Russian Federation, 1850s
Pages: 368

The House of the Dead or Notes from the House of the Dead is a semi-autobigraphical work by Fyodor Dostoyevsky about life in prison in Siberian Russia. Dostoyevsky tells his story through the eyes of the convict Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, a Russian nobleman who is sentenced to penal labor in Siberia for murdering his wife. The author’s trademarks of deep philosophical musings and his speculations on the psychology of human beings are deeply rooted in this novel and lay the groundwork for future authors, philosophers, and psychologists (the formal study of this last discipline only developed some 20 years after this novel was published!)

The Good: Dostoyevsky was in a situation nearly identical to his narrator’s: a nobleman serving a sentence of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp. However, our narrator Aleksandr Petrovich was sentenced for murdering his wife, while Dostoyevsky was imprisoned for political crimes. The authenticity of the novel is its greatest asset as it makes all the different stories and accounts within the narrative all the more gripping. I find Dostoyevsky second to none when it comes to inserting meaningful psychological and philosophical musings within a fictional framework (keeping in mind, of course, that this particular story is very much nonfiction). There is something refreshing and quite rare about an author speaking their own truth in a way that bares their soul. While The House of the Dead isn’t as polished as his later works, it is easy to see how he became an inspiration to so many future authors and philosophers.

One glistening gem in this novel that I found very endearing, was the chapter describing the convicts’ theatrical production during the holidays. I’ve always been a fan of theatre and I have a great affinity for Russian theatre and ballet in particular. Dostoyevsky describes the amateur production in extensive detail, and I admit I was thrilled. In those moments of performance and spectating, the prisoners’ joy was my own.

The Bad: As I mentioned before, the novel is a bit unpolished. The House of the Dead was originally pieced together from a series of different notes and letters Dostoyevsky had wrote about his time in prison, and as such theme drives the narrative rather than a specific storyline. There are an exceeding number of repetitious moments or thoughts. The narrator also offers a few contradictory points of view on certain subjects, but this I attribute to the emotional nature of documenting such an experience, and the varying states of mind the author must have inhabited as he wrote the novel.

*A Special Note on the Text*: This story was written quite a long time ago. Knowledge on various topics has evolved since then, including our attitudes and opinions on these topics. It is important not to reject the worth of an entire novel over a few problematic elements. In order to understand this novel, the reader most endeavor to understand the time and place it was written and strive to their fullest extent to place themselves in the position of the narrator. Most obvious and frequent among the outdated ideas is Dostoyevsky’s apparent subscription to Physiognomy. Although it is never named or explicitly described in the novel, it is obvious that he judges people’s characters largely and immediately based on their physical appearance. Approach this novel with empathy and patience and you will not be disappointed.

Hild

Genre: Historical, Medieval Fiction
Setting: 7th century Britain, Anglo-Saxon England
Pages: 536

Hild is Nicola Griffith’s astounding imagining of the origin of the historical and religious figure, St. Hilda of Whitby. When Hild is just 3, her father who is an aetheling (prince) is poisoned. As a result, Hild and her mother Breguswith join her uncle Edwin’s court to gain protection and influence. Shortly afterward, Hild becomes the King’s seer and must help Edwin navigate through political struggles on his path as overking of the Angles. This is a story about the bright mind of a young girl and the struggles and triumphs of the people of early Medieval Britain.

The Good: Nicola Griffith has done a masterful job of crafting a beautiful and intensely detailed story out of characters and events with a limited historical record. Names, titles, and practices of 7th century Britain can seem foreign and obscure, but the way Griffith weaves in the daily and seasonal routines of her characters ultimately reminds the reader of how utterly human these people were. When the machinations of various political and religious figures threaten to overwhelm, Griffith paints a scene of a moment in nature or inserts an observation through Hild about the various habits of birds that remain true today, giving her narrative a firm grounding in the human understanding of the patterns of life. This is an admirable and effective way to draw the reader into the lives of a group of people who remain so separated from modern readers by time and circumstance that they could potentially be unfamiliar enough to be unimportant.

The Bad: Hild is a densely packed novel. Its seems twice as long as its 536 pages, and this is coming from a voracious reader. As always this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it could turn some readers off to the novel. Historical details can become a little convoluted, especially because most readers will not be very familiar with this time period. The detailed descriptions of everyday chores and tasks might not be every person’s cup of tea, but for my own part I felt that these descriptions of daily life added to the overall atmosphere of the novel.

Little Tidbit: Apparently this is going to end up being the first novel in a series. I will definitely be reading the next book when it comes out.

The Casual Vacancy

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Genre: Fiction
Setting: Pagford, United Kingdom
Pages: 503

The Casual Vacancy is a witty and gripping social commentary on contemporary British society, played out in the fictional town of Pagford, an idyllic little village in England where various types of unrest are fomenting beneath the town’s sunny and charming exterior.  

Barry Fairbrother, one of Pagford’s parish councillors, dies unexpectedly leaving a casual vacancy that various town members seek to fill for their own personal or political gain. The novel tracks how the conflict over the council seat, and the underlying issue of the area known as the Fields, affects the lives of the residents of Pagford, young and old, rich or poor, and shows how small behaviors can resonate and have big consequences.

The Good: Rowling is a fantastic writer, and while this novel is utterly different in subject matter and scope than her famous Harry Potter series, her style is easily recognized within these pages. She proves her satirical prowess with this novel, and her wit in exposing the flaws in the Pagford residents’ behaviors and thought patterns is perhaps the greatest strength of the book. Each character viewed individually seems so uniquely human. Rowling really knows how to make the reader appreciate gray characters. This book acts as a mirror that can be held up to recognize parts of our own personalities that we might rather not admit to having. I personally don’t believe that J.K. Rowling ever had anything to prove, but for those who were unsure whether or not she’d be able to pull of a more “adult-themed” novel, I imagine with this book their fears can be laid to rest.

The Bad: My main complaint with this book is that she was a little overzealous in creating dysfunctional families and relationships. I understand that it wouldn’t be very interesting to focus on healthy romantic or family relationships and that struggle and conflict are necessary to drive narrative, HOWEVER, in a book that is populated by a considerably large cast of characters, there is not one single healthy relationship between a husband and wife or (less surprisingly) between teenagers. Instances of infidelity, domestic abuse, or dissatisfaction in romantic partnerships are all real issues, but Rowling’s decision to exclude the presence of even a single happy relationship causes the novel to traverse beyond the land of realism into the slightly ridiculous.

Would recommend? Absolutely! The merits of this book far outweigh any scruples I have with it

New York City

About a month ago I went to New York City to meet up with some friends who were visiting from Northern Ireland. I have complicated feelings about NYC. Sometimes it feels so overwhelming and full of all the things I dislike about human nature. Paradoxically, and perhaps necessarily, it is also full of all the things I love about people. As a lover of art though I can never stay away for too long before something calls me back.

Here are some pictures from my weekend:

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A large portion of the first day was spent in Central Park catching up with friends. I mean hours. The day was cold, but the sky was clear in the morning so the park was quite populated. There is something so nice about being in a place surrounded by strangers who don’t know each but who are each sharing the simple joy of being out in nature on one of the first warm days of the year. We talked long enough for the bright morning to turn into a misty late afternoon.

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Day two was spent almost entirely in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I don’t know if I could live in New York, but I think I could live in the Met.

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As the last photograph shows, I am not above a shameless mirror selfie even if that mirror is couched in a French Rococo drawing room.

Light in August

Genre: modernist, southern gothic, classic lit, american lit
Setting: rural Mississippi, 1930s
Pages: 507

There are some books that leave a distinct mark, and boy is this one of them. William Faulkner’s novel Light in August contains a cast of characters who collectively span the full spectrum of social outcasts. Anyone who loves brutally honest social commentary on American society should pick up this book and devour it.

The good: When I started reading this book I was not prepared for the emotional impact it would end up having. Despite how much I read, I somehow went into this novel knowing the bare minimum about Faulkner as a writer. The book maintains a startling amount of relevance regarding its treatment of racial tensions and crises of identity considering it was written around 85 years ago. Any novel that can continue to draw that kind of visceral emotional response 85 years down the line is an excellent piece of writing in my opinion. Each of the characters that the novel focuses on is marginalized in some way by the society they operate within. America is still a Puritanical society to a large extent so the story and the characters resonate deeply. I think that absolutely everyone should read this book and that is a very rare thing for me to say.

The bad: I have no real criticisms of this book, so for this review I am going to use this section as a warning to the reader. When you read Light in August, prepare to get uncomfortable. It is difficult to read about violence so bluntly described and stated. The casual observations of the lives of these characters seems almost voyeuristic, and there may be times where you wonder “What am I doing here?” I promise it will all come together for you. There are no heroes in this novel, only very real, very hurt people. And get ready for some heavy self-examination by the end. It isn’t going to be a book you can just read and then forget. You come out of reading this forced to face some ugly truths about society, or perhaps about yourself. If you like easy reading without any intellectual or emotional challenges, do not expect that here.

To Market To Market

As promised, I went out to snap a few photos today. In the morning I went to central market in my hometown of Lancaster, PA. I love visiting the market because it’s a cogent reminder of the combination of vibrant diversity and hominess that make Lancaster such a wonderful community.

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farmers market

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After milling around among the vendors I ventured up to the balcony area where I was able to capture a few shots of the market from a higher vantage point. For people watching looking down on a farmers market from a birds eye view is second to none.

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After enjoying a hot tea and a massive freshly baked cinnamon bun, I decided to see how my camera and lens could tackle some outdoor architecture shots. The best part was a surprise performance from a one-man-band. He was enormously talented and definitely earned all the tips he received from me and my fellow audience members. I was definitely pleased with the shots I got, especially because today was my first time using this new camera and lens.

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Thanks for checking out my first photo blogpost! Please leave a comment if you have any feedback or advice!