Archive for February, 2014

Crime And Punishment / Fyodor Dostoevsky

I read Crime and Punishment in college and since then have vividly recalled the mental anguish of Raskolnikov, the book’s main character, after he murders a pawnbroker and her sister for money.  What I did not remember were the novel’s other interesting characters and plot lines that swirl around the central story.  Raskolnikov is an impoverished ex-student living in St. Petersburg, barely able to keep starvation at bay.  A proud young man, he convinces himself that if he kills the unscrupulous pawnbroker and uses her money for good, it will counterbalance the crime itself.  He has developed a theory that superior individuals are capable of carrying out such a crime without getting caught.  The book is divided into six parts, and the murders take place early in the story.  From the start, his attempted crime does not go as planned.  He is forced to kill the sister when she comes home unexpectedly, and then barely escapes detection when others come upon the scene.  Immediately after the murders, Raskolnikov falls ill, a representation of his mental anguish and the unacknowledged guilt he is feeling.  Throughout the rest of the story, he wrestles with his conscience, unwilling to admit that what he did was morally wrong.  Thankfully, not all the attention is focused on Raskolnikov.  The other characters help not only to flesh out his story;  they add some much needed color to this dark tale.  There is his bigger than life friend, Razumikhin, who nurses him back to good health.  Also arriving soon after the murders are his sister and mother.  His sister is engaged to Luzhin, a despicable lawyer who wants a woman who will be beholden to him financially and thus obedient to his demands.  Porfiry, the detective investigating the murders, is an investigator on par with Sherlock Holmes.  His use of psychological games to get Raskolnikov to confess keeps the reader on the edge of their chair.  Then there is Sonia, the daughter of a drunkard father who has been forced into prostitution to help her family.  A woman with a pure heart, she is the key to Raskolnikov’s ultimate redemption.  Crime and Punishment has strong religious overtones and is Dostoevsky’s argument against the consequences of nihilism, a popular theory taking hold across Europe and Russia when this book was written.  The main theme, to me though, is a simple one: that a crime such as murder inflicts a mental punishment more severe than prison ever can.  Even if one has read this novel before, a second reading offers a greater appreciation of its complexity.

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Cutting For Stone / Abraham Verghese

After writing two acclaimed books of nonfiction, physician-author Abraham Verghese tries his hand at his first work of fiction with Cutting for Stone.  Having read and enjoyed The Tennis Partner, his second book, I was eager to see how he fared in a fictional world.  My main complaint about The Tennis Partner was the author’s propensity to lapse into melodrama.  This was held in check by the fact that he was dealing with a true story.  However, without this constraint, the melodramatic elements in Cutting for Stone predominate.  It is a family saga set in Ethiopia and the United States.  Marion and Shiva are identical twins born of a secret union between an Indian nun and a gifted British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa.  Marion, the story’s narrator, opens the book by chronicling the death of his mother in childbirth, his father’s disappearance immediately after, and the twins’ adoption by another female Indian doctor at the mission.  This opening section, while interesting, is overly long and slow in making its point.  It is a problem that occurs throughout the novel.  There is much to like about this story—its Ethiopian setting, the medical operations described, and description of immigrant physicians working in poor, urban American hospitals.  I know many people who have read and loved Cutting for Stone.  I myself thought the help of a good editor would have made it a much better book.  As it was, I found myself disappointed.  Still, I acknowledge the difficulty for a writer to move from nonfiction to fiction, or vice versa.  Verghese is to be commended for taking on such an ambitious saga in his first work of fiction.  While he stumbled in the attempt, I look forward to his next try where it is likely that practice will make perfect.

 

The Marriage Plot / Jeffrey Eugenides

In The Marriage Plot, Eugenides takes the reader back to the early 1980s and College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island.  While the country is suffering a deep recession, the students at Brown University, like students everywhere, are living in a world all their own.  Anyone who has experienced campus life will enjoy Eugenides’ dead-on description of how university students think and act.  Madeleine Hanna is an English major and writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, focusing on the marriage plot theme in their novels.  Since childhood, Madeleine has escaped into the classic novels from the nineteenth-century, focusing especially on the romances.  In the first three years of college life she has yet to experience true love.  While she has become close to one young man, their relationship has remained platonic.  The young man in question is Mitchell Grammaticus, a religion major, and he is clearly smitten with her.  Then a charismatic loner turns up and the sparks fly for Madeleine.  Leonard Bankhead is seemingly everything she has ever wished for—highly intelligent, humorous, with boundless energy.  However, he has a secret that only comes to light later: he suffers from bipolar disease.  Eugenides follows these three characters for the next three years as they go through graduation and venture out into the world beyond College Hill.  Mitchell, heartbroken over Madeleine’s infatuation with Leonard, heads off to Europe and India on a religious quest.  Madeleine and Leonard move in together, and she helps nurse him back to health after hospitalization for severe depression.  All three characters are fully fleshed out by the author, and their “warts and all” portrayals endeared them to this reader.  The book touches on many themes—the meaning of life, the sexual revolution, religion and literature, but most of all on the true nature of love.  The book’s ending took me by surprise, pleasantly so, when the three of them meet up again in the concluding chapters.   This intimate novel of friendship and relationships is blessed by the author’s subtle use of wit and his clear affection for his characters.  It a wonderful novel, ambitious in scope, tender at heart, and fun to read.

Race The Moon

Stoic, mute throughout,
for a parade of seasons it has produced
the requisite fruits and leaves.
Bent with the wind
and endured the blistering midday heat.
Envious of flight,
has nightly tracked the moon and dreamt
in slumber’s elasticity
of being unencumbered by roots, too.

Lonely for the past century,
anticipating the gift of a warm embrace,
it has hoped for such a marriage.
Now with the world
snowbound and seemingly frozen solid,
wedded to flame, it is
about to be consumed, reduced to ash.
Dispersed on four winds,
untethered tonight, it will race the moon.

Crackling in anticipation,
its euphonic voice has been found at last.

Cancer Clown

I know a secretary
who on the weekends becomes
a cancer clown.
Calling herself The Funny Bone,
every Saturday,
she performs in the ward’s
drafty atrium.
In a fluorescent orange wig
and bulbous nose
that glows after soft pratfalls,
she pantomimes
being shortsighted and clumsy.
While her garish
painted smile might frighten,
the hugs bestowed
at show’s end are heart-felt.
Like birds queuing
at a feeder, every last child,
timid and giggly,
waits for the healing balm
of that embrace.

Dominant Hand

The dominant hand
is the one held out for a handshake.
That reaches first to meet
the other in a hug.
Orchestrates the alphabet into
a story or poem.
Initiates the clasp beseeching
mercy’s forgiveness.
Coaxes a purr from a snuggling cat.
Lingers on a lover’s skin.
Guides a child crossing the street.
And yet, folded,
it becomes a potential weapon.
An ancient reflex
sparked by a surge of adrenalin,
its history goes back
to the roots of our existence.
When clenched,
cocked, and loaded, tiptoe
with caution,
there is no talking sense to it.
The dominant hand is
always dangerous when armed.