The Comedians by Graham Greene

I stole this book from the Peace Corps headquarters in Azerbaijan.

But who hasn’t? I recently made another trip overseas to see Kiersten, and one day we stopped by the PC headquarters in Baku. While its provisions are by no means extravagant, the HQ keeps a supply of donated clothing, equipment, and of course, books, for the volunteers take as they please. I’m not a volunteer, but when I see a Graham Greene novel on a shelf, my psychological condition compels me to grab it and attempt to justify to all witnesses my keeping it.

The fedora roof was a little-known hallmark of postmodernist architecture.

“Just take it,” said a nearby volunteer.

“Really?” I said. “But this stuff is for you guys. I’m not supposed to–”

“Please. Just take it.”

I like to think her insistence was based on the idea they have too many books already, and not a loathing for Greene. Either way, it’s mine, and it accompanied me on a sad plane trip back home.

In case you’ve never read Greene, he was one of the premier espionage novel writers of the 20th century. He had the uncanny knack for being in a country just before it would erupt in a civil war or revolution (granted, this was the 50s and 60s, so it was hard not to be in one). Perhaps the most famous example of these is The Quiet American, a prophetic indictment of American involvement in Vietnam.

The Comedians is drawn from his experience in Haiti during “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s reign of terror. The main character, who identifies himself as “Brown,” is an ex-pat who owns a hotel that stands empty (an everpresent, machete-wielding secret police isn’t conducive to a country’s tourism). He has been ruined by the Papa Doc regime but seems resigned to accept its atrocities as a bystander. But two other parties come to Haiti: The Smiths, American progressives who aspire to promote vegetarianism foreign countries, and “Major” Jones. Jones is an shady but affable chap who uses oddly archaic British terms and is doubtful to have ever been a Major at all. When Brown presses Jones for the reason he’s in Haiti, Jones coyly insists it’s for business.

Jones may be a grifter, a spy, or something similar, but whatever it is he’s terrible at it. “The Major” runs afoul of the dictator, and Brown reluctantly comes to his aid. This eventually threatens Brown’s relationship with his mistress–something he’s far more protective of than his decaying hotel and will go to desperate ends to preserve.

The Greene Plot Machine

Another arrogant, unhappy adulterer who is in a position to have his likable friend/rival killed. The Comedians is formula Graham Greene: this is The Quiet American, Haiti Edition. A bad book? No. But a duplicated plot cheapens both novels for me.

Also reappearing is Greene’s attack on US Cold War foreign policy, particularly America’s regrettable tradition of propping up tyrants based on their promise to kill Communists (and they never stopped at just Communists). He can be depended upon to refrain from preachiness, though, in his political message. He lets the heinousness of the Tonton Macoutes secret police speak for itself, and many of the incidents described in The Comedians are ones he’d actually witnessed–including the police interrupting a dissenter’s funeral to hijack the body.

If you’ve read The Quiet American, this is skippable, but the Haitian history is worth knowing. You might honestly choose to read one novel or the other based on the nation of interest. The Comedians an historically significant work, though, and was personally condemned by Papa Doc Duvalier, himself. But screw him. It’s chilling to read this knowing that Haiti’s tragedies would not cease even with the death of the dictator; his similarly vicious son would rule until 1986, and the 2010 earthquake would kill hundreds of thousands. (I found a Post-It in the back of my copy addressed to a Peace Corps volunteer from a fellow PCV recommending this book based on its perceived timeliness)

Reading this, though, I’m reminded that I want a Graham Greene for this era. Who is he/she, and where is this writer right now, blending morally complicated literary fiction with urgent foreign journalism?

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A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Short story collections don’t sell. You’d think that they would– if we’re to believe what people keep saying about the shrinking attention span of American readership.

So I started watching The Wire now that my friend is loaning me the DVDs, and while it took a while to get going, it’s living up to its reputation, without question.

Where was I? Right, so the question is, what do you do in this business if you’re a better short story writer than a novelist?

This cover is a stylized depiction of every drama teacher I've ever had.

You don’t need to change much, actually. You can turn a short story collection into a novel by taking a character in one piece and… ahhh, let’s say… making her the daughter of some other character’s boss from another. BAM–continuity! I’d like to think you don’t need to do that to win the Pulitzer Prize, but Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, both short-story-collections-as-novels, are the last two books to take the award for fiction. So maybe it helps.

I can tell you which one’s the better book, and it’s the one where the connections between the stories and characters are actually weaker.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is thirteen stories, most of which take place in New York and involve a whole nexus of characters. Arguably at the center of this nexus are former punk rocker Bennie Salazar– who met with success as a record producer but is struggling to break his obsession with the past– and Sasha, his assistant, a kleptomaniacal beauty with a checkered past (who is more influential to the other characters than her actual character seems to justify).

Half the connections among the characters feel unnatural, especially since we’re operating within a very large population and span of time. You could argue that the continuity is thematic. They’re all about the shared experiences of music, right? And time?

But my favorite story here, “Selling the General,” actually has nothing to do with either. In it, Dolly, the former queen of celebrity public relations is making a comeback by taking on the account of a genocidal dictator who, as one readily understands, is in great need of a PR consultant. Dolly convinces a Hollywood starlet to pose with the general to boost his appeal and dampen the indictment of his crimes against humanity, and the shoot goes terribly awry. On the surface, the story is a light, farcical send-up of the power of image and the media. But when you consider the starlet’s complicated motives and the reactions of Dolly’s scary little daughter, the story plunges into the realm of disturbing.

It’s brilliant.

Plenty of good stories here will go unmentioned, including a cute and surprisingly effective little number that’s written entirely in Powerpoint slides.

The other favorite of mine is the last piece, “Pure Language,” which to me reads like dystopian literature. The thing is a marvel– considering that it’s harder, in some ways, to convincingly predict what the world will be like in ten years than in fifty. Its plot marks the heavily orchestrated comeback of punk rocker Scotty Hausman, a derelict soloist who in 2021 spends his days fishing in the East River. And thanks to an army of bloggers paid to hype him up, thousands of New Yorkers gather to see a guy sit down and play a slide guitar. The crowd comes away lauding the stripped-down performance for being “pure.” But the event was constructed by a manufactured campaign of liars. Does that inauthentic gathering make the music, the experience less authentic? Like with Woodstock, “it may be that the crowd at a particular moment in history creates the object to justify its gathering.”

It’s brilliant.

Last year this book pulled the upset on the media’s million dollar baby Jonathan Franzen and his Freedom for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. While I really liked Freedom, Egan’s is the more deserving book. Both carry the “This is Us, America!” presumption that makes the award panelists go hard, but Goon Squad is perhaps more cerebral while being more widely appealing. Awards don’t guarantee an obscure author a lasting audience, but here’s hoping it does in this case.

Who’s Killing the English Major?

English professors, in general, could never write. So long as they were only writing to each other, of course. Furiously gesturing in their kabuki play of academese, they fling words like “intertextuality” and “signifier/signified,” which, if you do not accept their use, you are not part of the club and should suffer the due condescension.

If you want to see Exhibit A, according to Joseph Epstein of The Wall Street Journal, look at the new Cambridge History of the American Novel

This book sounds howlingly awful– a 1200-page professorial circle jerk of which the out-of-touch authors dare you to follow a single paragraph. They’re taking the history of the American novel, something for you and me, and implying that it isn’t for us just in how it’s written. I feel no less indignant about this than Epstein does.

Now, the observation that English instructors typically churn out unreadable cinderblocks– thick while being hollow– is not new. Also not new is Epstein’s argument, for which this Cambridge book serves as his evidence: the study of literature for the enrichment and enjoyment thereof has been commandeered by the liberal majority of academics administering art as social medicine– “automatic leftism” being “the reigning ethos of the current-day English Department.” Read Eskimo feminist poetry, says your typical English prof today, It’s good for you. It doesn’t matter if it’s even good.

Really, in universities, this is the enduring conflict of the past couple of generations. Liberals bemoan the Harold Bloom-ian old guard as elitists who like their canon white and male and unchanging, and conservatives bewail the takeover of all the P.C. post-posties who insist that diversity in art is synonymous with quality.

I’m fascinated by Epstein’s essay. It contains so many double standards that reading it is like walking a hall of mirrors.

English programs, in terms of respectability and popularity, are in serious decay, and Epstein says that it all started once contemporary novels were being taught in college (The reader is to agree that contemporary=terrible or else, my goodness, we’ve lost him already!). Epstein writes:

“With the gates once carefully guarded by the centurions of high culture now flung open, the barbarians flooded in, and it is they who are running the joint today.”

The barbarians he names are Kurt Vonnegut, E.L Doctorow, and Allen Ginsberg. Granted, I only like 33% of those guys, but it’s curious to see Epstein criticizing the inaccessibility of the Cambridge authors’ book, then pining for the sentinels of taste from the days of yore who slammed the doors on the unwashed contemporary novelists. He likes the gate but loathes the current gatekeepers.

But wait. I think we’ve left something in this discussion dangerously ignored…

The “Good Books?”

Inevitably we get into the question of what the “good books” are that should be taught, but look down at your feet: we’re in the shit now.

So before we ruin our Crocs forever, let me make a statement. Plenty of lousy books are taught today because they are merely culturally diverse. Just like plenty of lousy books are taught today because they always have been; they’re labeled to be “surviving” or “enduring” as opposed to merely “old.”

Has the liberal professor properly evaluated the Eskimo feminist poetry collection for artistic merit and enjoyability before adding it to the syllabus? Has the conservative professor re-evaluated The Last of the Mohicans lately for the same thing before including it yet again?

No matter which side you take, you are assigning many works for some purpose besides quality. Maybe you don’t like Beowulf (I do, but that’s neither here nor there), but it’s being taught because we’re going to learn about the early Anglo-Saxons, goddammit. Or you don’t like The House of Spirits, but you know what, we’re going to learn about Latin-American political history, goddammit.

The point is, you are much more likely to perceive an agenda behind the curriculum if you don’t enjoy the books. And that agenda, you will usually conclude, is a misguided one.

Oh, God, This Has Gotten Political

I like to think that professors and thinkers belonging to both camps first got into literary study from a shared passion for the written word, not because it was an instrument for social change or the reinforcement of traditional values (though those are usually secondary objectives that educators pick up along the way). The Book was the thing.

Epstein would have you believe that he is on the side of the angels, that his is the argument championing The Book, and the agenda-driven academics running the show are the killjoys constraining its value to whatever it says about race, class, or gender. I don’t think his opposition would see it that way. For many of the more liberal professors, enjoyment of The Book may very well be the fact it presents a minority perspective, or questions tradition, or is just plain different. Maybe the fact it is written by Eskimo women is why they love it.

Regardless, they’re teaching the book in relation to other interests, which Epstein sees as folly.

What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

What he sees as the dilution of a study is in reality, at least by intention, a multi-faceted campaign to take books and discuss their connection to the world around us. I think we’re all aware of the stigma that English majors battle on a regular basis, which is that their field of interest is woefully inapplicable to real life (and this battle they regularly lose). This context-based approach that works to emphasize the relevance of literature–be it to pop culture, sexuality, politics, globalization, etc.– is a response to the larger student concern.

Does this show a lack of faith in the timelessness and appeal of great books themselves to fill the class rosters? That’s a valid criticism. But it isn’t the touchy-feely interdisciplinary shift in the curriculum that’s been killing the popularity of the English program. It’s the world, for God’s sake. What Epstein is fingering as the gunman is really the bumbling EMT who arrived on the scene to administer the shock paddles in the wrong place.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

This book feels very Austenian at first: how a family makes money is much less topical than how it keeps it via strategic ball-going and strategic marrying. But the point where this novel ceases being Austenian is where it starts becoming good.

"How vulgar: they do not clothe their cherubs."

Let me get something straight. The Strategic Ball-going Society can be the setting of a story I thoroughly enjoy, but I need the protagonists to hate it. I need them to hate it like Winston and Julia hated Oceania. It’s not a question of solidarity with the characters — it simply guarantees something consequential will happen in this stupid, soul crushing place. Rock this boat, somebody. You’re limited to drawing room gossip sessions about the Miltons and the Granbys and the Skillingbrokes while you plan your luncheons: do something more worthy of contemplation than marry each other after pursuing the wrong people for 350 pages.

But The Age of Innocence is not what its opening suggests. Edith Wharton does a head fake toward Austen and then makes a fast cut toward Thomas Hardy, and what you eventually find is a pair of lovers struggling to liberate each other from their societal Purgatory.

New York in the 1870s is a very small place if you’re rich. It marks the twilight years of “Society” (the kind you capitalize) — where high-standing families intermarry and reputations are made or broken depending on who invites you to dinner. The Age of Innocence is about a period in America where the old money tradition is about to marginalized by people who can actually get rich, too, by doing something. The American Dream had antagonists, and these established aristocrats are them, perched on high and digging their talons in harder than ever.

Newland Archer is the grown-up golden boy who is discovering, albeit slowly, that he wants more than the staid tradition of the same dinners, the same operas, the same smoking room conversations with the same intellectually unambitious people. And he’s discovering this too late: he is betrothed to May Welland, pixie-like Stepford wife extraordinaire. May’s cousin, Ellen, has returned disgraced from Europe after fleeing a marriage gone sour. Taking pity on her (and to avoid marrying into a tainted family), Newland helps Ellen recover her reputation and legally counsels her not to divorce her overseas husband.

And expectedly, he becomes drawn to her. She’s a candid free spirit who lives alone among the Bohemians and is a natural coquette. Newland can barely bring himself to acknowledge it when it’s happening, but his attachment to “Madame Olenska” is growing much stronger than is… appropriate.

Pangs of New York

Wharton’s discreet prose kept me leaning into the book: character reactions are subtle but telling, and notorious affairs are hush-hush but there. The most memorable scenes for me were the dark, intense fireside encounters between Ellen and Newland and Newland’s wedding day, where you reach the distinct, terrifying conclusion that he isn’t just marrying May– he’s marrying everybody in the social circle.

Speaking of the social circle, it is indeed populated with vivid characters who are mostly loathsome except the titanic Mrs. Manson Mingott, where Wharton dispenses all her best fat jokes (“…the immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life [was] like a flood of lava on a doomed city…”)

Granted, when the plot enters the latter half of the book, the record starts to skip.

Ellen: Here we are in a secret place. I’m thinking of going back to my husband.

Archer: No! No! No! No! No!

Ellen: Then, will you leave May?

Archer: No.

[Repeat]

Obviously the conflict is between Newland’s desire for Ellen and his obligation to family and tradition, and there’s enough tension here to keep you guessing if this putz will actually take the plunge… even if nothing happens for a while. But how much does he actually love Ellen as a person as opposed to a promise of lust and freedom? By that same token, since May is merely a smiling android, you get the impression that the person definitely doesn’t hold the appeal for him, either, but rather the promise of a secure lifestyle.

The book’s uncompromising ending is a thing to admire, and sealed it for me that when I closed The Age of Innocence I closed a great (though sometimes irksome) book. And one better catering to my cynicism than I expected, which should get me excited for Wharton’s more famous Ethan Frome. I hear that one ends quite nasty.

Guys Reading Girls

You could argue that I typically don’t. (Pssh! Typical guy!) Looking at my Books Reviewed page is telling in this regard.

Books I reviewed: 55

Books I reviewed that were by women: 10

Books by women that I highly recommended: 2

So maybe you’d find it hypocritical of me to praise the existence of this list I found, but here it is:

250 Books By Women All Men Should Read

This was compiled by Joyland in response to Esquire’s recently re-posted “75 Books Every Man Should Read”, which drew some ire because it has fewer chicks than a Star Wars movie. According to Joyland“The problem was that the list was all male writers, save for lone lady Flannery O’Connor. This really does imply that men don’t/can’t/shouldn’t read women and we were pretty sure that wasn’t the case among readers.”

1 woman out of 75 writers! Bet my ratio looks much less piggish now. You can practically hear Esquire smashing Miller Lite cans against its forehead.

Naturally, I find Joyland’s list a lot more interesting, and it contains more authors that I haven’t already read. Ironically, though, their list actually includes… a couple guys (apparently since David B. Feinberg and Christopher Isherwood were gay, they count as women). Since it’s compiled of several people’s suggestions, some books appear multiple times, like Middlemarch and Beloved. And there’s more representation by actual male contributors than I expected.

This gets one thinking about one’s own contribution to said list, being a gentleman who has certainly enjoyed his share of literary works by ladies. I’ll name here my five best female-written books for dudes to read–a couple of which I think are actually better enjoyed by dudes.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

Depending on the day, this is my all-time favorite novel. Regeneration’s brilliance shines on nearly every aspect of masculinity in the face of war, including generational strife between sons and fathers, the reality of bravery and heroism, and insomnia-inducing moral conundrums. The third book in this trilogy (The Ghost Road) is the one that got the Booker, but the first installment is #1 with me.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

One of the manliest books I read last year– in the way I’ve always thought The Prince to be a manly book. It could be read as a political survival tale in Henry VIII’s England: a time where anyone can die any way for any reason. Cromwell takes care of shit.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I tease the death- and flower-obsessed Woolf sometimes, but the God’s honest is I truly enjoyed this one. And like Regeneration, a large part of it concerns the horror of the Great War: through Septimus Smith, Woolf showed infinitely more understanding of shellshocked war veterans than the male experts of her time.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

May well be the best psychological thriller I’ve ever read.

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

I haven’t read a Cather that I wouldn’t recommend to a dude (don’t let this cover mislead you, though). Her writing has an irresistible quality on its own, but what lodges these books in my memory is her ability to write from the perspective of a boy in love. I almost put My Antonia here: I’m not sure if I’d like it quite as much on a reread, but I do know I’ll always love the more vibrant A Lost Lady.

And when you’re done with those, read some Emily Dickinson and Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie and then come back when you need more suggestions.

As for myself, I’ll be getting to some Edith Wharton real soon, bro, after I do some pullups and go drive a tractor.

Don’t Publish This– I’m Dead

Something bothered me when I read Dead Souls. Or more specifically, the latter part: Volume II had me thinking, “What the hell is this?” Missing chapters, fragmented sentences, characters developed to acute familiarity and then never seen again. What existed on the page was the most boring kind of randomness I’d ever encountered.

Of course, this was all explained in the novel’s introduction. Volume II was an unfinished sequel that Nikolai Gogol labored over for the better part of a decade and burned, yes, burned. Twice. But contrary to its placement in the printed book, you’re only supposed to read the introduction after finishing the novel, aren’t you? (1. Spoilers 2. Critical interpretations of the overarching themes that mean jack to you until you’ve digested the thing yourself) But the point is, had I known the situation behind Dead Souls 2: Electric Boogaloo, I would not have read it. I’d have shut Dead Souls as Gogol clearly would have had me do, rather than allow me to associate him with his vastly inferior incomplete work.

I think.

There are famous novels that go unfinished upon the death of their authors. I’ll always remember having to close F. Scott Fitzgerald’s heartbreakingly silenced The Love of the Last Tycoon. It was a sparkling road that suddenly ended at a windy cliff. I’m thinking of picking up David Foster Wallace’s recently released The Pale King, but I don’t want to see that cliff again. It’s cold there.

The other concern with these posthumous releases is, even if they were more-or-less completed manuscripts, did these authors ever want them published to begin with?

Hemingway. Hemingway said don’t you bastards ever, ever publish A Moveable Feast, or my ghost will come and hang you on a hook like a prize marlin.

Finished or unfinished, posthumous publications are more prevalent than one thinks. Some people don’t like to read them out of respect for the author, based on the principle that they screw with his/her legacy. Well, if you share that concern, you probably shouldn’t read…

-Anything by Kafka

-Most anything by Dickinson

Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, or Lady Susan

Machiavelli’s The Prince

Nietzsche’s The Will to Power

Virgil’s Aeneid

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales

The Diary of Anne Frank

Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Poe’s “Annabel Lee”

Fleming’s Octopussy, The Man with the Golden Gun, and The Living Daylights

-A lot of shit by Bukowski

Vonnegut’s Armageddon in Retrospect and Look at the Birdie

(from a more comprehensive list on Wikipedia)

So that being considered, does the fact that the book you’re reading was say, left unauthorized by death, change the way you feel about it? Would you rather it weren’t published at all?

Let’s ponder that while I put on some Tupac.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

When you think of Russians, I’m willing to bet that ‘funny” isn’t the next word that comes to mind. My only concept of Russian comedy is, as it turns out, based on a single joke: I was to understand the amusing reversal inherent in the Soviet automobile’s tendency to arbitrarily direct its own operator.

Depicts the desperate plight of Russian serfs, as they commonly had no arms.

Predating that was Nikolai Gogol, who, regarded as Russia’s Mark Twain, was one of the Fatherland’s national treasures of 19th century literature.

Internet Fun Fact: you may recognize this author as your most common typo when you’re trying to pull up google.com.

When he was twenty-seven, he wrote a satirical play that was found to be such a sensational gutbuster that the Emperor cajoled all his ministers to go see it. I wanted to read Dead Souls out of the curiosity of “how does Russian funny work, exactly?”

The story concerns Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, a nondescript fellow of hazy origin who drops in on a provincial Russian town asking about all its nearby nobles. He meets with the nobles, navigating the Austenian territory of manners and agreeability to make this modest proposal with each: You know your peasants who’ve died recently? I’d like to buy them.

See, in feudal Russia you have to pay taxes each year on all the serfs, or muzhiks, registered on your land. If any of your muzhiks die, they won’t be removed from state records until the next census, which is only taken every seven years or so. Until then you’re stuck paying taxes on “souls” who are actually dead. Now, if Chichikov comes along and proposes you sign over your dead souls to him to relieve yourself of the tax burden, what do you say? Maybe any number of things first, but eventually you’re probably going to say yes.

Why is Chichikov buying these souls? For most of the story, you don’t receive many clues. When the provincial folk learn of his deals and conjectures fly (involving everything from a kidnapping plot on the governor’s daughter to Chichikov secretly being the leader of a band of thieves), you want to tell the silly locals what’s really up, but frankly you don’t know, either. It’s a strange position for a reader to be in: you know everyone’s wrong about the main character, yet he remains just as much a mystery to you.

Bring Out Your Dead

The Pevear/Volokhonsky translation I read includes both Volumes I and II of Dead Souls. I mention this because Volume I is essentially a complete novel, and II is his unfinished sequel– the manuscript of which he burned, and years later, burned again (and then he died). My advice: when you get to II, just stop. Gogol didn’t want you to read it anyway, for what you’ll see is a misshapen fetus mercilessly snatched into the light.

But how is Volume I? Well, the thing is disappointingly bloated, like a bag of Lay’s where the chips are the story and so much else is air. Not that Gogol’s meanderings aren’t often worthwhile. The best of these are his embedded bitching sessions on the business of writing fiction. In a later chapter he introduces two ladies who will have a pivotal conversation, and he pauses to admit, “The author is in the greatest perplexity how to name the two ladies in such a way that people do not get angry with him again.” Because what novelist hasn’t, as Gogol goes on to describe, fretted over a safe name to christen even his/her minor characters? When Gogol isn’t advancing the story or complaining about the craft, he’s annotating the goings-on with some relevant wisdom:

We all have a little weakness for sparing ourselves somewhat, and prefer to try to find some neighbor on whom to vent our vexation, a servant, for instance, or a subordinate official who turns up at that moment, or a wife, or, finally, a chair, which gets flung devil knows where, straight at the door, so that the armrest and back come flying off: that will teach it what wrath is.

My favorite parts of the book are each time Chichikov gets down to brass tacks and makes his proposal to buy the dead souls from each landowner. In every case it amounts to priceless, hilarious dialogue. The landowners’ reactions run the gamut of bewildered acquiescence, revulsion, and even ready bargaining (“Let’s make it a hundred a piece!” says Sobakevich, who goes on to extol the merits of the dead people he’s selling to drive up the price). Based on those scenes alone, I see myself liking Dead Souls much better as a stage play. I don’t say that sort of thing very often.

All in all, I admire Gogol’s comprehensive portrait of Russian society, his memorable characters, and his writing style that’s irresistibly chummy with the reader. But why oh why was Dead Souls not more focused? If you don’t tolerate meanderings well, pass this book up. Otherwise, it’s worth the girth to discover its high points, which are more delightful than watching a bear on a unicycle, and more cerebral, I would say.