Tag Archives: Crime and Punishment

“How to Read the Air” by Dinaw Mengestu

Title: How to Read the Air
Author: Dinaw Mengestu
ISBN: 9781594487705
Pages: 320
Release date: October 14, 2010
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Genre: Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Jonas, the son of unhappily wedded Ethiopian immigrants, has learned how to cope with life by to lying to himself and others.

At both of the jobs he works as an adult, his livelihood depends on his lies: at the center for immigrants, he elaborates on his clients’ tragedies until their histories are unrecognizable, and as an English teacher, he lies to his students about his and his father’s histories. He comments, “Not only was I good at these inventions, I was grateful for them; only in fiction could I step outside of myself long enough to feel fully at ease.”

But after his marriage plummets and he’s fired from another job, Jonas decides he needs a change in scenery. He begins to trace the same route his parents took on their unhappy honeymoon: from Jonas’s hometown in Peoria, Illinois, they traveled toward Nashville, Tennessee—the home of country music.

In the meantime, the collapse of Jonas’s relationship, which occurred several months before his trip, is rehashed in great detail.

As he recounts the major events in his adult life—meeting Angela, a summer intern right out of law school, at the immigration center where he worked; beginning a life with her; teaching English when he is laid off at the immigration center; ending both his failed relationship with Angela and his failed career as a teacher; and leaving New York City—one begins to see that Jonas has been a passive participant in his own life. He allows circumstances and others to blow him in any direction.

He got this attitude from his mother. Rather than leaving an abusive husband whom she despised, she chose to stay with him for two decades. To have acted on her feelings was impossible, for the consequences would have rocked her life and that of her son:

It was better, she believed, not to translate emotions into actions, to let them lie dormant, because once they were expressed, there was no drawing them back. They enter the world and having done so become greater than us.

Jonas decides to take control of his life, and this trip is the first thing that he does for himself. He is finally able to see what kind of man he is, and in doing so begins the long road to change.


It is difficult to review this book because it was difficult to read it. The story is slow moving, overwhelmed with exhaustive details of unimportant scenes, and weighed down with clumsy, unconvincing dialogue.

In lieu of any real sort of plot, the characters must carry the story, but they are too bland to be of much interest. In fact, there was no one in the story with whom I felt any connection.

The idea of viewing a couple’s failed relationship through the eyes of their troubled son is an interesting one, but Jonas is a dispassionate narrator and a lifeless character. Throughout the story, he attracted neither my sympathy nor my ire; when the lies with which he has constructed his life begin to crumble, I felt only a vague “told you so” feeling.

I’m all for well-rounded characterization taking prominence over plot—hey, most of the action in Crime and Punishment takes place in the beginning, and you are sucked into the story not by his crime but by Raskalnikov’s inner turmoil and the way in which he interacts with other members of society. Good characters can be fascinating—when done well. But reading about Jonas’s inner thoughts and motivations was about as interesting as clipping Tinker’s toenails.

The climax of the book—the events that made his parents’ marriage take a definitive turn for the worse, and the unveiling of how Jonas’s own marriage came to be so miserable—is disappointing.

However, the story was not terribly written, and it does contain some hidden gems. Angela, Jonas’s wife, feels pressure to succeed as a female African-American lawyer from low origin. When she loses a string of cases, her self-esteem plummets. Jonas observes:

For Angela each loss posed as the commencement of a greater disaster that she had always imagined would someday occur, one that she believed wouldn’t end until she had been stripped bare of all that she had accomplished.

Angela is powerfully motivated to succeed by her fear of becoming like her parents, but this fear is ultimately what drives her from happiness.

I liked the narrator’s version of his father’s journey from Ethiopia better than anything else in the book; the crisp narrative style, lively descriptions, and exciting climax kept me reading eagerly. If only the book were about that! I found it interesting to read a story about Sudanese stowaways—especially after having just finished Zeitoun, who affirms that every time his ship left a harbor in Sudan, there was always a stowaway or two.

How to Read the Air is about failed relationships and imperfect people, and about the lasting effect of relationships on identities—for better or worse. Unfortunately, between the slow plot and the flat characterization, there was very little to draw me into this story, and even less to keep me hanging on. As a big fan of Mengestu’s first book, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, I was disappointed in this, his sophomore offering.

Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but his family moved to the United States when he was two years old. He received his BA in English from Georgetown University, and his MFA in fiction from Columbia University.

Happy Halloween! October in Review

Happy Halloween everyone! This month has flown by, but I managed to do a fair amount of reading in between camping trips and pumpkin carving.

11 books completed
3,794 pages read
9 books reviewed

I have thoroughly enjoyed the reading challenges I’ve been involved in: Dewey’s 24-hour Readathon, Fall into Reading 2010, and the YABR Halloween Readathon.

But in the flurry of weather changes and completed challenges, we can’t forget about the books. Here are the books I reviewed this month:

I finally got around to reading The Hobbit, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Bilbo is an incredibly likeable character and a realistic hero, and I absolutely agree with his policy of second breakfasts. I’m looking forward to reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy… yes, I haven’t read that yet either!
Rating: 5 out of 5

To Have and Have Not is my least favorite Hemingway book so far. Though Hemingway attempts to dissect grand social issues, such as troubled economic times and the relationship that exists between husband and wife, the entangled sub-plots and the erratic activities of the characters serve to distract from whatever statement Hemingway is trying to make.
Rating: 3 out of 5

While I was interested to read a collection of flash fiction, a new favorite genre of mine, I found the weaknesses of some of the stories in Fingerprints to be off-putting. However, it was great to see D.C. in so many settings.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

I came to The Purity Myth hoping for a clear-eyed, well-argued account of the effects of the movements toward abstinence and virginity. Instead, many of Valenti’s snarky comments only reinforce the dichotomy between supporters and detractors of abstinence. However, there were many parts that I enjoyed (being a snarky blogger myself).
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I found Wuthering Heights to be an enjoyable read; even more than Jane Eyre. Such a powerful story of love and loss ages well, and the unconventional use of an unreliable narrator had an interesting effect upon my view of the characters and story.
Rating: 4 out of 5

Though I enjoyed the intense psychological aspects of Crime and Punishment, I thought the story dragged on for too long. However, I admired Dostoevsky’s handling of the intricate relations between characters rich and poor, male and female, powerful and powerless, sane and mentally ill.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

While it was fun to read and act out a play together–and Halloween was the perfect time of year to do it!–perhaps Jack and I chose the wrong work; neither of us particularly liked Macbeth. The entire play seemed very disjointed, like there was a scene or even an act missing.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

After our joint review of Macbeth, Jack was inspired to write about another recent book he’d recently finished (after several months!). While Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell had excellent prose and a strong historical feel, the generally glacial pace of the story has him recommending against this one.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

The Graveyard Book was truly a delight to read, and I appreciated Gaiman’s intelligent handling of complex issues without losing sight of his inventive narrative. I would recommend this book to almost anyone for its fully formed characters, excellent prose, and engaging plot.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

I’m excited about the reviews I have planned for November, and I can’t wait to host a giveaway of a book I enjoyed recently. But more on that tomorrow! Thanks to everyone for supporting me with your kind comments and steady viewership.

And now I’m off to enjoy candy and pumpkin beer!

“Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Title: Crime and Punishment
Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
ISBN: 9780140449136
Pages: 718
Release date: 1866
Publisher: The Russian Messenger (journal); reprinted by Penguin Classics
Genre: Russian literature
Formats: Audiobook and paperback
Sources: Lit2Go and library
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Raskalnikov felt sick
But he couldn’t say why
When he saw his face reflected
In his victim’s twinkling eye
Some things you do for money
And some you’ll do for fun
But the things you do for love
Are gonna come back to you one by one

-The Mountain Goats, “Love, Love, Love”


Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a former student in St. Petersburg who has cut himself off from almost everyone he once knew, has concocted a terrible scheme. Tired of depending upon his mother for money and verging constantly on eviction, he plans to murder the merciless old pawnbroker who keeps ripping him and others off.

When the day finally arrives, Raskolnikov is still not convinced that he will bear the plan to fruition, but he is seized by wild impulse at the woman’s door and he easily pulls out his axe and murders her as planned. With no thought to what he has just done, he ransacks her room, but he only steals a few trinkets and a pouch, presumably stuffed with money, pulled from the old pawnbroker’s neck. He is interrupted by Lizaveta, the old woman’s sweet sister, whom he also chops up with nary a pause.

He escapes through sheer luck, and, returning to his apartment, thoroughly searches himself for any sign of blood or guilt. He then collapses onto his bed in a fever, and when he comes to several days later, he is attended by his friend from school, Dmitri Prokofich Razumikhin, and a young doctor.

Raskolnikov’s mother and sister arrive in St. Petersburg, and they are flummoxed to find him in such a despicable and feverish state. Raskolnikov remembers the letter he had received before the murders from his mother, Pulcheria Alexandrovna, announcing the she and his sister, Avdotya Romanovna (or Dounia), will be visiting soon. Dounia had been working as a governess, but due to unwelcome advances from her employer, Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigaïlov, she quits her job. Though Svidrigaïlov’s wife, Marfa, initially set out to ruin Dounia’s good name, Marfa realizes her mistake and arranges for Dounia to marry Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, a man of some wealth and prestige.

Raskolnikov is quite rude to his family when they arrive in his home; much of his communication consists of telling Dounia that Luzhin is a scoundrel whom she should not wed. Eventually, he is proven right, and Razumikhin steps up as Dounia’s newest love interest. Raskolnikov also begins pursuing Sofia (Sonya) Semyonovna Marmeladova, the daughter of a drunk that Raskolnikov befriends briefly. Though Sonya is a prostitute, the two develop a very platonic relationship, preferring to argue about Sonya’s deep religious beliefs and Raskolnikov’s cynical nihilism.

Meanwhile, Porfiry Petrovich, the detective in charge of the murder investigation, begins suspecting Raskolnikov on purely psychological grounds, and sets out to find more tangible evidence. Raskolnikov must face his guilty conscience, come clean to his loved ones, and accept his punishment.


I was drawn into the book from the beginning by Dostoevsky’s unique and powerful voice and by the inevitability of Raskolnikov’s story. However, I found my patience wearing thin about halfway through; I had a pretty clear idea of where the story was going, but it took its sweet time getting there. My impatience with the length made me reminisce about the Dickens novels I’ve read—sure, the man is clearly a superb writer, but is he being paid by the word?

In addition, I found the many names and nicknames of the characters to be very confusing. I mostly listened to the book on audiobook, and kept forgetting who was who at later stages in the story. However, the narrator helped eliminate some confusion by adopting different tones for the different characters.

Other than that, I liked the story. Crime and Punishment discusses the effects of mental anguish, morality, and social and fiscal responsibility. Dostoevsky carefully studies the intricate relations between characters rich and poor, male and female, powerful and powerless, sane and mentally ill.

There is no question that Dostoevsky was a masterful storyteller. At one point, Dounia exclaims to her brother, “Why do you demand of me a heroism that perhaps you have not either? It is despotism, it is tyranny. If I ruin anyone, it is only myself… I am not committing a murder.” The truth of Raskolnikov’s hypocrisy strikes him then, but he is still not recalcitrant.

Raskolnikov maintains throughout most of the story that the old pawnbroker was just a parasite that deserved to be murdered; his guilt and regret center mostly on his failure to be “great man”:

Oh, how happy he would have been if he could have heaped blame upon himself! Then he would have been able to endure anything, even shame and disgrace. But he was his own severest judge, and his embittered conscience could find no particularly dreadful guilt in his past, except for perhaps a simple blunder which might have happened to anyone.

Raskolnikov has hypothesized that a very few people are able to murder without smirching their consciences, thus proving their right to murder. Raskolnikov attempts to compare himself to figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte, believing that murder is permissible in pursuit of a higher purpose. As Porfiry explains to him, “If [the murderer] has a conscience, he will suffer from his mistake. That will be his punishment—as well as the prison.” When Raskolnikov’s conscience begins to plague him, he realizes that he is no such “great man.”

Raskolnikov is tormented particularly by the unalterable affection that the women in his life, and Razumikhin, have for him, stating, “But why do they love me so much, if I don’t deserve it? Oh, if I were alone and no one loved me and I had never loved anyone! All this would never have taken place!

Even as he curses their kindness, however, he desperately needs their pity. Before he decides to confess, he visits Sonya. He is cruel to her, and he admits to himself,

[I]t was her tears I wanted, I wanted to see her fright, to watch her heart ache and torment itself! I needed to have something to catch on to, I wanted to play for a time, to watch another human being!

However, Sonya stays by his side, even through his Siberian imprisonment. Eventually he is won over by her love and piety, and he is able to see a new promise in life. Sonya’s unflinching optimism, even in the face of her precarious moral position, saves both of them: “What had revived them was love, the heart of the one containing an infinite source of life for the heart of the other.”

Halloween Reading

I’ve signed up for the Halloween Readathon hosted by Young Adult Books Reviewed this weekend… that’s right, I’m ready for some more readathon action! This time I’ll be reading Coraline by Neil Gaiman. I’m also planning on writing my review for his Graveyard Book, in addition to the reviews I have planned for Wuthering Heights and Crime and Punishment. It’ll be a spook-tacular weekend!

Still Reading

7:45 am
Readathon is nearing its end, but I’ve decided to make up for time lost sleeping. That’s right, folks–I’m ready for another day of nonstop reading. I haven’t yet hit my goal, so I’ll keep you updated as I go.

9:00 am
Tink and I went on a nice long walk, and I listened to several chapters of Crime and Punishment. I’m hoping to finish it today. First, though, I want to get through The Graveyard Book… if only to get to the next Gaiman book I have waiting for me at the library!

7:00 pm
OK, so, that didn’t go as well as planned. Jack and I ended up doing some much-needed house cleaning. We also welcomed into our lives a new bookshelf! Weighing in at 4 feet tall and 2.5 wide, she is a welcome (and beautiful) addition to the family.

I have managed to get some reading done, in between admiring my bookshelf-assembly skills and reorganizing my entire library. I’m nearly done with both The Graveyard Book and Crime and Punishment. And tomorrow I’m planning on reviewing my readathon books before the weekend fades into a muddled haze.

I think this will be my final entry for this year’s readathon. Thanks to all who followed my posts and cheered me on–I had a great time, and I’m already looking forward to next year! Is it too soon to start a TBR list?


10:15 am
Happy readathon, everyone! I’m very excited to be able to participate again this year. I’ve started in on my list by completing 72 pages (out of 215) of The Purity Myth. I’ll keep you updated as I go!

11:20 am
I’m at page 101 of The Purity Myth, and now I’m going to take a “break” and walk Tink… though my iPod (and Crime and Punishment) may come along too!

12:10 pm
Tink and I had a lovely walk; she romped about while I listened to a few chapters of Crime and Punishment.

Julia Keller recently made a case in the Chicago Tribune for reading multiple books at once, a stance with which I wholeheartedly agree–I could never choose just one! She observed a simultaneous-reading phenomenon: she is often struck by the similarities between two disparate novels that she is reading. I, too, have often noticed this. In fact, just now, there was a quote in Crime and Punishment that completely coincided with my view of issues presented by The Purity Myth. Who would’ve ever related the two!

2:30 pm
After a quick break for lunch, I got back in the game and am now on page 145 of The Purity Myth. I’m contemplating going to the library to pick up a few holds–like I need to add to the TBR stack!

4:45 pm
I’m powering through The Purity Myth–I should be finished within the hour. Tink and I took a short break to play fetch, and I didn’t miss the chance to listen to some Crime and Punishment! A weird combination, chastity and madness. Or perhaps not.

The lovely mail-lady brought two more books for me today, but I’m pretty bent on finishing my library stack first. Wish me luck!

6:00 pm
I finally finished The Purity Myth, and I can’t wait to review it–hopefully next week. After a quick cup of tea, I’m getting back into The Graveyard Book. I’m already hooked on this story and its characters!

I was reading outside on my patio, but the mosquitoes were beginning to bother me. I’ll head outside once more before it gets dark to take Tink on another romp in the woods. She’s not much of a reader; she’s spent much of the day lying on the floor, with her eyes closed, snoring gently. Not much different from her everyday routine!

9:00 pm
I just finished Sheery’s minichallenge, and it was great! I love word scrambles. My answers are below… don’t peek if you haven’t done the challenge!

1.yfferil enal
Firefly Lane

2.aste fo eend
East of Eden

3. retwa orf pntshleea
Water for Elephants

4.ot lkli a ckomgnrbdii
To Kill a Mockingbird

5. het gtaer ysbtag
The Great Gatsby

6. yrhra tetrpo dna eth lyhdtea wollsah
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

7. ht e rat fo nrgcai ni eht nair
The Art of Racing in the Rain

8.eth mite reslveart efwi
The Time Traveler’s Wife

9. eht rlig ithw eht gnodar ooattt
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

10.ydira fo a mypiw idk
Diary of a Wimpy Kid

11.a kwrlnei ni emit
A Wrinkle in Time

12. het rpoal sxprese
The Polar Express

13.vole dewlak ni
Love Walked In

14.reehw eth dwli hingts rea
Where the Wild Things Are

15.eht ginnhsi
The Shining

16.dnohogigt oonm
Goodnight Moon

17. vwtienrie hwti a pvmarie
Interview with a Vampire

18. eht cretse file fo eesb
The Secret Life of Bees

19. eht raesch
The Search

20. het pelh
The Help

Now it’s back to The Graveyard Book… I’m at page 60 of 307, but it’s going very quickly!

11:30 pm
It’s getting late, and this entry is getting long! I took a break earlier to go pick up Jack from his short weekend of playing ultimate. I brought Crime and Punishment along, though. Now I’m at page 119 of The Graveyard Book, and I love the line art interspersed with the words… it adds to the ghostly feel of the story. Can’t wait to review this one in time for Halloween!

11:55 pm
I’m now on page 134, and I’m ready to take a bit of a nap. Keep reading, everyone! I’ll catch you in a few hours.