Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Goldenveizer, Schiffman, and Balzac

Hello! What do quotations from Tolstoy, books on magic, and Balzac all have in common? They’re all included in this week’s post!

Talks With Tolstoy, by A.B. Goldenveizer,
Translated by S.S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf

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“[Tolstoy said] ‘I think that every great artist necessarily creates his own form also. If the content of works of art can be infinitely varied, so also can their form. Once Turgenev and I came back from the theatre in Paris and discussed this. We recalled all that is best in Russian literature and it seemed that in these works the form was perfectly original. Omitting Pushkin, let us take Gogol’s Dead Souls. What is it? Neither a novel nor a story. It is a something perfectly original.'”

Yes, someone really did have such conversations with Tolstoy, and he really did write them down to be read by us lucky people in the future.

Reading this book, I got a better sense of how Tolstoy thought, what he seemed ignorant/naive about, and how the way he thought could have played into what he wrote.

For instance he talked about something that likely inspired his story, “The Three Hermits.” he mentioned how he constantly rewrote, even after he reached a point where other people praised his works-in-progress. On the other hand, he was also very sexist, and he seemed to think that at one point in the past, colonialism wasn’t done out of self-interest, but out of the goodness of the colonists’ hearts.

In other words, it was insightful, inspiring, and disillusioning all at once. If you want to learn how Tolstoy thought in the years leading up to his death, and try to guess at how his thoughts informed his work, read this book.

Abracadabra! by Nathaniel Schiffman

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“I’ve started performing a casual trick for a friend, then realized that because I didn’t plan it out or think about it beforehand, I suddenly find myself not knowing how the trick should proceed. The idea of magic is that it is impromptu, whimsical, snap-of-the-finger. These ideas are mutually exclusive to the reality that careful natural planning must go into creating the illusion. The same idea has been expressed for many arts besides magic. Renowned Hollywood director Billy Wilder said of the movies, ‘Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.'”

This entertaining book is about magic–how to do magic tricks, how to make them convincing through misdirection, how magic was used throughout history, and how aspects of it pop up everywhere in daily life.

To be actually good at magic (instead of just buying some rigged prop to show off once and then forget about), you apparently have to do a LOT of work.

It’s not enough to know the trick, you have to know how to pull the trick off well. You have to know how to hide what you’re doing and how to direct your audience’s attention so that they look at what’s most exciting about the trick. So you have to learn a lot of psychology. You also have to practice a lot. Only then can you get up on some stage and “casually” pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Basically, this book made me realize just how much work goes into pulling that rabbit out of the hat.

So if you’re interested in learning how magic really works (and how aspects of it are very relevant to your non-magical life), read this book.

The Unknown Masterpiece,” by Honré de Balzac

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The old man continued, saying as he did so, ‘That is how to lay it on, young man. Little touches. Come and bring a glow into those icy-cold tones for me. Just so. Pom! Pom pom!’ And those parts of the picture that he had pointed out as cold and lifeless flushed with warmer hues. A few bold strokes of color brought all the tones of the picture into the required harmony with the glowing tints of the Egyptian, and the differences in temperament vanished.”

This is a story about a painter who is painting a masterpiece. He won’t let anyone see it at first, and in the meantime he shows off his talent on others’ paintings. Finally, two people do see it, and I won’t spoil what happens next.

“The Unknown Masterpiece” was an interesting story. It made me think a lot about art and revision. Sometimes, if a piece of art feels almost-finished and you don’t know how to proceed, the work doesn’t need to be completely re-thought. Instead, you just might need to add a few small details.

Basically, if you’re interested in art, read this story. It’s very worthwhile.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Pavlova, Schiller, and Aitmatov

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I’ve read three more books this week. One’s hilarious, one’s serious, and one literally made me cry.

A Double Life, by Karolina Pavlova,
Translated by Barbara Heldt

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First Excerpt (The Prose):

“It was the same simple story once again, old and forever new! It was true that Dmitry was captivated by Cecily. The magnetism of other people’s opinions always had an astonishing effect on him. Seeing her that evening, so dazzling and so surrounded, he could not fail to be satisfied with her and far more satisfied with himself. He was one of those weak creatures who grow drunk on success. At that moment, he was no longer merely calculating: he saw himself placed higher than all the rest by Cecily, higher even than Prince Victor, the arrogant object of his secret envy; and his head began to turn.”

Second Excerpt (The Poetry):

“Because for the universe this is/An inexhaustible blessing,/For holy gifts are everywhere/Where there is someone to understand them./For every creature of the world/Must, fulfilling its existence,/Contribute its own fragrance,/Shine with its own light through the darkness.”

This book was written by Karolina Pavlova, and it was so good it made all the men of 1800s-era Russia jealous of her. For good reason. Who among them (aside from people like Gogol and Lermontov) could ever hope to write a book so good? None of them.

Anyway, this book is about a woman named Cecily who has a double life. During the daytime (which is told in prose), she is everything a 1800s-era Russian woman should be–pretty, demure, submissive to others’ whims, and mindlessly conforming.

At night, she has dreams that are expressed in poetry. These dreams express her true essence, and are anything but mindlessly conforming.

The prose sections are hilarious. They’re as funny as Gogol (only without the absurdism). The poetry sections are also very good. They’re beautiful and moving and full of substance, and their sincerity makes a nice counterbalance for the humorous prose sections.

Overall, this is a severely-underrated book that should be recognized as a classic. Her contemporaries weren’t up for the challenge of admitting a brilliant woman into their ranks. Hopefully now we can read her book ourselves and see it for the great piece of literature it is.

“Wallenstein’s Camp,” by Friedrich von Schiller,
Translated by Charles E. Passage

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“For Art, which binds and limits everything,/Brings all extremes back to the sphere of Nature./It sees this man [Wallenstein] amid the press of life/And shows the greater half of his wrong-doing/To be the guilt of inauspicious stars.”

This play is a historical dramatization of the story of a General named Wallenstein who fought during the Thirty Years’ War and was murdered.

Was Wallenstein’s guilt really the result of inauspicious stars? I don’t know yet because I only read the first part of the play which doesn’t even include him. Instead, “Wallenstein’s Camp” focuses on what its title suggests.

It’s interesting because there are soldiers who are sick of being soldiers and just want to have fun via gambling and debauchery. Meanwhile, there’s a priest who comes and tries to chastise them for this behavior, only to be chased away. In other words, Schiller was great at showing the overall dynamics at play within a large group of soldiers in an unexpectedly-interesting way.

Something else interesting about the play is that at the beginning of it, a peasant named Piccolomini plays with a loaded die and gets chased out of the game by his enraged fellow-players. Yet at the end of this section, the soldiers magically forget their anger and enthusiastically decide to let him be the bearer of some important news.

How much of this was a result of inauspicious stars and how much of it was just human forgetfulness? What does it have to do with Wallenstein? We may never know, but hopefully the second part of the play (promisingly called “The Piccolominis”) will reveal some answers to this mystery.

The White Ship, by Chingiz Aitmatov,
Translated by Mirra Ginsburg

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“At the bank [his uncle] squatted down, dipped his hands into the water and splashed it on his face. ‘I guess he’s got a headache from the heat,’ the boy decided when he saw what Orozkul was doing. He did not know that Orozkul was crying and could not stop. That he was crying because it was not his son who came running to meet him and because he had not found within himself the [?] needed that was needed to say at least a human word or two to this boy with his school bag.”

This book was so sad. I literally cried after reading it.

It’s about a boy who was abandoned by his parents at a young age. He lives with his grandparents. If he climbs a certain hill he can see the distant sea. Every now and then, a white ship appears. The boy believes that his father is on the ship, and he wants to become a fish to swim after the ship. In the meantime, he has to contend with his abusive uncle and find solace in the legends told by his kind grandfather.

This is one of Aitmatov’s better books because unlike some of them, it isn’t melodramatic. This ties into something that helped make it sad: its amazing telling details.

We learn that the boy feels lonely not because Aitmatov writes, “Oh! He felt so lonely!” Instead, Aitmatov describes how the boy plays alone and talks to his schoolbag as if it’s a real person, because he has nobody else to confide in.

There were also mythological elements that paralleled the main story. They eventually played a role in the story. I won’t spoil how, but it was very impactful and reminded me of another masterpiece by Aitmatov called The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years.

Overall, The White Ship had a lot of heart and insight into the nature of kindness and indifference. If you’re okay with crying, definitely read this. It’s short and devastating, but totally worth it.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Strindberg, Gombrowicz, and Ibsen

In Which I Review Two Mortal Enemies (Ibsen and Strindberg) and One Writer Who Laughs at It All (Gombrowicz).

Hello! Happy October! Here are three more books I’ve read. One is too short, but the other two are just right.

Inferno, by August Strindberg, Translated by Mary Sandbach

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“A strange thing happened yesterday evening at supper. My little daughter cannot help herself to her food; so, wanting to assist her, I touched her hand, quite gently and with the kindest intentions. The child gave a shriek, snatched away her hand, and darted at me a look that was full of horror. When her grandmother asked her what was the matter she replied: ‘He hurt me.’ I sat there quite taken aback and unable to utter a word. I had done much harm intentionally; could I now have come to do it without wishing it? That night I dreamt that an eagle was pecking my hand to punish me for some crime. I knew not what.”

After reading this book I’ve come to the inevitable conclusion that I need more Strindberg in my life.

This was such an interesting psychological portrait of a man who was kind of mad and kind of not mad at the same time. It also had a strange plotline about metaphorically going into hell and coming back out. Parts of it also reminded me of Notes From the Underground, and interestingly, these two books were published in the same time-period.

In any case, even though you may never have heard of Strindberg’s Inferno, you have heard of it now, and you would be doing yourself a great service by reading it.

Ferdydurke, by Witold Gombrowicz,
Translated by Danuta Borchardt

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“Therefore, after a moment’s profound reflection, I managed to translate the substance of the following stanza that into comprehensive language:
THE POEM
Horizons burst like flasks
a green blotch swells high in the clouds
I move back to the shadow of the pine–
and there:
with greedy gulps I drink
my diurnal springtime

MY TRANSLATION
Calves of legs, calves, calves
Calves of legs, calves, calves, calves
Calves of legs, calves, calves, calves, calves–
The calf of my leg:
the calf of my leg, calf, calf,
calves, calves, calves.”

This funny book was entertaining to read, but at the same time, it was insightful.

It’s about a 30-year-old who is mistaken for a younger kid and is forced to attend elementary school. No matter how much he wants to protest, he can’t, and no matter how obvious it might be that he’s a 30-year-old, nobody acknowledges this fact. Thus begins this satire of education, infantilization, and class relations.

The book had a lot of great things to say about how, just because everybody else seems to like a boring piece of literature doesn’t mean that that piece of literature is actually any good. The people may be liking it just to come off as sophisticated. In fact, that’s probably the only reason they pretend to like it to begin with. Also, creators who make art just to look good or to imitate other artists without adding anything new are not creating true art because they’re not expressing themselves and their true values.

Obviously art is subjective and anyone’s free to disagree with these statements, but for me they resonated strongly. They (and the book’s humor) made Ferdydurke a very worthwhile read.

“When We Dead Awaken,” by Henrik Ibsen,
Adapted by Robert Brustein

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“Although absolutely nothing happened,
I knew that we had crossed the border,
That we were really home again,

Because it stopped at every little station.
No one got off and no one got on,
But the train stood there silently,
For what seemed like hours.
At every station I heard two railmen
Walking along the platform – –
And they mumbled quietly to each other
In the night, without expression or meaning.
There are always two men talking
About nothing at all.”

Apparently this quote wasn’t even included in in Brustein’s version of “When We Dead Awaken,” and somehow it was the best part of this adaptation of the play. That tells you everything you may need to know about it.

In other words, this book shows the dangers of cutting too much away from a story. Yes the play’s bones were intact, but its substance and emotional impact were not. This adaptation of the play felt flimsy, like it was being starved to death.

Basically, I would not recommend this version of Ibsen’s classic play. I would recommend another version that wasn’t cut. In fact, I may even try to read a longer version at some point in the future. Maybe then I’ll be able to write a review that does the actual play (and the plot I haven’t summarized here) justice.

To sum up: Whatever you do, don’t read this version of the play.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aksyonov, Aksyonov, and Aksyonov

In Which I Review Vassily Aksyonov’s “Generations of Winter.”

Hello! I have read one book today. It’s a long book. It’s considered a 20th century version of War and Peace. And nobody’s really heard about it…

Generations of Winter, by Vassily Aksyonov,
Translated by John Glad and Christopher Morris

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[About a couple who have both spent time in the gulag before being released to fight in WWII]: “Everything is finished, Nikita will never come back to me – – for that matter, he’ll never be himself again… It’s the end, the end… Everything is finished, thought her husband, who was only pretending to be asleep. Veronika didn’t come back, she no longer exists. Is it worth it, fighting the Germans for the ruins of my family?”

Generations of Winter is an epic novel about the Gradov family as they live through the Russian Civil War, Stalin’s terror, and World War II. There is Boris, who is a famous surgeon, his piano-playing wife Mary, his son Nikita who’s a Red Army officer, his other son Kirill who likes philosophy, and his daughter Nina who likes to write poetry.

People have compared this novel to War and Peace. I would say it’s more like War and Peace if all the characters got arrested. Also, there were a few important things that made Generations very unlike War and Peace.

First, the interesting things: There were experimental bits told from the perspectives of people reincarnated as animals, and there were fragments of newspapers included in the text. I’m still not sure exactly how these parts added to the story, but there’s a sense that the story would be missing something important without them.

Next, the not-so-exciting things: All the women were objectified, and there was less depth of character and thought.

The women were literally just there for the men to have their way with and were not really characterized beyond that point. Out of all the women in Russia, surely there would have been at least one or two who weren’t always just thinking of men. So not only were they objectified, they were also underused as characters.

There was also less depth of overall characterization. The author didn’t really go beyond what anyone would think in a given situation.

For instance, imagine you’re an Aksyonov character. Your friend was arrested? You’re obviously sad and angry and afraid, but that’s all you are! You’re not relieved that it’s not you, you’re not guilty about being relieved, and that arrest hasn’t changed you in any other way. You don’t reflect on what it could mean for the state of the country, or for existence, or anything like that. In fact, nine times out of ten you’re likely to just try making out with your friend’s bereaved wife! Nothing else really changes.

The book’s main idea seemed to be that people are imprisoned, released so they could be used in a war, and then oppressed yet again. This was an interesting idea, especially since the characters seemed to suppress whatever cognitive dissonance they felt. But that was it! Nothing else really changed.

Overall though, I don’t think a book’s ideas alone make it great. I think its characters do that (but this is obviously a subjective view).

Generations of Winter felt like Aksyonov was showing me a picture he’d drawn of people experiencing some event rather than introducing me to the actual people who had experienced that event.

He didn’t seem to take the time to fully imagine himself in his characters’ situations. Because he didn’t seem to know his characters as well as he could have, the book lacked a sense of insight, connection, and richness that would have existed had he known his characters better.

Basically, he seemed to care more about his literary style than his characters and their truths. When a writer emphasizes literary style more than character, it seems to me that the characters lose an important authenticity, and the book may suffer as a result.

So while Tolstoy seemed to really get to know his characters so he could depict them fully, Aksyonov seemed to understand his characters superficially. This gave them, and his book, less power than War And Peace.

Generations of Winter is still a good book, but it’s not as good as it could have been, or as great. Should you read it? Maybe start with some of Aksyonov’s shorter works first.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Tolstoy, Aitmatov, Babel

In Which I Review “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy, Stories by Chingiz Aitmatov, and “Red Cavalry” by Isaac Babel.

Hello! I’ve read three shorter books this week. One’s a novella and the other two are short story collections. So if you need something easy to get through, I have you covered!

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy,
Translated by Lynn Solotaroff

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“‘Does he think I’m so weak I can’t stretch my hand out?’ Ivan Ilyich thought, and forgetting what he was doing, he overtrumped his partner, missing the grand slam by three tricks. And worst of all, he saw how upset Mikhail Mikhailovich was while he himself did not care. And it was dreadful to think why he did not care.”

Ivan Ilyich was a very good read. It’s about a man named Ivan Ilyich who lives a shallow life until he realizes he’s dying. Then he reflects on life and dies anyway (spoiler alert!)

A few of its scenes were definitely moving, and it made me think a lot. It was interesting how Tolstoy used contrasts to evoke emotion. Ivan liked a kid who lifted his legs and this feeling was made stronger because he was shown to dislike nearly everyone else, for instance.

What also struck me was how similar parts of Ivan were to other books by Tolstoy. For instance, in Resurrection, the protagonist also sinks into sin and then has an enlightenment. It made me wonder how autobiographical Tolstoy’s writings were, and how he was (or in other cases, wasn’t) able to get inside the heads of people unlike himself.

Overall, I would recommend this book. It’s short, thought-provoking, and moving.

Other Stories, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“On the map Ceylon looked like a drop under the udder of the continent. But when you listened to to the teacher–why, it had all sorts of things, monkeys, and elephants, and bananas (some kind of fruit), and the best tea in the world, and no end of other fantastic fruits and plants. But the most wonderful thing of all–it was hot; so hot you could live there the whole year round and never know what it was to shiver.”

Aitmatov wrote a book called “Piebald Dog Running Along The Shore And Other Stories.” I’ve already reviewed “Piebald Dog” and “To Have And To Lose”, which leaves the three “Other Stories” in this collection.

The first story, “Duishen,” is about a girl whose aunt and uncle don’t want her to attend school. However, her teacher helps her go to school anyway and becomes a kind of guardian-figure to her. The story was interesting, somewhat unrealistic at one point, but still very good.

The next story was called “Mother-Earth.” It’s about a mother whose husband and children go to war. She has to stay behind and work on the collective farm. In the process she experiences both happiness and grief. This story was also interesting, more realistic than “Duishen,” but also somewhat melodramatic (the characters never stopped crying it seemed).

The final story, called “The Cranes Fly Early,” was the best story. The protagonist is a kid whose father is at war. The kid has to leave school to help work on a farm. He misses his father, falls in love with a schoolmate, and has to contend with adult responsibilities. Even so, he was very relatable, and there was less melodrama in this story since he wasn’t crying all the time.

Now, even though I said that the stories were kind of melodramatic, this didn’t mean that they were unenjoyable. Aitmatov’s characters felt very alive, which made them extremely sympathetic and compelling. It’s hard to explain without having read him yourself, which I’d definitely recommend that you do in any case.

Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel, Translated by Boris Dralyuk

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” I had dreams-dreamt of women-and only my heart, crimson with murder, creaked and bled.”

This collection of short stories was based on Babel’s experiences in the Russian Civil War. It tells about soldiers and commanders and towns and geese.

Babel’s language was great, but the substance of his stories varied. Some of the stories, like “My First Goose” and “Afonka Bida” were absolutely terrific (read them, whatever else you do in life). They had profound meanings that were communicated powerfully.

Meanwhile, other stories, like “The Italian Sun” seemed to have much less substance. Why was that? Maybe because Babel seemed to be too keen on showing off what exactly he wanted to say instead of letting the reader figure it out for him/herself. Still other stories felt less like they had something to say and more like they were just vignettes. Maybe Babel was saying something in those stories, but maybe he wasn’t.

There’s obviously a difference between having something to say, not having anything to say, and being too insistent on getting across a message. If you read “My First Goose,” you’ll see an example of the first instance. If you read “The Italian Sun,” you’ll see an example of the third instance. And I’ll leave it to you to determine the examples of the second instance (since art is ultimately subjective).

Have you read any of these books? What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Nurpeisov, Nurpeisov, and Nurpeisov

In Which I Review An Underrated Epic…

Hello! I’ve read a 700-page book this past week (somehow). It was very fun to read, and it felt very close to being a great book.

I’ll start with my review and end with some favorite quotes.

Blood & Sweat, by Abdi-Jamil Nurpeisov,
Translated by Catherine Fitzpatrick

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Blood & Sweat is an epic novel set in Kazakhstan before and during the Russian Civil War. It’s about several characters, but mostly, it’s about a Kazakh named Elaman who lives in an aul (nomadic settlement) near the Aral Sea. He falls in and out of love with various women, struggles to find his place as Russian influence increases, and eventually finds himself fighting for his life during the Civil War.

This book (which consists of three smaller Books) read a lot like a Kazakh version of Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. Yes, Blood & Sweat was less consistent in quality, and it had a LOT of typos. Even so, the typos should be ignored, since parts of Blood & Sweat actually felt broader and richer than Roth’s book. Nurpeisov was especially good at bringing several characters together and having them unexpectedly impact each other. Character A might seem unimportant until he stumbles upon the major Character B and kills him, for instance.

The characters quarreled a lot, though. Especially in Book 2, some of the quarrels felt melodramatic and repetitive. Also, Blood & Sweat seemed to underuse its female characters. For instance, one of Elaman’s love-interests only thought of him, and how excited she was to make his dinner every night and care for his kids. Meanwhile, the men thought about their wives, but they also thought about things like the meaning of life and how they would adapt to the changing aul. Given that the men had this range of thoughts, it would have been realistic for at least a few of the women to also have complex thoughts. So, the repetitive bouts of melodramatic arguing and underused female characters meant that parts of this book felt less well-written than they could have been.

Book 3 was the best in my opinion. Whereas the earlier books didn’t usually have the characters being compassionate towards each other, this last book did! It was surprising to me how much of a difference it made to see characters caring about each other. In fact, some of the best moments in the book came out of this dynamic, since they helped the characters become less cardboard-y and feel much more human.

Also, the characters tended to gain more depth as the book went on. Character A would seem like an absolute jerk, but then two hundred pages later Nurpeisov would describe his backstory and the character would become much more sympathetic/relatable. So the book’s psychological texture (especially nearer the end) was excellent.

To me, the author’s sympathy for his characters, as well as the characters’ eventual sympathy for each other was what made the epic cast of characters so effective.

Overall, Blood & Sweat was really good. It was uneven in quality (with some truly great scenes intermixed with some less-great scenes). Even so, while it was consistently uneven, it was also consistently engaging and entertaining to read. So if you can read it, definitely read it.

Now, as promised, here are some favorite scenes/excerpts:

“The broken boards of the boat crushed Andrei’s legs, and [he] fell out onto the ice, and shouted, ‘Jalmurat!’ Jalmurat did not answer. Then Andrei, his fingernails ripping off, grabbed his frozen coat, dragged him on the ice, and began breathing into his mouth. ‘Hey!’ he called Jalmurat, shaking him. ‘Can you hear me? Can you hear…’ And only now did he notice that Jalmurat’s arms and legs had turned to stone. Jalmurat was dead. Andrei was so frightened that he was about to drag Jalmurat’s body away, when he caught himself, and dropped him. Then in a delirium, he meandered along somewhere with the wind […] In the darkness, he didn’t notice a crack in the ice beneath him. He tripped over the crack, plunged forward, and fell flat on the ice, breaking his face. He lay for a while, and then tried to get up. The storm wind blew all the powder off the ice, and the ice was smooth and strong as glass.” (From Book 1)

“[Kalen said…] ‘I will not die before my death.'” (From Book 1)

The steppe slowly awakened. Thawed by the spring sun, it dosed and breathed steam. Near the auls, in the depths of a ravine overgrown with meadowsweet, where the sun didn’t reach, yellowish snow still gleamed on the ground, like a souvenir dropped by the stern guest who had only recently stormed through the steppe.” (From Book 2)

After finally finding a bit to eat, and having a drink of hot tea, Dyakov felt his eyelids were growing heavy again. He wanted nothing more than to fall asleep, even right here at the table.  […] he hadn’t noticed how Selivanov had moved his chair closer and sat down next to him. He hadn’t sensed the pitying gaze of his host, either. His thin body was bent on the [chair]. He sat obliviously, with his head on his chest, although at the edge of awareness he realized that it was time for him to return to the regiment. ‘Pyotr Yalovlevich, lie down in the bed,’ said Selivanov, touching his shoulder. ‘No, no,’ Dyakov said, rousing himself. ‘Thank you. I’ll leave now.’ […] ‘Pyotr Yakovlevich…’ ‘Yes?’ ‘You have probably had a hard time in life, eh?’ ‘Hmm… Do you have anything to smoke?’ ‘But you’re not allowed?’ ‘Although…yes, of course. What time is it?’ ‘It’s after 1:00 AM.’ ‘I’ll go.’ […] Recalling Selivanov’s question, whether he had had a hard life, he suddenly laughed and said, in a singsong voice, ‘You know, “…fate gave him a brief age, a glorious name, consumption and Siberia…” That’s how it is, brother. Well, goodbye!’ And after shaking Selivanov’s warm, soft hand, Dyakov went out into the night’s gloom.” (From Book 3)

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Anderson, Leskov, and Roth

In Which I Review Books By M.T. Anderson, Nikolai Leskov, and Joseph Roth

Hello! Happy Tuesday, and happy Rosh Hashanah. I’m back on campus at last, so I’ve been able to read a lot of new books (celebrating this). Below are three of them:

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, by M.T. Anderson

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“A lot of young Shostakovich’s pleasure came from a warm and happy home. His mother doted on him. His father cracked jokes. His older sister, Maria, played piano duets with him. His younger sister, Zoya, was growing into an angular, eccentric girl with a huge amount of energy and verve. She insisted on hanging all the pictures in the house at a slant.”


The best part of this book is its title, but the rest of it is pretty good, too. It’s about Dmitri Shostakovich, a Soviet composer who was kind of anti-Soviet at the same time. He wrote a symphony during the siege of Leningrad, and the Soviets decided to play it to boost morale. So it’s Shostakovich’s story and also the story of World War II.

To me, it read like a cross between a biography and a history book, with the best features of both: interesting anecdotes about the composer and other historical figures, and vivid accounts from people experiencing the siege.

Anderson made it very readable, and managed to balance out the grimmer parts of the book with some humorous parts. This made it more palatable than the haunting Enemy at the Gates (an amazing book about the Battle of Stalingrad).

What also made it more palatable was that Anderson included some profound insights into the human condition. For instance, the Nazis had calculated that they could starve Leningraders to death since it was physically impossible to survive on the amount of food within the besieged Leningrad. However, some Leningraders persevered anyway, and the ones who did reflected later on that “‘what saved us […] was hope and love.'” It may sound schmaltzy out of context, but it didn’t sound that way in the book.

So I’d definitely recommend reading it.

The Enchanted Wanderer: Selected Tales, by Nikolai Leskov, Translated by David Magarshack

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“The old man had mushrooms with buckwheat porridge for supper and this gave him heartburn; suddenly he was seized with a cramp in the pit of his stomach, began vomiting, and died towards morning, just like the rats in his granaries.”

I had never read anything by Leskov before so this was an interesting experience. This book contained five stories by him (in fact, Shostakovich wrote an opera about one of them).

The stories read like fairytales in that they didn’t have much interiority or atmospheric description. That was fine. They were entertaining enough as they were.

One involves a woman who kills many people for the sake of her lover, another involves a wanderer who goes on various adventures (like Odysseus but without boats and magical creatures). The others involve microscopic metal fleas, guards, and ghosts.

I would recommend the first two stories (“Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” and “The Enchanted Wanderer”) and the fourth (“The Sentry”), but the other two were less interesting. Leskov constantly seemed to go on about how Russia was absolutely the best at everything to the point where it got distracting and annoying.

So if you want to read Leskov, those three stories I mentioned above would be a good place to start.

Perlefter: The Story of a Bourgeois, by Joseph Roth,
Translated by Richard Panchyk

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“Once Henriette had left the house the maids changed quickly, and Perlefter could tolerate no new faces or new names. He called all the girls Henriette– whether their names were Anna, Klementine, or Susanne. Usually their name was Anna.”

This was a not-so-interesting book. It basically describes a guy (Perlefter) and his family. Random characters appear and disappear, and nothing happens. All of this is expected, because this book was actually a fragment Roth left behind instead of a story he published.

Considering that, parts of it were still funny. Also, this was written right before Roth wrote books like The Radetzky March, which makes for interesting comparisons. For instance, that fragment I quoted up above was very similar to a part of The Radetzky March where one character’s servant dies and he goes on to name all his future servants after the original one.

This goes to show that nothing a writer does is wasted. Roth may have abandoned this story but he didn’t abandon The Radetzky March, and so his ideas lived on.

So basically, if you’re interested in seeing the evolution of writers’ ideas into great pieces of literature, I would recommend this book. If you just want to read great pieces of literature, I would recommend The Radetzky March instead.

Have you read any of these books? Let me know in the comments below!

SPECIAL POST: Amazing News in the Time of Coronavirus

In Which I Share Some AMAZING NEWS!

Hello! I’m not reviewing any books this week, but I do have some AMAZING news to share instead. I’m thrilled to say that my novelette, “The Demon-Slayers” has been published in the latest issue of “The Society of Misfit Stories.” This is the first piece of fiction I’ve ever been paid for, and I’m so excited to share it with you!

Here’s an excerpt (content warning, suicide):

Azamat was dead. I heard it from his older sister, Mariyam. She rode to my dwelling in the outskirts of Verniy and told me.

I shook my head and said I was sorry. Then I asked how he had died, and my voice trembled when I asked it.

Mariyam stared at the weapon-rack I had put against the near wall.

I couldn’t not know, and so I looked at her closely, trying to figure it out. It seemed like she’d been crying, but she’d had enough composure to do her black hair in its usual long braid. I didn’t know what to make of that.

“How did he die?” I asked again.

“He killed himself.”

It was the beginning of winter. Damnit, everything felt too cold for it to be the beginning of winter.

“Why?” I managed to get out.

Mariyam shook her head. She didn’t know, she said. She had returned home yesterday evening to find her brother slumped in a chair with a slit throat and his knife on the floor, blood on its broad blade.

I shuddered. “Surely you must know why,” I said. “He must have had a reason—”

“Please don’t ask me anymore.”

He must have had a reason.

I nodded and had her sit on the carpet. I flinched. She was carrying Azamat’s dombra, long-necked and two-stringed and inlaid with beautiful gold damask.

Mariyam followed my gaze and slowly held the wooden instrument out to me. “Here.”

“You don’t mean to give me his dombra,” I said.

She nodded.

It had meant everything to her brother. She would probably regret giving it up later.

“He’d want you to have it,” she said.

I didn’t want it. Everything was so cold I was convinced Azamat’s instrument was a shell of ice that would shatter if I touched it. There would be nothing left of him, then.

I wrapped my fingers around the dombra’s neck. It didn’t shatter. “Thank you.”

Mariyam smiled feebly. “I thought that it would help,” she said.

“It does,” I lied. I set it against the far wall where I wouldn’t have to see it.

I turned back to Mariyam. “How are you faring?” I asked. How are you faring. What a nonsensical question to ask. Her red shapan was rumpled, as if she’d slept in the robe overnight, and there was a forlorn look in her dark eyes that hurt to look at. “My god, Mariyam, it must be horrible for you.”

She nodded but didn’t say anything else.

“Do you want anything?” I asked. “I have food and koumiss. We could have a feast in his memory.”

She shook her head. “Just koumiss.”

I gave her a small wooden bowl of the white mare’s milk. She drank it so quickly that some of it dripped onto the embroidered front of her shapan.

“I can help you bury him if you haven’t yet,” I said. I didn’t want to, but Mariyam shouldn’t have to do it alone.

“I did it yesterday. I couldn’t bear looking at his slit throat.”

His slit throat. I nodded.

“Are we still going to kill the demon?” she asked after a pause.

I blinked. “So soon after Azamat—”

“I’m not ready to think about him. Killing the demon will give me something else to do.”

I thought of the shriveled orange leaves littering the dirt streets outside, of the tiny ice shards flowing in the Vesnovka river, and of the flocks of pale cranes that were flying away from the first chill of Kazakhstan’s winter. I thought of Azamat’s laughter, and of last spring, how we’d sat under that thick-trunked apple-tree outside my house feeling warm and sharp from living. He had been strumming the dombra, then. He had played it so well, even though he’d been tipsy on four bowls of koumiss. He had once said that apart from having a friend like me, music was why he was so happy in spite of his troubles.

I found myself staring at the dombra, and maybe I was about to cry, but I stayed that way for minutes on end, and no tears came.

“Please, Balta,” Mariyam said. “The demon shouldn’t be too difficult to slay.”

I looked at the expression on her face. I felt sick. “Okay. Just—just give me some time. A day or so. I need to make preparations.”

“Thank you,” Mariyam said.

When she departed, there was still grief on her face, but the forlorn look had left her eyes. That was really all I had wanted. It gave me some sort of hope that my own sorrow could pass, too.

Click here to read the rest!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Steinbeck, Pasternak, and Steinbeck

In Which I Review Books By John Steinbeck and Poems by Boris Pasternak.

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you are all well, and if you’ve experienced Henri, that you are safe. I survived, thankfully, and so I’m bringing you three more reviews. Two of them are about early Steinbeck novels, and one of them is a review of an online poetry collection…

The Red Pony, by John Steinbeck

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“As the gray and silent army marched past, led by Jody, the animals stopped their feeding and watched it go by. Suddenly Jody stopped. The gray army halted, bewildered and nervous. Jody went down on his knees. The army stood in long uneasy ranks for a moment, and then, with a soft sigh of sorrow, rose up in a faint gray mist and disappeared.”

This is a book of one longish story and a few shorter stories. They focus on a boy named Jody who lives on a farm in California. The first one’s about him getting a red pony to train and keep as his own. The other stories are about him doing other things on the farm. Somehow it’s supposed to be a collection about coming-of-age, but I didn’t see much coming-of-age in the stories themselves.

Anyway, the first story was good, but the others weren’t as good. My reasoning was ridiculously subjective: I was expecting more horses in this collection than there were, so I was distracted a lot of the time wondering when they would show up. When they finally did show up, they felt anticlimactic. So learn from me: there weren’t that many horses in these stories.

However, if you love occasional horses and want to read some early Steinbeck, this book would be an enjoyable read.

Online Poems of Boris Pasternak

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“Is it only dirt you notice?
Does the thaw not catch your glance?
As a dapple-grey fine stallion
Does it not through ditches dance?”

Recently, I came across this really cool website of poetry, and started reading all the poems on Boris Pasternak’s page. So, this isn’t really a review of a Pasternak poetry book. Instead it’s a review of the poems I read on the website.

Pasternak was interesting to read. Sometimes, he never really said anything about a specific object but referred to it indirectly through a mood or certain word-choices. Thus, a poem would seem to be about a bunch of curtains but in reality it was about an affair.

Some of the poems were unsatisfying since they were so confusing. Others were great. I could figure out what they were about, but it took some work to do so.

Other poems were entertaining because they were very evocative of seasons (springtime) and moods (sadness). Reading Pasternak also gave me an appreciation for how many ways someone could write about the same subject (springtime) or about the same mood (sadness). In fact, another name for Pasternak could be, “The Sad Poet of Springtime.”

Overall, I would recommend checking out at least some of the poems on the website. I’ve actually been inspired to check out more books by Pasternak in the future, so stay tuned…

Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck

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“The sergeant lined [the men] up in front of his desk. They passed everything but the sobriety test and then the sergeant began his questions with Pilon. ‘What branch do you want to go in?’ ‘ I don’ give a god-dam,’ said Pilon jauntily. ‘I guess we need men like you in the infantry.’ And Pilon was written so. He turned then to Big Joe, and the Portagee was getting sober. ‘Where do you want to go?’ ‘I want to go home,’ Big Joe said miserably. The sergeant put him in the infantry too. Finally he confronted Danny, who was sleeping on his feet. ‘Where do you want to go?’ ‘Huh?’ ‘I say, what branch?’ ‘What do you mean, “branch?”‘ ‘What can you do?’ ‘Me? I can do anything.'”

I don’t understand why this book wasn’t advertised as funny on its jacket because it is. It’s about a Californian man named Danny and his friends who live in a house called Tortilla Flat and go to ridiculous ends to get more wine to drink. It’s based on the legend of King Arthur somehow. Aside from some vague similarities, I didn’t really see any real parallels.

As I said before, the book was hilarious, and funnier than a lot of other “funny” things I read. Steinbeck seemed to be enjoying himself when he wrote this. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been as enjoyable as it was.

However, the end wasn’t as good. Steinbeck seemed to stop enjoying himself somewhere near the end of Chapter XII. The rest of the book felt phoned-in somehow. It was still funny, but then it became less and less funny, and then it turned into what felt like Steinbeck trying hard to get readers to feel emotions that he himself didn’t feel as a writer. To me, this forced emotionality marred the ending of what was otherwise a hilarious book.

So overall, the book was funny, and I’d definitely recommend it. Just don’t expect a greatly-written ending…

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Ibsen, Markandaya, and De Lint

In Which I Review Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck,” Kamala Markandaya’s “Nectar in a Sieve,” and Charles De Lint’s “The Onion Girl.”

Hello! Happy Tuesday. There are so many books and so little time (until the end of the summer!) Hopefully I can get in a few more to review before that point. Here’s three, at any rate…

“The Wild Duck,” by Henrik Ibsen,
Translated by Una Ellis-Fermor

Courtesy of The Duck Song

“RELLING: Well, I’ll tell you Mrs. Ekdal. He’s suffering from acute inflammation of the conscience.”

“The Wild Duck” is not about a duck. It’s about a happily-married family…or so it seems. There’s a huge secret at the heart of the marriage, and the husband’s friend is trying to expose it. Frankness will make everything better, right? Ibsen thinks otherwise…

The first few acts felt very confusing. It wasn’t clear to me what was going on until the last few acts. With that being said, the rest of the play was good. Ibsen was great at dramatically revealing characters’ secrets and ulterior motives.

However, he wasn’t so great at making sure the play’s theme was actually supported by the story’s events. Ibsen seemed to want to say that idealism was destructive. But in the play, things seemed to be destroyed not because of idealism, but because of unyielding self-delusion. Or at least, idealism wasn’t the only culprit. That disconnect between the stated theme and the illustrated theme made for a very interesting reading-experience.

Also, parts of this play reminded me a lot of plays written later. A lampshade symbolized concealment in “The Wild Duck,” and a paper lantern symbolized concealment in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Aside from that, the two plays were very different, but it was cool to see how influential Ibsen was.

Anyway, I’d definitely recommend this play.

Nectar in a Sieve, by Kamala Markandaya

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“Then as happens even in the brightest moment, I remembered Janaki. Last year she had come with us, she and her children. This year who knew– or cared? The black thought momentarily doused the glow within me; then, angered and indignant, I thrust the Intruder away, chasing it, banishing it… tired of gloom, reaching desperately for perfection of delight, which can surely never be.”

This is a story about Rukmani, a child-bride in a changing India. She and her husband live in a village, cultivate the land, endure hardship, and experience joy.

Reading this book made me realize how rare it was to read about a sympathetic husband in literature. It felt very refreshing.

Also, the story itself was very engaging. The author clearly cared a lot about her characters, and the story’s ending was beautiful. When rereading its beginning, the story’s ending became even better.

What’s also impressive is that Markandaya wrote this book based on research rather than on any experience of poverty (she came from a wealthy family), but it still felt very realistic. It read a little like Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, only better, since Markandaya’s characters were more engaging.

So this book has great characters and a great story. It’s also very short. Definitely read it.

The Onion Girl, by Charles De Lint

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“‘I suppose the other thing too many forget is that we were all stories once, each and every one of us. And we remain stories. But too often we allow those stories to grow banal, or cruel, or unconnected to each other. We allow the stories to continue, but they no longer have a heart. They no longer sustain us.”

This is a book about Jilly Coppercorn, a woman in her thirties who likes to paint magical beings. She gets into a car-accident, figures out how to enter a magical land called the Dreamworld, and has to confront the trauma of her past to heal from the trauma in her present.

The story was very psychological, which was cool to read about, especially in a fantasy book. A warning: it does contain very dark themes. Even so, the dark themes were handled well, and the book felt more hopeful than nihilistic.

The world-building was also very interesting. The Dreamworld felt fresh and immersive. It didn’t outweigh the characters, though, which made the story even more enjoyable.

Even so, parts of The Onion Girl‘s plot felt formulaic and predictable, which took away a little from its overall impact. Same with some of the descriptions of places and characters. I’d find myself guessing how sentences would end (“The room looked dark… but cozy anyway?”) and then read something very close to that guess. This is probably subjective, though.

The book also could have been much shorter than its actual length of 600ish pages. A lot of the sentences in the book just repeated what previous sentences said, which reminded me of a similar thing that once happened to Dostoyevsky. Finally, entire chapters of The Onion Girl were devoted to explaining the moral of the story. This was entertaining up to a point. Then it felt a little preachy.

Overall, this book had very interesting psychology and world-building, but it was also formulaic and repetitive. If you’re looking for the greatest speculative fiction ever, you might want to consider reading other books (like Anna Kavan’s Ice or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast), but if you’re looking for something that’s still pretty good, you might enjoy this.

Until next week!