Prodigious research enlivens a vigorous reappraisal of the writer’s life.

THE SINNER AND THE SAINT

DOSTOEVSKY AND THE GENTLEMAN MURDERER WHO INSPIRED A MASTERPIECE

A 19th-century true-crime/literary tale in which two lives become enmeshed in evil.

Award-winning literary historian Birmingham elaborates on the trials and travails of Dostoevsky (1821-1881) by interweaving his life with that of notorious French outlaw Pierre Francois Lacenaire (1803-1836), a figure whose “base instincts” fascinated Dostoevsky. Lacenaire, who studied law and wrote poetry, detailed his many grisly crimes—including the murders of a gay man and his mother—in a scandalous memoir. Widely celebrated as a romantic iconoclast, Lacenaire came to represent “the radical artist undermining bourgeois society” and fueled Dostoevsky’s imagination as he wrote Crime and Punishment, with a protagonist whose motivation to kill was a mystery “even to himself.” Dostoevsky set himself the challenge of grappling with the nature of evil by telling “a murderer’s story from the murderer’s perspective.” The trajectory of Dostoevsky’s life is by now familiar: He burst onto the literary scene in 1845 with the publication of Poor Folk, but within a few years, his critical reputation waned and he was drawn into the left-leaning Petrashevsky Circle. Arrested when the czar clamped down on political protest, he was imprisoned for eight months, faced a firing squad, and was pardoned at the last minute and sent into exile in Siberia. There, he sought out stories of his fellow convicts, including murderers; he was transfixed by their renderings of their crimes. Bedeviled by epileptic seizures, a gambling addiction, and overwhelming debt, he made an “ill-fated marriage,” suffered a doomed love affair, and found himself, at the age of 43, owing 15,000 rubles—some incurred when he took on his late brother’s debts, most because of his gambling losses. Drawing on his addiction for The Gambler, he exposed the irrationality and “fantasy of the power of daring” involved in roulette. Birmingham conveys in vibrant detail Dostoevsky’s literary aspirations, struggles to publish, and tumultuous world of “angels and demons.”

Prodigious research enlivens a vigorous reappraisal of the writer’s life.

Pub Date: Nov. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59420-630-6

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 7, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2021

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A thimbleful of fresh content lies buried in tales familiar and often told.

THE LAST DAYS OF JOHN LENNON

Beatlemania meets autopsy in the latest product from the Patterson factory.

The authors take more than half the book to reach John Lennon’s final days, which passed 40 years ago—an anniversary that, one presumes, provides the occasion for it. The narrative opens with killer Mark David Chapman talking to himself: “It’s like I’m invisible.” And how do we know that Chapman thought such a thing? Well, the authors aver, they’re reconstructing the voices in his head and other conversations “based on available third-party sources and interviews.” It’s a dubious exercise, and it doesn’t get better with noir-ish formulas (“His mind is a dangerous neighborhood”) and clunky novelistic stretches (“John Lennon wakes up, reaches for his eyeglasses. At first the day seems like any other until he realizes it’s a special one….He picks up the kitchen phone to greet his old songwriting partner, who’s called to wish him all the best for the record launch”). In the first half of the book, Patterson and company reheat the Beatles’ origin story and its many well-worn tropes, all of which fans already know in detail. Allowing for the internal monologue, things improve somewhat once the narrative approaches Chapman’s deranged act—300-odd pages in, leaving about 50 pages for a swift-moving account of the murder and its aftermath, which ends with Chapman in a maximum-security cell where “he will be protected from the ugliness of the outside world….The cell door slides shut and locks. Mark David Chapman smiles. I’m home.” To their credit, the authors at least don’t blame Lennon’s “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” for egging on the violence that killed him, but this book pales in comparison to Kenneth Womack’s John Lennon 1980 and Philip Norman’s John Lennon: The Life, among many other tomes on the Fab Four.

A thimbleful of fresh content lies buried in tales familiar and often told.

Pub Date: Dec. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-316-42906-1

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 7, 2021

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