Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Jacques, Ibsen, and Wright

In Which I Review “Outcast of Redwall” by Brian Jacques, “The Pillars of the Community” by Henrik Ibsen, and “The Man Who Lived Underground” by Richard Wright.

Hello! I just turned twenty yesterday (which is exciting and scary). As promised, I’ve reviewed three books for you this week.

Outcast of Redwall, by Brian Jacques

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“Bryony got down from the arm of the chair. ‘No, Bella, I don’t know anybeast who is evil. A little naughty maybe, but not bad or evil. I think that others can drive a creature to naughtiness, always accusing and blaming them. After a while it must make the creature unhappy and drive him–or her–to be naughty because nobody expects them to be good. That’s what I think.'”

This is supposed to be a book about the kid of a evil ferret warlord who is abandoned and is taken in by the good beasts of Redwall, and has to choose between redemption and betrayal. Except the whole book is basically about a badger instead, who is the evil ferret warlord’s sworn enemy.

The ferret kid didn’t even get any real development as a character, whereas the badger’s story turned out to be much more interesting (and better-written). This is sad because the story could have been stronger had Jacques elaborated more on the ferret kid’s interiority. Also, the badger and the ferret kid had similar life-situations (being separated/estranged from their parents), which would’ve made such character-development even more interesting.

Since the ferret kid didn’t get any interiority, the ending didn’t make any logical sense. Also, characters suddenly went from being die-hard believers in XYZ to suddenly thinking ABC even though events would logically have caused them to exclaim “Aha! I knew XYZ was correct all this time!”

I won’t spoil what happens, but it made the good abbey of Redwall feel more like a dystopia than the utopia Brian Jacques seemed keen for it to be.

Overall, I would not recommend this book. I’d recommend Jacques’s Taggerung instead– it has a similar plot about the kid of an evil warlord, but it’s much better-focused, much better-told, and much more logical.

“The Pillars of the Community,” by Henrik Ibsen

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“MISS HESSEL: And you call yourselves the pillars of the community.
BERNICK: The community has nothing better to support it.
MISS HESSEL: Then what does it matter whether such a community is supported or not? what is it that counts here? The sham and the lie, nothing else. Here are you, the first man in the town, living in splendour and happiness, in power and honor– you, who have branded an innocent man a criminal.”

This Ibsen play is about a man who runs a shipbuilding business. He has dark secrets from his past that he tries to keep, even if it might mean betraying the people he loves.

It was very entertaining due to its character-portrayals– Character A saw himself as upright, even as Ibsen showed why that character was not really so upright within the very dialogue that the character was saying to prove his uprightness.

The story was also unexpectedly suspenseful. Ibsen was great at raising stakes. He wasn’t afraid to let crazy things happen to his characters, which surprised me after reading the relatively-tame “A Doll’s House.”

However, the ending felt a little anticlimactic. Even so, I’d recommend reading it.

The Man Who Lived Underground, by Richard Wright

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“Outside of time and space, he looked down upon the earth and saw that each fleeting day was a day of dying, that men died slowly with each passing moment as much as they did in war, that human grief and sorrow were utterly insufficient to this vast, dreary spectacle.”

This is a book about a Black man who gets accused for a crime he didn’t commit. He hides in the sewers where he discovers he could chip away at brick walls to secretly enter bank-vaults and other such places. He’s able to rob people without any consequences, but then he winds up seeing others being accused of the crimes he committed…

Wright’s a genius. His book reminded me of Kavan’s Ice in its near-allegorical nature. Even so, Underground had much more meaning than an allegory– objects could be symbols of ABC, but they could just as easily be symbols of XYZ, and the ability to interpret the story in many different ways gave it a lot of power.

The protagonist’s psychology was also fascinating. It’s easy to compare him to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, but Wright’s protagonist was somehow more interesting. I can’t explain why. Maybe because Dostoyevsky was portraying a stagnant protagonist– he was a mean man with a liver problem, and the whole story was just to explain that he was a mean man with a liver problem. In contrast, Wright’s character developed, and the whole story portrayed that development.

Anyway, definitely read this book. Then reread it. Then rereread it. Then read some more Wright. Then reread…

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Szabó

In Which I Review Magda Szabó’s “Abigail.”

Hello! I hope you’re well. I’ve read four books this week but I’m only reviewing one today for time-reasons. I’ll review two of the others next week, along with a surprise book.

Abigail, By Magda Szabó, Translated by Len Rix

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[…] through one of the opened windows a tune could be heard, a tune coming from somewhere down in Matula Street, at the front of the building. It was a repeated triple blast on a motor horn, a motor horn on which, in a far-off world, a happier world across the oceans, a world beyond the Seven Seas, a father was sending a message to his daughter. Gina my child, Gina my child, the motor horn called out merrily each time he pressed it. Gina my child, ran the cheerful refrain, again and again, ever more insistently, until it seemed not in the least happy or merry but appallingly, overwhelmingly sad.”

In Abigail, 11-year-old Gina is sent to a boarding school by her widower father. She is sad because she misses him and doesn’t understand why he has to send her away. In actuality, he is sending her away because it’s World War II, he is an underground fighter trying to get the German army out of Hungary, and he doesn’t want his enemies to use Gina against him if he gets captured. So begins the story of Gina fighting her classmates and trying to run away, until she learns about her father’s secret and has to grow up. And maybe if she prays to that mysterious statue called Abigail, things will get better.

This book was good. I felt very invested in the characters, especially Gina. Even though she could have easily been portrayed as an unsympathetic brat, Szabó was somehow able to avoid this trap. Apparently, understanding a bratty-seeming character’s motives enough results in her not being so bratty. That was great.

The story itself was well-written. The book-jacket described it as a cross between Harry Potter and Jane Austen’s Emma. The book was compelling like Harry Potter was. However, there was very, very obvious foreshadowing about the story’s central mystery.

As I was reading, I was wondering about this foreshadowing– did the author really expect readers not to figure out the mystery? Would the entire book just be a build-up to revealing the mystery’s solution, even though it was made obvious early on? Yes.

That made the book feel anticlimactic, and the explicit giving away of the ending earlier on also meant there were no other mysteries to wonder about.

Maybe I’m just getting jaded from reading so much and becoming good at guessing plot-points early, so don’t take my review as the absolute truth about how obvious the foreshadowing was. The story itself was still very entertaining (there’s a reason this is a very popular book in Hungary), so I’d still recommend it.

Have you read this book? Ever have an interesting experience with authorial foreshadowing? Comment below!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kavan, Wooding, and Ibsen

In Which I Review Anna Kavan’s “Ice,” Chris Wooding’s “Storm Thief,” and Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe (and hopefully getting vaccinated). I’ve reviewed three books for you this week.

Ice, by Anna Kavan

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“I was more interested in closer details. Piles of stones, coils of wire, concrete blocks and other materials for dealing with the coming emergency. Hoping to see something that would provide a clue to the nature of the expected crisis, I went nearer the edge, looked down at the unprotected drop at my feet. ‘Take care!’ he warned, laughing. ‘You could easily slip here, or lose your balance. The perfect spot for a murder, I always think.’ His laugh sounded so peculiar that I turned to look at him. He came up to me saying, ‘Suppose I give you a little push, like this.'”

Will the protagonist survive? Won’t he? Read the book to find out.

The book itself is about a guy who’s going around the world in search of a girl. The Girl is being confined by an abusive dictator-like figure called the Warden (yes they names are capitalized). Meanwhile, the world is slowly becoming covered by ice (like it does whenever Earth becomes a snowball). Also, during this whole book, the protagonist is on medications that make him hallucinate entire scenes. But it gets better. Even though the protagonist is trying to save the Girl from the Warden, the protagonist might turn out to be just as cruel as the Warden…

This is a very underrated book. Basically, Kavan’s a genius.

What makes her a genius is that in spite of the sometimes-confusing hallucinations, she was still able to develop the book’s intellectual ideas very clearly. Also, unlike some other great writers like Joseph Roth, Anna Kavan was actually able to pace her narrative and her ideas in a way that allowed them to develop throughout the book instead of shoving a thesis at us right away and using the rest of the book to repeat that same point without developing it further. So for instance, it’s clear that lemurs are a symbol for salvation, but it’s not explicitly clear what that salvation entails until the protagonist encounters lemurs later on and has to make a decision about them.

This lack of thematic dogmatism also meant that instead of the protagonist being shoehorned into thematically-convenient coincidences (as in Roth), Kavan let him figure things out for himself, which made for a more human (and actually a more thematically-powerful) ending.

So considering that aspects of Kavan’s book are arguably better-written than Roth’s classic (since it achieves something even he couldn’t do), shouldn’t Kavan’s book also be considered a classic?

It should be. It has intellectual depth, it’s told with compassion, and it’s written extremely well. Obviously this is just my subjective take on Kavan’s book, and Roth may not be the best comparison to make, but hopefully it gives a general sense of how good Kavan was, and why you should read her book for yourself.

(More on Kavan, and Ice).

Storm Thief, by Chris Wooding

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“The golem gazed at her for a time. ‘I think I was made to be a killer,’ he said. Moa put her hand on the back of his. It was cold. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘I saw you. It’s okay.’ Vago was shocked, not only at her reaction, but at the fact that she was voluntarily touching him. ‘Aren’t you scared?’ he asked. ‘Of you?’ she said, and laughed softly. ‘I’m not scared of you, Vago. We’re both outcasts, you and I. We should stick together.'”

This book was one of the best books I read in middle school and it still holds up pretty well now. It’s about a boy named Rail and a girl named Moa who live in the island city of Orokos, stealing in exchange for protection from their boss. Upon filching a mysterious artifact, they realize its powers could help them finally leave criminal life behind, so they betray their boss and run away. With the help of a golem, they have to escape probability storms (storms which could rearrange whole streets, turn people into glass, etc.), a totalitarian government, and (least importantly) their boss’s wrath.

Anyway, so this book was pretty good. Yes, some minor plot-twists were just rip-offs of popular tropes, but most of the story felt original enough for that to not matter as much. Also, some of the non-tropey twists were actually still surprising.

Yes, some characters weren’t developed as much as they could have been (Rail’s whole mission in life was to protect Moa, but surely people are more complicated than that). Even so, the characters felt developed enough for parts of the book to have emotional impact.

And yes, sometimes the dialogue was too on-the-nose about themes (along the lines of “the power of friendship never works!”). The good news is that Wooding was very good at integrating setting and all the other aspects of his book into substantiating the themes he was expressing. Details about the world weren’t just scattered in to make the setting seem exotic– they’d go on to be developed to have some thematic resonance. Also, since the setting informed the themes, the story’s ideas went deeper than “two kids discover XYZ” to “society itself is this way partly because of XYZ.”

So in spite of its flaws, I’d still recommend this book because it has something to say and it says it in an entertaining and powerful way.

“A Doll’s House,” by Henrik Ibsen,
Translated by R. Farquharson Sharp

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“HELMER: I’d gladly work night and day for you, Nora, and endure sorrow and poverty for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honor for the one he loves.
NORA: Hundreds of thousands of women have done it.”

This play is about a man named Torvald and his wife Nora. They’re happily married, except for the fact that Torvald bases his sense of self on the idea that his wife is a helpless little “songbird” who he has to always take care of. Meanwhile, Nora has gone into debt for the sake of secretly paying for Torvald’s tuberculosis treatment. Now she has to figure out how to secretly get herself out of debt without ruining Torvald’s sense of self.

I read this play back in high school and I liked it. Rereading it was more interesting. I was better able to appreciate just how much strength Nora had and how much Torvald underestimated her.

I also thought that the side-characters were well-drawn. Krogstad (the man Nora was in debt to) could’ve just been portrayed as the antagonist. However, since Torvald was the one really causing all the problems in the play, Ibsen’s decision to portray Krogstad sympathetically helped show how much of a jerk Torvald was by contrast.

Chekhov said the characters in Ibsen don’t talk like real people. I agree. But what made Ibsen’s dialogue good anyway was the fact that the characters all kept secrets from each other. A lot of the play was just Nora trying hard to keep her husband from learning she was in debt. With other characters either trying to help her keep the secret or reveal it to her husband, the dialogue basically had no choice but to be good as a result.

Also, the dialogue helped a lot to keep the plot moving. If the main problem seemed like it was at risk of being sidelined by irrelevant conversation, another character would burst in and say something like, “Nora! Now that you’ve refused to pay me, I wrote a letter about your debt!” to bring it back into focus.

This was probably what Ibsen was best at. He kept the tension up and moved the plot along through character dialogue, and that dialogue flowed wonderfully because it was a consequence of previous choices made by the characters.

Finally, considering the fact that Ibsen was a man writing this in 1879, he wrote a pretty good piece of feminism, too.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Comment below!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Saunders, Dunsany, and Ellison

In Which I Review George Saunders’s “Fox 8,” Lord Dunsany’s “The King of Elfland’s Daughter,” and Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog”

Hello! Below, I’ve briefly reviewed the three books I promised you I’d review. Two are perfect for all ages, while the last one absolutely isn’t.

Fox 8, by George Saunders, Illustrated by Chelsea Cardinal

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“Dear Reeder:
First may I say, sorry for any werds I spel rong. Because I am a fox! So don’t rite or spel perfect. But here is how I lerned to rite and spel as gud as I do!”

Fox 8 was a fun, short read. It’s good for all ages (probably), and is about a literate fox (named Fox 8) who’s enthralled with the world of humans. The only problem is that his fox friends are less enthusiastic. Will our hero be able to convince them to befriend the two-legs?

The book’s idea was cute and the illustrations were fun, but the story didn’t really say much of substance. If you’re looking to read something like this, Fox 8 is perfect for you!

If not, you might want to read something else…

The King of Elfland’s Daughter, by Lord Dunsany

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“And late in the night they all rose up together to go back to their homes, and all kept close together as they went, and sang grave old songs to affright the things that they feared; though little the light trolls care, or the will-o’-the-wisps, for the things that are grave to man. And when only one was left he ran to his house, and the will-o’-the-wisps chased him.”

In The King of Elfland’s Daughter, a king from the mortal realm must go to Elfland to get an elf bride so that the people of his kingdom could experience magic. So he goes and gets his bride (who’s the daughter of the King of Elfland). However, she doesn’t really like how he keeps trying to convert her to his religion…

I really enjoyed this story’s wit and descriptions, which is something I usually don’t enjoy the most in books. In this case, they were hilarious and made the book feel magical.

The story was also very thoughtful. You could do a whole literary analysis on what different aspects of it symbolize (less recommended), or you could just read it and enjoy it (highly recommended).

If you’ve never heard of this book before, think of it as the grandparent of Joanne Harris’s Runemarks. They feel similar and talk about a lot of similar ideas, except Dunsany’s is much shorter and doesn’t have Norse gods in it.

If you haven’t heard of either, just trust me and read Dunsany for yourself.

A Boy and His Dog, by Harlan Ellison

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[About the dog having taught the protagonist to read]: “(the reading’s a pretty good thing. It comes in handy when you can find some canned goods someplace, like in a bombed-out supermarket; makes it easier to pick out stuff you like when the pictures are gone off the labels. Couple of times the reading stopped me from taking canned beets. Shit, I hate beets!)”

You probably wouldn’t like this book if you don’t like obscenities, violence, or otherwise unsettling content.

That being said, A Boy and His Dog is about what it says it’s about, except that it takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the dog’s telepathic, and he helps the boy find girls to have sex with. When the boy starts falling in love with one of the girls, an interspecies love-triangle ensues…

Basically, read this book for its ending. That’s what makes the story good (and thought-provoking). It feels kind of rushed, but it’s still effective, and I’m not spoiling any of it here.

If you get the version of this book with Ellison’s essay about his own dog, that just makes the experience even richer.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Hosseini

In Which I Review “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini

Hello! I’ve read four books for this week but because of time-constraints I’m going to keep you in suspense and only review one of them. You may have heard of it…

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

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[About a story the protagonist wrote about a man whose tears became pearls:] “‘Well,’ he said, ‘if I may ask, why did the man kill his wife? In fact, why did he ever have to feel sad to shed tears? Why couldn’t he have just smelled an onion?’ I was stunned. That particular point, so obvious it was utterly stupid, hadn’t even occurred to me. I moved my lips soundlessly. It appeared that on the same night I had learned about one of writing’s objectives, irony, I would also be introduced to one of its pitfalls: the Plot Hole.”

The Kite Runner is about a boy named Amir whose best friend is named Hassan. Amir and Hassan grow up together in Afghanistan, but after an un-namable plot-twist, Amir must redeem himself…

I’m wary of bestsellers, but The Kite Runner was actually a good book, probably because the author put a lot of time and effort into it.

He took the time to get to know his characters, for instance. So he learned their fears and secrets and was able to depict them with a lot of psychological depth. At the same time, he also didn’t reduce them to a single completely-understandable dynamic– “all you’ll ever need to know about Character A is that he’s insecure because his dad never pays attention to him.” Hosseini’s version of Character A would be that and a few other hopes and insecurities, and things that probably don’t show up on the page but that inform his actions anyway.

Hosseini was also very compassionate towards his protagonist, which was impressive considering what happens in the book. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this except to say that it’s obvious when an author holds his/her characters at a distance because it also creates distance between the character and the reader. In Hosseini’s case, there was none of this distance.

So, due to the great characters, the good plot, and the author’s ability to be interesting, the book wound up having an ending that was actually emotionally-satisfying.

However, the middle sagged. Hosseini didn’t include as much interiority as in the beginning. He also seemed to underuse some of the characters he focused on in this section. They were basically just stepping-stones for him to get to the next plot-point (which turned out to be a huge coincidence). Finally, the villain of the story felt more like a cartoon character than a fully fleshed-out human. Yes, he definitely did evil things, but considering the author’s gift for understanding his characters on a human level, it seemed like Hosseini missed another opportunity by not nuancing the villain as well.

Overall though, it was entertaining to read, and I would recommend it. If you’ve already read it, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Teffi, Asemkulov, and Pushkin

Hello! I hope you’re enjoying your summer. I’ve read three books this week. They’re all short, so my reviews of them will be short, too. Enjoy!

Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi, by Teffi,
Edited by Robert Chandler and Anne Marie Jackson

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“Also, Liza’s family had four golden grand pianos at home, but they were hidden in the hayloft, so that nobody could see them. Also, nobody ever ate dinner at Liza’s house. Instead, there was a big cupboard in the hall that was always full of roast chickens. If anyone was hungry, all he had to do was to poke his head into the cupboard, eat a chicken, and go on his way. Also, Liza had fourteen velvet dresses, but she only wore them at night so that nobody would see them. In the daytime she hid them in the kitchen under the big pot they used for making pastry.”

This is a book that I was interested in ever since I read this article about her in The Paris Review. A writer as great as Chekhov? Yes!

This book contains various stories and reminiscences by Teffi. Given the praise in the above article, I foolishly thought that every story in the book would be as good as or better than Chekhov’s “The Lady With The Dog.” Well, they weren’t, except for “Staging Posts,” which I thought was the best story in the collection, and “The Merezhkovskys” which was a very well-done sketch of two writers that Teffi met.

The other stories were pretty good, though, and the book as a whole was entertaining and recommendable.

A Life at Noon, by Talasbek Asemkulov,
Translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega

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“He crossed the river of life with his thoughts, and also with the troubles, the pain, the joys of other people. He accepted every sunrise as a gift from Tengri. To be a man, you must survive many things. Being a man is a first requirement for any form of art. His father was a man who knew his own worth. Someone who knows his worth and can lift up another person, lift up all the people.”

This book was so good. I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

It’s about a boy named Azhigerei who grows up in Soviet-era Kazakhstan and learns to play the dombra from his father. It’s also the first post-Soviet novel from Kazakhstan that was translated into English.

I thought it was very good because it had a lot of interesting ideas, engaging situations, super-vivid characters, and a huge emotional impact. Also, the execution was great. For instance, someone like Dostoyevsky could ramble on forever about intellectual ideas and bore certain readers, but someone like Asemkulov could do the same and make readers care.

So I’d highly recommend this book.

Tales, by Alexander Pushkin, Illustrated by Oleg Zotov

I read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin but I never really appreciated how good he was at rhyming until I read this book.

The stories were entertaining, too (especially “Tsar Dadon”), and the illustrations were fun to look at.

So if you’re looking for a super-short read that’s great for all ages, I’d definitely recommend Pushkin’s Tales.

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Salih, Yakhina, and Cortázar

In Which I Review Books by Tayeb Salih, Guzel Yakhina, and Julio Cortázar

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you’re all healthy and safe and vaccinated (or soon-to-be-vaccinated!) I’ve read three more books for this week…

The Wedding of Zein And Other Stories, by Tayeb Salih,
translated by Denys Johnson-Davies,

illustrated by Ibrahim Salahi

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“Zein was first slain by love when he had still not attained manhood. He was thirteen or fourteen at the time and was as thin and emaciated as a dried-up stalk.”

Tayeb Salih is known as one of Sudan’s greatest writers. The Wedding of Zein helps to explain why.

Zein is a book about a guy named Zein who gets married in Sudan. It’s short, and the version I read has two stories that come with it (“The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid” and “A Handful of Dates.”)

I personally enjoyed the stories more than I enjoyed Zein, but that’s only because I thought the stories were great while I thought Zein was just very good.

In Zein, Salih was good at evoking characters with nuances and quirks. The story’s plot was also intriguing. For some reason though, I found the ending to be much more interesting than the book’s beginning or middle. It left me with a lot more to think about, maybe. Had the beginning and middle been more interesting (which is super-subjective anyway), I would have probably enjoyed Zein as much as the two stories that went along with it.

Even so, I would still recommend reading this book.

Zuleikha, by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden

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“The egg was almost transparent, with a touch of light iridescence. Through its shining walls, which reached to chin level, Leibe saw the square in front of the university gleaming with cleanliness under golden sunbeams, leisurely students smiling deferentially at him, and absolutely smooth columns glimmering with unsullied whitewash. There was no bloodstain.”

This PEN award-winning book is about a Tatar woman named Zuleikha whose husband is killed by Soviet Union officials. Then Zuleikha gets sent to Siberia where she encounters the man who killed her husband. She also encounters a bunch of other people…

The first two-thirds of this book felt to me like a better-written version of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Both authors are screenwriters, and their writing styles were similar– the books zipped along vividly and energetically. Even so, there was more interiority in Zuleikha than in the Tattooist, so I found myself sympathizing a lot more with Zuleikha’s protagonists.

Then there were some really good scenes where the protagonists had to survive the harsh winter climate of Siberia, which reminded me of scenes from another book (by Gary Paulsen) called Hatchet. Yes, Zuleikha was turning out to be a very good read…

Then came the last third of Zuleikha. Up till now, the characters had been fleshed-out people whose logical and grounded actions caused reactions which drove the plot forward.

Suddenly, they became victims of coincidences and actions that had no grounding in their previous characterization. What was really frustrating was that the author could have gotten to the same point without these coincidences. The book would have been stronger as a result.

Well, except for the anticlimactic end. The ending felt like the author was just going for the most convenient resolution rather than the one that best fit the characters’ arcs. As a result, characters wound up not really developing, and the book wound up seeming like it had lost its way.

So if you’re looking for a good book to read I probably wouldn’t recommend Zuleikha. I would recommend Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet instead, because the entirety of that book was well-written, unlike the entirety of this book (in my super-subjective opinion).

Literature Class, by Julio Cortázar,
translated by Katherine Silver

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“Having a message isn’t enough to create a novel or a short story, because that message, when it’s ideological or political, can be much better communicated in a pamphlet, an essay, or a news report. That’s not what literature is good for. Literature has other ways of conveying those messages, and can maybe even convey them with a lot more force than an article, but to do that, to have more force, it has to be great, it has to be elevated.”

This book by Julio Cortázar is a compilation of a bunch of lectures he gave at UC Berkeley in 1980. They were good, short, and not very substantial.

Compare them with Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist. Llosa had a lot more substance in terms of his discussion of fiction and craft. Cortázar just seemed to talk in generalities before reading from his short stories.

Even so, they were interesting to read for his perspective on writing and its purpose. That being said, his short stories might be a more worthwhile (and substantial) read…

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Roth, Hughes, and Nosaka

In Which I Review Joseph Roth’s “The Radetzky March,” Langston Hughes’ “Not Without Laughter” and Akiyuki Nosaka’s “The Cake Tree in the Ruins”

Hello! I hope you had a good weekend and a great start to June.

I’ve read three books. One of them was recommended to me, the other two weren’t. I would definitely recommend all three…

The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth

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“‘Do you plan to stay in the military?” [asked the Kaiser]. Hartenstein the barber had a wife and child and a prosperous shop in Olomouc and had already tried feigning rheumatism several times in order to get out fairly soon. But he couldn’t say no to the Kaiser. ‘Yes, Your Majesty,’ he said, knowing he had just messed up his entire life. ‘Fine. Now you’re a sergeant. But don’t be so nervous!’ So. The Kaiser had made someone happy. He was glad. He was glad. He had done something wonderful for that Hartenstein. Now the day could begin.”

The Radetzky March is a classic of 20th century European literature.

It starts out with a man whose last name is Trotta who fights at the Battle of Solferino for the Austro-Hungarian empire. He doesn’t do anything really, but somehow everyone winds up believing he saved the Kaiser’s life, so he’s awarded an estate and becomes known as the Hero of Solferino. The rest of the book follows Trotta’s son and grandson as they struggle to live up to his legacy. That made it a very funny read.

In terms of prose, the book was also very well written. Roth was great at avoiding clichés. Even so, he didn’t twist his language into knots in search of the freshest imagery ever. This meant that the writing was poetic without getting into the reader’s face and distracting from the story. The imagery actually contributed to the story. I was very impressed by that.

On the other hand, some parts of the plot felt boring. There were many funny character sketches, and the scenes between the father and the son were the strongest scenes in the book, but there were also a bunch of love affairs that began to feel monotonous. Maybe if Roth had included less love affairs the book would have felt more varied and entertaining.

He also included a lot of musings on how the Austro-Hungarian empire was becoming decrepit. There’s nothing wrong with this, and Roth generally handled it well. Even so, I thought he established the idea too clearly near the beginning which gave him no real room to take it anywhere new by the book’s end. In other words, since he stated that idea up front, the ending’s restatement of it felt redundant.

Another weird effect of this was that the ending felt like it was being contrived to fit the idea instead of the idea fitting into the story and complementing it. Basically, Roth shepherded characters into the path of thematically-convenient coincidences. It felt like he had some sort of thematic checklist– “Character X is a symbol for this idea, and I think this idea winds up like that, so I’ll make it just so happen that Character X will wind up in a similar situation! Check!” The ending’s coincidences basically took away the characters’ agency and made the book seem less powerful as a result.

For all my griping, it’s subjective griping, and I still thought that The Radetzky March was still a very good book. It read like a shorter version of War and Peace–it only focused on two or three characters unlike War and Peace, and its philosophical musings were much better-paced. It also had a freshness and a joy to it that made it a good read. I would recommend it.

Not Without Laughter, by Langston Hughes

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“But the sled! Home-made by some rough carpenter, with strips of rusty tin nailed along the wooden runners, and a piece of clothes-line to pull it with! ‘It’s fine,’ Sandy lied, as he tried to lift it and place it on the floor as you would in coasting; but it was very heavy, and too wide for a boy to run with in his hands. You could never get a swift start. And a board was warped in the middle. ‘It’s a nice sled, grandma,’ he lied. ‘I like it, mama.’ ‘Mr. Logan made it for you,’ his mother answered proudly, happy that he was pleased. ‘I knew you wanted a sled all the time.’”

This is a book about an African-American boy named Sandy who grows up in Kansas. His father’s always away, his aunt is trying to become a jazz-singer, and his grandmother wants him to make something of himself.

Hughes was a poet, so it was interesting to see how he approached a novel. At first, it felt more like a description of several events without much interiority, but then the story gained momentum and Hughes turned out to be great at showing nuanced characters.

Usually, I’d find myself analyzing books as I read them, but I was enjoying this book so much I actually found myself not analyzing it. I can talk a bit about its emotional effect, though. Not Without Laughter made me feel very happy, then very sad, then very happy again. It also felt empowering.

I would definitely recommend it.

The Cake Tree in the Ruins, by Akiyuki Nosaka

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“‘Enemy attack! Prepare the counter depth charges!’ [….] Convinced that it was under attack, the submarine began to submerge. Taken aback, the whale worried that he was being rejected yet again, and hurriedly began explaining for all he was worth: ‘Please don’t run away! I didn’t mean to wake you up. I don’t want to hurt you, I just want to talk. I think you’re gorgeous!’ and dived down alongside the object of his affections, trying to snuggle up to her.”

The Cake Tree in the Ruins is a collection of short stories about Japan during World War II. They’re autobiographical (Nosaka watched his parents get killed in the Allied firebombing as a boy and then had a sister who died from starvation).

There were some great stories in this collection and then there were some less-great stories. Three great stories from it are, “The Whale That Fell in Love With a Submarine,” “The Parrot and The Boy,” and “My Home Bunker.” If you only have time to read a few stories in the collection, read these three.

Overall, the stories were like a mix between Salinger, Márquez, Kafka, and Aitmatov. They were somewhat surrealistic but also very simply-told. Also, even though many of the stories were about sad subjects, they somehow managed to be both hilarious and tragic at the same time.

I would absolutely recommend it.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Woolf

In which I review Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.”

Hello! Happy June! If you’re in America, happy Memorial Day! I’ve read one book this week, and am reading several others as you read this…

A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf

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“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young– alas, she never wrote a word [….] Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.”

Virginia Woolf wrote this back in 1929, basically saying that to make a mark on the world, women writers need a steady income and a room of their own in which to work. It’s a hallmark of feminism and empowerment.

I found it to be much less empowering than I thought it would be.

Yes, she prophesied that the female Shakespeare would be able to emerge in 100 years’ time (and considering the fact that it’s now 2021, her coming is close upon us). Yes, the general ideas of the book were great.

However, parts of the book were overly-pessimistic. For instance, Woolf heavily implies that because men discouraged them, there were no great women composers back in her time.

This completely ignores the fact that female greats existed even before her time. Some examples: Dora Pejačević (the first Croatian woman to write a symphony and one of the most important 20th century female composers) and Louise Farrenc (read even more about her amazingness here).

Woolf didn’t have Google. She was stuck researching from books written by sexist men, so she probably wouldn’t have known much about female composers in other countries. Maybe she was also just focusing on composers in England. Even so, it’s worth reading A Room of One’s Own knowing in advance that in spite of the patriarchy, some women were able to accomplish more than Woolf seemed to imply.

Overall, this book was short, interesting, and well-written, so I would still say to read it if you have the time.

Also, if you’ve already read it, what did you think?

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Chopin, Le Guin, and Haig

In which I read Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “No Time to Spare,” and Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library.”

Hello! I’ve read three books. They’re all good for summer reading. One has stature, another has eggs, and the third has a lot in common with Tolstoy’s work…

The Awakening and Selected Stories, by Kate Chopin

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“During his oblivious attention he once quietly rested his head against Mrs. Pontellier’s arm. As gently she repulsed him. Once again he repeated the offense. She could not but believe it to be thoughtlessness on his part; yet that was no reason she should submit to it. She did not remonstrate, except again to repulse him quietly but firmly. He offered no apology. The picture completed bore no resemblance to Madame Ratignolle. She was greatly disappointed to find that it did not look like her. But it was a fair enough piece of work, and in many respects satisfying. Mrs. Pontellier evidently did not think so. After surveying the sketch critically she drew a broad smudge of paint across its surface, and crumpled the paper between her hands.”

Kate Chopin’s book is about a woman named Edna Pontellier who seeks independence and selfhood in a male-dominated society.

I’ve never read about a female character with so much stature. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this. I guess it’s just an attitude that the author had towards her which came across in the depiction of her. Her life doesn’t revolve around a guy or other people, and she did have a sense of self.

She also wasn’t made more than she was or judged to be less than she was because of that (such as by fitting her into an archetype of “love interest” or “seductress”). This was a character who could reject her husband’s hand on her arm and also reject her own attempts at drawing without being turned into a joke or a way to illustrate something about another character.

She also didn’t feel like she was just there to make a point about feminism, and this might be what ultimately gives her stature. If you’re writing some story about someone to convey a message, the character becomes less than a fully-actualized being because his or her personhood is subordinated to the message you’re trying to convey.

For instance, in this scene, Edna could’ve drawn a bad picture with her husband’s hand on her arm and then shoved his hand off and drawn a great picture, which could have subordinated her character to the message of “women don’t need men” and reduced her complexity and sense of stature.

Contrast this with the idea of a female character existing in a work that may touch upon themes but which don’t reduce the character’s complexity for their sake. In the scene as it’s written, Edna’s just pushing the guy’s hand off, but even so she’s dissatisfied with the picture for its own sake. That’s fascinating.

Basically, this stature was very refreshing to experience, and the book itself was very good as well. It’s a shame that Chopin’s future works were rejected after this novel was published, but we can help make up for that by reading this book nowadays.

One final note: The short stories weren’t as good, so I would recommend them less. They were much more sketched-out than fully-developed.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters,
by Ursula K. Le Guin

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“So you put your freshly boiled egg into the egg cup–but which end up? Eggs are not perfect ovoids, they have a smaller end and a bigger end. People have opinions about which end should be up, i.e., which end you’re going to actually eat the egg out of. This difference of opinion can become so passionate that a war may be fought about it, as we know from Jonathan Swift. It makes just as much sense as most wars and most differences of opinion.”

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote several essays and published them in this book in 2017. She died a year later. As a result, there was a lot of unintentional irony in this book, like when she wrote about how people never get to experience true solitude anymore.

If only she knew….

Anyway, the essays were entertaining. They weren’t the most entertaining essays ever but they were fun to read, with one exception. She wrote an essay about eating eggs. I never thought I’d laugh so much about someone chopping an egg apart.

Overall, this was an entertaining and quick read.

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

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“Maybe there was no perfect life for her, but somewhere, surely, there was a life worth living.”

The Midnight Library is about a woman who dies and then gets to live all the different lives she could have lived by reading various books from the “Midnight Library.” The woman’s name is Nora Seed (get it?)

This book was a good read. I appreciate anyone who likes to write about how great life is. It felt like a cross between The Magic Treehouse and Mitch Albom’s books. It also reminded me a lot of Tolstoy’s books for various reasons (some good, others less good).

Firstly, it had a very important quality: conviction. There’s something great about someone who can write about something he actually cares about without seeming to worry what others might think.

In other words, there are a lot of carefully-written “safely sophisticated” books out there that condescend to tell you about the boringness of suburbia while clearly trying to come off as profound. Now, here’s a book about the “riskier” topic of life’s meaning which also cheerfully pays homage to a lot of different authors. Even so, the author didn’t come off as condescending or like a pretentious literary try-hard. He was having so much fun that he wanted you to join him!

When an author doesn’t try to take himself too seriously while also enjoying what he writes, he can get away with writing about anything. The book will contain his warmth and enthusiasm, and that sincerity will draw readers in. You see this quality in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and in Anna Karenina, and you also see it in Haig’s book.

Even so, Haig’s characters felt kind of contrived, like they were being shepherded along by the author to have realizations at opportune moments. Also, there wasn’t much subtext, since the author basically spelled everything out about the characters’ psychologies. This is also similar to Tolstoy. There’s a character in Resurrection who’s shepherded about and psychoanalyzed in a very similar way.

In both instances, the characters in question lose out on depth and realism. Their sole function isn’t to live but to serve the message of the story.

Finally, the symbolism and metaphors felt over-emphasized. Sometimes it helps to let readers make some subconscious connections instead of telling them things along the lines of, “Nora Seed’s life is a seed that can grow in different directions!” That also happened in Tolstoy’s Resurrection—“Look! The protagonist always overhears sermons about Jesus and the book’s even titled Resurrection! That means he’s a Jesus parallel!”

In any case, this kind of approach makes the meaning of the story very, very clear to readers, but it takes some of the fun out of the experience for readers who might want to figure some things out for themselves.

So overall, I would say that this book was a good read, but that Haig might eventually write books that are even better (in one reader’s super-subjective opinion).

Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them? I’d love to hear your comments!