Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Walker, Aitmatov, and Gogol

Hello. I hope you are well. I’ve read three more books, and I hope you find them as enjoyable as I did.

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

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“Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing. Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool. Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr. __________’s evil sort of shrink. But not altogether. Still, it is like Shug say, You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.”

The Color Purple is the story of Celie, a child wife in the South who writes letters to God and gradually comes into her own, while her sister Nettie writes letters to Celie about being a missionary in Africa.

There were several exciting things about the book. First off, it was written in 1982 (way before Swordspoint) and had a terrifically-written African American LGBTQ protagonist. That alone was exciting.

Also, it introduced a second protagonist and viewpoint halfway through in the form of Nettie. Somehow Walker was able to do this without making the book less engaging. Yes, sometimes there were parts that felt less interesting than others, or that felt like they were included just to provide suspense. Most of the time though, the dual narrators made the book more compelling, since there were all sorts of parallels and contrasts to draw between Nettie’s story and Celie’s story.

There were other parts of the book that were confusing at first but turned out to make sense. Sometimes it felt like Celie was just doing what other characters had inspired her to do, or that she wasn’t doing much at all. Then I realized that during the times when Celie wasn’t doing a lot, she was still reflecting and growing, and that the ending of the story (where she actually made decisions without being inspired by others) worked as well as it did because of those reflections.

Needless to say, I would definitely recommend reading The Color Purple.

To Have and To Lose, by Chingiz Aitmatov, Translated by Olga Shartse

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“[…] suddenly an idea struck me: ‘I’ve time enough to go and tell her and then come back here. What does it matter if I start out a few hours later? I’ll explain it to the chief afterwards, maybe he’ll understand, if he doesn’t he’ll give me hell… But I can’t help it, I’ve got to go.’ […] ‘Hey, Ilyas, get under the crane,’ the operator called out to me. The crane poised above me, now it was too late. There was no going anywhere with a load of export goods [….] I looked out of the rear window: the container was being lowered into my lorry. It was coming down and down. ‘Look out,’ I yelled, and shot forward, slipping from under the descending jib. (My engine was running.) Behind me I heard shouts, whistles and curses.”

This book mostly consists of a lorry driver named Ilyas telling his life-story to an unnamed viewpoint character.

The majority of this life-story was about how he fell in love with two women, which basically meant that Ilyas was a walking mess. I don’t mean it in the way he was written, but in the choices he made (like in the above excerpt). Considering the fact that Aitmatov was still able to make him sympathetic in spite of these choices, I would say that he was well-written.

The story didn’t feel as fleshed-out as some of Aitmatov’s other stories. It wasn’t the lack of backstory—there were hints that Ilyas had once fought in a war, and I doubt that having had a whole section about his war-time experience would have added to the story. Maybe it was because all of the characters in this book fell in love so readily that it felt unbelievable.

Then there’s the mystery of the unnamed viewpoint character. He apparently knew a lot of things about Ilyas’s story that Ilyas himself didn’t know, but Aitmatov never tells us what that means. This made the story both frustrating and fascinating. If you think of Hemingway, he excludes important details from his stories but leaves enough in for the reader to figure it out. Aitmatov just hints that the viewpoint character knows something important about the story’s events and then doesn’t let us know anything else, which can be frustrating. However you could also interpret it as realism. In life, there are many things about others’ stories you will never know and will always wonder about. In his story, Aitmatov manages to convey this experience to the readers. You know there’s more but you won’t ever know what it is, which could make for a fascinating read.

So in spite of the instant-romances, and a little bit because of the unresolved mystery, I would recommend this book.

Dead Souls, Part One, by Nikolai Gogol

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“Yes, readers of this book, none of you really care to see humanity revealed in its nakedness. ‘Why should we do so?’ you say. ‘What would be the use of it? Do we not know for ourselves that human life contains much that is gross and contemptible? […] Far better would it be if you would put before us what is comely and attractive, so that we might forget ourselves a little.’ In the same fashion does a landowner say to his bailiff, ‘Why do you come and tell me that the affairs of my estate are in a bad way? I know that without your help. […] Kindly allow me to forget the fact or else to remain in ignorance of it, and I shall be much obliged to you.’ Whereafter the said landowner probably proceeds to spend on his diversion the money which ought to have gone towards the rehabilitation of his affairs.”

Apparently, Dead Souls was written in two parts. Gogol only wanted Part One published so he tried to burn Part Two to ashes. However, as Mikhail Bulgakov could have told him, manuscripts don’t burn, so there are copies of Dead Souls out there with both parts in them.

Now, Part One of Dead Souls is about a man named Chichikov who wanders around a Russian town trying to buy dead souls (peasants who had died and still had to be paid for by their masters for some reason). The whole book consisted of the people who were selling the souls asking why Chichikov would want to buy them if it would cost him and benefit the sellers. Then the sellers would try to sell the dead souls for exorbitant sums of money, or would try to sell the dead souls and their least favorite horse, and so on.

It was very funny to read. I spent the whole book wondering why Chichikov was buying dead peasants, and since Gogol spends the whole book keeping the reader in suspense about this very question, I had an enjoyable reading experience. The very end came out of nowhere though—Gogol randomly went off on a tangent about how great he thought it would be for Russia to colonize more parts of the world. Did he really believe that? Was it just (hopefully) part of his satire? Who knows? Maybe we’ll find out in Part 2.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kekilbayev, Xun, and Aitmatov

Hello. I hope you are all well in the aftermath of last week’s tragic events. I have read three books. I’ll review them below, since I believe that reading can spread hope.

Ballad of Forgotten Years, by Abish Kekilbayev

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“Now, he is playing a kiuiy [instrument], singing how sweet life is on earth, how magnificent in its glorious expanses. And why must they fight and kill each other, these brother nations, when it is so good to live out one’s days in joyful labor; days watching the children grow, and seeing them prosper, days which reach wise old age.”

This book is about fighting between two Central Asian nomadic groups–the Adai Kazakhs and the Turkmen. A Turkmen warrior named Zhoneyut wants to avenge his brother’s death and sends his son to do so. Tragic consequences ensue.

The book itself was well-written. It had action but it also had a lot of wisdom about the senselessness of violence and art’s power to heal (sometimes). Sometimes Kekilbayev just described a character’s actions, and I found myself wondering what the character was thinking. I also wondered why he didn’t tell us, but then I realized it could have been because the character in question was emotionally-suppressed, since later on this character got more internal monologues. If that was what Kekilbayev was going for, it was pretty cool to see.

Overall, Ballad of Forgotten Years may be hard to find, but it’s worth reading for its story and ideas.

Silent China, Selected Writings of Lu Xun, by Lu Xun,
Translated by Gladys Yang

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“The most deplorable is my elder brother. He’s a man too, so why isn’t he afraid, why is he plotting with others to eat me? Does force of habit blind a man to what’s wrong? Or is he so heartless that he will knowingly commit a crime? In cursing man-eaters, I shall start with my brother. In dissuading man-eaters, I shall start with him too.”

This was a short but very interesting book. It’s made up of short stories, reminiscences, poems, and essays. The short story quoted above is called “A Madman’s Diary” and is about a man who thinks everyone wants to eat him. The other short stories ranged from comic to serious, and I found them the best part of the book. Some of the reminiscences were good, too. Basically, I enjoyed the pieces in the book that evoked emotion. Meanwhile, the essays were sometimes entertaining, sometimes baffling, and other times propagandistic (Lu Xun apparently contributed to Communism’s rise in China).

Overall, I’d say this was a good book, but that I feel I probably could have skipped the essays and not have lost out on much.


Farewell, Gyulsary!, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“Old Torgoi’s prediction came true. The pacer’s star rose quickly that spring. Young and old, everyone knew of him. ‘Gyulsary!’, ‘Tanabai’s pacer’, ‘the glory of the village’ was how they referred to him. Barefoot boys of three and four galloped up and down the dusty street, imitating the pacer’s gait, shouting: ‘I’m Gyulsary!’, ‘No, I’m Gyulsary!’, ‘Mamma, tell him I’m Gyulsary! Come on, boy! I’m Gyulsary!’

This is a book about a man named Tanabai and a horse named Gyulsary. Both of them are old and dying, and Tanabai spends the book reflecting on his life with Gyulsary on the collective farms of Kyrgyzstan.

Farewell, Gyulsary! was the first book by the Kyrgyz writer, Chingiz Aitmatov. It sort of showed. It wasn’t amateurish in any way, but his later works are more emotionally-impactful for some reason. Even so, this book had its moments of fun and sorrow, and given the fact it’s all available online, I’d highly recommend checking it out if you’re an Aitmatov fan. It includes a lot of themes that Aitmatov would come back to in later books, like the meaning of life, nature, and humanity.

If you’re an Aitmatov fan-to-be, maybe check out another of his works first, like Jamila, or The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years, or The Place of the Skull, or…well, you get the idea.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Afremow, Chekhov, Stanislavski

Hello! Happy New Year! I hope you all had a happy and safe New Year. I’ll be reviewing 3 books today– the last one I read in 2020, and the first two I read in 2021.

The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive, by Jim Afremow, PhD

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“Our desire to better ourselves and develop our natural gifts is what makes us all distinctly human.”

This was a very interesting and inspiring book. It’s written by a sports psychologist who trains professional athletes, so the book had a lot about developing the “champion’s” mindset, which is apparently essential for succeeding in elite athletics.

The book had tips from Afremow’s own experience, reflections written by Olympic athletes, Zen stories (my favorite part), and funny yet inspirational sayings– “cope, don’t mope,” and “when you’re anxious, make the butterflies in your stomach fly in formation.”

Needless to say, this book gave me a lot of insight into an athlete’s mindset. That sounds obvious, but let me explain. I like to play tennis for fun, but I always thought of tennis as hitting a ball around in a court, and I thought of professional tennis-players as people who were just really good at hitting a ball around in a court. It turns out that becoming a professional involves a whole way of life that requires commitment, character, resilience, and wisdom. And here I was thinking it was all about hitting a ball around in a court! Reading this book was fascinating just for that new perspective alone.

In the end, the book gave me much to think about, and has made me appreciate sports more than I used to. If you’re someone who’s looking to become athletic this New Year’s, this would be a good book to look at. If you’re someone who’s looking to self-actualize in any way, this would also be a good book to look at.

Forty Stories, by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Robert Payne

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“He went up to her and put his hands on her shoulders, intending to console her with some meaningless words and to fondle her; and then he saw himself in the mirror. His hair was turning gray. It struck him as strange that he should have aged so much in these last years, and lost his good looks. Her shoulders were warm and trembling at his touch. He felt pity for her, who was so warm and beautiful, though probably it would not be long before she would begin to fade and wither, as he had done.”

This book contains Chekhov’s first story, his last story, and thirty-eight stories in between. Reading them in chronological order like this gave me an appreciation of how Chekhov developed over time. In the beginning, he wrote somewhat melodramatic sketches, but as time went on he started writing more detailed and thought-out pieces.

Something cool about this book is that at the end of every story there’s the month and year in which the story was published. This sounds like a trivial detail but it made for some fascinating autobiographical insights. In the 1890s, Chekhov wrote a bunch of stories where the protagonist had an affair, which was possibly inspired by an affair he was having. Also in the late 1890s to early 1900s, he wrote a lot about people aging or dying. He was aging and dying during that time, too.

What makes this interesting isn’t just that we can match up Chekhov’s life with his fiction. We can also see how life inspired his fiction and how his fiction became a constant reworking of the thoughts he probably had in life. For instance, he wrote all those affair stories in the 1890s, culminating with his famous “Lady With the Little Dog.” Just reading “Lady With the Little Dog” makes it seem like he just came up with all these great ideas while writing this one story, but reading this collection made me realize that Chekhov wouldn’t have been able to write such a great story had he not been spending the past few years working out all these ideas in his previous affair stories. It felt like watching a bunch of rehearsals for a play.

Now that’s interesting.

My Life in Art, by Konstantin Stanislavski,
Translated by Jean Benedetti

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“[The actor Rossi] reflected a while. ‘God has given everything you need for the stage, for Othello, for the whole of Shakespeare.’ (My heart leapt at his words.) ‘Now the matter is in your hands. You must have artistry. It will come, of course…’ Having spoken the truth, he began to dress it up with compliments. ‘But where and how am I to learn it, and from whom?’ I enquired. ‘Mmmm… If you don’t have a great master to hand, who can guide you? I can only suggest one teacher to you,’ the great actor replied. ‘Who? But who?’ I asked. ‘You,’ he concluded, with his famous gesture from Kean.”

The Russian actor and producer Konstantin Stanislavski is a genius. He wrote many amazing books about acting that went on to inspire “Method” acting. My Life in Art is Stanislavski’s autobiography.

In this book, Stanislavski tells how he got his start in acting, how he tried to figure out his own approach to acting (which he eventually did), and how he met and befriended people like Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorky. Apparently, Stanislavski got Chekhov and Gorky to write a few masterpieces for his Moscow Art Theater. Without Stanislavski, we might not have had plays like The Cherry Orchard or The Lower Depths. Also, Chekhov apparently met his second wife while working with Stanislavski in the 1890s, so without Stanislavski we might not have had masterpieces like “Lady With the Little Dog.” This basically makes Stanislavski a triple genius.

In any case, his book is brimming with wisdom and humor, and since it’s only about Stanislavski’s art-life, it felt very focused and rich. Yes, the ending of the book seemed a little unpolished, but if you were to read the book’s intro you’d understand why–Stanislavski was rushed into finishing his book before he was ready.

Even with the rushed ending, the autobiography was still a terrific last read for 2020. It showed that genius doesn’t come from innate talent but from trying so much and messing up so many times that you somehow mess up less and less and eventually start succeeding a bit.

Basically, I’d recommend it.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Giono, Morris, and O’Neill (and Something More Inspiring)

Hello and happy Tuesday. We’re almost at the end of 2020, thankfully. I hope we have a better 2021. In the meantime, here are the last 3 books I’ve read this year. I wouldn’t recommend them as a hopeful way to cap off 2020, though, unless your idea of hopefully capping off a year somehow consists of reading a bunch of very sad books.

A King Alone, by Jean Giono

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“We stayed like that for a short time, face-to-face across fifty meters. Then Langlois moved toward the man, step by step, until he was three steps away. Then, once again, they seemed to come to an unspoken agreement. And then, truly, at the moment we could no longer bear to be there, when we were about to shout, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ there was a loud detonation. The man fell. Langlois had shot him, twice, in the stomach; a gun in each hand, at the same time. ‘It was an accident,’ he said. When Langlois got back to our town, he’d found the resignation letter he’d begun to write; he added: ‘Regrettable lack of sangfroid on the job…worn down pistol triggers, which should have been detected by a careful examination of the weapons, occasioned this terrible accident for which I have no excuse.'”

I don’t even know what A King Alone was about. It was set in the French countryside and seemed to be about a murderer on the loose, but then it got to telling about a wolf-hunt, and then about how one character wanted to get married. The ending was really good, though, and it reminded me a bit of Thomas Bernhard.

Let me talk a bit about what this book had to offer. It was well-written in terms of its sober but subtly-moving style, and its characters were interesting and sometimes funny. There are parts of the book where you don’t know what’s going on (why is Character X suddenly trying to get married when the book is supposed to be about a murderer?) but for some reason it all worked in the end. I don’t really know what else to say about this book. Sometimes it felt a bit drawn-out because of all the description of things. I’m not sure why it was called “A King Alone,” either. Somehow it feels like there was a big meaning to this book I never figured out.

Maybe read it yourself and figure out that meaning for yourself.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris

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“Lale thinks about the date, April 4, 1944. When he’d seen it on his work sheets that week, ‘April’ had jarred with him. April, what was it about April? Then he realized. In three weeks’ time, he will have been here for two years. Two years. How has he done it? How is he still breathing, when so many aren’t? He thinks back to the vow he made at the beginning. To survive and see those responsible pay. Maybe, just maybe, those in the plane had understood what was going on, and rescue was on the way. It would be too late for those who died today, but maybe their deaths would not be entirely in vain. Hold that thought. Use it to get out of bed tomorrow morning, and the next morning, and the next.

This book is about a tattooist in Auschwitz, named Lale, who falls in love with a fellow prisoner, named Gita. He promises her he will marry her after they leave Auschwitz, but first they have to survive Auschwitz.

What’s most interesting about this book is that it’s based on a true story. A man named Lale who’d survived the Holocaust went to the author Heather Morris and told her his story for it to be remembered, and she went on to write a book about it.

This background is interesting because it seems to have informed how the story was told. Some parts of it felt like Morris was reporting/paraphrasing things Lale had probably told her– “Lale was born in X town on Y date, and he worked at job Z before the Nazi invasion,” or “Lale tried to deal with his troubles by thinking ABC, because he knew that QRS would happen which would mean LMNOP.” Then there were other parts where it felt like Morris was trying to guess what it was like to be in Lale’s situation, but for some reason that guessing mostly involved peoples’ hearts beating in their throats, peoples’ knees going weak, and other such clichés. They made me feel less like I was reading something based on a true story and more like I was reading someone’s idea of what it might have been like to be in a situation like Lale’s.

I don’t mean to sound harsh. There were several very good and surprising parts of the book. These parts felt like the author was able to get at something real and meaningful rather than trying to paraphrase thoughts or go for uninteresting descriptions. This happened more in the middle to end of the book instead of at the beginning. This variation gave the book an uneven quality. One minute I felt like I was reading an engrossing story. The next I felt like I was reading a soap opera, and the minute after that I felt like I was reading a piece of journalism.

I would say that if you’re interested in history and the Holocaust that this is a good book to read. Another book that I would recommend more strongly is Livia-Bitton Jackson’s I Have Lived a Thousand Years. That book stayed with me, and continues to haunt me to this day.

In the end though, everyone is different. You might enjoy the Tattooist of Auschwitz more than I did, and it does tell an important story.

Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill,
Edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer

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“There’s nothing like having a real good ailment. It’s one thing that never bores you, or leaves you at a loss for a word. I’m sure if one of the Knitting Women had called to Louis XVI as he ascended the guillotine, ‘Well, Capet, how’re the old kidneys lately?’, he would have waved the headsman aside and begun a serious conversation as follows: ‘Well, not so good, Sister [….] I never get a wink of sleep any more. I don’t know how I stand it.’ At this point the headsman would have interrupted with a little anecdote about his arthritis, and all the veins, flatulence, flat feet and what not. Danton would have muscled in with a long harangue on the horrible hangover he had yesterday morning. Robespierre would have addressed the mob for two hours on the new pills he was taking to get rid of his pimples. The Revolution would have been forgotten. Louis would have become the Well Beloved again–a Royal Pal. The Bourbon dynasty would have been saved.”

This book contains a bunch of letters written by Eugene O’Neill from his youth to his old age. It’s interesting to see how he develops over time, and what he thinks about his plays and other people. In the end, the letters are very sad because O’Neill spent his whole life seemingly searching for the meaning of life without having found it. In the end, he does seem to have found something, though–friendship, writing, and love, but it’s never clear if he ever found solace from that. Also, by the time he realized the value of these things to him, his friends were dying, Parkinson’s had robbed him of the ability to write, and his beloved wife was going insane. That’s a horrible way to go, and so the end of the letter collection had me crying some.

Still, there was lots of wisdom in the letters. The wisdom came in two flavors: writerly wisdom and life wisdom. Writerly wisdom consisted of things along the lines of “set your manuscript aside for a few months if you’re not sure yet what you’re trying to say with it” and “experimental works usually fail because they’re done just for the sake of experimentation instead of for the sake of having something to say,” and the life wisdom had things like “stop relying on others to figure out your life, figure it out yourself.” I was surprised by how wise O’Neill turned out to be (though he also seemed to be somewhat racist and sexist, which is absolutely not wise).

Basically, if you’re interested in O’Neill’s plays, these letters are insightful, but they are also likely to be sadder than his super-sad and super-tragic play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Read at your own risk.

Now, because I don’t want to end the year with such a pessimistic note, I want to end by recommending a more inspirational poem, and that is William Ernest Henley’s Invictus:

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Wishing you all a terrific 2021.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Feynman, McCormack, and Saki

Hello and happy holidays! I hope you all enjoyed the Great Conjunction last night and are excited for the New Year. If you’re thinking of what you could read in 2021, (or sooner) here are three books I would recommend:

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character, by Richard Feynman

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“Then I had another thought: physics disgusts me now but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing. It didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with [….] So I got this new attitude: now that I am burned out, and I’ll never accomplish anything, [….] I’m going to play with physics whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever. Within a week, I was in the cafeteria and some guy fooling around throws a plate in the air [….] I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate [….] I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, ‘Hey Hans, I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is…” and I showed him the accelerations. He says, ‘Feynman, that’s pretty interesting but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?’ ‘Ha!’ I say. ‘There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.’ His reaction didn’t discourage me. I had made up my mind. I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked. I went on to work out equations of wobbles [….] Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it. There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.”

Richard Feynman is known for winning a Nobel Prize in Physics and for helping to invent the hexaflexagon, but his super-accessible and funny memoir is less about his scientific work and more about his life. Yes, he does tell about how he started out in science, how he worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, and how he came to win the Nobel Prize. However, he also tells about his adventures dancing samba in Brazil, his stints as an artist and drummer, and his time in Japan.

Reading (or in my case, listening to) this book was like having a really interesting and wise friend sit across from you and tell about all of his hijinks. Some of them were questionable, others weren’t, but all of them were entertaining, and it was great to hear about Feynman’s unique take on life. Yes, sometimes Feynman repeated himself (saying stuff similar to “I went to Japan and it was very interesting. Japan was really a very exciting place”) but that didn’t matter much. Also, in the audiobook version, the narrator occasionally read sentences twice in a row, but that happened so rarely that it didn’t matter much, either.

In the end, Feynman’s memoir was definitely worth the read. It was humorous, (usually) wise, entertaining, and insightful.

The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist, Second Edition, by Thomas McCormack

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“Still another genus is the craving for a certain meaningful modulation right here in the narrative. For an example, consider Hemingway’s feeling a need for the fishing scene in The Sun Also Rises; Tolstoy’s urge to send Levin out for a whole chapter just to reap wheat; Melville to ask, ‘How can I hope to explain myself here?’ and yet to know that ‘in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught,’ and then indite his fearsome, magniloquent passage on ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’; or Shakespeare to trouble forth his witches in Macbeth—all episodes that, by any artlessly mechanical measure such as ‘everything must advance the story’, would be deleted, at immense aesthetic loss.”

I heard about McCormack’s book from another book I read, and since McCormack edited The Silence of the Lambs, I figured he’d have some interesting things to say about writing.

He did have some interesting things to say about writing, but his book also felt thin. I read it over the course of an hour or so.

In terms of interestingness, McCormack talked a lot about how editors couldn’t just rely on fixing the more easily seen surface-level problems with books (“this scene is irrelevant to the story, the ending doesn’t work, etc.”) but also have to keep searching for subtler, “internal” problems—there may be nothing wrong with a story in and of itself, but there may be aspects missing from it that make it not as satisfying as it could be. Without knowing what the story lacks, the editor wouldn’t be able to fix such problems.

So then McCormack says that we all need an editors’ textbook, and spends the rest of the book trying to explain some things about editing. Maybe some stories don’t work because their characters aren’t as strongly affected by each other as they should be. Maybe other stories don’t work because the writer shoves in a lot of backstory near the beginning that doesn’t really contribute to the forward momentum of the story.

Maybe other stories do work because the writer included something extra that wouldn’t be seen as traditionally relevant but wound up actually enhancing the story, like in that excerpt above where he wrote about Tolstoy and Hemingway and Melville. Imagining the stories without those insertions, who would have thought that anything was missing? Nobody but the writers themselves.

That was the most interesting part of the book, in my opinion, but I’m sure that there’s much more that’s interesting in the book, too. It’s definitely given me some things to think about, and it feels like the kind of book you can return to multiple times and get new things out of each time. So, if you’re a writer or editor or even just a reader wanting to learn more about how books work or don’t work, McCormack’s book is a good read.

Reginald in Russia, and Other Sketches, by Saki

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“The silence continued. As a rule Lady Anne’s displeasure became articulate and markedly voluble after four minutes of introductory muteness. Egbert seized the milkjug and poured some of its contents into [the dog] Don Tarquinio’s saucer; as the saucer was already full to the brim an unsightly overflow was the result. Don Tarquinio looked on with a surprised interest that evanesced into elaborate unconsciousness when he was appealed to by Egbert to come and drink up some of the spilt matter. Don Tarquinio was prepared to play many roles in life, but a vacuum carpet-cleaner was not one of them.”

I stumbled upon Saki very recently and have been reading him since. Reginald in Russia was where I first stumbled upon him. This is a collection of short stories and one little play. One of the short stories is obviously about a guy named Reginald and his adventures in Russia, but the others are about different characters in different places.

Even though Saki was around in the stodgy old 1800s, he’s one of the funniest writers I’ve read (up there with Gogol). There’s something about the way he sets something up to happen, then has the reader spend the whole story waiting for it to happen, then making it happen near the end while revealing something that completely changes the meaning of what just happened. He’s probably so funny because he’s so good at causing this surprise.

I don’t really know what to compare it to. It’s sort of like spending all day anticipating a dinner where you’ll eat a chocolate fudge cake that someone made for you, only to find when you actually do bite into its frosty surface that it was secretly made of ice cream the whole time.

Something interesting about the twists though: They only seem to work when they create an emotional reaction in the reader that makes the twist worthwhile. In Saki’s case, this happens when the twist makes the story funnier than it was previously. Fortunately for us, this usually happened when reading Reginald in Russia.

A few of the stories I enjoyed the most were “The Reticence of Lady Anne,” “The Bag,” “A Young Turkish Catastrophe,” and “The Soul of Laploshka.” If you’re only going to read one Saki story from this entire book, I would recommend either “The Reticence of Lady Anne” or “The Bag.” Of course, reading only one story from this collection is much less enjoyable than reading the whole book, so you might as well do yourself a favor and read the whole book. The stories are hilarious and they’re great for the holidays.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Malraux

Hello! Happy Hanukkah (and the 250th anniversary of Beethoven)! I hope that you’re all hopeful now that the vaccine is on its way. I’ve read a book for the occasion. Its title is very fitting:

Man’s Hope, By André Malraux

FLASH STRAP: Tonight on Explorers Room: Singapore Smoke Rings, Getting Organ-ized,  Dream Jazz

“‘To be linked more closely with the Party is worthless, if one’s to be estranged from the very men for whom the Party’s working.”

André Malraux wrote Man’s Fate, a very good book that I recommend you all read (it was one of the better books I read in high school).

Then Malraux wrote Man’s Hope, which isn’t as good as Man’s Fate but is still worth reading. In this essay-like post, I’ll tell you why.

Man’s Hope is about a cast of characters fighting in the Spanish Civil War for different reasons. Malraux himself fought in the Spanish Civil War, so his book has some interesting things to say about war. Since Malraux was philosophical, those things are mostly philosophical.

Even so, some of those philosophical things also raised questions that weren’t answered. For instance, Malraux says that after idealism has spurred soldiers to enter the army, they go on to lose parts of themselves as they fight, and that they use less and less of themselves as they fight, which makes it easier to fight but also degrades their humanity.

But then Malraux also shows soldiers as fighting not for some big ideology like communism or fascism but to belong. Basically, people who are bound together by a shared ideology fight not for that ideology but because they derive a sense of meaning from belonging with each other.

So, if soldiers are aware that they keep losing parts of their humanity in war, how do they justify that it’s worth belonging with their fellows if it’s just as likely that their fellow soldiers have lost parts of their humanity, too? Malraux never suggests any answer or explanation for this.

I read Man’s Fate when I was younger, so I may not have been as critical of it, but I still do remember how everything seemed to be treated thoughtfully. Not like, “Oh, this guy’s so considerate and wholesome” but like, “Oh, this guy really thought through everything he wrote about.” He examined what people thought or believed and then explored why they thought or believed what they did. That gave a lot of insight which might not have been as obvious had he not done it.

Malraux kind of did that in Man’s Hope, too, since he got below the surface-level of ideology as causing the war, but then he didn’t seem to consider the meaning of the stuff he talked about as much as he did back in Man’s Fate. There wasn’t that level of insight in Man’s Hope as a result. So that’s why I think that Man’s Hope wasn’t as good as Man’s Fate (you may think differently though).

In any case, Man’s Hope is still good reading because of the very thing that makes it not as good as Man’s Fate. In some parts, the fact that Malraux didn’t really explore his ideas as fully as he could have was a good thing. For instance, there’s a scene where a man who had given up playing music for the sake of being a soldier suddenly wants to play music again and sits down in front of an organ and cranks out a tune. Malraux never tells the reader why, but unlike in the case I talked about earlier, there’s more of a sense that Malraux intentionally didn’t explain it so he could get the reader to think about it after finishing the book.

Basically, it seems that writers can get away with intentionally not explaining things in certain cases where it’s clear that the reader will get more out of wondering about the answers him or herself. In other cases, it seems that writers may accidentally not explain things that cause the reader confusion and take away from how good a book could have been. That doesn’t mean that the book isn’t worth reading, though.

In conclusion, read it and keep hoping.

Animated gif about cute in GOOD TO KNOW by Dre

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Nix

Well here we are. After last week’s reading of Lirael, I’ve surfaced from writing essays and studying for finals to tell you whether or not Lirael‘s sequel, Abhorsen, was worth reading both it and Lirael. If you haven’t read my Lirael review, do so, because this current review won’t have much set-up, backstory, or plot-point explanations. You see, it gets right into the thick of things…

Abhorsen, by Garth Nix

FRAMEofMIND | Lightning gif, Fractal art, Trippy

“Both glanced over at Tim Wallach as Sam spoke. He had taken a dead soldier’s rifle, sword bayonet, and helmet, and now stood in the rain, much to everyone’s surprise, perhaps including his own. ‘It’s always better to be doing,’ said Sam, quoting the Disreputable Dog. As he said it, he realized that he actually believed it now. He was still scared, still felt the knot of apprehension in his guts, but he knew it wouldn’t stop him from doing what had to be done.”

If Lirael felt like a bunch of exposition and build-up, Abhorsen felt like a bunch of rising tension and climax. That made it feel somewhat strained, even if both the beginning and ending were great, as were the lightning-farms (you’d have to read it to find out what I mean by that). The middle part of the book makes me wonder if it’s worth reading both this and Lirael, though. Maybe if you like really cool talking animals, that might make it worthwhile.

When you have a bunch of climax, you don’t really get much opportunity to breathe or take in what has happened so far, or why it should matter. Yes, I was able to take time to breathe and take in the immense stakes while reading Abhorsen, but it didn’t feel like enough. For one thing, while the characters in Lirael had arcs, the characters in Abhorsen didn’t seem to have any. Or maybe they did and I just couldn’t see the arcs through all that climax.

Basically, I would say definitely read Sabriel, and maybe skip Lirael and Abhorsen and go on to the next one, which is a prequel. I’m not sure that I’ll stand by that statement, though, since I haven’t read the prequel and right now I’m reading the autobiography of the guy who invented the hexaflexagon (see the gif below). Maybe read a book about hexaflexagons in the meantime. Or just read the beginning of Abhorsen and its end and call it a day. Or fold some hexaflexagons…

Hexaflexagon - GIF on Imgur

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Nix

Hello! I hope you all had a good Thanksgiving weekend. In between studying for my finals, I’ve finished another book:

Lirael, by Garth Nix

Dog GIFs | Tenor

“Not that it mattered, because the Disreputable Dog never really answered her questions. Later, Lirael would repeat the same questions and get different, still-evasive answers. The most important questions–‘What are you? Where did you come from?’–had a whole range of answers, starting with ‘I’m the Disreputable Dog’ and ‘from elsewhere’ and occasionally becoming as eloquent as ‘I’m your Dog’ and ‘You tell me–it was your spell.’ The Dog also refused, or was unable, to answer questions about her nature. She seemed in most respects to be exactly like a real dog, albeit a speaking one. At least at first.”

Lirael is the sequel to the wonderful book Sabriel, (which I’ve reviewed here).

Lirael is about two people, Lirael and Sameth. Lirael is a member of the Clayr, which is a group of magicians who can see into the future, except Lirael can’t see into the future, even though she’s at the age when she should be able to do so. Meanwhile Sameth is the prince of the realm. His mother is the “Abhorsen” (basically someone who can travel into the land of the dead and interact with spirits, or who can banish the reanimated dead), and Sameth is the “Abhorsen-in-Waiting.” The trouble is, Sameth fears death and doesn’t want to inherit his mom’s position. There’s also a talking cat and a talking dog, both who are the coolest talking animals I’ve met in literature (up there with Bulgakov’s cat). After some lengthy introductory scenes, all these characters (except for Bulgakov’s cat, obviously) find themselves together on an adventure.

This book feels like one story told in the form of a bunch of short stories that get progressively longer. There would be the short-ish story of how one of them gets a certain position in life, then a slightly longer story of how that person gets a magical blade, and then a longer one about how that person goes on an adventure in the bigger world, which is interspersed with the story how the other person gets started on the same adventure. Basically, even though it’s supposed to be a book, and even though it tells one story about two main characters, the parts of the stories are so self-contained that they feel like short stories.

Also, this book was mostly setup. Even though it had self-contained stories leading up to the climax, the book’s overall plot wasn’t resolved at the end. You have to wait for the sequel for that.

This cliffhanger makes for good suspense but it doesn’t really make for as good of a reading experience. Unlike Sabriel, which was very self-contained and satisfying overall, Lirael felt more like a teaser trailer than an actual story. Because Lirael was all setup, it had a lot of backstory and scenes that seemed irrelevant/unneeded. All that setup didn’t feel like it had direction or as much substance as it could probably have had if the book had been structured less as a bunch of setuppy short stories and more as a big story in and of itself. I still did think the structure was an interesting approach, even though it wasn’t as satisfying as Sabriel.

Overall, after mentally weighing Lirael‘s sense of incompleteness against the merits of Sabriel, I’m still not sure if I’ll recommend this one, but I also don’t want to say that yet. Nix is definitely a good writer, and I’m confident he hasn’t lost his good writing abilities, so I’m willing to cut him some slack and wait to finish the sequel before I give a more concrete statement.

So like the ending of Lirael, this review will have to end with a cliffhanger. Who is the Disreputable Dog? What happens next? And will the next book be satisfying enough to be worth also reading Lirael?

DUN DUN DUNNNN!

Until then, stay well.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Sullivan

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe. I’ve read another book about…

Stalin’s Daughter, by Rosemary Sullivan

Exploring the Life of Svetlana Stalin, the Tyrant's Daughter

“The revelation of Stalin’s crimes was cataclysmic. The propaganda icon—‘the creator of happiness,’ ‘the savior of the Russian people,’ and a ‘genius among mortals’—had been a fraud all along, just another ruthless and cruel politician who had committed horrific crimes with impunity. Examining his own generation in retrospect, the writer Konstantin Simonov wrote: ‘If we are honest, it is not only Stalin we cannot forgive, we cannot forgive anyone, including ourselves…. We may have done nothing bad, at least at first glance, but what is bad is that we (became) accustomed to…what now seems incredible and monstrous, somehow gradually became some kind of norm, seemed almost customary. We lived amidst all this like deaf people, as if we did not hear the firing going on all round us all the time, people being shot, murdered, people vanishing.’ Simonov confessed that he had lived for a long time in a duality, knowing and refusing to know, ‘partly through cowardice, partly through stubborn efforts to reassure myself, partly through coercion of myself, and partly through a reluctance to touch on some things even in thought.’”

It may seem strange that I chose a quote about Russia to encapsulate a book about a person, but it’s not. This is a biography of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, but it’s also a biography of Russia from around 1930 to around 2011. The two are deeply intertwined.

Firstly, it’s about Svetlana. She grew up under Stalin, literally and metaphorically. At first, she saw him only as a doting father, but as time passed, she realized the truth about his depravity. Then Stalin died in 1953, and she left Russia for the United States. That’s basically the first part of the book, and it sets up how her father impacted her psychology growing up. It also paves the way for the rest of the book, which is about how she tried (and usually failed) to escape from his shadow.

For instance, whenever a family crisis happened in Stalin’s life, he would order a new dacha/mansion to be built for him to move into. Similarly, whenever a crisis happened in Svetlana’s life after she left the USSR, she would move into a new house. Sometimes, it wasn’t even a crisis that caused her to move, but just an unhappiness that she never could escape.

Her unhappiness also came from Stalin. Everyone in the world thought of her as “Stalin’s daughter,” and judged her more according to what her father had done than according to what she herself had done. People were always out to milk her for funds (such as the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation) or for political leverage (the US government and later the Soviet government). Even though she was much more humane and much less sadistic than her father, Svetlana was never seen as her own person, even up to her death in 2011. She never did really escape his shadow.

So in terms of Svetlana, it’s about the life of someone who was never given the chance to become a real person.

In terms of Russia, it’s about how the state tried and failed to escape from Stalin’s influence, from Khrushchev to Brezhnev to Putin. That continuity of Stalin’s legacy means the book has a lot of important insights for our times.

For instance, there’s a remarkable account of what happened during and after Khrushchev’s “Thaw.” Everyone was horrified by what Stalin had done and it seemed they now knew better and would never let something like that to happen again. Then Brezhnev came to power, and he reinstated a similar type of oppression, and all the outraged people from before forgot their outrage and bowed their heads and didn’t object to the new horror.

Basically, I never knew how much one person’s life could be defined by another person. I also never knew how much a country could be defined by a person.

So in a way, you could say that Svetlana’s story is the story of Russia because both were defined by Stalin. Svetlana tried to separate from her father’s image, but in the end the world still remembered her as Stalin’s daughter. Russia tried to thaw under Khrushchev, but even in 2011, it still was Stalin’s state. Obviously, that comparison isn’t perfect. Svetlana wasn’t Stalin, but Russia is still repressive like it had been under Stalin. Even so, the comparison does give you a sense of how closely intertwined Svetlana’s story and Russia’s story were.

As you can see, this book was fascinating and thought-provoking, both because of its psychological insights and its global insights. For that reason, I would definitely recommend it. It’s also a book to reflect about, so I would recommend you read it when you have a long stretch of unoccupied time, like a winter break.

I’ll stop rambling now. It’s actually almost my winter break, and I have many other books to read, so you’ll hear from me again next Tuesday. In the meantime, keep healthy, safe, and reading.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Faqiri

Hi everyone, I’m going to write very briefly today because of school. However, I did want to tell you some great news and to introduce you to a great writer.

First the great news: I wrote a novelette about a year ago that has just been accepted for publication. It’s the first time I’m being paid for my fiction. I’m very excited to share more details with you when the story comes out in September 2021.

Now, here’s the great writer:

“The Doleful Village”, by Amin Faqiri, Translated by Iraj Bashiri

“It was at dusk when Dadkhoda and his son entered my room. I was lighting the lantern. Dadkhoda sat down. His son, too, sprawled himself on the floor beside the father. I put more air in the lantern. It caused the kerosene to overflow and the lantern to be set aflame. Dadkhoda said, ‘You should have given the lantern more time to warm up.'”

I read this story about two days ago and still can’t stop thinking about it. The plot doesn’t matter as much as the way the events are arranged and juxtaposed to make an impact. To get that aspect across I’d need to spoil the story. I won’t do that.

I’ll tell you some things about it though. It’s about a man who tells another man about his family. The family has a bull that dies, and the village believes that the man’s wife put a jinx on the bull for it to die. In the present, the family’s young kid wants to go to school.

See? Nothing’s interesting about it, but there are connections between the events that make them all gain in meaning. At the end, it has a huge impact.

The best thing you can do is to read the story. It’s free. Here it is.

I tried to find more stories by this writer on Amazon but I can’t seem to find any, which is unfortunate. I’d love to hear if anybody knows where they might be available.

That’s all for now. Stay healthy and hopeful!