- Book Review: Master and Margarita
I’ve written before about how I consider recommendations. Pre-pandemic, I came across this list from baseball author Keith Law. He passionately recommended two books; Beloved by Tony Morrison and The Master and Margarita by Bulgogov.
I knew before cracking the cover Beloved was a heavy, emotional book, but was surprised at the supernatural/surrealist elements. Picked up M&M next, thinking it was a comedy (the recommendation highlighted the humor). Instead, it was a weird book set in Moscow in the 1930s, full of difficult Russian names and strange characters. I put it down after one hundred pages. A surrealist Russian historical novel wasn’t what I was wanted.
Since then, I’ve become a fan of Russian literature, thanks wholly to A Swim in the Pond in the Rain and the accompanying Story Club. I read Anna Karenina and a handful of the short stories in Nabokov on my own, and wanted more. Before buying new Russian books, though, I wanted to revisit M&M.
Attitude matters while approaching a book. I cracked into The Master and Margarita, knowing Bulgogov set it in old Moscow and surrealist. The humor would come from absurdity, not snappy dialogue or ironic thoughts of the narrator. And Anna Karenina cured me of any phobia I had about Russian names.
My favorite part of reading M&M is the prose. Something about the Russians and how they work with the language and tell a story. Bulgakov used more exposition than a modern story allows, but it’s done artfully. I’m never taken out of the story. My attention calmly flows from sentence to sentence. Reading is inviting and steady. But this made me wonder; who am I admiring? The author or the translator?
I’d never given much thought to the translator. We covered the topic in the GS class, and now I research the best translations. Anna Karenina had a team of highly respected translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Surely, the plot, characters and overall direction are the original authors. But I consider myself as much a fan of Pevear and Volokhonsky as Tolstoy and Bulgakov.
Whenever I finish literature, I read essays and articles examining the story. Most of the critique and praise of M&M refers to its absurdity. Satan’s Ball was the most absurd part of the book and my least favorite. I kept waiting for these sections to end. I enjoyed the reactions of normal people to the absurdity, though. And of course very much liked Behemoth, often referred to as the large black cat.
If this were a Hollywood movie, it’d be an ensemble cast. Woland, otherwise known as Satan, is a constant throughout the book, but as a sometimes-absent protagonist. His dialogue and action are fairly limited. For the first third of the book, the reader assumes it’s about a play and its effect on a newspaper and theater. By the end of the book, we’ve spent significant time with a character we barely meet in the first half, namely the Master. And Bulgogov only referred Margarita to in the first half of the book. Much like an ensemble movie, we learn how all of our characters faired in the last few pages.
I loved The Master and Margarita. The prose, the characters, even Moscow, called to me. And, a day after finishing, I ordered another Tolstoy, a collection of Chekhov stories and Nabokov’s Lolita. With Pevear and Volokhonsky as translators, of course.
- Re-Thinking Re-Reads
My last few posts were book reviews. I’ve been on a good run with interesting books and magazines. My to-read pile whittled down to just one book… luckily, I remedied this with some focused time on Amazon and a re-kindled wish to re-read books.
It started with Anna Karenina; to get through a book of its size and assumed (it wasn’t hard to read) difficulty, I set a regular cadence. Fifty pages each weekend day and seventy-five for the week. I hadn’t read like this before and the “forced” longer sessions allowed me to inhabit the headspace of the book.
I’ll be strategic with the re-reads. Without the desire to see what happens next, or how the story will end, I can notice how the author is unfurling the story. All the little hints, clues, oddities of characters, etc. missed on my first read… I enjoy the plot and story elements most of all, so I read to see how ends. I have re-reads in mind; authors I’ve mentioned repeatedly. I need to study their work.
Another driver for re-reads is the Re-watchables podcast. From The Ringer, the hosts take a movie they consider re-watchable (you see in on cable while flipping the channels and have to watch a few minutes) and discuss. Super entertaining. The part I’ve appreciated most are two of the regular co-hosts, Sean Fennessey and Chris Ryan, discuss the writing and directing. They are movie wonks and point out elements I hadn’t noticed, like the scoring or pacing. The elements essential to creating a great movie.
My current to-read pile is new books from George Saunders and David Mitchell (Mitchell’s book is older but new to me) and three books I started, recognized as good books but wasn’t “the right time” and abandoned. I read at least a third of these books and hopefully can notice more on this time around.
- Book Review: The Edge of Collapse
Book Review: The Edge of Collapse
I wanted to read top books in the post-apocalyptic space, as determined by Amazon. A few of the books I had read, like all the Emily St. Mandel and Hugh Howey books. I especially wanted to read self-published authors. I picked two.
One came overnight… it was dreadful. I forced myself to read at least fifty pages, but the author fully described every new scene or character upon entry into the story. Each character was a stereotype and the plot was tough to swallow. Why is this book a best-seller?
Luckily, the second book, The Edge of Collapse by Kyla Stone, is much better. It’s a classic page-turner; I picked it up, intending to read a chapter or two, but hummed through sixty pages in the blink of an eye.
The book bounces between three characters in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We first meet Hannah, a woman imprisoned in the basement of a madman for over five years. An EMP wipes out everything electronic across the US and Hannah escapes. Her captor chases her through a forest.
It’s a page turner. Stone creates palpable worry and danger. And things just get worse and worse for our main characters. Unlike the first book I tried, we aren’t hit over the head with verbose descriptions and back-stories. We only discover key aspects of our characters well into the story and select items aren’t resolved. The characters are relatable, and we root for the heroes and despise the villain.
My criticism is related to the self-publishing part. I listened to sections (part of the same initiative to read more self-published books) of Write, Publish, Repeat and I can see elements of their advice at play. This is the first book in a series, a main tenant of their advice…. so, when the reader is done, they can immediately buy the next book in the series.
One of their points is how differently readers interact with self-published books. Readers are on the lookout for typos and mistakes. I mentally edited more than usual… which probably isn’t fair. The book I started immediately after, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, isn’t receiving the same level of scrutiny. I assumed there was less editing on The Edge while any book from McCarthy would have the top editors. Regardless, the characters are stereotypical (the ex-Military guy with a heart of gold and amazing skills, the psychopath with no redeemable qualities, etc.) and some of the internal dialogue could be reduced.
But I really enjoyed the book and will order the second in the series.
- Book Review: The Untouchable
A few weeks ago, I wrote about reading recommendations, including two from David Coggins. I hadn’t read the books he listed in his newsletter… on a whim, I bought two, “The Untouchable” by John Banville and “A Month in the Country” by J. L Carr. The Untouchables was fantastic. Banville (who I need to read more) creates a world filled with memorable characters in England before, during and after WW2. It doesn’t check my usual boxes, but the writing overcomes any limitations.
Victor Maskell tells the story of his life as a spy. Not a James Bond type, but as an academic adjacent to upper-crust English society. The story begins with Victor revealing he was outed as a Russian agent but still lives freely in London. A young reporter interviews him about his life for a book and the rest of the story is Victor retelling his past.
I admit, I almost dropped this book twice… after twenty pages, and again after ninety. I couldn’t find the plot or the hook. Those first pages were a mishmash of characters and grievances. The Untouchable violated one of my main tenets… it didn’t have a strong and discernible plot. Rather than putting it down, I committed to fifty pages one weekend. Then I recognized the brilliance of the novel.
Banville, through the device of an elderly man recounting his life as a spy, places the reader in a world swirling with characters. Unlikable people… I can’t think of one character I rooted for or admired. But they were interesting, scheming, opinionated and memorable. A plot evolved through these characters… just hidden a few levels beneath the surface.
Also, hiding below the old stories and characters, was Victor Maskell’s double nature. He’s English and works on the war effort and is a trusted consultant of the King, and a Russian asset. He’s married with children and gay, a member of English society yet an Irish Catholic, etc. This dual nature is present in other characters as well, and, by the end of the book, the title “The Untouchable” also has double meaning.
This is a slow burn of a read, plot-wise. But Banville’s writing is compelling and his characters memorable. Sometimes when I read a book, I can’t wait to finish. I didn’t want “The Untouchable” to end.
- A Second Look: Dubliners
I’ve read Dubliners by James Joyce three times. An upcoming trip to Ireland inspired my most recent read. I’ve viewed Dubliners as an easier way to read a classic; short, immersive stories. Also, a nice way to come out of the Hemingway jag.
I used to start my morning writing sessions by either copying lines of classic texts (The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Wool) to learn about sentence structure or read Dubliners to hear the lyricism. If I read quickly, I often miss the poetry of the words, reading to find out what happens next. The wordplay is more noticeable on slower, closer reads, as is the tone and speech of the characters. I wonder how much of what they say and infer is lost to time, though… every story has references to specifics that are very Irish or locked in the early 1900s.
Joyce wrote this short story collection while away from Ireland and Dublin. He spent most of his adult life abroad. Which is striking, since Dublin itself is one of the main characters in the book. Each story contains specific references to streets and bridges, specific pubs, etc. Not to mention the overall tone and mood of the city. It’s crazy to think an author wrote so intently about a place yet choosing to live somewhere else. In my many author-ly fantasies, I picture myself living somewhere exotic for a few months under the guise of research.
A few things struck me on this third read. There are a few thematic constants in the stories. One is the overall tone… it’s a depressing read. Almost every character is poor and struggling for money while living in the city’s underclass. Poverty hangs over each story… the characters fight and scrape for punts and shillings. Characters like Lenehan in Two Gallants scam young women, old men expose themselves to young boys in An Encounter, and Mr Duffy in A Painful Case condemns a beau to a life of despair. Gray is used to describe the characters and the city itself.
Another constant is alcohol consumption. Not in a merry, where’s-the-craic sort of way, but how much trouble it causes. Each story has at least one character whose life is significantly worse because of drinking.
Finally, it seems none of Joyce’s characters can escape Dublin. Joyce set all of the stories in actual places in the city. One character, Evelin in, well, Eveline, is set to leave what seems like an awful home life, but finds she can’t board the ship to leave. The young, middle-aged and near-dead can’t get out of the city.
Dubliners was an easier read this time. The older conventions, styles and attitudes didn’t jump off the page at me. Maybe this is because of reading so much of others from that same time period? Or just an expectation grounded in experience.