The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald: from Novella to Movie

Florence Green is a middle-aged widow living in the coastal town of Hardborough, in Suffolk, England, 1959. She has been a resident there for some years but stays close to herself. While not being an outsider per se, her life in Hardborough has been unnoticeable, that is, until her plan of opening a bookshop begins to materialize.

Florence acquires and moves into a dilapidated building called The Old House. The front operates as a bookshop while she lives in the back. Innocuous enough, until she is confronted by the rich and powerful Mrs. Violet Gamart, “the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough.” Mrs. Gamart makes it clear that she’d always wanted to turn the Old House into an arts centre. For seven years it has remained empty and now that Florence has purchased it to open her bookshop does Mrs. Gamart want to replace it with her own plan.

Mrs. Gamart’s wilful obstruction of Florence’s bookshop draws out the infirm recluse Mr. Brundish, a book lover and whose family has roots in Hardborough for generations. In nothing short of an heroic act, he ventures out to confront the powerful socialite.

The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978, only one year after Fitzgerald’s debut novel, and in 1979, she won the prize with Offshore. Hermione Lee in her biography of Penelope Fitzgerald writes in the intro:

She was first published at sixty and became famous at eighty. This is a story of lateness, patience and persistence: a private form of heroism.

In just 118 pages, Fitzgerald tells a story that’s as calm as the surface of this inert fishing town, while underneath the quiet facade are bubbling currents of emotions and wilful malice. Not that Mrs. Gamart doesn’t like books, she wants an arts centre with speakers giving talks and live music playing. What’s brewing inside her could well be the urge for power play, to control, or just plain malice.

Fitzgerald is an astute observer of human foibles. Take Milo, a writer (or merely aspiring?) who seems to be helpful to Florence, Fitzgerald has these words for him:

Gentleness is not kindness. His fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage.

Even in such a small community, there’s acute disparity, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the grammar school and the Technical, and consequently, success and failure. Take Christine, the eleven year-old who helps Florence in her shop. As her mother says, failing to enter grammar school and heading to the Technical would mean the difference between rising above her lot or ‘pegging laundry all her life’.

But this is also a comedy of manners. Fitzgerald reveals her characters with refreshing and amusing ways. At the beginning of the book, Florence encounters Mr. Raven, who needs help with his horse’s teeth. Here’s the excerpt:

‘Now, Mrs. Green, if you’d catch hold of the tongue. I wouldn’t ask everybody, but I know you don’t frighten.’

‘How do you know?’ she asked.

‘They’re saying that you’re about to open a bookshop. That shows you’re ready to chance some unlikely things.’

So, how does a relatively uneventful story about a small-town widow opening a bookshop transpose onto the screen? Spanish director Isabel Coixet wrote the screenplay and took the liberty to create some dramatic moments for the visual medium.

First off, she lets a narrator tell the story in the form of voiceover. The immediate effect is a more intimate storytelling, but the most crucial effect comes at the end. I’m withholding any revealing, for I don’t want to spill out spoilers; I can say that is quite effective.

Coixet has an experienced cast on her hands. Emily Mortimer plays Florences Green with a respectful loyalty to the book protagonist. And the added scene by the sea with old Mr. Brundish offers a moving moment. Bill Nighy’s portrayal of Mr. Brundish is poignant. Unfortunately, he’s not given much screen time. Neither is Patricia Clarkson, who aptly delivers Mrs. Gamart’s snobbery with chilling resolves.

The single plot line focuses more on Florence and her young helper Christine (Honor Kneafsey) rather than having Florence establish deeper relational interplay with the adult characters. While the aesthetics are appealing, the overall story needs some spicing up. The twist at the end is effective but the spark comes just a little too late. However, if you’re a fan of period dramas, or anyone in the cast, check this out as it can offer two calm and relaxing hours.

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The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, first edition published in the UK by Gerald Duckworth, 1978, 118 pages. I read the ebook via OverDrive.

Check out what others are reading in this Novellas in November 2021 event at Rebecca’s and Cathy’s blogs.

NOVNOV posts on Ripple Effects:

My List of Novellas in November and their Screen Adaptations

Novellas in November… and their Screen Adaptations

Thanks to Rebecca of Bookish Beck and Cathy of 746 Books for hosting this event for a few years now, albeit this is the first time I join in. Looking at the stacks of book suggestions and reading their lists prompted me to jump on the bandwagon.

Keeping with Ripple Effects’ focus, I’ve selected four novellas for each week of November, books that have a movie adaptation or one in development. I’ll discuss both versions when I post. Here’s my list.

WEEK 1

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Emily Mortimer in The Bookshop

English writer Penelope Fitzgerald started her literary career as a biographer. Then in 1977, at the age of 60, she published her first novel. Over the next five years, she published four more. The Bookshop (1978) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and in the following year, she won the prize with Offshore (1979).

The Bookshop is adapted into a movie in 2017 by Spanish director Isabel Coixet. Cast includes Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, and Patricia Clarkson. Filming location is Northern Ireland. Now streaming on Kanopy.com

WEEK 2

Passing by Nella Larsen

Chicago born author Nella Larsen is the daughter of a Dutch mother and a father of mixed race Afro-Caribbean from Danish West Indies. With that multiplicity in racial background and the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920’s and 1930’s NYC, Larsen wrote Passing (1929) about blacks passed as white in an acutely discriminatory society.

The movie adaptation is the directorial debut of English actress Rebecca Hall. Now, why would she be interested, or ‘qualified’ to appropriate this topic, write the screenplay and direct the film?

During interviews, Hall had revealed her own mixed race ancestry: her maternal grandfather was a light-skinned black man who had ‘passed’ as white. Learning about this hidden past of her family has realigned her own identity and prompted her to appreciate her ancestral roots.

Passing is currently released in select theatres for a limited time, and will be on Netflix beginning November 10, 2021.

WEEK 3

Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton

A lesser known novella by Wharton. Two sisters run a milliner shop decorating bonnets in a rundown neighbourhood of NYC. Leave them in Pulitzer winning Wharton’s hands, their story must be worth telling. I’m always intrigued by what sparks a filmmaker to take up the adaptation of a particular literary work. This will be another opportunity to find out.

Wharton’s most well-known film adaptation is perhaps The Age of Innocent. Bunner Sisters is a much smaller project and hopefully not less poignant. The TV movie is currently filming.

WEEK 4

Breakfast at Tiffany by Truman Capote

Capote’s 1958 novella has long become a contemporary classic with an equally renown adaptation that ignited the stardom of Audrey Hepburn. She has turned Holly Golightly from just a character to a symbol, just like Cat, the stray she finds in the alley.

The movie won two Oscars, both for the score and the song. The song? ‘Moon River’ by Henry Mancini of course. I still remember clearly the scene where Holly sits on the open window sill strumming a guitar and singing the song longingly. Thanks to Novella in November, I’ll take this time to reread and rewatch.

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Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write by Claire Messud

Intrigued by the title? I was, and that prompted me to investigate further. The subtitle pushed me out of indecision: an autobiography in essays. I’ve read two of Messud’s novels, The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs, both I couldn’t embrace wholeheartedly. However, the title of this non-fiction jumped out at me.

I’ve appreciated Claire Messud the memoirist and critic much more than Messud the fiction writer, albeit I admit I’ve read only two of her seven novels. The first part of this autobiography in essays reveals her multicultural roots and the various geographical locales that had made up who she is as a writer. A French father born in colonial Algeria and a Canadian mother, what an interesting fusion of culture.

Messud has left footprints and therefore collected memories in many parts of the world. She writes about her growing up years moving from Connecticut to Australia then to Canada and back to the United States, and later her travel to Beirut, an emotionally torn, love trip both for her dying father who had spent his childhood there with fond memories, and for herself.

In the eponymous essay, ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head’, she writes:

“I can echo Walt Whitman in asserting that ‘I contain multitudes.’ I am who I am because I was where I was, when I was; and almost all of it is invisible to the world. This is true, of course, for each of us” (80).

Messud is generous in sharing the intimacies of her family relationships, especially those of her parents’ and grandparents’. I’ve found too that certain parts of her novels are based on real life experiences and encounters, e.g. the character Cassie in The Burning Girl.

The second part is both taxing and satisfying as she critiques on various international writers and artists, making up a good list for me to explore. Even though I haven’t read some of them or seen their artwork, I find the essays informative, insightful, and exemplary in critique writing. Her prose is elegant and inspiring, and at times, exhilarating.

The Camus essays are captivating for me in terms of the historical backdrop and political situations of Algiers and the tough handling by the then French government. Camus the pacifist had to confront issues of violence, colonization and post-colonial dilemmas.

Her essay on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go elicits more poignancy from the already devastating fate of the characters Kathy and Tommy. In particular, she sheds new light into the moving scene where Kathy embraces the pop song Never Let Me Go longingly.

The essay on the photographer Sally Mann is mesmerizing. In an interview, Mann had said, “unless you photograph what you love, you are not going to make good art… it’s always been my philosophy to make art out of the everyday, the ordinary” (290).

Herein lies the dilemma of privacy and art making as Mann had candidly photographed her children growing up and her husband who is afflicted by muscular dystrophy, thus making her a highly controversial artist. Anyway, herein lies the dilemma of a memoirist, I suppose, like Messud’s book, there has to be the revealing of relational intimacy and private lives in order to imbue authenticity and truths in an autobiography.

Back to the essay ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head’, Messud has, in her ingenious way, explains to her readers how she gets the title from. I’ll leave it with you to explore instead of me clumsily paraphrase. However, I’d like to conclude by quoting this moving episode of Messud and her mother who was afflicted with dementia:

“In the last two years of her life, she was often quiet––she who had been so vitally social––and once, as she sat in silence, I asked her what she was thinking. With a wry and wistful smile, she answered, “Shards of memory, and new worlds discovered”(82).

To store up and share fragments gleaned from the ruins of the past is just one of the reasons for Messud to write, as well, for her readers to collect and keep in our own trove containing our own shards of memory, as we all share the magic of these lived experiences through the literary and the arts.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write: an autobiography in essays by Claire Messud, W.W. Norton & Company, NY, 2020. 306 pages.

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Your Summer Reads into Movies and TV Series 2021 – 2022

Enjoying your summer reading by the lake? Here are some upcoming adaptations to be released this year or in 2022, books you might have read or to lengthen your TBR list:

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

This is the first of the eight published novels by Toews to be adapted into film. Her Mennonite background growing up in Steinbach, Manitoba, informs her writing. A story of two sisters as the elder, an accomplished concert pianist, struggles with severe depression. To premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this September.

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Coming out as a British mini TV series in the fall of 2021. Marital relationship, or extra, the issue of consent, and courtroom drama. Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley of Downton) is a good choice for a prosecutor with a baggage, and Rupert Friend looks just right as a cunning politician. The audiobook is a good summer listen by the pool.

The Last Duel by Eric Jager

Historical thriller based on a true story (so says the trailer) during the Hundred Years’ War, a knight came home from combat to hear his wife accuse the squire of rape. Indecision in the court of law leads to decision by a duel. A stellar cast with Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck. To premiere at the Venice Film Festival this September.

The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

After the underwhelming 2011 movie that starred Matthew McConaughey, a remake as a Netflix TV series developed by David E. Kelly sounds exciting. Kelly is a writer/producer who has eleven Primetime Emmys under his belt, his latest for Big Little Lies. Good to hear Christopher Gorham the CIA super tech in Covert Affairs (2010-2014) also on board.

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s full feature directorial debut. Enticing cast: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Jessie Buckley, Paul Mescal, Ed Harris. A woman enjoying some alone time at the beach helps a mother to find her lost daughter, an experience that triggers her memory of lost and found.

The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Not till I started reading Horowitz did I find out several TV series are based on his works, e.g. Alex Rider and Foyle’s War, or with some of his screenplays like Midsomer Murders, just to name a few. The Magpie Murders is now a mini-series on PBS Masterpiece. I’m eager to see Lesley Manville play Susan Ryeland, the publisher turned amateur sleuth in the book.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Since its publication in 2017, buzz of the adaptation of this National Book Award finalist has been sounding and now, finally, Lee’s fan of the Korean family saga will be pleased to know it’s coming out as an Apple TV series this year. K-drama aficionados will appreciate the star-studded cast. What more, the newest Oscar best actress winner Youn Yuh-jung, the eccentric grandma in Minari, will be on board.

The Silent Patient / The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

After working as a relatively unknown screenwriter, Michaelides hit the mark with his psychological thriller The Silent Patient and catapulted to the bestsellers lists. His debut novel has since been optioned by Brad Pitt’s Plan B production. The Maidens is in development as a TV series. Looks like a screenwriter has the insider knowhow to write a novel that’s screen-ready, big or small.

Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter

There’s no shortage of crime mystery and thrillers to feed the streaming platforms and production co’s. Another Netflix series adapting another prolific crime writer. This is the first of Slaughter’s 18 novels to be adapted for the screen. A violent incident at the mall exposes a secret past of a mother whose daughter suddenly realizes she doesn’t know her mother at all. Toni Collette stars.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

A cast to remake the 200+ year-old novel for a new era. This is British theatre director Carrie Cracknell’s (National Theatre Live) film debut, helming a production with Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot and Henry Golding, of Crazy Rich Asians fame, as Mr. Elliot, obviously not the gout-ridden old man but Anne’s cousin. I’d like to see him as Captain Frederick Wentworth though.

Three Pines by Louise Penny

Left Bank Pictures is producing a series based on the acclaimed Canadian crime writer Louise Penny’s novels for Amazon. French Canadian Chief Inspector Armand Gamache from the fictional community of Three Pines in Quebec will have a life on the streaming platform. Left Bank is the producer of The Crown on Netflix.

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Some previous lists here and here.

The Brothers Karamazov Part IV and Epilogue: Hope and Redemption

The main thrust and climax of the novel is in Part IV with the courtroom drama of Dmitri on trial for killing his father Fyodor Karamazov. Worthy of any writer of legal thriller to emulate, both the prosecutor Ippolit Kirrillovich’s and the defence attorney from Moscow Fetyukovich’s closing speeches are epic in their scope.

The trial is a spectacle not only locally but the case has ‘resounded throughout Russia.” It would have been a viral streaming in today’s online media. Interesting to note that the opinion of Dmitri’s guilt is divided along gender lines: “many ladies quarrelled hotly with their husbands” as they like to see an acquittal while men want Dmitri locked up and sent to Siberia. Now, such polarized views within a family is another phenom we’re familiar with nowadays.

Prosecutor Kirrillovich knows how to pull the strings of the jury made up of twelve men. They all have preconceived ideas of what the name Karamazov stands for: sensual, unprincipled, depraved. They’ve come to take revenge on a reckless murderer who has committed parricide. The Brothers Karamazov could well have inspired Sidney Lumet’s classic film 12 Angry Men.

Kirrillovich’s beginning remark is notable. While the case has caught raving interests across the country, the alleged cudgelling of a father by his son with a pestle is no longer a surprise, and that’s his commentary on society at large:

“We’re so used to all that! And here is the real horror, that such dark affairs have almost ceased to horrify us! It is this, and not the isolated crime of one individual or another, that should horrify us: that we are so used to it… our lukewarm attitude towards such affairs, such signs of the times, which prophesy for us an enviable future?”

Signs of the times? In 1880? Just wonder what Dostoevsky would think if he were around today.

Defence attorney Fetyukovich draws the twelve men of the jury from their emotions back to rationale, for the evidences presented by the prosecutors are circumstantial as no one has actually seen Dimitri commit the murder. ‘Since he was in the garden that night, he must have killed him’ just wouldn’t stand as an argument, the same with since he had money with him that night, he must have stolen from his father for the sum after killing him. Above all, that Dmitri is ‘stormy and unbridled’ and has offended many in town doesn’t lead to the conclusion that he is the murderer.

That is precisely the war waging inside Dmitri, while he may be reckless and unscrupulous, and admittedly a scoundrel, he’s also a passionate human being, honest with his feelings and thoughts, and earnestly seeks spiritual redemption for his sins. But the murder of his father he vehemently denies.

Who killed Foydor Karamazov? Before he hangs himself, the lackey Smerdyakov has confessed everything to Ivan, including the premeditated faking of a debilitating fall as an alibi, the detailed sequence of events, the actual weapon used, and how he hid the money stolen from the old man. So, it’s unfortunate he didn’t live to confess in court. Did he kill himself to frame Dmitri? I’m inclined to think so, a scheming fool such as he. Smerdyakov reminds me of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield.

While leading the jurors to use their rationale in the first part of his speech, the orator Fetyukovich appeals to their pathos later to conclude. Alluding to Christ and other Biblical references, he calls for the salvation and regeneration of a soul. Dostoevsky has presented a foil between the prosecutor and the defence attorney: one calls for judgement, the other, mercy.

In the forward of the novel, the author has stated that his hero is the youngest son Alyosha, the one who comes out of the monastery and goes into the world. But in the courtroom chapters, Alyosha plays a minimal role. In the wrapping up of the whole book, the last chapter of the Epilogue, Dostoevsky lets Alyosha have the final words. In the school boy Ilyushechka’s funeral, Alyosha rouses up Ilyushechka’s school mates––the next generation of Russian youth––to a pledge of love and goodness:

“… let us all be as generous and brave as Ilyushechka… dear friends, do not be afraid of life! How good life is when you do something good and rightful!”

“Yes, yes,” the boys repeated ecstatically.

“Karamazov, we love you!” a voice, which seemed to be Kartashov’s exclaimed irrepressibly.

“We love you, we love you,” everyone joined in. Many had tears shining in their eyes.

…..

“Karamazov!” cried Kolya, “can it really be true as religion says, that we shall all rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again, and everyone, and Ilyushechka?”

“Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been,” Alyosha replied, half laughing, half in ecstasy.

“Ah, how good that will be!” burst from Kolya.

…..

“And eternally so, all our lives hand in hand! Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya cried once more ecstatically, and once more all the boys joined in his exclamation.

Ah… the redemption of the name Karamazov.

***

Hope you have enjoyed this Read Along. Here are the links to the previous sections on Ripple Effects:

Part I: What a Family!
Part II: What Sparks Joy
Part III: The Murder Mystery Begins

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The Brothers Karamazov Part III: The Murder Mystery Begins

In Part III, Alyosha leaves the monastery, following Zosima’s bidding to ‘sojourn the world’. Why, there are more important matters for him to deal with, right in his own family. He has wanted to talk with Dmitri, but hasn’t the chance. Apparently a little too late, for Part III tells the major incident of the book: the patriarch of the Karamazov family, Fyodor Pavlovich, is murdered.

Compared to Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s description of the sequence of events leading to the crime and the psychological aftermath here is not as dark and even enlivened with a dash of comedic effects. Previously in TBK, he has gone into intense debates on the existence of God, or discourse on faith and the Church, Part III offers a different style of storytelling, an intriguing murder mystery, an absorbing who dunnit.

Having said that, it must be noted that the internal conflicts of the characters, the complex emotions of passion and jealousy, guilt and the search for redemption can all be found in this mixed bag of a novel.

Here are the events leading to the crime. Dmitri, or Mitya, is totally obsessed with Grushenka, and wants desperately to find three thousand roubles which he owes Kakterina, his former fiancé, to pay her back so to redeem himself, then, he can go chase after Grushenka blamelessly and not as a scoundrel. Umm…

After trying other means to no avail, he heads to Madame Khokhlakov to urge her to lend him the three thousand, knowing that she doesn’t like him all along and doesn’t want her good friend Katerina to marry him anyway. So, she’d likely be willing to lend him three thousand to be rid of him. Here’s his rationale:

“If she is so much against my marrying Katerina Ivanovna, then why should she deny my three thousand now, when this money would precisely enable me to leave Katya and clear out of here forever?’ (383) Umm… kind of far-fetched, but Dostoevsky is like telling his reader to just humour him and read on, as this is probably the funniest chapter in the book.

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Here it is: Book Eight, Chapter 3. Madame Khokhlakov (MK) is surprisingly agreeable when Dmitri (DF) goes to her home to plead for a loan of three thousand.

MK: You need three thousand, but I will give you more, infinitely more, I will save you, Dmitri Fyodorovich, but you must do as I say!

DF: Madame, can you possibly be so kind! Oh, Lord, you’ve saved me… You are saving a man from a violent death, madame, from a bullet… My eternal gratitude…

MK: Enough, Dmitri Fyodorovich, it’s said and done… I’ve promised to save you, and I will save you. What do you think about gold mines, Dmitri Fyodorovich?

DF: Gold mines, madame! I’ve never thought anything about them.

MK: But I have thought for you! I’ve thought and thought about it! I’ve been watching you for a whole month with that in mind. I’ve looked at you a hundred times as you walked by, saying to myself: here is an energetic man who must go to the mines. I even studied your gait and decided: this man will find many mines.

Why, the title of the Chapter is, precisely, ‘Gold Mines’.

________

So, Dmitri leaves Madame Khokhlakov’s place empty-handed and in a fury. He goes to Grushenka’s home and is told that she has left. Seeing Dmitri, Grushenka’s maid Fenya ‘screamed to high heaven.’

19th Century Russian Brass Mortar and Pestle

Then the thought comes to him. Driven by jealousy and passion, he dashes to Fyodor Pavlovich’s house. The old man is probably hiding Grushenka there, and he could get that three thousand from Fyodor, the money after all is his sooner or later as inheritance. In an impulsive action, he snatches a brass pestle from the mortar and shoves it into his side pocket as he runs out of Grushenka’s home.

In the dark of night, on the fence of his father’s garden, Dmitri commits a crime. The old servant Grigory is hit on the head by the pestle, lying there on the ground unconscious and bleeding profusely.

Soon, Dostoevsky the mystery writer reveals to us another crime has also been committed around that time. Foydor Pavlovich Karamazov is found ‘lying on his back, on the floor of his study, with his head smashed in.’ (461)

That night, Dmitri finds Grushenka in another town. She has gone to an inn to reunite with her former fiancé but finds him not the same man she used to know. She decides to reunite with Dmitri instead. Just as the two reignite the flame and bask in a renewed relationship, the police commissioner, the prosecutor, and the district attorney show up to arrest Dmitri for the murder of his father.

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Previously on Ripple: TBK Part I and Part II

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How are you enjoying your read?

Check out these posts from other TBK Read-Along bloggers:

Dolce Bellezza

Necromancy Never Pays

The Naptime Author Anne Clare

The Brothers Karamazov Part II: What Sparks Joy

“They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.”

Nope, not a quote from Marie Kondo, although she’d totally agree. Fyodor Dostoevsky got that way back in 1880.

As the story unfolds, it looks like joy is what all the characters are searching for whether they know it or not, in their own way and circumstance, through the choices they make.

As rivals for the same woman Grushenka, the old man Fyodor is no match for his son Dmitri. Part I ends with his ex-military son storming into his house to look for Grushenka, thinking Fyodor has hidden her there. In a frantic scene, Dmitri ‘seized the old man by the two surviving wisps of hair on his temples, pulled, and smashed him against the floor. He even had time to kick the fallen man in the face two or three times with his heel.’ (139)

In Part II, Dostoevsky continues with the morning after, painting a comical Fyodor with purple bruises on his forehead which was wrapped in a red handkerchief, and his swollen, notable nose:

“Meanwhile he got up worriedly and looked in the mirror (perhaps already for the fortieth time that morning) at his nose. He also began to arrange the red handkerchief on his forehead in a more becoming way.” (172)

The comic relief could well be to set up for an intense chapter to come later. As he plans to leave for Moscow the next day and never return to this mess of a family, Ivan the intellectual and aspiring writer shares with his younger brother Alyosha his poem, which he relays in prose in the famous chapter ‘The Grand Inquisitor.’

Referring to the Inquisition instigated by the Roman Catholic Church spanning several centuries in the Middle Ages, where a papal tribunal would judge and send those who were deemed heretic to be burned at the stake, this chapter could well be Dostoevsky’s critique of the Church. He uses acerbic sarcasm to drive his point home.

In this chapter, the ‘heretic’ the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor puts on trial inside a prison cell is none other than Christ Himself. The Inquisitor’s fierce accusation is that Christ is obstructing what the Church is doing – a scornful irony:

“… on your departure, you handed the work over to us… you gave us the right to bind and loose, and surely you cannot even think of taking this right away from us now. Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?”

Christ’s grave error, according to The Grand Inquisitor, is that He had ‘overestimated’ man in thinking they would pursue freedom and the transcendent, misdirecting them to false gratification such as the spiritual, raising the bar too high. When tempted by Satan He should have turned stone into bread, for man does live on bread alone and would gladly exchange their free will for it, all because ‘man is created weaker and baser than you thought him!’ (256)

“Better that you enslave us, but feed us… give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread.” (253-4)

While Christ aims at pointing man to the spiritual, man seeks physical solutions and an end to their poverty. They would rather have the authority take over so they can be rid of the burden that comes with the freedom of choice, and that is exactly what The Grand Inquisitor says he, i.e. the Church, has done.   

Another accusation: Christ did not come down from the cross when taunted ‘because, again, [He] did not want to enslave man by a miracle but honoured faith that is out of free will.’ A misjudgement, the Grand Inquisitor mocked; this too is heresy.

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To counteract such intense and harsh criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, in the rest of Part II Dostoevsky presents another perspective. It could well be the different sides of struggles in the author’s mind, issues that are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but which only reflect the complexity and often co-existence of faith and doubt, idealism and reality.

One man who has understood what it’s like to seek what Christ has intended and found transcendent joy is Father Zosima. Part II wraps up with Alyosha’s tribute to his mentor upon the Elder’s death.

In contrast to The Grand Inquisitor, and as if to answer his own critical judgment on the Church, Dostoevsky furnishes his readers with Elder Zosima’s biography and teachings compiled by Alyosha. Despite a childhood devoted to God influenced by the conversion of his brother shortly before his death, Zosima entered the military Cadet Corps in Petersburg and turned into a ‘wild, cruel, and absurd creature’, pulling him into ‘a life of pleasure, with all the impetuousness of youth, without restraint, under full sail.’ (296)

A sudden spiritual epiphany opens his eyes resulting in a conversion that changes his whole being. He asks forgiveness of his servant whom he’d beaten the night before, as well as the adversary with whom he is supposed to have a duel that day.

These ending chapters of Part II are a joy to read, for they are fresh and positive, a huge contrast to The Grand Inquisitor’s accusations of the failure of man. It is here that leads to the quote in the beginning of this post… Zosima’s gentle critique of his fellowmen:

“The idea of serving mankind, of the brotherhood and oneness of people, is fading more and more in the world… They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.” (314)

From the powerful but fallible religious institution represented by The Grand Inquisitor to the loving and seemingly powerless Zosima who finds joy and meaning in Christ, Dostoevsky has presented a foil in characterization. The last portrait of Zosima is one of peace and serenity:

“he––suffering, but still looking at them with a smile––silently lowered himself from his armchair to the floor and knelt, then bowed down with his face to the ground, stretched out his arms, and, as if in joyful ecstasy, kissing the earth and praying, quietly and joyfully gave up his soul to God.” (324)

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Have you written a post on TBK Part II? Let me know so I can link you here. Hope you’re enjoying your read.

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Dolce Belleza

Asian Heritage Month Reading List

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI) in the US. At the beginning of May I posted a Movie List. Here’s a Reading List to wrap.

There are more than 400 writers, authors, and poets of AAPI heritage in North America listed on Wikipedia. I’ve only read a handful. So, glad to say I’ve many more to explore. Here’s a list of authors and their works that I’ve read in recent years, all with their own style and story to tell. Links are to my reviews on Ripple Effects or Asian American Press.

Ted Chiang – Hugo and Nebula Award winner

Arrival, previously published as Stories of Your Life, is a novella compiled into a short story collection. Chiang’s style is gentle and cerebral, melding together the humanity, psychology, and the transcendence with concepts of science. The New Yorker describes his writing as ‘soulful’. A worthy film adaptation came out in 2016 garnering 8 Oscar nominations including Best Picture the following year.

Nicole Chung – Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography

Chung’s All You Can Ever Know is a bold and candid memoir. Born in Seattle but due to extreme health issues and family situation, her Korean parents put her up for adoption. Chung describes what it’s like to grow up in her white, adoptive parents’ Oregon home, and her urge to seek for her roots. The book details her search for her biological parents. What’s poignant isn’t the search but the results.

Mindy Kaling

While you might think of her as an actress, comedian, director, and producer, Kaling first started as a writer for the popular TV series The Office. Her personal essays are candid sharing of how a woman of Indian descent tried to find a place in a white man’s world of TV and movie production, and made it. Her audiobooks which she narrates––Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? and Why not Me?––are both revealing and highly entertaining.

Kevin Kwan

Don’t get misled by the title Crazy Rich Asians, for the heroine in Kwan’s trilogy isn’t rich, or crazy, and her love though rich, isn’t crazy either. Yes, blame it all on the family then. The not-as-popular newest title Sex and Vanity is my favourite just because I love E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and the Merchant Ivory film adaptation. This one from Kwan is screen ready… and don’t get misled by the title either.

Celeste Ng

Her debut novel Everything I Never Told You describes what it’s like growing up in a mixed race family, a gem of a book. Ng’s subsequent novel, Little Fires Everywhere is a more fledged out story about the intricacies of parent child relationships in the backdrop of a larger community of mixed races. It’s been turned into a TV mini-series. For this one, I’d enjoyed the book more.

Jhumpa Lahiri – Pulitzer Prize winner

I like many of Lahiri’s works describing Indian immigrants in Northeastern US, especially her short stories, from her debut work, the Pulitzer winning Interpreter of Maladies, her novel The Namesake, and her later short story collection Unaccustomed Earth. She had moved to Italy since 2011 and started to learn Italian and writing in her newly adopted language. Another unaccustomed earth to inspire new stories.

Jessica J. Lee – Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction 2020 winner

Born in Canada to a mother from Taiwan and a father from Wales, Lee is a unique voice in environmental writing today. Her debut memoir Turning: A Year in the Water describes her venture of swimming in 52 lakes in Germany in one year. Her next book, Two Trees Make A Forest chronicles her grandparents’ journey leaving China to settle in Taiwan after WWII and her own search for her roots on that island via its natural landscape.

Mark Sakamoto – Canada Reads 2018 winner

Forgiveness tells the coming together of two families, one a white Canadian family whose father was a former POW in a Japanese prison camp during WWII, and the other a Japanese Canadian family who had to be sent away to an internment camp while living in Canada during the same time. The marriage of their children bring them together. A very unique story, albeit the writing style and structure may not be as gratifying.

Souvankham Thammavongsa – 2020 Giller Prize winner

Born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand and arrived in Canada with her family when she was a young child, Thammavongsa has come a long way from learning English to winning the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize with her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife. There are trade-offs involved while gaining a new life. Clarity of insights and poignancy mark her stories as she creates with her adopted language on the page.

Madeleine Thien – Giller and Governor’s General winne

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016. It details the horrendous experiences of several classical musicians during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China and the aftermath. Thien’s novel is an epic of a historical fiction set in both China and Canada spanning decades, and a poignant reminder that we should never forget history so not to repeat it, a crucial lesson much needed today.

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The Brothers Karamazov Read Along Part I: What a family!

Nov. 12, 1959 Peanuts comic strip by Charles Schulz

And I thought Linus was so ingenious with such self-knowledge and view of mankind! But then again, it could be an example of great minds think alike… Charles Schultz and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Reading this first Part of The Brothers Karamazov (TBK) offers me surprising delights, for I find some well known, thought-provoking quotes in here.

The panel above is the last of the comic sequence where a frustrated Linus replies Lucy when she says he can never be a doctor because he doesn’t love mankind. In TBK, this line is, interestingly, spoken by a doctor, in an anecdote told by the Elder to ‘a lady of little faith’:

“the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons.” (57)

Here’s the edition I use, references to page numbers in brackets are from this Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.

As I learn about the characterization in Part I, focusing on the father Karamazov and his sons, I can see why Dostoevsky created such a famous line.

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov – a man described as ‘worthless’, ‘depraved’, ‘muddleheaded’, ‘a buffoon’, and I’d just add womanizer and child abandoner, ‘for the child would have gotten in the way of his debaucheries.’ (p. 10) His eldest is Dmitri from first wife Adelaida Ivanovna, who deserted him and her own son. His second wife Sofia Ivanovna gave birth to Ivan and Alexi, and died when Alexi was four years old. All the brothers grew up away from their father.

Dmitri – Eldest, recently retired from the military. Abandoned by both his parents from birth, was raised by their servant Grigory and his wife for a while then a distant relative took over and some others. What could such a child turn out to be? The military has suited him well, so, at least his physique is well sculpted. However, the animosity towards his father runs deep, with conflicts over inheritance money and, alas, rivalry over the same woman Grushenka.

Ivan – The first son of Fyodor’s second wife. A rational man, argumentative, and an atheist. Expressed his view forthrightly in writing and in speech. While arguing against the existence of an overarching natural law of morality, he presents the scenario that if there’s no God, no immortality, then “nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted, even anthropophagy.” (p. 69) The Garnett translation uses the word ‘cannibalism’, which is much clearer. Without a universal measurement of good and evil, one cannot say what’s moral or not.

“If there is no immortality of the soul, then there is no virtue, and therefore everything is permitted.” (82)

I find it stimulating and gratifying to see Dostoevsky’s characters discuss issues such as this one openly, which reflects what were the important issues of the time. TBK is a novel of ideas, and Dostoevsky brings them out via lively dialogues and sometimes, surprisingly, in light-hearted strokes.

Alexei – or Alyosha, Dostoevesky’s hero as he states in his Author’s Note before the story begins. A youth who has quit his last year of schooling to return to his father’s town, and enters the monastery to follow the Elder Zosima. A ‘holy fool’ like the main character in Dostoevsky’s earlier book The Idiot. Called ‘an angel’ by his father, for this youngest son “pierced his heart… because he saw everything, and condemned nothing.” (94)

The Elder Zosima – Alyosha’s mentor, a spiritual leader in the monastery who gives advice to seekers. The ailing Elder urges Alyosha to ‘go into the world’ and not stay in the monastery after his death, something his youthful follower is perplexed about at this point in the book.

In a chapter entitled ‘A Lady of Little Faith’ (Bk 2, Ch.4), the Elder offers this advice to a woman who is distressed that she can’t find proof to confirm her faith, and the Elder replies,

“… One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced.”

“How? By what?”

“By the experience of active love. Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul.” (56)

A crucial chapter is Book 2, Ch. 6, where the three brothers and their father meet at the Elder’s cell in the presence of other monks to seek the Elder’s judgement on the dispute between Fyodor and his son Dimitri. Here’s a prime example of how Dostoevsky lets his characters discuss serious issues embedded with comical effects.

During the meeting, the brothers engage with the monks and discuss serious subjects such as European Liberalism, Russian Liberalism, the role of the Church in the State, and most importantly, the existence of God, while an impatient Fyodor can’t wait to air out the family’s dirty laundry. I find the juxtaposition of these conversations deadpan farcical.

“Dmitri Fyodorovich!” Fyodor Pavlovich suddenly screamed in a voice not his own, “if only you weren’t my son, I would challenge you to a duel this very moment … with pistols, at three paces … across a handkerchief! Across a handkerchief!’ he ended, stamping with both feet.

Dmitri Fyodorovich frowned horribly and looked at his father with inexpressible contempt.

“I thought… I thought,” he said somehow softly and restrainedly, “that I would come to my birthplace with the angel of my soul, my fiancée, to cherish him in his old age, and all I find is a depraved sensualist and despicable comedian!”

 “To a duel!” the old fool screamed again, breathless and spraying saliva with each word. (73-74)

The most important scene that takes place in this meeting is an action by the Elder Zosima. As if to end the Karamazov father and son confrontation, Zosima gets up, goes to Dmitri, kneels before him and bow, touching the floor with his forehead, astonishes everyone there. (74)

Another character, Rakitin, later interprets the Elder’s action as a foreshadowing, Zosima delivering a prophesy of a crime that will take place which has something to do with Dimitri and his father. I will have to read on to find out.

What a family!

Is it a coincidence that the unlovable head of the family Karamazov has the same first name as our author, Fyodor? I think here is a prime example of Dostoevsky’s humour and acerbic self-sarcasm. I gather that it’s the author’s intention to identify with humanity in all their foibles and failures––the fallen man.

As Dmitri tells Alyosha: “Don’t think I’m just a brute of an officer who drinks cognac and goes whoring. No, brother, I hardly think of anything else, of anything but that fallen man… I think about that man, because I myself am such a man.” (107)

Two other quotes that had sent ripples as I read:

“Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart.” (108)

“Faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith.” (26)

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Here’s the link to the Intro and Invite Post.

Hope you’re enjoying your read. Have you written a post for Part I? Do let me know so I can link it here.

Dolce Bellezza

What’s That Mark’s Reading!?

The Naptime Author Anne Clare

O Brother (cheerily), First of May

May has arrived! The Brothers Karamazov Read Along thus begins.

Your part of the world might be all green and colourful, more conducive to outings and nature wandering than reading. But then again, you can read outdoor too. Just bring the book along and sit under a tree … in a lawn chair, and enjoy the warm breeze.

As for me at the Pond, things aren’t that rosy yet. But I have blue sky, white clouds, and buds bursting out on trees.

All are welcome as we start our slow and leisurely reading of the classic which critics hail as Dostoevsky’s culminating, greatest work (pub. 1880, his last novel). Here’s a schedule of our posting dates, according to the four sections of the book:

PART I – May 22

PART II – June 12

PART III – July 3

PART IV & Epilogue – July 24

If you’re not a blogger, you can still read together with us. On the posting date, stop by and leave your thoughts as a comment. Or, you might have read it before, several times, I welcome your insights!

Happy May! Happy Reading!

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For more details:

The Brothers Karamazov Read Along Invite Post

The Brothers Karamazov Read Along, May – July, 2021

Here we go again. Every few years on Ripple, I’d entertain an urge to have people gather at the Pond to read a book together, virtually of course. As we’re (here above the 49th) riding through a third wave of COVID right now with stay-home measures for many, how we need that camaraderie even more.

And why The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky? Just because I’ve always wanted to read it but haven’t. I know some of you may have read this literary classic already. Maybe now’s a good time to re-read?

I recently bought a Farrar, Straus and Giroux (NY, 1990) edition pictured above, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Opening it, the first line in the Introduction surprises me. But as I read on, the whole paragraph is motivation itself:

The Brother Karamazov is a joyful book. Readers who know what it is “about” may find this an intolerably whimsical statement. It does have moments of joy, but they are only moments; the rest is greed, lust, squalor, unredeemed suffering, and a sometimes terrifying darkness. But the book is joyful in another sense: in its energy and curiousity, in its formal inventiveness, in the mastery of its writing. And therefore, finally, in its vision.

And thanks to Bellezza, I checked on Goodreads and found this quote by Madeleine L’Engle:

“The truly great books are flawed: The Brothers Karamazov is unwieldy in structure; a present-day editor would probably want to cut the Grand Inquisitor scene because it isn’t necessary to the plot. For me The Brothers Karamazov is one of the greatest novels ever written, and this is perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, its human faults.”

–– Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

Those familiar with my previous Read Alongs know I’m all for slow reading. I allow ample time to finish a book, mind you, these are usually longer titles. Read Along at the Pond is a leisurely enjoyment. Here are some previous titles:

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Here’s a tentative schedule for The Brothers Karamazov Read Along. Read within the three-week time frame for each of the four Parts, then post your thoughts at the end of each. Non-bloggers are welcome to join as well. Instead of posting, just go to any participant and leave your thoughts as a comment in their post.

The Brothers Karamazov Read Along Posting Dates:

PART I – May 22

PART II – June 12

PART III – July 3

PART IV & Epilogue – July 24

Hope you’d join in the fun! Let me know in the comment.

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Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro: A Book Review

Klara and The Sun is Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel and the first after his Nobel Prize in 2017. This latest title is very different from his previous works. Here is a futuristic story in the style of a children’s fable. The language used is simple and descriptions explicit, written from the point of view of Klara, a humanoid robot. Ishiguro has dealt with sci-fi matter before in Never Let Me Go (2005) relating to human cloning, exploring the complexity of love and jealousy. Compared to Never Let Me Go, Klara and The Sun is a much lighter read.

Klara is an AF, Artificial Friend, to fourteen-year-old Josie. They meet in a store where AF’s are sold. Klara is displayed at the storefront when Josie comes in; their fondness of each other sparks off at first sight. Every AF is uniquely created, and here’s Klara’s selling points as Manager explains to Josie’s Mother:

‘Klara has so many unique qualities, we could be here all morning. But if I had to emphasize just one, well, it would have to be her appetite for observing and learning. Her ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is quite amazing. As a result, she now has the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store, B3s not excepted.’ (P. 43)

B3s are the newest and most advanced model of AF, but Josie insisted on having Klara. Mother gives in to her urging and Klara follows them home. Home is in a remote, rural area. The residence is big and offers views into a vast natural area. In this house the story of Klara and Josie begins.

Josie is a sickly teenager, walks with a limp and often bedridden. Klara is a faithful companion to her, follows her biddings to the dot. There are only two other characters in the house, Josie’s Mother and Melania Housekeeper, both are highly protective of Josie. Josie has a childhood friend, Rick, who lives nearby. Father resides in the city, the details are vague in terms of the reasons of the separation, but we know he cares for Josie very much but holds a different view from Josie’s Mother regarding how they should deal with Josie’s worsening health.

And then there’s Klara’s view of what she sees as a solution to Josie’s illness. Klara runs on energy from The Sun, a benevolent being watching over all. She will appeal to her source of life. As the story develops, we see how Klara’s empathy and love for Josie would put humans to shame. Ishiguro paints another picture of the artificial intelligence (AI) alarm which Sherry Turkle has set off when she writes about technology replacing human in Alone Together, or in the film Ex Machina where a humanoid robot eerily eliminating her creator. Ishiguro lets Klara’s story present the scenario where AI would surpass human in heart, thus implicitly posing the question: “What makes humans human after all?”

However, as the writing follows a straight forward, fable-like style of storytelling, questions such as this are not dealt with in any depth, albeit I feel they could have been explored further. For this reason, unlike Never Let Me Go, I find it hard to engage emotionally with the characters. As the story goes, I keep expecting that there would be some twists and turns in the plot or more complex handling of the thematic matter but which never come.

In a recent online conversation with Toronto International Film Festival’s Artistic Director Cameron Bailey, Ishiguro says he does not go into details about the science and technology mentioned in the book, all for the purpose of allowing readers’ imagination to fill in the blanks. Technical details are prone to be outdated easily. He prefers readers to involve in the world building of the story rather than being passive recipients. My response to this point is that, not just with the technical details, he has left the novel quite open for readers to exercise their imagination.

A movie adaptation is already in development. Again, adhering to his personal rule, Ishiguro will not be writing the screenplay and he will give ample freedom to the filmmaker to create their own movie with the name Klara and The Sun, as long as they take passionate ownership of their story.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Related Posts:

Never Let Me Go: From Book to Film

Ex Machina Movie Review

Alone Together by Sherry Turkle