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The Brothers Karamazov
The Brothers Karamazov
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.59
167 used & new from $4.31

33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Important Book, May 14, 2004
This review is from: The Brothers Karamazov (Paperback)
I was a Russian literature major in college and, although I was assigned BK in at least one of my classes, I remember falling behind on the readings and guiltily faking my way through the exam. A few years out of college now, I recently took a couple weeks of vacation to do the appropriate penance for my earlier failure: to read what most people think is the masterpiece of Dostoevsky's literary career.
Those reading this presumably know the rough outline of the novel: a father and his three (possibly four) sons are introduced, their relationships are described and developed, the father is murdered, and one of the sons is accused and tried. On the surface, this plot doesn't sound like much, hardly enough for a book of this length, but Dostoevsky is so committed to painting rich characters and relationships that this novel becomes enormously complex.
My reactions to the novel were not primarily intellectual but emotional and spiritual. The overwhelming sense I got as I read BK was that here is an author and a book that take themselves seriously. Dostoevsky is not satisfied with anything trivial or small and does not shrink from such questions as the meaning of life or the existence of God. There is something profoundly refreshing and enjoyable about reading a book that casts its net wide.
Having completed the book, I also found it remarkably difficult to summarize what exactly it is "about." The simple answer is that it's a murder mystery. In reality, it becomes almost a parable of humanity: Ivan, the intellectual brother; Dmitry, the passionate brother; Alyosha, the pious brother; Smerdyakov, the vengeful servant/half-brother. Each bears responsibility for his father's murder; each struggles to learn how to live a life of meaning.
In the end, we each identify with the brothers Karamazov. We become them, and Dostoevsky asks us to share in their passions, their doubts, their faith, and their guilt. As a result, reading The Brothers Karamazov thoughtfully is, as many other reviewers have pointed out, a transformative experience.
Some authors write for themselves: to add to their reputation or to give birth to an artistic creation they've been gestating. Dostoevsky had plenty of talent and was subject to fits of inspiration, but he wrote only when he thought he had something important to say. In this novel, his subject is no less than humanity itself and, given the patience and effort to digest his writing, you will learn.


Brave New World
Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley
Edition: Paperback
606 used & new from $0.01

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Thought-Provoking Book, May 14, 2004
This review is from: Brave New World (Paperback)
I'm not particularly interested in the question of this book's place as a work of literary genius. It may be an indispensable part of the Western canon. It may be predictable and its characters flat. I think both arguments can be made convincingly.
Both positions miss the point of the book, though. Huxley wasn't unskilled as an author, but he never wrote expressly to produce a great piece of literature. His writing was purposeful and prophetic, intended to communicate a warning. Huxley would likely prefer a reader who denigrates his literary skill while grasping his point than one who blindly lauds him.
What, then, is the point? Huxley paints a portrait of a not too distant world where the life has gained in comfort but lost all of its flavor. There remains no passion, no true excitement (only its physiological equivalent), no opportunities for sacrifice and love. All of these have been sacrificed on the altar of stability and contentment.
All goes well until a few outsiders (Bernard, Helholtz, and John)who don't quite fit the mold of this society are introduced. The tension gradually builds to the climactic confrontation between John's worldview as an outsider and the ideology of the World State. Huxley leaves this final debate open, requiring that we examine our own assumptions.
The clear implication of Brave New World is that our society contains the seeds of a future world like the one Huxley describes. The dangerous trends that he identified in the 1920s continue to dominate the societies of the world's industrialized nations: overconsumption, hypersexuality, self-medication, the pursuit of ever greater creature comforts, the decline of ethics and of poetry, the promotion of leisure for its own sake, and the possibility of genetic engineering controlled by a narrow elite.
The greatest testament to Aldous Huxley would be if we each left his book determined to reevaluate our culture's often dangerous values. Brave New World demands a change in the way we think of ourselves and in the way we live our lives. Anything short of that response shows our failure to get the point.


We
We
by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.19
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Join D-503 on his journey into "illness", April 28, 2004
This review is from: We (Mass Market Paperback)
Other reviewers have had plenty to say about the significance of this book to political and literary history. As an English teacher who regularly teaches an elective in Dystopian Literature, I can't help but agree with their comments.
However, something has been lost in many of the reviews that I've read here. Much of our difficulty in reading and understanding We arises from Zamyatin's ability to effectively adopt his main character's voice and concerns. It is a product of his literary success, not of any clumsiness or mistakes.
We is written in an eccentric voice: the voice of a mathematician and scientist of the twenty-sixth century, D-503, who is gradually confronted with the irrationality of his own self. As the book opens, he is self-assured and composed. He dazzles us with his mathematical metaphors for the beauty of OneState and his praise for its hyperrational society.
As the book progresses, however, D-503 becomes gradually more confused, conflicted, and, in his own words, "ill." He begins to enjoy irrational things (like "ancient" music), to want irrational things (like sex outside of the prescribed Sex Days), and to avoid rational behaviors (like turning in I-330 when he realizes what she is up to).
Since We is written in the first person, it only makes sense that as D-503 struggles to understand what is happening to him, we too should struggle. The simple, mathematical prose with which D-503 opens the book gives way to an increasingly confused jumble of thoughts. Zamyatin intentionally includes us in D-503's psychological journey. Not until the last chapter, when D-503's conflict is resolved, is clarity of voice reestablished.
Following someone's deepest internal struggles, by examining both what is said and what is left unsaid, is one of our most challenging reading experiences. That difficulty, however, doesn't betray Zamyatin's weakness as an author but rather his sensitivity to the character he created.
As a work of literature, We doesn't need to be defended. For those who are willing to invest the time, D-503 is anything but flat. He comes alive as a character caught between a society he admires and his own irrational urges. Whether you have read 1984, Brave New World, or any other dystopias, We is well worth your reading and rereading.


The History of the Kings of Britain (Penguin Classics)
The History of the Kings of Britain (Penguin Classics)
by Geoffrey of Monmouth
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.60
135 used & new from $2.65

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A History in the Old Sense, October 25, 2000
This work, as another reviewer has mentioned, is not a history in the modern sense. It is full of fanciful tales: characters who assume the shapes of others, fights with giants, etc. However, we shouldn't hold this against Geoffrey. The conception of history which we hold in the twentieth century is relatively recent: it dates no further back than the Enlightenment. The kind of history that Geoffrey is writing falls within a much older tradition of writing, exemplified by the historians of ancient Greece and Rome.
This book is really fun to read. It recounts British history from the withdrawal of the Roman Empire through the Anglo-Saxon invasion and to the person of Arthur. The whole work builds up to the character of Arthur and, predictably, fades afterwards. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in ancient histories (fanciful as they may be) or in the legends surrounding Arthur.


Telling the Truth About History (Norton Paperback)
Telling the Truth About History (Norton Paperback)
by Joyce Appleby
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.81
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A, H, and J offer a pragmatic view of truth, July 25, 2000
In this historiographical work, the authors convincingly argue that the overthrow of absolutisms which has characterized much of the historical and scientific scholarship of the past century does not carry in its wake the disavowal of all knowledge or truth. In place of the old absolutisms and of the new skepticism, Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, offer a new model based on a more pragmatic understanding of objectivity and truth.
The authors spend the bulk of this book tracing the development of Enlightenment absolutisms in history and science and cataloguing their demise. While this section is more than adequate, the strength of this book lies in the authors' response to history's current postmodern crisis.
The authors are more than willing to acknowledge that the pursuit of knowledge is subjective and affected by the personalities involved, yet they insist that a greater diversity of perspectives also brings historical fact into greater focus.
As part of their argument, the authors provide the following illustration: let's assume we are all sitting at a table and an object is placed in the middle of it. We are all historians, and that item is a given part of human history. The postmodernists would say that because my perspective differs from yours, we can never know what the object TRULY looks like. The traditionalists would say that our perspectives must be the same, because the item is the same. A, H, and J would claim that our perspectives differ, but that they differ in such a way that, when combined, they provide a better and truer sense of the object's characteristics.
Overall, I find this argument very convincing. Multiculturalism (or, the pursuit of multiple perspectives) is not the enemy of Truth, but rather its friend. In effect, the democratization of the academic world ought to serve as a check against unsupported interpretations and theories, thus honing our understanding of the human past.
For a weighty, parallel look at some of these same issues, I strongly recommend HERITAGE AND CHALLENGE by Paul Conkin and Roland Stromberg. For those who are interested in a more theoretical book on the questions facing the field of history today, it is well worth the effort.


Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History
Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History
by Paul Keith Conkin
Edition: Paperback
62 used & new from $0.01

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A valuable scholarly overview, July 25, 2000
As indicated in the title, this work is an examination of the history and theory of history. It is separated into two sections, each written by one of the authors. Roland Stromberg opens the work with a chronological overview of the way historians have worked and understood their craft since the Early Modern period. Paul Conkin follows up with a brilliant examination of several theoretical issues that face past and modern historians (e.g. objectivity and causation).
I particularly recommend the Conkin section. It contains some of the most level-headed argumentation I have found in works of this kind. Those of you who know the thrill of seeing a beautiful argument taking shape or who get excited reading the work of an impeccable logician will truly enjoy this. Conkin paints a very clear picture of the issues and makes a number of very astute points. Stromberg's section is not as immediately impressive, but it is nevertheless a knowledgeable consideration of the history of history.
The tone is decidedly academic. However, for those who want a well-reasoned, balanced look at the development of the historical enterprise over the last few centuries and at the philosophical issues facing it in the post-modern world, this may very well be the book to read.
For another excellent treatment of the historical and theoretical issues considered in this work, refer to TELLING THE TRUTH ABOUT HISTORY by Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob.


The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History
The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History
by Isaiah Berlin
Edition: Paperback
45 used & new from $0.01

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A creative interpretation of Tolstoy, July 18, 2000
In this essay, Isaiah Berlin discusses and interprets Tolstoy's view of history. In the process, he uses Tolstoy's enormous novel, WAR AND PEACE, as his major source. Those of you who have read WAR AND PEACE will remember the frequent theoretical passages that discuss the practice and philosophy of history. These passages provide Berlin with fodder for his examination.
Berlin claims that there are two broad categories of thinkers: hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs single-mindedly pursue one ideological goal and organize their thoughts in relation to it. Foxes are knowledgeable in a number of areas but do not specialize in any one.
The basic claim of Berlin's essay is that Tolstoy is a fox masquerading as a hedgehog. Tolstoy desperately wants to believe in a single thing, but is thwarted by his own personality. This dynamic profoundly affects Tolstoy's view of history. As a fox, he exposes past philosophies of history as the oversimplifications they are. They do not sufficiently take into account the complexity of every event and of every individual. However, Tolstoy is unable to produce the positive theory of history which he demands of himself (i.e. he is unable to make himself a hedgehog).
Berlin's essay is a very innovative and interesting interpretation of an aspect of Tolstoy's thought that is frequently dismissed. It is also a work of literary and philosophical criticism. Its tone is academic, and if Tolstoy's own digressions in WAR AND PEACE bore you, you may not want to pick this book up. Given the interest, though, this book is a thought-provoking complement to the work of this sometimes enigmatic Russian author.


Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy (Perennial Library)
Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy (Perennial Library)
by Leo Tolstoy
Edition: Paperback
76 used & new from $0.01

48 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An invaluable collection, July 18, 2000
This paperback gathers many of Lev Tolstoy's most masterfully crafted short works. The Death of Ivan Ilych, Hadji Murad, The Cossacks, The Kreutzer Sonata ... they are all here. While it is impossible to give an adequate review of each of the stories in this collection, I will say that Tolstoy's short stories are a joy to read. His style is vivid, clear, and engaging, and his themes are interesting and profound. Tolstoy tackles the issues of death, war, religion, sex, and others. While I do not agree with many of his views, the beauty and subtlety with which he expresses them is tremendous.
On a more technical note, the translation is more than adequate. While reading Tolstoy in Russian is best, this translation is seamless and does not interfere with the reading. I would enthusiastically recommend this collection to anyone who is intrigued by this influential and quirky author.


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