Mothers Know Best

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All right. So, I know I said that the second post would come after I finished Crime and Punishment, but it’s a long book, and I wanted to do a mid-reading post…

No? You’re not buying it, right? Yeah ok. Well, I had so much fun writing my first post that I couldn’t wait to write a new one (although I was so ready to press publish yesterday that I didn’t polish it as much as I should have – my apologies!) Like I said, I’ll chat a little bit about the first half of the book, mostly on the characters. It’s not going to be analytical or research-based because I already finished my undergrad Humanities class. ;) I’ll just list what I think, like, or don’t like about what I’m reading. I’m going to try avoiding spoilers as much as possible, but you’ll have to keep the second half to yourselves too!

Oh Dostoevsky, where to start.

My mother has been suggesting this book to me since I was probably in middle school. She’s a big fan of Russian literature as I am also turning out to be. I was always afraid to dive into this one because it’s a big book and well, it’s Dostoevsky! But I’m actually glad that I waited until now to read it. I think that after having taken writing, literature, and psychology classes (not to mention being kind of an adult now), I can appreciate the piece from many different perspectives.

Obviously, one of the biggest aspects of the book is psychological analysis. What I really adore is Dostoevsky’s remarkable talent in showing Raskolnikov’s (our protagonist) rapidly changing conscience. He goes on monologues for pages and pages where he criticizes himself, social structures and expectations, human nature itself… And it is clear that Dostoevsky KNOWS humans. He narrates a guilty conscience so brilliantly that it makes one wonder. ;) In accordance with Dostoevsky’s brilliance, Raskolnikov acts along beautifully. Although he’s stubborn in nature, he portrays an inner struggle so powerful and agonizing that I find myself sympathizing with him quite often.

Next up is Razumihin, Raskolnikov’s “best friend”. I may not be far along the text to feel otherwise, but Razumihin is one of the sweetest and cutest characters in the book. For some reason (the uncertainty of his intentions is why I’m hesitant to make bold statements about him), he forces himself into Raskolnikov’s life to assist his old college buddy. Razumihin is quickly frustrated, throws temper tantrums, and is quickly embarrassed. He also has trouble picking up social cues, which makes him all the more clueless. But (so far) he seems to have a good heart, and I trust him. One of my favorite scenes is his drunk philosophical rambling as he walks with Raskolnikov’s mom and sister. Despite the intoxication (or perhaps because of it) he makes strong statements like, “Through error you come to the truth! I am a man because I err!” Just. So. Good.

One of the troubles I’m having while reading is the three-name convention. Dostoevsky assigns three names for all of his actors as is customary and uses their names interchangeably which can get confusing. I’ve also noticed that characters pop up in Part 3 with only one name when they were only mentioned once or twice in Part 1, so I find myself flipping back and forth trying to find out who it is. But it does get clearer as the story unfolds.

I should also mention that my favorite place to read this book is on the train in NYC. I don’t know if it is the tunnels or the interesting people on the train that make it the perfect setting for a Russian classic. Regardless, this piece is a real page-turner, and although I’m not even done with it myself, I already feel really confident in recommending it. It proves why classics are classics …and that my mother was right.

скоро увидимся! (If google has not failed me, “see you soon!”)

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Chapter 1

Like many others, I learned how to read in the first grade from my teacher. She was an old woman with crooked glasses, an ominous hunchback, and thick graying hair. Her gravely voice was often coupled with a strict tone although we were only seven-year-olds. I don’t remember the exact way with which I learned to read. I assume our teacher pointed a long stick at the letters on the board, and we repeated after her. We probably connected the lines on a worksheet to memorize how to write the letters, and we were probably given homework to read 10-page books about some children playing with a ball. I don’t remember. But learning to read was the beginning of my exploration of literary personalities, settings, and ideas. And I have my first grade teacher to thank for that.

I read a lot as a child. When we moved to the U.S., I became a big fan of The Babysitters’ Club series, constantly searching our local used bookstore for the dusty, 50cent prints. However, when I read, I did not see black words on a page, but rather, a rolling film in my mind. I watched as the characters performed in my head, making the wrong choices, becoming vulnerable, or finding solutions. While still in elementary school, I picked up a book at the bookstore about a couple of adventurous kids who somehow turn to butterflies. I became so engaged with the book that to this day, although I can’t remember the plot, I keep a mental snapshot of the final scene in which the two characters walk down a sidewalk.

In middle and high school, upon my mother’s suggestions, I met Agatha Christie and Jane Austen. Christie’s frighteningly ingenious murders and Austen’s superhero-like female characters made me experience different emotions with the turning of each page. I continued to place myself in between the pages within my hands and observe these fictitious worlds at eye level. I attempted to solve Poirot’s murder mysteries and advised Marianne to act rationally. When one conflict was solved, I would take my father to the library to find some new ones.

Perhaps I lose myself too much in the plot when I read and become unable to detach myself from the settings. An example of the kind of details I retain from my favorite books is the side-table at the entrance of Doc Hata’s home in A Gesture Life (which I read five years ago) on top of which Hata places his keys upon walking home. The image is so clear in my head that if I saw it in real life, I would recognize that wooden, half side table with the white doily spread over and the round mirror hanging above it.

When I started college, I switched from reading novels to textbooks. Aside from the Humanities classes that had assigned novels, I stopped reading books during my own time (if I was lucky to get any). Instead of curling up with my textbooks, I highlighted and took notes, for it was really difficult to imagine myself situated in the middle of the Krebs cycle. Spending four years memorizing endless pathways, crisscrossed molecules, and dramatic reactions, I had forgotten the imaginary worlds which were once so real in my life.

During my last year of college, I signed up to take the incredible Rachel DeWoskin’s Novel: The Longer Fiction course. Here, I was reading wonderful literature, writing my own, and discussing it with other aspiring authors. I relived the blood-pumping excitement of literature, but this time, I became immersed in the prose, the words, the language, the punctuation… With each book, I believed writing to be a form of art. Virginia Woolf and Vladimir Nabokov did not type letters on pieces of paper; they painted with words and emotions.

I could talk on and on about my favorite books, the memories I keep from each, and the “paintings” embedded in my brain. But I think I’ll save the rest for future posts. I am currently reading Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, so be on the lookout for a post on that in the upcoming days.

See you in the next chapter.