Saturday 28 March 2009

The Reading Lamp: the Gogol vs. Dostoevsky cage match!

I thought I loved reading and that The Brothers Karamazov was one of my favourite books of all time - but I haven't read it 6 times yet, so what do I know?

What I do know is that I could take some lessons in how to be a real, passionate reader from Jenn. Also, I won't be betting on Gogol in the cage match.

Your name: Jennifer Mullen

What are you reading now? Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloof (GREAT book for dog owners!). It's award-winning and hugely comprehensive. Yes, I know, I'm a dog nerd. I'm actually re-reading it; it's great to refresh and I'm picking up things I didn't on my first reading.

Where are you reading it? My bed :)

What would your ideal desert island book be? It would have to be the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I know, not one book technically, but still. I'm a massive fan; usually read the series once a year. The Silmarillion would be another great desert island book; I've taken it on wilderness trips before as my only book and because I'm a fairly fast reader, have finished it and started it immediately again and it holds up. Tolkien rocks.

What book would you like to put into a mine shaft and blown up? Why? Any Dr. Seuss book! Just because I think the floating paper scraps would look so nice and colourful!

What's your favourite either unknown or underappreciated book?
I'd have to say two: Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih - it's one of those books you can read again and again. I love the writing - there is such a strong voice. It's also a great book about the meeting of cultures and the things we think we know; he does a masterful job of melding issues of ethnicity, the legacy of colonialism (which I loved coming from a background of research in Indigenous issues and politics) and cultural colonialism as well, in terms of how we relate to each other and the roles we assign each other. But that makes it sound like it's a political book, and first and foremost I'd say it's a great story. He really isn't as well known in the West as he deserves to be; he is on par with the best of any modern writer I've ever read.

The other would be The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Skvorecky - you know I LOVE Josef Skvorecky. This book is the culmination of a lot of his early works, and it's great because I think he's writing at his most mature here. The story is fantastic, fairly autobiographical, and is literary while being just flat out funny. I think it's a powerful book and as a Torontonian and a Canadian, he does a great job of melding Czech and Canadian landscapes and cultures. Again, his work is political, but in a highly personal and humorous way. He deserves a far bigger following and reputation in Canada (he tends to be seen as a Czech writer mostly, I think) than he has; I'm trying to think of a Canadian writer who I think comes close to matching Skvorecky at the top of his game and I can't.

Favourite author? Why?'s going to have to be a smackdown between Fyodor Dostoevsky and Nikolai Gogol. Huh....who comes out on top.....? Probably Dostoevsky. I mean, The Brothers Karamazov. Come on. There is no finer work than that ever, anywhere. It is so incredibly powerful and enduring that it actually, literally, takes my breath away when I read it. Which makes me a monstrous nerd, I know, but it's beyond words for me.

It drives me crazy that so many people read Crime and Punishment - and I'm not saying that's not a good book - and leave their Dostoevsky at that. While it's true I've read everything of his, I don't understand how Crime and Punishment became THE book and The Brothers Karamazov didn't. I suppose Crime and Punishment is more accessible, easier, but I've read The Brothers Karamazov six times and each and every time there is something else that strikes me. That he wrote something that remains so powerful today and so incredibly omniscient about human behaviour and society is stunning; everyone should read this book. The Grand Inquisitor - that section is SO strong and so present that it's scary.

Though, I do love Gogol. I think if he had lived longer he would have produced a body of work to rival Dostoevsky's. He's probably the writer I most wish I knew; just so I could have stolen or at least read the final part of Dead Souls before he destroyed it.

Favourite and/or least favourite literary time period? Why? Favourite - that's easy! Nineteenth century Russia! No contest whatsoever. Great authors, great ideas, just this massive explosion of work. The political differences are fascinating to read; you've got conservatives, nihilists, those who embrace the land as the means by which cultural and personal redemption can be found, freethinkers - everything and everyone, basically - and they all write so well.

The Russian style from this period is so distinctive and has such a strong focus on the personal as a representation of the larger world and of Russia. Culturally it's something I find fairly distinctive; regardless of the politics of the writer, there is a focus on Russia, and on the destiny and fate of Russia. I do have an embarrassing over-emphasis on 19th century Russian writing though - in high school it was all I would read. It's funny, in first year university, I decided to branch out into 20th-century and read Solzhenitsyn; I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which I enjoyed, but my overwhelming reaction was "Wow, this is just a 20th-century The House of the Dead (Dostoevsky novel of life in a Siberian prison camp)." So I enjoyed it, but I thought it was derivative.

I did make it through the first 100 pages of Cancer Ward, and hated it. Most boring 100 pages of my life. I have since read more Russian authors from a variety of time periods, including the Soviet period (for fun, read back-to-back dissident and approved authors!).

I was thinking that my second favourite literary time period (not that you asked) would probably have to be modern Japanese writing - whoo! However, I would say that as a period my reading is heavily slanted towards Haruki Murakami (easily my favourite contemporary author); he's not the only Japanese author I've read but I could be better versed in other Japanese authors and writing. Not so modern, but I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume - great! I'm also a big fan of Yukio Mishima - Confessions of a Mask is probably my fave of his.

Least favourite - I don't have one, but I do dislike a lot of 19th century English authors - Austen, Dickens - blech blech blech. But then I do love Trollope!!!! The Palliser novels/series and The Way We Live Now kick ass! So I can't be entirely anti-19th century English authors. Mind you, I suppose more appropriately I could blech about English authors from the first half of the 19th century or so.

If you're interested in being interviewed for The Reading Lamp, drop me an email at colleen AT bookphilia DOT com.


Stacy said...

Fascinating interview. It was solely on the basis of The Grand Inquisitor, excerpted in the text for a freshman philosophy class, that I picked up and read The Brothers Karamazov. That was so long ago, I think it is time for a reread. Interesting point about Solzhenitsyn. He is on my TBR list but I really don't know where to start with him. Do you have a suggestion? So far from my reading of Austen (which isn't very extensive), I am with you, but I am fond of Dickens. Thanks for the insight and could I get one front row seat for the cage match:)

Moira said...

Wow, I am feeling very unworthy of calling myself a true book lover. You list so many classics that I have never picked up, or have only read as school requirements.

Shame on me.

Bookphilia said...

I personally never got through Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, not because it wasn't good, but because it was too effective - the claustrophobia and desperation made me literally physically ill!

I have friends who swear by Cancer Ward but clearly it's not universally loved.

Jenn M said...

Moira, it's only a function of being a Russian lit nerd....and probably a total nerd in general.

Re: Solzhenitsyn....I've only read the 2, and really not even that b/c I didn't finish Cancer Ward. For me, I liked One Day in the Life, but on the other hand, why not just read House of the Dead? :)

I wish I knew why people loved Cancer Ward so much. I always wonder what I was missing....but I honestly just couldn't handle it.

Unknown said...

I'm an english lit major and have never picked up a 19th century Russian novel. Well, I've picked one up, but never read it. As with all literary genres, YMMV.

Mel u said...

Can't help but notice no mention of Tolstoy's place in this cage match.
Assuming this is not an oversight, why was he left out?

Unknown said...

Dostoevsky, Trollope, Murakami...

Rare to find so many faves name-checked in one blog post!