The Idiot by Fydor Dostoevsky

“Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 780 pages.
Re-read from April 28, 2021 to May 25, 2021.
First read December 21, 2010 to December 28, 2010.

I never imagined that I would be rereading this classic novel 10 years down the road, however, reading this novel the second time around and with a book club gave me even more appreciation for the author and the story.

Small crew to discuss this book but the group leader got us some great mugs with which I then proceeded to drink my beer out of.

First published in 1869, the English translation wasn’t available for this book until the early 20th century. The Idiot begins with the protagonist Myshkin arriving back in Russia after a stint at a Swiss sanitorium. Perceived as an ‘idiot’ for both his epilepsy, honesty, kindness, and naivety Myshkin attempts to navigate Russia high society. Surrounded by greed, lust, drama, and power-hungry individuals, it’s no wonder Myshkin is perceived as an idiot by his peers. However, his otherworldly perspective and kindness do not go unnoticed, drawing his attention to two very different women with which, he will falls in love with them both.

The question that seems to be raised by Dostoevsky is that is it possible for someone to be completely authentic, honest, genuine, and kind without bringing ruin to others and specifically themselves? The Idiot appears to hold a mirror up to Russian society in the late 19th century which, as an exceptional realist writer, Dostoevsky pulls off beautifully. The highlights of the book come from Myshkin’s interactions with the female characters and antagonist, it’s where you feel the most invested in the book. The faults with this book are its length and an extensive cast of characters that, due to Russian naming, makes them difficult to keep track of. Each character serves a purpose in showing the faults and varying virtues of Russian society to give a deeper idea of Myshkin and his ideals. The story also makes extensive references to Christianity and Dostoevsky’s personal views on religion. The novel itself ends tragically which, is no surprise there as many Russian novels do, especially Dostoevsky’s.

While The Idiot made less of an impact on me than Crime and Punishment it is still a unique piece of Dostoevsky’s work that appears to be more personal than his other writings. While the length of the book is somewhat off-putting it made for an exceptional book club discussion. It may not be a book for your average reader but if you enjoy classics, Russian literature, or historical fiction you will find value in this book.

The Mermaid of Jeju by Sumi Hahn

“The half moon disappeared behind a cloud, casting the scene into darkness. The silence between the boy and girl expanded. It filled with memories of promises made, words that the world had broken.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 300 pages.
Read from March 25, 2021 to March 31, 2021.

I’ve always been fascinated by the women on Jeju Island that, for generations, have been deep-sea diving to feed their families and community. This amazing group of divers are known as haenyeo.

“The ocean sucked each diver down greedily. But the women were prepared for battle. They swiped their knives at the fingers of the sea grass that clutched at them. They used picks to pry away shells clinging to underwater rocks. They worked the waters, humming the chants of their forebearing mothers, who had explored the deep before them.”

Set in the mid-1940s, Korea is undergoing massive change at the end of WWII with the forced withdrawal of Japanese that have occupied Korea for decades. Junja is a young woman who has recently joined the ranks of haenyeo after surviving the rite of passage from a treacherous dive. Junja, who has never left her village, convinces her mother that she is old enough and responsible enough to take the annual delivery to the mountains. During this trip, she meets a young boy named Suwol who ends up rescuing her from a dangerous situation on the road. Shook by the encounter on the road, she is equally as smitten with Suwol. Unfortunately, the quiet village where Junja lives is not immune to the political changes affecting her country with the massive upheaval left with the withdrawal of the Japanese. Nationalists now contend with Communists and the US troops have taken the place of the Japanese. When Junja returns home, she finds her mother dead. It was claimed that she drowned and was battered at sea but the real story of her death is much more harrowing. Junja is devastated. As she drowns in her grief, her siblings are sent away to live with their estranged father while she remains at home with her grandmother. Junja’s world will never be the same and she must make a choice and learn to get through the storm of changes. 

This book started strongly and captivated me with its gorgeous writing and heartbreaking outcomes. The story spans over a few decades, as it begins with where Junja ends up later in life and how her story comes full circle in the end. The rich depictions of the haenyeo and their life in this small sea village are beautiful and visceral while the plot also highlights important parts of Korean heritage and history. 

“Here is a secret: Long long time ago, when I was a girl, I was a mermaid, too.” 

The last half of the book felt less cohesive than the first causing my interest to wane near the end of the novel. It’s still a beautiful story with great characters that paint a picture of a mythical, turbulent and resilient Korea. Historical-fiction lovers will enjoy Junja’s story as well as anyone interested in post-war history or coming of age stories.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

“The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion . . . open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details and irony.”

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 508 pages.
Read from January 10, 2021 to January 18, 2021.

This book has been on my TBR list for years and while it was supposed to be a selection for the book club I’m in it was changed due to it being a bit too long for a monthly selection. I decided that I would still take the opportunity to read it as it had been on my list for so long.

My Name is Red is a unique piece that manages to interweave a murder-mystery plot with a love story, that takes place in a historical setting, that also pays tribute to the creation and development of Ottoman art and culture in the shadow of the West and influence. The result? A finely crafted piece of literature. The story revolves around a group of miniaturists, one of whom is murdered. One of the three remaining artists is responsible but you won’t find out who until the end. Miniaturists were artists that would work together to paint manuscripts and within the Ottoman empire, these works were often a collaboration with a head artist coming up with the plan and outline and passing off the remaining work to apprentices. These manuscripts, despite their beauty, were rarely signed by their creators which, differs greatly from the Western traditions of art. This is one of the main points of conflict in the book as some of the artists are under coming under this new Western influence. As the murder mystery unfolds, a love story also takes hold that counterbalances some of the violence in the story as well as the more factual artistic and historical references. Pamuk’s writing style and unique narrative approach are elegant, poetic, and complete with wonderful and memorable quotes that leave a lasting mark.

“Colour is the touch of the eye, music to the deaf, a word out of the darkness.”

My Name is Red is an outstanding piece of literature that brings awareness to the culture and art of the Ottoman’s in the 15th century. However, if this is not an area you’re familiar with, it can make the book harder to appreciate or understand. Don’t let that stop you from reading this book though as it is a meticulously written novel that has a beautiful read with an immensely captivating story. Books like this one, help to turn attention to places that produced phenomenal art that was generally overlooked within the Western canon.

“In actuality, we don’t look for smiles in pictures of bliss, but rather, for the happiness in life itself. Painters know this, but this is preciously what they cannot depict. That’s why they substitute the joy of seeing for the joy of life.”

My three-star rating has to do more with my own reading experience as I wish I had done a little bit of prior research just before picking up this book. I would recommend these steps for maximum enjoyment before reading this novel. Knowing what a miniaturist is a good place to start as well as getting a visual for what types of works these artists produced and how they were used and read. Thankfully, Wikipedia has a decent summary that won’t eat too much of your time. A highly recommended read for historical fiction lovers and anyone with an art appreciation.

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