Sunday miscellany 6

No book stack photo this week, but look at our lovely new desk! It’s a proper study now (ignore the box…)

This week started off with Dostoevsky’s Memoirs From the House of the Dead for Russian Spring, partly because I wanted to piggyback off the portrait of the Russian penal system that Resurrection gave me last week. It’s based on Dostoevsky’s experience of prison in Siberia, where he spent four years as a young man for political offenses. Although he establishes a frame story that the text is actually a memoir he found in a boarding house, that gets abandoned pretty quickly and is rarely alluded to. The book is best known for its set pieces: prisoner bathing day at the local banya (everyone stays pretty filthy, but it includes a famously elaborate depiction of undressing while remaining shackled); Christmas Day (progressively raucous, lots of drinking, some music, better food than usual, limited religious observance); amateur theatricals organized by some of the prisoners (genuinely delightful, a mood-lifter for everyone, no cynicism or violence from the spectators, just pure escapism and happiness). Dostoevsky specializes in character studies, from the two guys who successfully flee the prison by bribing a guard to the one Jewish man in their barracks (who does his own work on Christmas Day just to prove to everyone else how little he cares for the holiday) to the violin-playing convict who could be hired by the hour by other prisoners. Vodka smuggling, nighttime card games, universal deep affection for the prison horse: it’s all here. Class distinction comes across very strongly, too. Dostoevsky’s point of view character, like himself, is a member of the petty nobility, and although his fellow prisoners eventually allow as to how he’s all right, it’s apparent that he will never be “one of them”. It makes his imprisonment, in some ways, even lonelier, and it’s an intriguing glimpse into how the stratifications of the Russian class system could not be overcome even by the otherwise substantial leveler of criminal conviction.

I picked up Madwoman by Louisa Treger after this, which is also about imprisonment in a way: it’s a historical novel (out in June) about Nellie Bly, a real newspaperwoman in 1880s New York who led an extraordinary, trailblazing life. Among other things, she voluntarily entered a private insane asylum in 1887, undercover, in order to report on conditions in such institutions. Her experiences, and what she wrote about them, changed the conversation in America about mental health treatment. Madwoman is a very thoroughly researched book—in some ways it reads like a creative biography, with its focus much more on Bly as a person than on the mental health history angle. Relatedly, in its early pages the book is very interested in Bly’s childhood, which was blighted by tragedy: she loses her beloved, supportive father and gains an abusive drunk for a stepfather within a few chapters. It’s when her mother takes the then-remarkable step of seeking a divorce and moves with her children to Pittsburgh that Bly steps into her own as a wage-earner, and eventually as a reporter. (Her stint in Mexico—still aged only 21—for six months, sending reports back to Pittsburgh, is skipped over, which I’m sorry for; perhaps that episode needs a novel of its own to do it justice, though!)

I’m still reading Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy. It’s great, very thought-provoking (and very helpful for my thesis in its lucid explanations of how early economists defined “value”, “production” and “[economically] useful”, as well as a handy lil rundown of Marx). It’s also about money and therefore hard—not inherently, and not because Mazzucato is confusing—she can write very clearly—but because I don’t read about money or the economy very often, and I have to stop to sense-check a lot. The book is both helpful and interesting, particularly in giving shape and voice to some thoughts I’ve had about how the twenty-first century seems to construe value, but it’ll be nice to finish it and get back to reading that I a) feel qualified to have an opinion on, and b) isn’t quite such an extended mental effort.

I spent a few hours reading in the sun in our communal garden today, and although I brought the Mazzucato along and made an effort with it, I also brought a perennial favourite, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. I’ve read it so many times now, it’s just a simple relaxing treat on a sunny Sunday before a bank holiday. While I was out there, I watched a pigeon get nobbled by a sparrowhawk about ten feet from my picnic blanket, after which a magpie tried to mug the hawk for the pigeon’s carcass. The glories of Nature, eh!

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