House of the Dead and Poor Folk by Dostoyevsky

Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoyevsky will go down as the book I read on my Kindle while I tried to rock my newborn baby to sleep. Perhaps a weird choice. I recall reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales while holding my first child, though I think I read some of those out loud, perhaps scarring her for life. Also, not necessarily a wise choice as Dostoyevsky is not a fast-paced author. So at 3:30 in the morning while I am half-awake, trying to get a baby to sleep but needing to keep awake so I don’t drop the baby, would Dostoyevsky make my eyelids droop? Surprisingly, if Dostoyevsky ever wrote a fast-paced page-turner, this just might be it. 

Poor Folk was his first book, written before his time in prison. The psychological depth of his later books such as Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment is not visible yet. Instead we get an epistolary novel, a story told through the letters between two lonely, poor people. It is beautifully written and well worth your time. If you’ve never read Dostoyevsky, this might be a good place to start.

Then there’s The House of the Dead, which I mostly had finished prior to the baby being born.  When I was in high school I thought The House of the Dead was just a video game (anyone remember that?). I think you got to shoot zombies or other creatures or something. After reading some of Dostoyevsky’s big books I decided to try some of his shorter, lesser known works. This one caught my eye, due to its title, but it obviously has nothing to do with the aforementioned game. Instead this is a story drawn from Dostoyevsky’s own time in prison in Siberia. I found it difficult to read (perhaps a pointless statement as all of Dostoyevsky is a bit difficult, that’s what makes it fantastic). This book was difficult because there is little over-arching narrative. Instead it is a series of memories from prison life. As Dostoyevsky paints the picture, he shows that the prison in Siberia certainly is a house for the living dead. Historically speaking, it seems this sort of prison was the predecessor of the later gulag under communism.

All that said, if you’ve read some Dostoyevsky and want to read more, check this one out. If you’re new, read Crime and Punishment or Poor Folk first and then come here

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