I Read, Without Sleep

During a break from work, I took out a book from the library yesterday, and finished reading it today. The only problem is I went to bed late and wound up waking up early. As a result, I only got 5 hours of sleep, about the same amount as the book’s writer got while he was serving his literary apprenticeship…

No Mentor But Myself by Jack London

“And without the strong central thread of a working philosophy, how can you make order out of chaos? How can your foresight and insight be clear? How can you have a quantitative and qualitative perception of the relative importance of every scrap of knowledge you possess? And without all this how can you possibly be yourself? How can you have something fresh for the jaded ear of the world? The only way of gaining this philosophy is by seeking it, by drawing the materials which go to compose it from the knowledge and culture of the world.”

This book is very short (192 pages). Well, I guess it isn’t that short, but it felt short. It’s a collection of essays and correspondences written by Jack London about writing (from his start in 1899 onwards). It’s interesting to read, but if you’ve ever read Martin Eden most of it is similar.

Even if you have read Martin Eden, there’s another point of interest about No Mentor But Myself. You see London’s style develop. He goes from spewing out so many adjectives that the reader can’t possibly take him seriously (“Not only has he gone down into the soil, into the womb of the passionate earth, yearning for motherhood, for sustenance of nations; but he has gone down into the heart of its people, simple, elemental, prone to the ruder amenities of existence”) to refining his style so it loses some adjectives and gains its power (“Then the book [Sinclair’s The Jungle] was published, and here it is, a story of human destruction, of poor broken cogs in the remorseless grind of the industrial machine”).

I used to think that great writers came fully-fledged into the world, like Athena bursting forth from the forehead of Zeus. This book has proven otherwise. At its beginning, London is a horrendous writer. At its end, he’s amazing.

The secret? Hard work: “I worked many a long month nineteen hours a day, without sleep.” (He died young though, partially because of the burnout, so don’t try this at home).

Overall, No Mentor But Myself is a great introduction to London as a writer (in terms of his thoughts on writing). This book inspired me to start on his collection of correspondences. Maybe it will inspire you to greatness (but not to burnout).

Hopefully, I’ll be back with more book reviews and thoughts soon. If not, know that it’s because I’m working–hopefully less than nineteen hours a day.

I Read, and Reflect Upon the Horrors of War

 

Enemy

Before my new semester starts, I’m back with a book I bought four days ago and just finished now:

Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad* by William Craig

“On New Year’s Eve, discipline in the revitalized Sixty-second Army relaxed and, along the shore, high-ranking Soviet officers held a series of parties to honor actors, musicians, and ballerinas visiting Stalingrad to entertain the troops. One of the troupe members, violinist Mikhail Goldstein, stayed away and went instead into the trenches to perform another of his one-man concerts for the soldiers [….] The horrible battlefield shocked Goldstein and he played as he never played before, hour after hour for men who obviously loved his music. And while all German works had been banned by the Soviet government, Goldstein doubted that any commissar would protest on New Year’s Eve. The melodies he created drifted out through the loudspeakers to the German trenches and the shooting suddenly ceased. In the eerie quiet, the music flowed from Goldstein’s dipping bow. When he finished, a hushed silence hung over the Russian soldiers. From another loudspeaker, in German territory, a voice broke the spell. In halting Russian it pleaded: ‘Play some more Bach. We won’t shoot.’ Goldstein picked up his violin and started a lively Bach Gavotte.”

Enemy at the Gates is a historical account of the Battle of Stalingrad which was written by a man who spent five years researching his material, traveling across continents and interviewing hundreds of Stalingrad survivors from the German, Russian, and Italian sides of the war.

This book is horrible. Not horrible in the sense that it is horribly-written. Quite the opposite. Instead, the book gains its horror from the author’s meticulousness in documenting various experiences of the battle. In the introduction, you are told that Stalingrad resulted in a massive death-count, and the author cites easily-forgettable statistics. Then you read on. You learn how the fates of so many depended on the decisions of incompetent leaders and broken bureaucracies, you read in precise and unforgiving detail about the suffering of people on both sides of the conflict, and you can no longer forget.

The blurb on the book’s cover says it’s a “haunting reading experience,” which is absolutely true. In the beginning, you wind up feeling sorry for the Russians. In the middle, you wind up feeling sorry for the Germans. In the end, you wind up feeling sorry for both sides and wishing wars didn’t exist– the Battle of Stalingrad drove people to insanity, suicide, and cannibalism.

Needless to say, the book does not make for light reading. However, it does make for powerful and important reading. If you can bring yourself to confront the horrors within, you will come out the other side with a massively-enriched perspective on life.

*To some of you, this book’s title might sound familiar. If so, you might be thinking of the Jude Law movie, “Enemy at the Gates” which this book partially inspired. The movie has a fantastic soundtrack, but the inclusion of a love triangle seems to me to cheapen its impact. Better to read the book.

In the coming months, I may be unable to post with regularity due to a huge workload, but I will likely be able to post some. Keep an eye out for future reviews and thoughts. In the meantime, if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, I ‘d love to hear your thoughts.

 

I Read, and Reflect on Russian and Central Asian Lit

Stalker

Hello world! After conquering my final exams, I’m back with more book reviews.

I’ve been reading a lot of literature from Central Asia and Russia, including the book that inspired the movie that inspired the GIF image above (see if you can guess the movie).

Here we go!

Tale of the Troika by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Favorite Quote: “You don’t understand the simplest things, Fedya. Every species has its own dream, historically formed and passed down from generation to generation. the realization of such a dream is what is usually termed a great achievement. Humans have had two such dreams: one was to fly, arising from their envy of insects, and the other to travel to the sun, arising from their ignorance of the distance to the sun. But it cannot be expected that different species, not to mention different classes and phyla, should have the same Great Idea. It would be absurd to imagine that flies dream from generation to generation of free flight, that octopuses dream of the ocean depths, and that we bedbugs– Cimex lectularius– dream of the sun, which we cannot tolerate. Everyone dreams of an unattainable goal that promises pleasure.”

What a book. Let’s see if I can explain what it’s about.

Basically, there’s an elevator in an institute. Among the floors it can travel to is one that contains all of the phenomena and entities that are not explainable by rational science. The institute wants to travel there to conduct scientific research. There’s only one problem: a bureaucratic committee accidentally wound up on that floor. That committee is called “The Troika on the Rationalization and Utilization of Unexplained Phenomena,” and its members have meetings about inexplicable entities and jointly decide to eradicate them. This anti-scientific insanity does not sit well with the institute, which sends two people to try and bring reason to the committee. Also, the book has talking bedbugs.

It’s supposed to be a satire on Soviet bureaucracy. Though parts of it were interesting (like the quoted bit), I found it somewhat confusing to follow. Maybe other readers won’t.

The Silent Steppe: The Story of a Kazakh Nomad Under Stalin by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov

Favorite Quote: “I am writing this memoir for the rising generation in order to give them some idea of what their grandparents’ lives were like, and what they endured during a certain period of our country’s history. It is important for them to realize, too, that people can get through any ordeal as long as they persevere, and have some notion of what they want to achieve in life.”

This book is great. It’s about a nomad in a Central Asian country called Kazakhstan:

Kazakhstan Political Map 2000

Kazakhstan is filled with steppes, and used to be filled with nomads. However, due to its proximity to Russia, it was forced into the USSR in the 1900s, and subsequent collectivization threatened the nomadic traditions of its people. Soviet mismanagement also caused a massive famine which killed a lot of Kazakhs. To top it off, the USSR drafted soldiers from Kazakhstan to fight in World War II during the Battle of Stalingrad.

The author grew up during all of this. It’s worth mentioning that he also had to herd 1,000 sheep around the steppes when he was only eight, and had to make long perilous journeys alone on horseback when he was nine.

Although it was fascinating to learn about his life, the book’s main source of awesomeness derived from the author’s ability to highlight the humanity of everyone involved, like when he wrote about a Russian watchman who prevented him from harvesting food from a field when he was starving. About this, the author wrote, “We discovered that he was not to blame for being so obstructive.” It was the rules he had to obey– “that was why he chased people away, even though he realised how ridiculous and mean it seemed.”

In sum: read the book. It’s not the most poetic, but it puts life (and people) into perspective.

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Favorite Quote: “Meanness and treachery. They let me down in this too, they left me speechless, the bastards. A bum– I was always a bum, and now I’m an old bum. It’s not right, do you hear me? In the future, for once and for all, it should be outlawed! Man is born in order to think (there he is, old Kirill at last!). Only I don’t believe it. I didn’t believe it before and I don’t believe it now. And I don’t know what man is born for. I was born. So here I am. People eat whatever they can. Let all of us be healthy and let all of them drop dead. Who is us and who are they? I don’t understand a thing.”

Have you guessed yet? This is the book that inspired the movie* that inspired the GIF.

The premise of the book is that extraterrestrials visited Earth and left behind a dangerous “Zone” of alienness. They never returned. Human scavengers, called “Stalkers” illegally infiltrate the Zone at risk to themselves and their families. One of these Stalkers is named Redrick Schuhart, and the book focuses on his adventures in the Zone.

This book is very emotionally compelling at times. It also feels somewhat incomplete. The writers build up a whole external scenario that motivates Red to travel into the Zone despite the tragedies it causes in his life. The writers imply that there will be a point where activities in the Zone will resolve the external scenario. However, the two never seem to link back together in the end.

Also, the second chapter (which I thought was the best chapter in the whole book) is told in the first-person, but the rest of the book is told in the third-person. I’m still trying to figure out why…

Regardless, the book is worth a read.

*A quick note on the movie: It’s a classic Russian film called Stalker, by Andrei Tarkovsky (with the Strugatsky brothers writing the screenplay). It is much more satisfying than the book, but less emotionally compelling.

YESSS

I hope you enjoyed my reviews. Let me know if you guessed the movie, or if you read any of these books. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Comedy in Tragedy and Yellows in Blues

Happy almost New Year! I hope you’re all enjoying the last few days of 2019!

I recently read this essay online (the Lehigh University link) about comedy in Eugene O’Neill’s tragic play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”

The paper’s writer says that a lot of people focus on the pathos of the play–which I won’t spoil because you should read it for yourself–but don’t consider the role of comedy.

In “Long Day’s Journey”, the paper’s writer asserts that comedy serves to humanize the characters. This makes them, and their reactions to their tragic situation, more convincing and compelling.

This idea reminded me of how painters, in painting a picture, use a lot of colors. That sounds obvious. But they use them in such a way as to promote contrast. For instance, there’s a yellowish layer in Winslow Homer’s 1880 painting, “Boys in a Dory.”

It seems counterintuitive to use yellow in painting a nautical scene. However, when combined with the painting’s blue hues, the yellow serves as a contrast that gives the painting a new dimension and makes it more convincing and compelling.

Similarly, comedy serves to contrast with the tragedy in O’Neill’s play. This contrast gives the characters more nuance and makes them more realistic, which increases the compelling nature of their tragic situation.

In writing, comedy doesn’t just have to be comic relief–it can also play a key role in giving extra dimension to a work and deepening its power.

I hope I gave some insight into this technique. It sounds fascinating, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

I Read, and Contemplate the Lives of Great Writers

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah!

I’m back with three more books I’ve read. They’re all about great American writers who lived around the 1920s.

The Young Hemingway by Michael Reynolds

“At night and in the early mornings when he could not sleep, [Hemingway] wrote fiction that Red Book and Saturday Evening Post would not buy. Each time a story came back, he reworked it, changing bits and pieces to send it out again. Most of the new stories were from the Italian war, using the Dolomite mountain setting that he had known briefly […] His war continued to be a grand adventure filled with funny characters. Archibald MacLeish would later call it ‘a war of parades, speeches, brass bands, bistros, boredom, terror, anguish, heroism, endurance, humor, death… It was a human war.’ In the winter of 1920, cynicism had not yet destroyed American illusions of having fought to make the world safe for democracy. Hemingway, assuming for his own the heroism of others, was not yet capable of writing about the war either honestly or objectively, and the country was not ready to read about it.”

This book is good at getting to the bones of Hemingway’s fiction: Its inspirations, and its development over time– all the way from ripping off Rudyard Kipling by including cheesy-sounding lines like, “But there were men in those days on whose inner personality alcohol had no more effect than a sluicing of the pyramids with vinegar would have on the caskets within” to beginning to develop his own style through repetition and pith. Although this book covers from 1919 to 1921, the book does jump around a bit in time, which can be confusing. For instance, in a chapter titled “Spring, 1921,” don’t be surprised if the book takes a long detour into 1914. Finally, this book is the first in a five-volume set of biographies. I’m not sure if I’ll read all three, but I’d be interested to read the second. This first one ends right before Hemingway goes to Paris to begin his transformation from no-name writer to famous author.

A Short Autobiography by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“My idea is always to reach my generation. The wise writer, I think, writes for the youth of his own generation, the critic of the next and the schoolmasters of ever afterward. Granted the ability to improve what he imitates in the way of style, to choose from his own interpretation of the experiences around him what constitutes material, and we get the first-water genius.”

So this was a funny story. I was in the bookstore with this book and the previously-reviewed Hemingway book. I was debating between which of these two books I should buy. Then I started reading the Fitzgerald one and was so engrossed in it that I bought it and finished it before leaving the bookstore. It’s basically a compilation of essays Fitz wrote. He had intended to write an autobiography but died before he could. Even so, this book is a better read than F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing, because it’s more complete and cohesive– it’s not just a bunch of quotes picked up out of random places. The wisdom is unified, and that, along with Fitzgerald’s surprisingly engaging tone, makes this book a worthy read.

Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe by David Herbert Donald

“For the first time in months he was able to think clearly about his future as a writer. ‘I’m glad I’m alive,’ he assured Aline [Bernstein] after his wounds began to heal. ‘I’ve meant to lead a good life, and I’ve led a bad and wasteful one. But out of all this waste and sin I believe in spite of all logic, that some beauty will come.’ ‘Rambling and chafing to get to work again,’ he began once more to believe that he had something to say that would be new and important. ‘However many millions of things and books and people there may be in the world, no one has exactly the same picture of life that I have,’ he was confident; ‘no one can make the same kind of picture as I can– whether it be bad or good.'”

After re-reading Look Homeward, Angel over the summer I bought this all the way back in September and have been staying up late against my better judgment every night to read it. I once fell asleep reading it. Anyway, it’s about the author Thomas Wolfe. It won a Pulitzer Prize, and it totally deserved it. I felt like I truly knew Wolfe when I was through with it. Interestingly, it is probably due to how often the author quotes Wolfe that gives this impression. As seen in my quote above, most of it is taken up by Wolfe’s own words. However, that makes for a very rich biography.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my reviews. I’ll be back soon with more things to say. I’ve been on a mean reading streak during this break and I can’t wait to share what I’ve been consuming!

John Irving’s Bears

It’s great to be back! I have been super-busy with classes and so I couldn’t post much. I will post more now because there is a break.

There’s an interesting Guardian article that’s about to celebrate its 10-year anniversary come 2020. Here’s the link:

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/jan/11/fiction-johnirving

The reason this article is so interesting is that it raises a question about the merits of “self-ripping-off” across a writer’s body of work.

The writer says that the author John Irving repeats elements from his work from book to book (there’s always a bear for instance) even if it doesn’t seem relevant to the story being told.

I’ve only read one book by Irving so I can’t speak to the relevancy of bears, but the author of the article does raise a question that seems relevant to writers in general:

Do these recurring themes have a wider point? Are they a sign of mischief? A checklist for trainspotter fans? Or simply a tic, a mark of laziness?

Is ripping off one’s own work laziness?

I say, not necessarily.

Pushkin wrote a lot about duels, for instance, but compare his short story “The Shot” with his novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin, and you’ll see that although both had duels, the duels weren’t contrived into the story because Pushkin lacked originality. The duels were needed to tell the stories, and Pushkin had something new to say about each duel.

The author of the article makes a similar point: authors can “find more mileage” out of familiar elements by bringing a new perspective to them.

As I write more short stories that share similar ideas, I ask myself if I’m ripping myself off. I think about John Irving’s bears, and how it does not matter whether John Irving includes bears in all of his stories as long as he needs them to tell the story. Finally, I decide that it does not matter if I repeat elements across my work, as long as I say something new about them.

I hope you enjoyed my thoughts. If you’ve ever read Irving, let me know. In the meantime, happy holidays!

I Read, and Make Up For The Past With Works Of Timeless Wisdom

I reviewed only one book last time. To make up for it, I’m reviewing three books of timeless wisdom, one of which is 700+ pages (no, it’s not the Dictionary).

I’ll review them in size-order, from smallest to largest. To even things out a bit, the smallest one will have a ridiculously long quote, while the largest one will feature a ridiculously puny quote.

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing by Ernest Heming-F. Scott Fitzgerald, of course

“The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it.

When I lived in St. Paul and was about twelve I wrote all through every class in school in the back of my geography book and first year Latin and on the margins of themes and declensions and mathematics problems. Two years later a family congress decided that the only way to force me to study was to send me to boarding school. This was a mistake. It took my mind off my writing [….]

But in school I went off on a new tack. I saw a musical comedy called The Quaker Girl, and from that day forth my desk bulged with Gilbert & Sullivan librettos and dozens of notebooks containing the germs of dozens of musical comedies.

Near the end of my last year at school I came across a new musical-comedy score lying on top of the piano [….] and the title furnished the information that it had been presented by the Triangle Club of Princeton University.

That was enough for me. From then on the university question was settled. I was bound for Princeton.

I spent my entire Freshman year writing an operetta for the Triangle Club. To do this I failed in algebra, trigonometry, coordinate geometry and hygiene. But the Triangle Club accepted my show, and by tutoring all through a stuffy August I managed to come back a Sophomore and act in it as a chorus girl. A little after this came a hiatus. My health broke down [….] Almost my final memory before I left was of writing a last lyric on that year’s Triangle production while in bed in the infirmary with a high fever.

The next year, 1916—17, found me back in college, but by this time I had decided that poetry was the only thing worth while, so […] I spent the spring doing sonnets, ballads and rondels into the small hours. I had read somewhere that every great poet had written great poetry before he was twenty-one. I had only a year and, besides, war was impending. I must publish a book of startling verse before I was engulfed.

By autumn I was in an infantry officers’ training camp at Fort Leavenworth, with poetry in the discard and a brand-new ambition—I was writing an immortal novel. Every evening, concealing my pad behind Small Problems for Infantry, I wrote paragraph after paragraph on a somewhat edited history of me and my imagination. The outline of twenty-two chapters, four of them in verse, was made, two chapters were completed; and then I was detected and the game was up. I could write no more during study period.

This was a distinct complication. I had only three months to live—in those days all infantry officers thought they had only three months to live—and I had left no mark on the world. But such consuming ambition was not to be thwarted by a mere war. Every Saturday at one o’clock when the week’s work was over I hurried to the Officers’ Club, and there, in a corner of a roomful of smoke, conversation and rattling newspapers, I wrote a one-hundred-and-twenty-thousand-word novel on the consecutive week-ends of three months. There was no revising; there was no time for it. As I finished each chapter I sent it to a typist in Princeton.

Meanwhile I lived in its smeary pencil pages. The drills, marches and Small Problems for Infantry were a shadowy dream. My whole heart was concentrated upon my book.

I went to my regiment happy. I had written a novel. The war could now go on [….] and then the publishers wrote me that though The Romantic Egotist was the most original manuscript they had received for years they couldn’t publish it. It was crude and reached no conclusion [….]

I was absolutely unfitted to be a reporter.

Instead I became an advertising man at ninety dollars a month, writing the slogans that while away the weary hours in rural trolley cars. After hours I wrote stories—from March to June. There were nineteen altogether; the quickest written in an hour and a half, the slowest in three days. No one bought them, no one sent personal letters. I had one hundred and twenty-two rejection slips pinned in a frieze about my room. I wrote movies. I wrote song lyrics. I wrote complicated advertising schemes. I wrote poems. I wrote sketches. I wrote jokes. Near the end of June I sold one story for thirty dollars.

On the Fourth of July, utterly disgusted with myself and all the editors, I went home to St. Paul and informed family and friends that I had given up my position and had come home to write a novel. They nodded politely, changed the subject and spoke of me very gently. But this time I knew what I was doing. I had a novel to write at last, and all through two hot months I wrote and revised and compiled and boiled down. On September fifteen This Side of Paradise was accepted by special delivery.

In the next two months I wrote eight stories and sold nine. The ninth was accepted by the same magazine that had rejected it four months before [….] Then my novel came out. Then I got married. Now I spend my time wondering how it all happened.

In the words of the immortal Julius Caesar: ‘That’s all there is; there isn’t any more.’ “

I hope you enjoyed this ridiculously-long excerpt from this ridiculously-short book.

That’s what this book is–excerpts from Fitz’s letters, memoirs, etc. about how he became a writer, as well as his thoughts on writing. I just quoted the best part of the book up there for you, but the rest of it is pretty good, too. Also, apparently there’s a series of these books– I once read Ernest Hemingway on Writing, for instance.

I think these books are cool. Instead of spending months ferreting out wisdom from old musty archives, here you have a readily consumable sampling of essential wisdom.

2. A Hand to Guide Me: Legends and Leaders Celebrate The People Who Shaped Their Lives Compiled by Denzel Washington

“These days our streets are a hundred times more dangerous than they were when I was growing up in Mount Vernon, New York, in the 1960s. And our worries don’t end on the streets. Today’s children are assaulted with such a constant barrage of negative influences it’s a wonder anyone amounts to anything. But we do, don’t we? We manage. We redouble our efforts and refocus our priorities and find a way to light a positive path for our children. We rise above the world we’ve inherited, and we aim to go our parents, our teachers, our coaches, our role models one better. And our aim is true because we keep hitting our marks, time and time again.”

Although this book features stories from people like Muhammad Ali and Toni Morrison, I found the most valuable wisdom came from people who were not such household names. For instance, Antwone Fisher, a screenwriter who grew up in Cleveland Ohio, talked about how every day he’d walk through a mall that contained plaques with the names of famous people who grew up in that part of Ohio, such as that of Jesse Owens. “If they can make it big, so can I,” Fisher thought every time he walked through the mall. And he did, when he wrote the screenplay for “Antwone Fisher.”

I love the idea that anybody can become amazing if they have the determination to reach their maximum potential.

Other stories tell of people who have been inspired by their parents, their teachers, or their coaches. Bob Woodward didn’t think he would ever get to the bottom of the Watergate affair until he expressed his doubt to the owner of the Washington Post who replied, “Never? Don’t tell me never!” Then he did, and helped change history.

In sum, this heartwarming book is a good read for anybody, whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a coach, or even a student. Maybe you’ll be inspired to become amazing, too.

3. Telling Stories Compiled by Joyce Carol Oates

“In the end, we can depend only upon our own judgment and self-definition guided by our intuition in writing as in our lives.”

Disclaimer: Oates is my professor and I read this book for class, so I have to hope that my review is not biased.

Now, to business.

The book is over 700 pages long. I read it in 3 days. It basically taught me the difference between good fiction and great fiction.

There are 121-ish stories in this book and only four or so are great. The rest are really good. This is my opinion, of course. I doubt anybody else reading it would have the same thoughts.

Highlights for me included Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” (great), William Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun” (great), Richard Ford’s “Communist” (great), William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force” (great), Tom Wayman’s “Violence” (great), Pinckney Benedict’s “The Sutton Pie Safe” (really good), Robert Taylor Junior’s “Mourning” (really good), and Russell Banks’s “Just Don’t Touch Anything” (really good).

Anyway, the great stories tend to produce a definite effect on the reader (Faulkner, Wayman) or contain fascinating depths (Hemingway, Williams, Ford). The really good stories seem like they will for sure do this, but then may not necessarily follow through all the way. That’s just my highly-subjective opinion. The greatest thing about this book (even greater than Faulkner or Hemingway, etc.) is that there are so many stories, you’re bound to find some that speak to you as being “great.”

I hope you enjoyed my reviews. I’ll be back soon with more thoughts and reviews. One thing I’ve learned from consuming all this wisdom: it’s awfully fun to read many books at once.