The Meek One by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Once upon a time I went through a really rough breakup and in the aftermath I was left reaching out desperately to build some new kind of life for myself.  I was feeling completely hollowed out as a person, as if I had been destroyed at a base level.  Everything that I KNEW was WRONG and I was living with my parents again, but this time in the basement with the kitty litter.  During this time, a (then) girlfriend of an old friend offered to take me out for a “girls night on the town” with one of her “smart and funny friends.”  I should have been suspicious when this endeavor was planned for a Sunday night but I was in a stage where I was making a point to say “yes” to all kinds of new experiences.

In general, I always liked this girlfriend.  She was smart and fun at parties and also an English major.  She had, in fact, gifted me a big bag of paperbacks about a year before this.  She picked me up at my place of employment and we went off on our wild journey.  The evening consisted of Chinese buffet and Scrabble.  At one point she took a phone call from a friend at college and had a very pretentious conversation about Russian literature with him.  At that moment I realized that this was not what I wanted to do and not who I wanted to be with.  “People only talk like that in bad novels,” I thought.  From that moment on I avoided Russian literature like the plague.

But I was wrong.  Oh so wrong.  If War and Peace was the nail in my coffin, The Meek One was the hammer that drove it home.

I had been slowly picking my way through the Little Black Classics a couple of years ago and I realized that I kind of enjoyed some and others were kind of a waste and also that I could get short stories every month in the mail.  Eventually it just fell to the wayside.  I started back up last week and this was the next one in the box.  I LOVED IT.

This is the story of a pawnbroker who decides to marry a poor orphan who is living with detestable aunts who want her to marry a fat, old shopkeeper who has already beaten two wives to death.  He plays his cards well and wins the prize only to submit her to some kind of sick mind game that the modern reader will definitely realize is emotional abuse.  The girl seems grateful to be with him and at first runs to him affectionately after a day of work and happily helps in the pawnshop as well as with the housework.  But the pawnbroker has had his reputation injured and wishes to start over in a new and better life, one that he will have to educate her for.

What results is a story of manipulation.  He loves her and he thinks that she can love him but he must lay her low in order to teach her how the world is.  This little program has disastrous results for all involved.

This was so well done.  I actually had a very hard time putting the book down.  I read it in one day, even with a toddler in tow.


The Steel Flea by Nikolai Leskov

I had one of those interesting experiences where the universe seemed to place things perfectly.  This Little Black Classic happened to fall after my reading of War and Peace.  A number of times I thought about taking a break from the Tolstoy to read the Leskov but I thought that I would end up confused.  I managed to put it off and so my experience was kind of like reading Tales of the Beedle Bard after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.

The Steel Flea is kind of like a zany fable and it was vastly enjoyable.  The Russians and the English are always trying to outdo one another and the result is a tiny steel flea with an even tinier wind up key and a simple craftsman on an adventure.

This is one of my favorite Little Black Classics so far.

Olalla by Robert Louis Stevenson

Another Little Black Classic for me!  I enjoyed this one better than the previous two, if only because it was easier for me to read.  We went from Roman history and Greek epics to Victorian Gothic and, let’s face it, that’s much more up my alley.

Olalla is the story of an injured English soldier in Spain.  His doctor and friend suggests that he get some fine air to further improve his health.  As luck would have it, the doctor has just heard of a fallen aristocratic family in need of money and they are willing to take on a lodger as long as he does not expect to become familiar with the family.  The soldier spends his days getting exercise in the mountains and obsessing over a beautiful woman in a portrait in his room who he knows has been dead for a long time.  He is able to become acquainted with the son, who seems to look up to him, and the mother but does not make contact with the daughter for a while.  When he does, he is instantly in love with her.

However, the family is of a declining race and both the mother and the son are described as being innocents.  The Englishman suspects that there is something very wrong with them and he soon finds out just how wrong.

This LBC was okay.  I liked reading it and it felt pulpy in an enjoyable way but it wasn’t anything that really wow-ed me.

Travels in the Land of Serpents and Pearls by Marco Polo

And so I continue my journey through the Little Black Classics!  This was #16.

Of course I know who Marco Polo is and I have the board game at home but that doesn’t mean that I actually know anything about his travels. In fact, it is possible that I know NOTHING about his travels. I suspect he stopped in Sumatra because that is one the spaces on the board and I think he traded a lot because that happens in the game too. Then I realize how positively lame I am for basing all of my historic knowledge on a board game.

I expected this LBC to be dull and dry but I was pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed it and actually found it kind of amusing. True, some of the phrasing was tediously repetitive, but I also found myself wondering how much the natives pulled Marco Polo’s leg and how much he exaggerated himself. It’s easy to imagine Marco Polo telling his stories to fascinated nobility.

The joy of classics is that sometimes you have to take them as they are. Eloquent? No, but amusing to read.

Three Tang Dynasty Poets

I was running out of things to say about the Little Black Classics, which often times are too disjointed for a good review.  In fact, after some Jonathan Swift I was wondering if I would make it through the whole collection.  Then I came across this little gem.

It is hard to explain what exactly happened when I picked up this collection.  I was feeling better than I have in days but still very unsettled.  It only took the first poem to pull me in.  Wang Wei, the first poet featured, made me slow down and just read.  I didn’t want to stop even though I usually like to break up poetry.  I almost read the whole book last night, curled on the couch with a pile of blanket and cat, and would have if I weren’t making myself go to bed.

I’ve always believed that a good poem will force you to stop, slow down, pay attention.  That’s exactly what this collection did for me.  The poems drew me in.  They were short, descriptive, lyrical.  I want to read them again and again.

Wailing Ghosts by Pu Songling

Just when I was beginning to lose faith in my Little Black Classics box set, I go to read this little gem.  Collected here are a number of short paranormal stories from China.  Sometimes, this is just the ticket for me.  It made for great reading while I chipped away at chores today because the stories were so short and I found most of them to be engrossing.  Magic, myths, beasts, ghosts, foxes.  The tone was very fairy tale like and easy to read.  I plowed through this.

Now I kind of want to read about China, which tells me this book was a success.

Traffic by John Ruskin

I am starting to feel a little discouraged by the Little Black Classics.  So far I haven’t absolutely enjoyed any of my reading.  It’s true that it has been witty at times but for the most part I have slogged through.

Ruskin’s two collected works are on economy.  He makes some fair points.  I must say that I liked “The Roots of Honour” best.  Having been in positions where I felt well treated by an employer and some where I felt ill treated by an employer, I could see a lot of Ruskin’s scenarios in real life situations.

Again, this is probably brilliant but just not my thing.