Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Swafford, Bradbury, and Tolstoy

Hello. Due to power-outages from the hurricane, you may be reading this much later than the Tuesday on which I planned to publish it. I hope you’re all okay, and that you enjoy my belated reviews.

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, by Jan Swafford (narrated by Michael Prichard)

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“[Sculptor Franz Klein was commissioned to make a bust of Beethoven’s head] So, one day, Beethoven found himself lying face-up at an angle […] while [Klein] slathered a thick mass of reeking wet gypsum over his face. As the procedure went on and on with excruciating slowness, Beethoven became increasingly fearful that he was going to suffocate. Suddenly, in a spasm of anger and fear, he jerked off the almost-set cast, threw it to the floor, and ran from the room. [Klein salvaged the mask and it became the quintessential sculpture of Beethoven the genius…] But no earlier portraits had that look, and neither did later ones done from life by artists who were observing what was actually in front of them: the man rather than the myth [….] The Klein mask and the bust he made from it are not the real portrait of a genius. They are the face of a man scowling because he is angry, and uncomfortable, and frightened.”

It took me 42 hours to finish this audiobook. It’s worth it. Beethoven is a biography about a composer written by a composer (Jan Swafford). It talks about the world Beethoven lived in, his creative growth, his music, and his human side.

It was an exciting read, even if parts of the beginning felt more like a history textbook than a biography. Eventually even the history got exciting, because Swafford explained how it informed Beethoven’s ideals and music.

I was surprised by how well-structured this huge book was. Instead of just saying “and then Beethoven did this, and then he did that, etc.” it depicted Beethoven’s life via a series of thematic arcs and threads that gave the composer’s life narrative interest and momentum. For instance, Swafford framed the beginning of Beethoven’s compositional career as his struggle to find fame, escape Mozart’s influence, and develop an individual voice. Beethoven succeeded when he wrote his third symphony, and because the book was building to that point, the success felt more satisfying than I had expected it to be.

Then there was the music. A good portion of this book was about Beethoven’s music. Swafford analyzed it, talked about its influences, and explained how it succeeded or failed in having an effect. Also, he made it understandable, so all us non-musicians could learn why Beethoven’s music was so great.

When Swafford wasn’t analyzing Beethoven’s music, he was analyzing Beethoven and his psychology. If you just think about Beethoven’s work, it’s easy to forget that he had flaws and virtues like everyone else. Thankfully, the writer remembered to humanize him. Even more impressive, the book explained why Beethoven became who he was. At the end, I felt like I had known Beethoven personally. I knew how he thought, how he saw the world, how he sometimes got in his own way, and how his past informed his life.

So there you have it. Because of its structure, Beethoven is basically a symphony in book-form. Its insights into Beethoven and his music make it a symphony worth reading. It’s even better if you listen to it, since Michael Prichard (the narrator) did an amazing job bringing Beethoven to life.

The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury

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“As for the rest of him, I cannot say how I sat and stared, for he was a riot of rockets and fountains and people, in such intricate detail and color that you could hear the voices murmuring small and muted, from the crowds that inhabited his body. When his flesh twitched, the tiny mouths flickered, the tiny green-and-gold eyes winked, the tiny pink hands gestured. There were yellow meadows and blue rivers and mountains and stars and suns and planets spread in a Milky Way across his chest. The people themselves were in twenty or more odd groups upon his arms, shoulders, back, sides, and wrists, as well as on the flat of his stomach. You found them in forests of hair, lurking among a constellation of freckles, or peering from armpit caverns, diamond eyes aglitter. Each seemed intent upon his own activity; each was a separate gallery portrait.”

Bradbury wrote a bunch of short stories and needed a way to make them work together in a book, so he wrote about a man with living tattoos that depicted stories. The Illustrated Man is the result.

There were some famous stories in this book, like “The Veldt,” but there were also other less-famous stories that were still good reads. What made them good was that they were sci-fi stories that were about how Bradbury saw life. For instance, he wrote about living fire balloons (“The Fire Balloons”) and questioned the meaning of religion at the same time. If the story had just been about fire balloons, it probably would have been just as entertaining, but less fulfilling.

There were fun stories, too, like “The Exiles,” which was about dead writers’ ghosts living on Mars. Other stories felt like they could have been Twilight Zone episodes (like “Zero Hour”). That variety probably also made the book good. You can only read so many philosophical stories before they all feel like the same story.

Overall, The Illustrated Man is a great book to read if you enjoyed Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and want more. If you’ve already read a lot of Bradbury’s short stories, you probably won’t find new ones in The Illustrated Man.


War and Peace Part 4, by Leo Tolstoy

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“Prince Andrei found the excessive contempt for people that he observed in Speransky unpleasant, as well as the variety of devices and proofs he adduced to confirm his opinion. He deployed every possible weapon of argument, apart from simile, and switched from one to the other too boldly, or so it seemed to Prince Andrei [….] He transposed the question to the heights of metaphysics, moved on to definitions of space, time and thought and, deducing therefrom his refutation, descended once more to the grounds of the argument.”

(Parts 1 2 3 here). The super-long Part 3 of the first draft of War and Peace was exciting. Tolstoy was hitting his stride as a great writer at last! Napoleon was doing amazing things, and the characters were all thinking amazing thoughts. What could Part 4 be other than even more amazing?

Less amazing. Maybe because it only had peace in it and focused more on the everyday lives of the characters. Back when Tolstoy wrote about characters’ everyday lives in Part 2, he managed to make it interesting. There was some sort of momentum that ran through his work that made you want to read on. In Part 4 there doesn’t seem to be that momentum. Yes, some people fell in love with people you wouldn’t expect them to, but there are only so many times you can read about people falling in love before it gets boring.

There was still philosophy in this part, but for some reason it wasn’t as engaging as it had been in the previous part. Maybe because the characters were too concerned with legal reform and falling in love (again and again) for me to care much about them. Maybe Tolstoy thought that after the drama of the last part, he had to make this part less intense. Or maybe he ran out of steam after Part 3 and had to regroup.

Overall, this part felt like he was setting up for the next part. That’s all well and good, but Part 3 managed to set up for Part 4 and was still interesting. Why couldn’t he have made this part interesting, too?

Well, enough whining. I’m sure Part 5 will be better (and Part 6 and Part 7).

Until Tuesday.

7 thoughts on “Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Swafford, Bradbury, and Tolstoy

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