Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Grossman, Burger, and Gorchakov

Hello! Happy Tuesday, and I hope you had a good MLK day.

Here are three books I’ve read. All of them (for some reason) let you live vicariously…

An Armenian Sketchbook, by Vasily Grossman,
Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler

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“Here we have Hemingway’s world. And here—Gleb Uspenksy’s. It goes without saying that these worlds are different. Hemingway describes people who adore bullfights and hunting for big game; he writes Spanish dynamiters in the Civil War and fishermen off the coast of Cuba. Uspensky, on the other hand, describes drunken craftsmen in Tula, junior policemen, provincial bourgeoisie, and peasant women. But these two very different worlds are not created in the image of a Russian peasant woman or a handsome and dangerous toreador. These worlds are created in the image and likeness of Uspensky and Hemingway. And even if Hemingway were to populate his world with Russian policemen and drunken Tula locksmiths, it would still be the same world, Hemingway’s.”

This book was very interesting. It was written after Grossman’s masterpiece Life and Fate was “arrested” by the Soviet authorities. Now he’s traveling through Armenia so he can translate someone else’s book.

Funnily enough, my favorite part was when he described how badly he had to relieve himself without embarrassing himself. I hope that gives you the sense that this book isn’t all about the meaning of life (because it isn’t).

On a more serious note, the book was good and very thoughtful. It just felt as if Grossman was trying too hard to contrive everybody into fitting his super idealistic idea of humanity’s wonderfulness. It felt like he was shouting, “LIFE LIFE LIFE! LOOK AT HOW WONDERFUL IT IS!” and then shoving life into my face and insisting, “Look at how WONDERFUL it is! It absolutely is wonderful can’t you see that?” And because of how fervently he insisted on his wonderfulness, I found myself doubting it. if it really was that wonderful, why did he have to be so zealous about it?

Yes, there were parts that were wonderful, especially near the end, but not everything in the book was that wonderful. I guess it’s not enough to be able to look at the world through a hopeful lens—you also have to observe enough wonderfulness for it to really be convincing.

In any case, this was a good book. If you want to read about cool ideas, read this book. If you want to read about the literary giant Vasily Grossman needing to relieve himself, definitely read this book (it happens twice, very dramatically). But if you want to read about the wonderfulness of life, maybe don’t read this book, because he tried too hard to make it seem wonderful.

Witness: Lessons From Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, by Ariel Burger, Read by Jason Culp

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“As I sit in the sun by [Wiesel’s] grave, a sense of peace comes over me. I decide that it’s time to renounce heroics. I want to be a human being, tasked with the slow work of becoming a little bit better, a little more sensitive, a little more open each day.”

This wise book is by Ariel Burger, who became Elie Wiesel’s teaching assistant at Boston. It consists of a mix of memoir-sections and lecture-sections. You learn about Burger’s story of how he tries to bridge the different beliefs he got from his more secular father and his more religious mother. You also learn about Elie Wiesel’s classes and how Wiesel impacts his students. Finally, you see how Wiesel impacts Burger.

The memoir sections were interesting, even though they weren’t about Wiesel. Burger was very thoughtful, and his sections of the book kind of reminded me of Tolstoy’s Confessions, in how he was seeking for spiritual enlightenment and burnt himself out in the process.

These sections were also very well-written. In some nonfiction books I’ve read about an author reminiscing about another person’s life, the author only wants to use the other person’s story as an excuse to talk about the author. The other person never really gets his or her dues, and the book suffers from the author’s narcissism.

In Burger’s case, this story was clearly a Wiesel-centered story, and any parts of it that were about Burger were clearly there to emphasize the huge impact Wiesel made on his life. So in the end, even these parts were really about Wiesel.

In the Wiesel-focused lecture sections, I felt like I was taking a Zoom class with Wiesel and listening to him talk from my phone (I listened to it on audiobook). He was very wise and inspiring, and if this review doesn’t talk as much about Wiesel as it does about Burger, it’s only because you can’t really understand how impactful Wiesel is unless you read the book itself.

I’d highly recommend.

Stanislavsky Directs, by Nikolai Gorchakov,
Translated by Miriam Goldina

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“Never betray the theater as the most sacred conception in your life. Then you will not have the desire to dress it up in velvet and brocade.”

This book also felt like another class I was taking, only this time I was living vicariously in Stanislavsky’s acting studio. Later in his life, the Russian director wanted to assemble a group of younger actors and pass on his method to them so that they could go on and further the craft.

In any case, this book was very good. In particular, the ending was interesting. Stanislavski was producing one of Mikhail Bulgakov’s plays, but he wanted Bulgakov to change some things in it, and Bulgakov didn’t want to (even though he seemed to agree that the changes would make it a better play).

It’s up to Gorchakov, the writer of this book, to convince Bulgakov to make the changes. Did he do it? Did he not do it? Read the book and find out!

But seriously, read this book for its acting insights, and insights into life in general.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Moore

Hello! I hope you are well. As for me, I’ve somehow read a huge book this week without noticing:

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal
By Christopher Moore, Read by Fisher Stevens*

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Funniest Excerpts:

‘Poison,’ Joy said [….] ‘Ah,’ I said, and I tasted the tea. [….] ‘Can you guess what your lesson is today?’ Joy asked. ‘I thought you would tell me what’s in that House of Doom room.’ ‘No that is not the lesson today [….] Guess again!’ My fingers and toes had begun to tingle [….] ‘You’re going to teach me how to make the fire powder that Balthazar used the day we arrived?’ ‘No, silly.’ [….] She pushed me lightly on the chest, and I fell over backward, unable to move. ‘Today’s lesson is… are you ready? [….] Today’s lesson is, if someone puts poison in your tea, don’t drink it!’”

“[As Biff and Jesus AKA Joshua prepare a sermon] ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the whiners, the meek, the—’ ‘Wait, what are we giving the meek?’ ‘Let’s see…uh… here! Blessed are the meek, for to them we shall say…”attaboy!”’ ‘A little weak.’ ‘Yeah. Let’s let the meek… inherit the earth.’ ‘Can’t you give the earth to the whiners?’ ‘Well then, cut the whiners and give the earth to the meek.’”

“Meanwhile, the chief priest droned on. ‘A man dies and leaves no sons, but his wife marries his brother, who has three sons by his first wife.’ And on. ‘The three of them leave Jericho and head south, going 3.3 furlongs per hour, but they are leading two donkeys, which can carry two…’ And on. ‘So the Sabbath ends, and they are able to resume, adding on the thousand steps allowed under law. And the wind is blowing southwest at two furlongs per hour.’ And on. ‘How much water will be required for the journey? Give your answer in firkins.’ ‘Five,’ Joshua said as soon as they stopped speaking [….] ‘You didn’t show your work! You didn’t show your work!’ chanted the youngest of the priests.”

This hilarious book is about Jesus and Levi, only for some reason Jesus is called Joshua and Levi is called Biff. Apparently, Biff was Joshua’s childhood friend. Cut to present-day: an angel resurrects Biff to write about his life with Joshua.

According to Biff, the Bible left out a lot. What about the trips he and Joshua made to Asia for Joshua to learn how to become the messiah, for instance? Lamb covers their childhood, their journey along the Silk Road, and everything else that was in the original Bible.

No wonder Lamb was was more than 400 pages.

However, I had no idea about that until I finished the audiobook and checked. That’s a good sign in terms of pacing. Looking back on it, while I knew this book was supposed to be funny, I’m impressed that it was able to stay consistently funny for 400+ pages. I mean, it’s ridiculously hard just to write 400+ pages of well-written story.

Also, I had previously thought of comedic writing as being just about making the reader laugh (Three Men in a Boat, for instance). I haven’t really seen an instance where someone set out to write a mainly-comedic story while also being able to suddenly become dramatic and still keep the reader engaged.

In the case of Lamb, the story was mainly comedic, but somehow the ending became very dramatic, and unlike some comedic works where the end loses power because it tries to take itself too seriously (see Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat), Lamb‘s ending actually gained strength.

So why was Tortilla Flat not able to pull this off while Lamb was? Maybe it’s because Lamb had more space to develop the characters (what with all those pages). However, I also think the change worked because the book included some serious moments throughout. So instead of becoming dramatic out of nowhere (like Steinbeck), there was some seriousness in Lamb all along, which prepared the reader to take the book seriously at its end.

The one huge drawback of Lamb was that every female character in was basically there just to be a love-interest to the male characters (such as “Maggy,” AKA Mary of Magdala). If you’re looking for a comedy with well-developed female characters, this would not be your book (but if you do want that book, try Karolina Pavlova).

Otherwise, if you’re looking for a hilarious and unexpectedly fast read, this is your book.

*If you’ve watched Succession, you may recognize that Fisher Stevens plays Hugh Baker—he makes for a great audiobook narrator, too.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: King, Süskind, and London

Hello! Happy 2022! I hope that you are all enjoying your holiday season with many books and much good health. If there’s snow near you, I also hope that you are staying warm and safe.

Last time, I reviewed several not-so-uplifting books. This time, I’ll kick 2022 off with one book that’s slightly more inspiring…

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King

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“I asked him once what the posters meant to him, and he gave me a peculiar, surprised sort of look. ‘Why, they mean the same thing to me as they do to most cons, I guess,’ he said. ‘Freedom. You look at those pretty women and you feel like you could almost …not quite but almost …step right through and be beside them. Be free.”

This was the first Stephen King book I ever read, and it was good. It wasn’t as amazing as I thought it would be, though, considering all the hype. Maybe it’s because I already saw the movie and knew the ending.

For the first time in my life, I’d actually say that the movie was somewhat better than the book, because it emphasized some important through-lines more and made better choices than the book about certain side-characters. Also, the book was less of an experience and more of a mystery—once you knew its solution, there wasn’t much left to experience in the book.

Meanwhile, the movie was more of an experience (since film is basically about experiencing things by watching them on-screen). So even knowing the solution to the mystery didn’t take away from the glory of reliving that experience.

In any case, I enjoyed this book. It was definitely well-written, and I hope that there are other Stephen King books out there that I can read in the future that are just as good, if not better. Do you have any recommendations?

Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, Translated by John E. Woods

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[A long quote but worth it!] “And [Father Terrier] rocked the basket gently on his knees, stroking the infant’s head with his finger and repeating ‘poohpeedooh’ from time to time, an expression he thought had a gentle, soothing effect on small children [….] Terrier wrenched himself to his feet and set the basket on the table. He wanted to get rid of the thing, as quickly as possible, right away if possible, immediately if possible. And then it began to wail. It squinted up its eyes, gaped its gullet wide, and gave a screech so repulsively shrill that the blood in Terrier’s veins congealed. He shook the basket with an outstretched hand and shouted ‘Poohpeedooh’ to silence the child, but it only bellowed more loudly and turned completely blue in the face and looked as if it would burst from bellowing.”

This book is about a kid who has a wonderful sense of smell but doesn’t smell of anything himself. Oh yeah, and he’s a murderer.

Given that I first heard of this book on an International Baccalaureate reading list, I thought it would be kind of stuffy and literary. To my great surprise and delight, it was actually very funny (while also being literary).

The author clearly enjoyed writing this book, in the way Tolstoy clearly enjoyed writing War and Peace. When the writer really likes what he or she is writing about, it comes across to the reader and makes the reading experience so much fun. These kinds of books are so much better than books where the author’s clearly just trying to come across as witty or sophisticated without deeply caring about what he or she is writing about.

Anyway, the unexpected humor, great plotting, strong characterization, and amazing twist (the book feels almost like speculative fiction at certain points) makes Perfume a super-recommendable book.

Martin Eden, by Jack London

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“It was the finest thing yet that [Martin Eden] had seen in this small glimpse of that [upper-class] world. He was moved deeply by appreciation of it, and his heart was melting with sympathetic tenderness. He had starved for love all his life. His nature craved love. It was an organic demand of his being. Yet he had gone without, and hardened himself in the process. He had not known that he needed love. Nor did he know it now. He merely saw it in operation, and thrilled to it, and thought it fine, and high, and splendid.”

If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, you may remember that I listed London’s autobiographical novel Martin Eden as an “honorable mention” in my Top Ten Books I Read in High School post. I reread it recently for a paper I had to write. It was so good.

Martin Eden is about a sailor named Russ Brissenden Martin Eden (!) who meets a high-society girl named Ruth, and falls in love with her. But he needs to have a steady career in order to get her parents to agree for them to get married. So, like all practical men seeking a steady career, Martin decides that he will become a famous writer. Poverty ensues, but love endures (or does it?)

Cheesy summary aside, I didn’t realize how good this book was until I actually analyzed it. See, Jack London seemed to think that his protagonist was driven by consistent selfish individualism, and that’s easy enough to accept when you read the book once and don’t think too hard (or at all) about it.

However, when reading the book closely, it became obvious that Martin was just driven by his need for love (I could go on and on about this, but basically his need for love was a much more consistent and clear motive for Martin’s actions than any kind of individualism). If Martin’s need for love was such a clear motive (in contrast to all those times Martin explicitly told himself he was a poor excuse for an individualist), why did London still insist that his book was about Martin’s individualism?

Keeping in mind that I could also be wrong, we could go on to speculate that deep down, London knew the book’s dominant through-line wasn’t individualism, but that he insisted otherwise to cover up insecurities or other things he didn’t want to admit (imagine a tough guy like London saying his latest book was about craving love).

Anyway. For a guy who might have been lying to himself, London still had the guts to make this a consistent thread throughout his story, even if in the end he underemphasized that thread and tried to hide it beneath unconvincing thematic stuff about individualism. And even in spite of all the stuff about individualism, London’s book still possessed remarkable insight due to that partially-smothered thread. That’s what made the book so good, in my view.

So if you’re a writer, it might be a good idea to really know why you write, and if you’re a reader, it might be an interesting idea to reread some old favorites.

If you just want to know if I would recommend this book, I definitely would, and I’d be curious to hear any thoughts you might have about it.

 Also, if you want to listen to a great Bill Hughes song about Martin Eden…

Happy New Year!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Dorfman, Al Aswany, and Wiesel

In Which I Review “Death and the Maiden” by Ariel Dorfman, “Friendly Fire” by Alaa Al Aswany, and “Dawn” by Elie Wisel

Hello! Happy almost New Year. I hope you are having a healthy and safe holiday season so far. I’ve reviewed three books. They’re definitely not cheerful, but they do make you think.

“Death and the Maiden,” by Ariel Dorfman

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They let me sit in on sessions where my role was to determine whether the prisoners could take that much torture [….] At first I told myself that it was a way of saving people’s lives, and I did because many times I told them without it being true simply to help the person who was being tortured. I ordered them to stop or the prisoner would die. But afterwards I began to… bit by bit, the virtue I was feeling turned into excitement.

This is a play about a husband and a wife who are living in the aftermath of a dictatorship. They have both suffered trauma, especially the woman, who was blindfolded and tortured by a man who liked to pay Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. One day, a man arrives, having helped her husband fix his tire. The woman recognizes the man’s voice, learns he has a tape of Death and the Maiden in his car, and comes to believe that he was her torturer. So she ties him up and puts him on trial.

This was a fascinating play. Is the man really guilty, or is it all just an unlucky coincidence? What will happen during the trial? What will be its result? Will the woman come to terms with her past?

This isn’t a spoiler but it’s something to keep in mind: if you don’t like ambiguous endings, you probably won’t like this play. Even so, I would still recommend it, because it contains a lot of important truths about the lengths people will go to prove things to themselves, and to others.

Friendly Fire, by Alaa Al Aswany, Translated by Humphrey Davies

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From my first day in the department, I had determined to despise and look down on [my coworkers]. Without saying anything, I knew how to let them feel their insignificance. It happened at this period that I needed glasses and I picked out round frames made of thin plastic. I felt that these gave my face a superior cast that was somehow provocative.”

Disclaimer: I took a class with Al Aswany and read some of the stories in this book, so I have to hope that my review isn’t biased.

This is a book of short stories about Egypt. One of them is a novella.

The stories had a kind of humor about them, even though it wasn’t comedic. It seemed more like the author was looking at his characters with an understanding grin. So, even somewhat-unsympathetic characters in the book didn’t feel very unsympathetic because I understood where they were coming from.

Also, the use of details was good. Sometimes I had to re-read a story to get at its subtleties (there was a lot that was subtextual). The insights gained made it worthwhile, though.

Overall,  I really enjoyed this book, especially “The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers,” “The Kitchen Boy,” “Dearest Sister Makarim,” “The Sorrows of Hagg Ahmad,” “Waiting for the Leader,” and “Boxer Puppies, All Colors.” My favorite story was “Izzat Amin Iskandar.” I can’t say why, exactly, but if you could only read one story from this collection, that one should be it.

Dawn, by Elie Wiesel, Translated by Frances Frenaye

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“‘I have a son your age,’ [the British prisoner] began, ‘but he’s not at all like you. He’s fair-haired, strong, and healthy. He likes to eat, drink, go to the pictures, laugh sing, and go out with the girls. He has none of your anxiety, your unhappiness.’ And he went on to tell me more about this son, who was studying at Cambridge. Every sentence was a tongue of flame which burned my body [….] I mustn’t listen to him, I told myself. He’s my enemy, and the enemy has no story.”

This book is set in British-controlled Palestine, and is about Elisha, a young Israeli freedom fighter who previously survived a Nazi concentration camp. Now, he’s been assigned to execute an Englishman, in retaliation for the British executing an Israeli prisoner, only he doesn’t want to kill the man. This book is about him waiting for dawn, when he has to carry out the act.

Previously, I had only read Night, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Dawn. It turned out to be very good.

I appreciated how well it portrayed Elisha’s moral conflict. His guilt was really well-examined, and it was interesting to see Wiesel go into both rationalizations for and condemnations of the act Elisha was going to have to take. Also, Wiesel didn’t judge the protagonist, but just showed him like he was, which somehow made the book’s ultimate condemnation of murder much stronger.

Some of the other characters in the book were the people who ordered the protagonist to carry out the execution. They were well-characterized too, which I appreciated. Wiesel could have easily shown them as heartless and cruel, but that wouldn’t have given any insight into anything, and would have weakened the book. Instead, Wiesel showed that they were just as confused as Elisha, only that they were better at hiding it.

Overall, this book was very good because the author portrayed the characters as humans instead of as heroes and villains. It’s an intense read, but one that I would definitely recommend (especially on audiobook).

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Żeromski, Korelitz, and London

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe.

I’ve read four books, but will only be reviewing three of them. Two of them could be seen as escapism, while the third probably can’t…

The Faithful River, by Stefan Żeromski,
Translated by Bill Johnston

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“[As one character tries to convince a woman named Ryfka to give her a sleigh to go to a doctor]: ‘Do you have a sleigh?’ ‘There’s one here but it’s just a little one that belongs to some of the tenants.’ ‘Let it be the tenants’. Come on! Fetch the keys and climb out of the hole here.’ Ryfka gave a quiet, desperate sob. She stood on the other side of the window, crying. ‘You won’t do it?’ ‘They’ll murder me. They’ll knock my block off!’ ‘You’ll live.’ This argument she somehow found convincing.

This book is set during a conflict between Polish rebels and Russian soldiers, and is about a wounded Polish rebel who is being sheltered by a woman in a manor-house. Obviously, bad things will happen if the rebel is discovered by the Russians, and so the woman has to use all her wits to conceal him. In the meantime, they fall in love.

For a book that was originally published in 1912, it was surprisingly great. The dialogue was surprisingly snappy, the plot was surprisingly compelling, and the characters were surprisingly deep.

Something I also didn’t expect was that the romance was delayed until later on. This made sense (the rebel was too wounded to fall in love at first). This also made the romance more convincing– by the time the characters fell in love, they knew each other well enough to have something to be attracted to. They became two developed characters that I found myself wanting to get together, instead of two cardboard cutouts falling in love over nothing.

So, this book has a lot of action, it’s well-paced, and it’s well-written. I would recommend.

The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

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“These particular students, these ardent apprentices, would be utterly indistinguishable from their earlier Ripley counterparts: mid-career professionals convinced they could churn out Clive Cussler adventures, or moms who blogged about their kids and didn’t see why that shouldn’t entitle them to a regular gig on Good Morning America, or newly retired people ‘returning to fiction’ (secure in the knowledge that fiction had been waiting for them?)”

This book is about a writer named Jake who wrote one best-seller and then wrote a second not best-seller, and went on to sink into obscurity. We find him teaching creative writing at a college program called Ripley. There, he encounters a student who tells him about a plot for a novel, a plot so good it’ll obviously become a best-seller… Later, the student dies, and Jake sees his chance to rip off the other guy’s story and reclaim his fame in the process. Jake does become famous, but then starts getting threats in the mail about someone who knows that he stole his student’s story…

This book was entertaining to read because it was about someone who went into writing for all the wrong reasons– for the fame, for the ego-boost, and for the admiration, rather than because he actually loved to write.

It was also fun to see all the twists in the book (which I’m not giving away). Basically, if you like mystery stories (and novels-within-novels), you would probably like this book.

I did feel that the protagonist wasn’t really characterized much beyond the fact that he was a writer (and all his backstory relating to being a “failed” writer). I also felt that parts of the book could have been shortened (there was a huge buildup to something that didn’t need to be that big). And finally, the protagonist was narcissistic to the point of being a little annoying.

In spite of that, I’d still recommend the book. It’s fun to read, and everything does come together satisfyingly in the end.

The Scarlet Plague, by Jack London

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“The old man shook his head sadly, and said: ‘The gunpowder will come. Nothing can stop it—the same old story over and over. Man will increase, and men will fight. The gunpowder will enable men to kill millions of men, and in this way only, by fire and blood, will a new civilization, in some remote day, be evolved. And of what profit will it be? Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. It may take fifty thousand years to build, but it will pass. All things pass.'”

This sci-fi book is about a global pandemic, only this one is called the Scarlet Plague, it breaks out in 2012 instead of in 2020, and the world of 2012 has wireless communications while also somehow still having telegraphs.

No wonder. The book was written in 1915.

In any case, the Scarlet Plague is super-deadly, to the point where it kills its victims within hours. It acts so fast that it instantly wipes out all the government infrastructure and leaves only a few survivors who go on to form “tribes.” Oh, and the whole story is basically an old man telling his grand-kids about the plague while they sit around in the ruins of California.

It’s interesting to compare London’s imaginings of a pandemic with the reality of one, which basically hammers home the fact that only so much can be imagined, and that some things in reality are much more complicated than in the imagining of them.

On a somewhat unrelated note, parts of this book reminded me of Anna Kavan’s Ice— there’s a guy who wants a girl, but the girl is being held captive by an brutal tribe-leader called the Chauffeur. Replace the Scarlet Plague with the ice-ification of the planet, call the Chauffer the Warden, and you basically have the general gist of Ice.

In any case, I would recommend this book, but only if you feel like reading about another pandemic. If you don’t feel like it, I would recommend the other two books instead.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Shanbhag, Kadohata, and Kertész

Hello! Happy Tuesday. It’s the end of the semester here, so I have several papers I’m writing. Somehow, I’ve also read several books. Here they are:

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag,
Translated by Srinath Perur

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“In the middle room of the old house […] [the protagonist’s sister Malati] told me about her college, her classmate Vandana, whose step-mother served her leftovers, and who was in love with a boy they called Koli Ramesh. It was Malati who carried letters between them. In the new house, we were locked in the cells of individual rooms, and there was no opportunity to exchange casual confidences. Lying alone in my room, I sometimes wondered if Malati’s happiness would have been better served had Sona Masala not existed at all.”

This book is about a family in Bangalore who runs a mysterious business called Sona Masala. Before they started the business they were happy but poor. After they start the business they become miserable and greedy.

This book has been compared with Chekhov. I do not see it. Yes, it has good brevity, but Chekhov still gives a lot more meaning in one short story than this author does in his entire book.

There’s also another difference– Chekov actually has warmth, even when he’s describing unsympathetic characters and cynical situations. This book doesn’t, or if there is warmth, it’s not really that warm. For instance, the protagonist’s father is supposed to be the moral compass of the book. However he never really gets a chance to say anything other than paltry things along the lines of, “Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this,” or, “In the old days, people actually respected each other,” which rob him and his role of their weight. He’s never really given a chance to speak and be taken seriously, so he doesn’t really provide as convincing of a counterweight as he seems like he’s there to do.

Any moments of happiness are fleeting and not taken seriously, either. They’re treated like, “Oh, we were only happy then because that was before we moved into the new house, don’t mind that nonsense.” A book absolutely doesn’t have to be unicorns and butterflies, but the lack of real happiness in this book means that any contrasts made between the family’s old life and their new life don’t really work as well as they could have.

Going back to a point I made at the beginning, the book doesn’t really say as much as it could have. The protagonist is complicit in the family’s dysfunction, sure, but I found myself really wondering why he acted that way, and not receiving an answer. For me, it’s not enough just to say and show that characters act differently because they’re in a new house and have new wealth. There needs to be more of a sense of why (even if it’s a very subtle implication). There’s definitely room for this kind of implication, but it’s never really made. Instead, this book seems to treat the characters as if greed just sprang upon them and took them unawares, and as a result, it doesn’t really say as much as it could have.

Contrast this with Chekhov, where even in his less-hopeful stories, he includes a measure of warmth as an effective contrast (which actually winds up heightening the level of cynicism), he says all that he could say within the space (making the most of his characters and their conflicts), and really gets at why the characters are acting the way they do.

I may sound harsh, and I don’t mean to. This book was still good, and I would still recommend it to read. But I would definitely not say that it was Chekhov-level good.

Half a World Away, by Cynthia Kadohata

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“No, the future was not bright for Dimash if he didn’t learn to walk differently. Walking was important. Jaden knelt down in front of him […] Dimash gazed at him intently, his shoulder scrunched, his stance geeky. Jaden pulled the boy’s shoulder up until both sides were even. ‘Here, stand like this. Good! Now watch.’ Jaden walked evenly, with a little bit of swagger. ‘That’s how you walk. Come on, walk to me.’ Dimash pushed his shoulder down and walked to Jaden even geekier than usual. ‘No,’ Jaden said, patiently but firmly. ‘When you walk, you must be cool. Then maybe nobody will bother you.'”

This book is about a boy named Jaden who was adopted from Romania at the age of eight. Angry at having been given up by his birth-mother and unable to form emotional attachments, Jaden grew up stealing, lying, and setting fire to the toys given to him by his adoptive parents. When he’s eleven, his parents take him with them as they adopt someone from Kazakhstan. Jaden thinks they’re adopting again because he’s a bad son. However, once they reach Kazakhstan, he forms connections with a toddler at the orphanage (Dimash) and the man who drives them around (Sam), and eventually realizes he loves his adoptive parents.

This book is interesting because it involves two adoptions (instead of just one), and describes the mindset of someone who was adopted as an older child. It’s also an enjoyable read.

While Jaden’s psychology is well-conveyed, he seems too emotionally-aware considering his circumstances. He grew up in an environment where he never knew love and had to suppress his emotions, so he likely wouldn’t be able to understand his feelings as well as he seems to in this book (“he felt sad” “he felt happy” “he felt angry” etc.).

This discrepancy makes this book read less like the character is actually experiencing life, and more like the author is writing down her guesses about what it would be like to experience life through the character’s perspective.

In any case, this is a good book, and even though it’s for middle-grade readers, it’s still a good read for adults, too.

Dossier K., by Imre Kertész, Translated by Tim Wilkinson

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“[Interviewer:] What would be of more interest to me right now is the difference between fiction and autobiography, as critics and readers alike commonly refer to Fatelessness as an autobiographical novel.

[IK:] Incorrectly, I have to say, because no such genre exists. A book is either autobiography or a novel. If it’s autobiography you evoke the past, you try as scrupulously as possible to stick to your recollections [….] A good autobiography is like a document: A mirror of the age on which people can ‘depend.’ In a novel, by contrast, it’s not the facts that matter, but precisely what you add to the facts.

This book is the autobiography/memoir of Imre Kertész, who won a Nobel Prize. It’s written in an interview format, and talks about his life in Nazi-era Hungary, his experiences in Birkenau as a teenager, his return to Hungary after the war, and the discovery that Hungary has become a dictatorship too.

I have never read any of his books. After having learned about his experiences and his thoughts on life, I want to.

This memoir was also somewhat entertaining because Kertész was pretending to be two people. The “interviewer” would ask some question, and the “interviewee” would answer something along the lines of, “no, you don’t understand, it wasn’t like that at all,” or, “that’s a very interesting observation. I never thought of that myself.” This interplay made the story feel less like a cut-and-dry interview and more like a conversation between two real people. In the end, this didn’t detract from the book’s subject matter but somehow made it more powerful.

In any case I would recommend this book. Now I need to read more by him.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Prilepin, Adamovich, and Voinovich

Hello! Happy post-Hanukkah! I’ve been keeping two books a secret for the past week and now I want to reveal them to you, along with another book that I’ve never mentioned yet…

Sin, by Zakhar Prilepin,
Translated by Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas

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“The person squirmed about on the floor. Something trickled under my shoes. I tore the plywood board from the window, and saw that the window was partially smashed, and so this was evidently why it had been covered over. In the window, between the partitions, there was a half-liter bottle containing a solitary limp pickle covered in a white beard of mold that Father Christmas could have envied.”

This book contains a bunch of short stories about a guy named Zakharka (which sounds suspiciously like the name of the author of the book). In any case, he’s a gravedigger, a bouncer, and a sergeant, but he’s also a kid and a lover (at different parts in the short story collection).

Something interesting about this book is that it says that he maintains a positive attitude while remaining human. However, there are several parts in the book where it’s like, “I loved life! I spat in this annoying guy’s face and cursed at him!” which clearly shows an un-positive attitude to life. So either he’s lying or he’s suppressing his angst by pretending to love life.

In any case, the stories were interesting but I didn’t find them particularly amazing. There don’t seem to be any real flashes of insight in them the way there might be in a good Isaac Babel story, say. Even so, I haven’t read much contemporary literature, so it was interesting to read this book for that.

This book also had some poems in it. If you want to read some poems, read this book.

Khatyn, by Ales Adamovich,
Translated by Glenys Kozlov, Franes Longman,
and Sharon McKee

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“I suddenly thought and apparently understood that this person, Rubezh was miserably afraid, he was almost sick with fear. It would have come out in a different way in someone else, but in Rubezh it took the form of constant chatter, either earnest or jocular, with which he stifled his fear. He was not teasing death at all as Skorokhod thought, but quite the contrary. It was terror in the face of his own fear, that fear that depressed him and drained him of his strength; it was this very terror that tormented him and made him be like he was; all the time he was preparing himself, making himself ready to reach a pale that he could always see and that he could not manage to forget as others did.”

This book is about a boy named Flyora, who serves in the Soviet partisans in Belarus against the Nazis, then witnesses a massacre in a village called Khatyn. This massacre actually happened–the author Ales Adamovich interviewed survivors of it and even incorporated official testimonies into his book. He also went on to create the great war-movie, Come and See (which is where the GIF is from).

Both works are extremely harrowing to experience, but important. If you can stand to read a book like this, it is very worthwhile. That’s all I can really say about this work.

In summary, read this book. It will devastate you, but it’s better to be devastated by this book than not.

The Fur Hat, by Vladimir Voinovich,
Translated by Susan Brownsberger

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“After typing a title of the novel Operation!, Yefim stopped to ponder. He pictured the word displayed vertically. The fact that his more recent novels all had titles consisting of only one word was no accident. Yefim had noticed that the popularization of literary works was greatly facilitated if the titles could be used in crossword puzzles. The puzzles were a form of free advertisement that have been scorned by those authors who gave their works such long and many-worded titles as War and Peace or Crime and Punishment. But some authors had been more far-sighted, using titles like Poltava, Oblomov, or Childhood.”

In the USSR, the Writers Union is giving out hats–reindeer fawn for the most prominent authors, marmot for the second-most prominent authors, and so on. Yefim, a writer who writes about “decent and fearless people” (like doctors who do operations on themselves in the middle of the wilderness) wants a hat too. Well, he gets a hat, but instead of reindeer fawn or marmot, he’s stuck with domestic fluffy tomcat.

I found this book somewhat funnier than Ivan Chonkin, probably because it had to do more with with writing, which I can relate to more. The author did a great job of satirizing a writer’s life (author’s own big ego? Check! Super-subjective reception of one’s work? Check! Figuring out creative ways to market a work via crossword puzzle clues? Check!)

This book also was interesting because it satirized the Soviet prisons. There was a character who had been arrested and then who had been released, but who somehow remained loyal to the party anyway, and Voinovich had a field-day with him.

So, read this book. It’s shorter than Ivan Chonkin, but just as funny, if not a little more.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Borges and Nagibin

In Which I Read “Ficciones” by Jorge Luis Borges and “Arise and Walk” by Yuri Nagibin

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Happy Hanukkah! I have been reading four books, but I’ve only managed to finish two so far. The other two will be kept a secret until next week. Meanwhile, I’ve reviewed the two books that I have read…

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges

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“When it was proclaimed that the Library comprised all books, the first impression was one of extravagant joy. All men felt themselves lords of a secret, intact treasure. There was no personal or universal problem whose eloquent solution did not exist — in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly expanded to the limitless dimensions of hope.”

That was basically me when I discovered the library for the first time in my life.

Seriously though, Borges’s book was a very interesting read from an intellectual standpoint. He’s one of those authors who asks cool questions like, “What if we construct a fake society that actually starts feeling more real than the society we’re in?” and then rolls with it. All of his stories are basically like that, and you wind up thinking about them long after you’ve read them, which makes them entertaining to read as a result.

Ficciones also has the benefit of containing a lot of his great stories. You have the “Library of Babel,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Circular Ruins,” and “Death and the Compass.” What more could you want?

So if you’ve never read Borges before, and if you love intellectual speculation, Ficciones is a perfect place to start.

Arise and Walk, by Yuri Nagibin,
Translated by Catherine Porter

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“[About a prisoner calling his wife from Siberia] The operator wound the handle of the receiver, and wound it again. The receiver filled with rustling, crackling sounds, like wind stirring along an autumn forest path […] The voice of space is plaintive and troubled, and fills the heart with fear. Then suddenly, from far, far away, at the other end of the world, he clearly heard the voice of his former wife: ‘Yes?’ The tiny line had finally reached out to him, and tiny though it was, he suddenly felt terribly close to this long-lost family from which he was probably excluded now for ever. ‘Hello there Katya!’ he yelled. ‘How are you all?’ ‘All right.’ The voice was stiff and cold–but maybe it was just the distance that made it sound so.”

While Borges’s book was filled with intellectualism, Nagibin’s book is filled with emotion, which made them good to read in the same week.

Arise and Walk is about a boy whose father gets sent to prison in Siberia. As he grows up, the boy preserves a relationship with him, visiting him and sending him packages. At the same time, the Stalinist state penalizes people whose relatives are prisoners, so we see how the protagonist has to hide his father’s existence from his friends, co-workers, and acquaintances.

This book was very good. It had something of Chingiz Aitmatov in it, so I can’t say exactly what. Maybe in the way they both felt sincere and were thus able to elicit emotions in the reader (at their best, anyway).

Even though this book was good, something felt like it was missing. We learned a lot about the father (who was a very good character), but less about the son (other than that he had conflicting feelings about his father). He never went through an arc of his own, even though he was the protagonist. Contrast this with Chingiz Aitmatov’s Jamila, where the protagonist tells a story about other people, but is changed by it himself. Maybe that’s what was missing from Arise and Walk.

After reading the book, I was surprised by two things. First of all, that Nagibin’s own father had been arrested. Maybe this would explain the sincerity of his story. Second of all (and less relevantly), that he wrote an Oscar-winning screenplay for a Kurosawa film. Yes. You can read more here.

Until next week! Have a happy Hanukkah (if you celebrate), and read books, because they justify the universe and expand it to the limitless dimensions of hope.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Voinovich

In Which I Review “The Life & Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin,” by Vladimir Voinovich.

Hello! I’ve only had time to review one book this week due to my weekend being taken up with a very interesting playwrighting workshop. However, the book I’ve reviewed is very funny, and I’m surprised it’s not better-known.

The Life & Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, By Vladimir Voinovich, Translated by Richard Lourie

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“Balashkov opened up a standard cardboard-covered notebook and began to read in a loud, expressive voice without using a single word of his own. While Balashkov read, the soldiers found ways to pass the time. One hid behind another’s back and was carried away by Madame Bovary, two others played a game of Sea Battle, whereas Chonkin abandoned himself to thought. From his close observation of life and his fathoming of life’s laws, Chonkin had understood that it is usually warm in the summer and cold in the winter.”

This book is about a soldier named Ivan Chonkin who has been sent to guard a plane that has crashed in the middle of a village. Meanwhile, World War II has broken out. Ivan is oblivious. He’s also forgotten, until one day the Soviet army learns of a strange soldier in one of their villages. Well, maybe it’s an enemy! If that’s so, then they have to arrest him! So they go to arrest Ivan Chonkin. Only he puts up a resistance…

One can clearly see the influence of Gogol in this book. It had Gogol’s kind of slapstick humor to it. At the same time, it had its own sense of self. For instance, there was a part where two characters, pretending to be German soldiers, were trying and failing to speak German to each other but tried to keep it up anyway. That scene was even funnier than Gogol.

Ivan Chonkin was also a very good critique of un-individualistic thinking. It mentioned labor camps and satirized Stalin, and I was surprised that it managed to be published in the Soviet Union. Well, actually, it got its author expelled from the USSR in the 1970s. It figures.

In any case, the person who recommended this book to me said it was the funniest book he’d ever read. While it wasn’t the funniest book I had ever read, it was definitely in my top five (along with The Overcoat, A Double Life, Tortilla Flat, and Three Men in a Boat).

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Figes

Hello. The usual introductions won’t do this book much service, so I’ll just get straight to my review.

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes

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“In 1958, after his release from the labour camps, Igor was visited by an old acquaintance of the family, a woman called Zina, who had seen his mother [Julia] in the Karaganda camp, where she, too, was a prisoner. Zina told Igor that Julia had died in the camp hospital and that she was buried in a mass grave. In 1986 Igor received another visit from Zina, by this time a woman of 80. She told him that on the previous occasion she had lied about his mother because Julia, before she died, had made her promise to spare Igor the awful details of her death [….] Julia had not died in hospital […] No one wanted to tell [Zina] where [Julia] was, but then one woman pointed to a sheep-pen on the steppe and said that she could be found there.”

This book is the greatest epic that was never written about Russia and communism. It covers everything from the start of communism to ~2006, and contains an incredible range of humanity (and inhumanity). I never expected such an experience from this book. The only thing comparable is William Craig’s Enemy at the Gates.

I mean this book has everything. It starts at the very beginning of Communism, and describes how children were so indoctrinated and distanced from their families (who prioritized working for the Soviet Union over bonding with their own kids) that the Soviet Union became their surrogate parents.

It goes on to describe collectivization, the Holodomor, and the great Terror. What struck me about this section was that, in some cases, even though people knew their relatives were being arrested, they would still rationalize that their relatives were arrested for a good reason. Some of them would even become informers and get other people arrested prove their loyalty to the Soviet Union. Later on after Stalin’s death, some of these informers would seek out the people they had betrayed and somehow try to make amends.

From there, the book goes on to describe World War II, the massive amount of people sent to prison camps, and then the war’s aftermath, when those people were released, and sometimes still held fond memories of their time in prison (as a coping mechanism).

Overall, this book was great. Most of all, it was great at showing peoples’ kindness and cruelty, and how humanity and inhumanity could sometimes even live within the same person.

In other words, read this book.