Waking Gods

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Waking Gods (Themis Files #2)Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel
Published: 2017
Narrated by: Full Cast
Series: Themis Files #2
Length: 09:02 (325 pages)

This is the sequel to Sleeping Giants and the second novel in the Themis Files trilogy, a series about a team of scientists finding and testing a giant robot found buried on Earth. The first two novels in this trilogy probably should have just been one. The first ends in a very anti-climatic and dull way, particularly for a novel about a giant robot, and this one just continues the story. Waking Gods does jump ahead in time several years, but it really feels like the second half of that first novel. There seems to be some rule that you can’t have just two novels in a science fiction or fantasy series. It will be three or more, even if you have to rip one in half to do it.

It’s hard to include too much about the plot, as this is a sequel and I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s basically the most exciting bits of the last novel all the way through. Since we’re familiar with the characters now, the focus has shifted somewhat to the world events, and things do get quite crazy. It’s a novel that’s really about holding the tension rather than straight up action, which I think bothers a lot of people. Don’t expect Gundam or Power Rangers. This is largely about trying to plan for and deal with major disasters, and Sylvain Neuvel really doesn’t pull any punches. Horrible things happen in this, and that really helps build the tension later in the book.

— Spoiler —
I really love Rose Franklin’s story line, and how she’s able to look at the project in retrospect and see it differently. To see what she did before, with the same mind, but with an objectivity that most people don’t get a chance to experience. The ‘am I a real person’ dilemma she had was great, but it’s that idea of being able to examine years of your own life from the viewpoint of your younger self that I found really interesting.
— /Spoiler —

I’ve been listening to this series in audiobook format, and it’s just perfect for that. It has a full cast, mostly very strong narrators, and it just works so well. There are a few production issues, such as having the characters occasionally scream as loud as they can without the volume being adjusted, causing you to bleed from the ears and stumble into traffic, but it’s mostly excellent.

If you enjoy the first novel, definitely pick this up. If you were lukewarm on that novel, you will probably feel the same way about this. It’s really more of the same, amplified slightly, but for me that was enjoyable. There is a huge plot twist at the end of this, however, and I’m excited to see what the novel will bring.

Shockaholic

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ShockaholicShockaholic by Carrie Fisher
Published: 2011
Narrated by: Carrie Fisher
Length: 04:25 (176 pages)

I was very sad to hear of Carrie Fisher’s death last December. I read Wishful Drinking a year ago and really loved it. I’d forgotten at the time that she was a hilarious and talented writer, and I decided that I needed to eventually read everything she’s written. Her autobiographies, of which this is the second, are all on Audible, so I’m starting with those. She narrates them herself, which is always an added pleasure with the memoirs of performers. Her fictional novels are also on Audible, but they all seem to be abridged, so I’ll be looking for those elsewhere.

There’s no room for demons when you’re self-possessed.

This does cover some of the same ground as her last autobiography in detailing her experiences with electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), but it’s worth repeating. The treatment has such a stigma associated with it and people still compare it to medieval torture, when it fact it’s come a long way, so it really was courageous and important for someone in the public eye to share their experiences. Carrie Fisher actually did a lot in her life for the awareness of mental health, particularly with bipolar disorder.

The worst side-effect of ECT is memory loss, and while the idea of forgetting important events is horrifying, it’s an acceptable trade-off for the positive effects the treatment can have on people like Fisher. She had to go in for small maintenance bouts of ECT, and she said she wanted to write down these memories, what was left of them, in case they disappeared. And why not publish it while she was at it?

This is a, somewhat disjointed, collection of stories from her life, centred largely around her relationship with her famous parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, and her perpetually flatulent, personality-lacking step-father. She took what was clearly hurtful abandonment and was able to look back on it with a lot of humour. It’s very funny at times, but not like the first book. This one has a much more thoughtful tone.

I didn’t really know too much about Eddie Fisher or Elizabeth Taylor, but it didn’t matter; in this they’re just her dysfunctional parents. There’s a chapter on her experiences with Michael Jackson and one covering a rude and sexist dinner conversation with Ted Kennedy, and even though I have no real interest in reading about either of those people, she still managed to keep it interesting. It’s hard not to list the topics of this without it sounding like a name-dropping tell-all, which I suppose it is, but she lived her life, whether she liked it or not, in this ridiculous celebrity world. Thankfully, the stories still feel personal and, if anything, she seemed genuinely embarrassed and bored of stardom.

What you’ll have of me after I journey to that great Death Star in the sky is an extremely accomplished daughter, a few books, and a picture of a stern-looking girl wearing some kind of metal bikini lounging on a giant drooling squid, behind a newscaster informing you of the passing of Princess Leia after a long battle with her head.

I really enjoyed this, although I think I preferred the first book. This one had more poignant, insightful moments, which I loved, but the first book felt like more of a complete package, and as it started life as a one-woman show, it was a bit snappier.

Amsterdam

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AmsterdamAmsterdam by Ian McEwan
Published: 1999
Length: 192 pages
Awards: 1998 Man Booker Prize Winner

Amsterdam opens at Molly Lane’s memorial as two of her past boyfriends reminisce and pay their respects. One is the lead editor of a struggling newspaper and the other a revered composer. A third suitor, a right-wing politician, is also attending, and after the funeral the three become entangled in each other’s lives in very destructive ways.

Middle-age angst is a central theme here, with the characters facing different stages of their careers. The editor is pushing for success and feels he can achieve it with a story that lies in very grey moral ground, and the composer has already found a lot of success in his career and is struggling with maintaining it. In doing so he also finds himself in a, much less grey, moral quandary. This is a novel about hard choices and what drives different people in their decisions, and the main plot point is oddly more relevant today than it was when this was written.

“You’re the composer?” Vera or Mini asked.

“That’s right.”

“It’s a great honor, Mr. Linley. My eleven-year-old granddaughter studied your sonatina for her final exam in violin and really loved it.”

“That’s very nice to know.”

The thought of children playing his music made him feel faintly depressed.

Molly died fairly young and needed invasive care at the end of her life. The two men, not wanting to live through the same undignified end, enter into a pact with each other; if either end up in a similar position, they want the other to guide them to the Netherlands in order to end their life through euthanasia.

I’m very much in support of physician-assisted death, and I found it a little odd how carelessly McEwan handled the matter in this book. Having no prior knowledge, a reader would come out of this thinking anyone with suicidal thoughts could stroll into Amsterdam, have a plate full of hemlock pannekoeken for breakfast, and be done with it, which quite obviously isn’t the case. Out of curiosity, I Googled Ian McEwan’s views on the matter after reading, wondering if he was against the act and maybe decided to weave in a little fear-mongering. I was a little shocked to find that he not only supports assisted dying, he actively campaigns to legalize it in England. I wonder if he wishes he had handled the topic a bit more responsibly in this book.

While much of this is quite dark and heavy stuff, it reads lighter than you’d think and is quite funny at times. McEwan writes very simply while still being able to convey complex ideas and emotions. The characters are deeply flawed in somewhat believable ways, and I loved the little snarky observations they were making. Unfortunately, the ending did fall short for me. There was a major shift in how the characters acted, almost becoming darkly slapstick, but it just didn’t ring true for me at all.

Sunday coffee and Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. #AmReading

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This was my second Ian McEwan novel. Of the two, I preferred Atonement, but this was still really enjoyable.

Annual Times Colonist Book Sale Haul

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Our favourite book sale has once again come and gone. Sometimes I’m sad that it’s only a once a year event, but then I look at our bookshelves quivering on the edge of failure, and I remember why it’s probably for the best.

A local newspaper here has been running this event for the last twenty years, and it’s always a nice reminder that there’s still a love of books out there. Saturday and Sunday the sale is open to everyone, with books ranging between $1 and $3. On Monday, it’s open to schools and non-profit organizations to take what they want for free. Any remaining books are then sold to a company in California. In the last twenty years, the sale has brought in 4.7 million dollars, which all goes to local literacy programs.

So while this book haul could be seen as rampant consumerism gone amok, considering I already have shelves full of unread books, I like to think of it as a charitable act.

Book sale haul!

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  1. Poems by Robert Frost: A Boy’s Will; North of Boston by Robert Frost
  2. The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark
  3. Conversations by César Aira
  4. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
  5. Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle
  6. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  7. A Good Year by Peter Mayle
  8. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
  9. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
  10. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  11. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
  12. Shopgirl by Steve Martin
  13. Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome
  14. The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
  15. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  16. The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
  17. Baudolino by Umberto Eco
  18. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Thoughts:

  • I’m definitely taking chances on a few of these, but if there’s ever a time to take a chance on a book, it’s this event.
  • I don’t care about baseball, but I’ll hopefully still enjoy The Art of Fielding. I was in the mood for some campus fiction.
  • Shopgirl possibly falls under the category of ‘chick lit’, but it’s written by Steve Martin, so I thought I’d give it a try.
  • The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency possibly falls under the category of ‘middle-aged women lit’, but not knowing anything about it, I could easily be wrong about that.
  • I was planning to pick up more classic fiction, but I was apparently in a contemporary literary fiction mood yesterday.
  • I love science fiction and fantasy, but I almost never leave this sale with any. I think it’s because that section is alphabetized, where as the rest of the sale is mainly just a hodgepodge of books. When they’re all mixed up like that, I enjoy digging through and discovering gems, but when I see them in order I tend to drift towards authors I know and barely glance at the rest.
  • I don’t go in with a list, as that just never works for me, but I did have the goal of picking up any Muriel Spark novels I could find. Sadly I only came across one tiny novella.
  • I picked up a lot of Man Booker Prize winners and nominees this year.
  • I discovered after getting home that Bullfighting is actually a short story collection, which tend to not really be my thing, but we’ll see.
  • Most of the authors are not from America or the UK.

I’ve already read Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), but I loved it and wanted a nice physical copy. I have a feeling I’ll be re-reading it in the next couple of years. This one was great – good condition overall, nice wrap-around cover art, thick opaque pages, and multiple introductions, including a couple from the author. It’s a Time Reading Program Special Edition, which I was unfamiliar with, but when I got home I realized I also had a copy of The Martian Chronicles in that edition. I will have to watch for more.

It as a fun day, and as per tradition, we went for an unhealthy afternoon breakfast after the sale. I meant to take a photo, but my hunger overwhelmed me.

Company Town

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Company TownCompany Town by Madeline Ashby
Published: 2016
Narrated by: Cecelia Kim
Length: 08:58 (285 pages)

This is a science fiction crime novel that takes place in a city built on a giant oil rig off the east coast of Canada. It’s the near future, and it’s incredible rare to find someone who hasn’t augmented their body in some way, by changing how they look or enhancing their physical strength or cognitive abilities. The protagonist, Go Jung-Hwa, is the only person on the rig that is unaltered. She works as a bodyguard for members of the sex trade, which is now legal and highly regulated but is still not without certain dangers.

Hwa’s unaugmented body is an asset, as it means she can’t be hacked. She also happens to have Sturge-Weber Syndrome, a condition that has left a large birthmark over most of her face. She has developed a slightly bitter outlook in life as a result of this, and it’s contributed to her feelings of isolation, but it also happens to make her invisible to facial recognition software. Because of these contextually-advantageous disadvantages, and her combat training, she is offered a job to protect the fifteen-year-old heir of a local wealthy energy tycoon, a man who essentially owns the town. After she takes the job, attempts on their lives are made, people start dying, and she works to find out who’s behind it all.

I loved the cyberpunk setting. At times this felt like a Raymond Chandler plot done on the set of Bladerunner, and it’s full of interesting ideas. Almost so many ideas that it starts to feel a bit thinly spread, but it was still enjoyable throughout. I found the murder mystery aspect of this quite exciting, and many of the characters were great. Hwa is a complete badass with some intriguing inner turmoil, even if you have to suspend disbelieve somewhat when it comes to the fight scenes. The idea that an unaugmented bodyguard could be successful in a city full of, potentially, supernaturally strong and agile baddies seems unlikely to me, but it wasn’t something that stood out as an obvious problem while reading.

The ending was by far the weakest part of the story. It was a convoluted mess that I don’t think I completely understood, to be honest, and I can’t be bothered to go back and re-read it. Then it turned into a disappointingly cliché Hollywood ending which completely undermined everything in the story about Hwa overcoming and beginning to accept her facial imperfection. The plot was really engaging until that point, so it was sad to see it fall apart.

This was one of the featured books in the 2017 Canada Reads competition, a ‘battle of the books’, that the CBC has been holding for the past fifteen years now. I always hear mention of this in passing on the radio or on signs at local bookstores, but I’ve never given it much attention. I have a vague goal of reading more Canadian literature, something I have really neglected in the past, so I thought I’d tune in this year.

Five Canadian celebrities choose a book to champion in the competition, and they meet for a series of moderated live radio roundtables to debate which book of the five every Canadian should read. I listened to the first episode, and I don’t think I’m a fan of the format, but I like that it publicizes Canadian authors. This year’s winner was Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis, which I’m still deciding whether I’ll read. It’s obviously a novel about dogs, and I don’t think I want to read a novel about dogs. We’ll see.

Despite my gripes about the ending, I did really enjoy my time with this novel.

April in Review

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Books Acquired:
Get Jiro! by Anthony Bourdain
Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy by Judd Apatow

Books Read:
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher
Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel
The Human Factor by Graham Greene

We have the used book sale this weekend (maybe I’ve mentioned that once or twice?), and this last month they had a book drive to collect donations. Lee-Ann and I happily got rid of two bags full of books. Some were books I didn’t enjoy, and therefore didn’t want to keep around, and others were books I had for a while and didn’t see myself reading anytime soon. The nice thing about this book sale is that the proceeds go to local literacy programs, so if I buy a book that I later decide I don’t want, I can just donate it back another year and not feel guilty about it. Guilt free book buying!

We were going to hold off buying anything until the sale, but we couldn’t help ourselves one afternoon and wandered into the bookstores downtown. I’ve been meaning to read Get Jiro! for ages now, being a fan of Anthony Bourdain, but the reviews were a bit spotty when it was released and I lost interest. I plan to read it this month and decide for myself. I hadn’t heard of the Judd Apatow’s book, but I love behind-the-scenes comedy interviews, so it sounds great to me. It’s a collection of interviews he’s conducted with various comedians over the last thirty years.

Morning face.

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Movies watched:
American Ultra (2015) – Silly, but fun. Not a great movie, but it was entertaining, and I like Jesse Eisenberg.

Reptilicus (1961) (MST3K) – This was the movie featured in the first episode of the newly revamped Mystery Science Theater 3000, where they commentate over terrible old movies. I used to love watching cheesy bad movies, and their commentary can be quite funny, so I’ll be watching more of them. Reptilicus was gloriously bad, with jokes that didn’t land and special effects that were extraordinarily awful.

Seven Psychopaths (2012) – I put this on because I love Tom Waits, although it turns out he has just a very small part, and I love movies in which the main character is an author, even though that’s seen as a little hacky. It turned out to be really good. I didn’t realize before watching, but it’s directed by Martin McDonagh, and I loved his last movie In Bruges. This wasn’t quite on that level, but the script took some really clever twists, and it was the best performance I’ve seen out of Christopher Walken in quite a while.

TV watched:
None finished.

Games played:
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (2017) (PC) – I usually avoid Early Access games out of pure principle, but this one pulled me in, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it. It’s still quite rough, performance-wise, but I haven’t come across any huge bugs yet. I managed to come in second on a solo game, which won’t matter to anyone who hasn’t played it, but I was quite happy with myself.

Rocket League (2015) (PC) – This is my ‘just ten minutes before I go’ game. The new Dropshot mode is a blast.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

Room

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RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue
Published: 2010
Length: 321 pages

This story follows a young boy, Jack, and his mother as they live their lives trapped in a small room. Jack was born there, and in his five years of life he has never seen the world beyond the locked door. Emma Donoghue was inspired by the horrifying events in the 2008 Josef Fritzl abduction case, in which a man in Austria locked his daughter in his basement and abused her for twenty-four years.

When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.

I enjoyed this so much more than I thought I would. What could have been an irritating gimmick, having a five-year-old narrate a harrowing story such as this, worked perfectly for me. I thought Donoghue hit the perfect balance of making Jack’s voice feel authentic without it feeling like you’re actually in the head of a child for three-hundred pages, which seems like a tricky feat. This novel wouldn’t work if Jack’s thoughts were too mature, but it also wouldn’t work if his thoughts were completely that of a five-year-old, and she really managed to pulled it off.

The writing in this was fantastic. Not only was Jack’s voice somewhat believable for his age, but I was constantly surprised with the little insights and observations he had as a child locked away from the outside world. We learn about the situation as Jack does, without any chunks of exposition, but we obviously understand what’s happening well before he does. That gap in knowledge, between the reader and the protagonist, is usually a huge annoyance in fiction, but it’s part of the charm when you have a five-year-old narrator. He watches television, and listens to his mother’s stories, and often misinterprets what he’s seeing in smart and beautiful little ways that make sense in the context of his life. I really loved these moments, and I imagine there must have been a strong temptation for Donoghue to carefully explain to the reader how clever she was being, but she just sprinkles these moments about for the reader to find.

Sometimes when persons say definitely it sounds actually less true.

I wouldn’t call this a thriller, and it’s not really frightening, but it was very unnerving. It was also often a pleasant read, however, despite having such dark inspiration and subject matter. In a way, the mother’s act of shielding her son from the horror of their situation managed to also shield it from the reader. Maybe I’m just simple, but the daily routines and distractions she set out for Jack also helped settle me in a way, although there was still always that eerie undertone of wondering what was to come. This was the dictionary definition of a page-turner for me, without it being heavily plot-driven, which is an interesting mix.

I really thought she executed this perfectly, and I’ll will be looking to pick up another novel by her soon. We have a big used book sale coming up, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned, and there will certainly be a few of her novels to be found there. It’s usually easy to find books from anyone associated with a Man Booker Prize, which this was shortlisted for in 2010, as well as popular Canadian authors in general (Irish-born, but we’ve adopted her).

Alas, Babylon

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Alas, BabylonAlas, Babylon by Pat Frank
Published: 1959
Narrated by: Will Patton
Length: 11:14 (323 pages)

I keep hearing that dystopian and apocalyptic fiction has saturated the book market in the last few years, but I feel like these disaster scenarios have always been popular, really hitting their stride in the mid-twentieth century. A few of my favorites that come to mind (The Day of the Triffids, Earth Abides, and I Am Legend for example) all come from the 40s and 50s.

What I love most about the apocalyptic stories from that era, at least from my limited sampling, is that the reader often gets to experience the disaster happen, and Alas, Babylon does the same. The worry of nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union was a major concern during this time, and this novel imagines what would happen if a war did break out. The main character in this, Randy Bragg, has a brother in the military that is able to warn him in time of an inevitable nuclear war. Randy is then able to try to acquire the provisions his family will need if they live through the attack.

We follow this group as they struggle to survive, to protect and feed themselves, and I found it thoroughly interesting. I always enjoy the thought experiment angle of apocalyptic fiction, imagining what I’d ideally do in a similar situation. That’s often a bit of a depressing activity, but not as much with this. Alas, Babylon is an optimistic novel of a community coming together when things seem hopeless, but it does play out to be a bit too easy for everyone. This is really a best case scenario of finding yourself in the middle of a nuclear war. There is violence, and medical issues, and some food concerns, but it’s not as devastating as some other apocalyptic novels. As a result, it didn’t tend to stir up a lot of emotion. There were a few emotionally charged scenes, but a lot of the book didn’t feel as impactful as it could have, particularly in the end. I guess without those lows, it’s hard to reach those highs.

I enjoyed the book, and Will Patton’s narration was fantastic. It felt like he was bringing more life to the characters than what was actually on the page. Pat Frank, whose real name was Harry Hart, was very involved world politics, working as a wartime journalist and eventually with the United Nations. He wrote a few novels concerning war and nuclear threat, and even wrote a non-fiction novella called How To Survive the H Bomb And Why. This was his most famous novel, and I’m not sure I’ll read his others, but I will keep an eye out for them.

The Classics Club – Round Two!

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I’ve decided to join The Classics Club for another round. That’s another fifty classic novels read in the next five years, with a completion date of April 12th, 2022 (starting a few days back to include my current read).

This is just a tentative list. I like to read on a whim, so it will change dramatically by the time I’m finished, as the previous list did. I don’t understand how people follow TBR lists that span a month, let alone five years, so I’m not even going to try. But this is what I would currently like to read, having scanned my shelves and Audible wishlist.

I would like to incorporate more classics from outside of America and England, which are the countries I mostly read from despite not being American or English, so I’d love any recommendations. My only criteria for what constitutes a classic is that most people would describe it as quite old. I’m a simple man.

  1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605)
  2. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (1623)
  3. The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1623)
  4. King John by William Shakespeare (1623)
  5. Emma by Jane Austen (1815)
  6. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
  7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
  8. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)
  9. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
  10. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
  11. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1856)
  12. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859)
  13. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861)
  14. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1864)
  15. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)
  16. Roughing It: A Personal Narrative by Mark Twain (1872)
  17. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877)
  18. Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)
  19. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
  20. A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1888)
  21. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (1889)
  22. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1894)
  23. The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells (1896)
  24. Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome (1900)
  25. The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)
  26. A Room with a View by E. M. Forster (1908)
  27. The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton (1908)
  28. My Man, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse (1919)
  29. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)
  30. Jesting Pilate by Aldous Huxley (1926)
  31. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
  32. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933)
  33. I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934)
  34. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934)
  35. The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)
  36. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1949)
  37. The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler (1950)
  38. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
  39. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov (1951)
  40. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)
  41. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953)
  42. The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham (1956)
  43. The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (1957)
  44. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1962)
  45. Travels with Charley in Search of America by by John Steinbeck (1962)
  46. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)
  47. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (1964)
  48. Memento Mori by Muriel Spark (1965)
  49. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
  50. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)

The Double

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The DoubleThe Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Published: 1846
Translated By: Jessie Coulson (from Russian in 1972)
Length: 144 pages

Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin is a government clerk, a faceless bureaucrat, who is struggling both in work and in his social life. After a particularly emotional encounter at a party, while walking home through a cold night’s fog, he finds himself face to face with his double, a man identical in look, background, and even name. At first, they becomes friends. Golyadkin even shares his home with him, but before soon his doppelgänger begins to take over his life. Golyadkin is awkward with people, but this double is charismatic and popular. Golyadkin isn’t getting anywhere in his career, but the double is working with his superiors and advancing within the organization. He’s everything Golyadkin has tried and failed to be.

This was my first Dostoyevsky novel, and I really had mixed feelings about it. I like the premise and how the story was structured, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing style. The dialogue, in particular, was a bit painful to get through. Golyadkin’s incessant repeating of each character’s name while speaking to them was a bit too much for me. I don’t think it’s a translation problem, Jessie Coulson seemed to do a fine job on the rest, but rather a style choice made to show how the character was struggling to hang on. It did successfully convey that feeling, but it wasn’t fun to read. When characters weren’t speaking, I found myself enjoying the story much more.

I was surprised by how darkly funny this was at times. There were scenes that were awkward to the point of slapstick, a weirdly tragic slapstick that I thoroughly enjoyed. I especially loved how Golyadkin would struggle with getting the nerve up to do something, standing outside a party for the better part of three hours for example, and as soon as he’d decide to abandon the plan he’d immediately turn around and go through with it. It felt like the physical version of an internal monologue that many introverted people will know all too well.

SPOILER
At the end of the novel, Golyadkin is driven away to an asylum. This business with his doppelgänger was all in his head, and it ends with him being locked away. I was still thinking there really was a double at that point, mainly because we see the hallucination conversing with people in the office and at parties, and it’s written very much as if they’re two different people.

Looking back now, I do really like the idea of his double being a delusion. I’ve often heard people with social anxiety describe social situations as feeling like they’re an actor playing a part, so the idea of that stress manifesting itself like this makes a kind of sense. Golyadkin feels so out of character that it’s like watching a completely different version of himself.

There is a scene in which Golyadkin asks his co-worker if the new hire reminds him of anyone, and it takes a while but does eventually dawn on him that Golyadkin and his double look remarkable similar, and I don’t really understand how that works with the idea of Golyadkin going insane. I suppose you could write that whole conversation off as a hallucination, but that seems a bit easy. There are a couple of moments in the story, looking back, that don’t seem to really fit with the ending.
/SPOILER

So, I’m still not sure about Dostoyevsky, but I will give him another go at some point. I have Notes from Underground as well, so that may be the next one. The Double was one of his first published novels, so maybe I’ll enjoy his later work more. Even though I was lukewarm on this one, I am interested in giving it a re-read at a later date. I think it would be really interesting to see each scene again, knowing how it ends.