Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Stephens and Tolstoy

Hello. I hope you are all healthy and safe. This will be the last time for a while where I review multiple books at once, since school starts next week. However, I’ll do my best to review at least one book (or short story, depending on my workload) a week.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy reading about the following two insightful and inspiring books:

The Fire Chronicle, by John Stephens

Dragon Breathing Fire on Make a GIF

“‘[…] because it was how I used to be, before you and your sisters and your mother. I lived entirely in my head.’ ‘And it was better, right?’ Michael said. ‘Things hurt less?’ ‘No! I mean, yes, I felt less pain, but the point of life isn’t to avoid pain. The point of life is to be alive, to feel things. That means the good and the bad. There’ll be pain, but also joy and friendship and love, and it’s worth it. Believe me. Your mother and I lost ten years of our lives, but every minute of every day we had our love for you and your sisters, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Don’t let the fear control you. Choose life, son.’”

This is the second book in a series by John Stephens. It’s about Kate, Michael, and Emma, three siblings who have to find three books that have magical powers, before evil forces do. The three books in question are called the “Books of Beginning.” One of the books can control time, but we don’t know what the other two books can do.

Based on this story’s title, you might suspect that the second book has to do with controlling fire. Surprise—it doesn’t. It has to do with life. You’ll have to figure out for yourself where the fire part comes in (Hint: it has to do with dragons).

In the story, Kate uses the time-traveling book and gets separated from Michael and Emma. While Kate tries to return to them, the others try to find the second book. So there’s a dual plot.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and at first, the dual plot wasn’t that interesting. Just when I got sort of invested in one group’s progress, I had to read about the other group’s battle with a dragon, and so on. As the book progressed, more things were revealed, and the dual plot became more interesting as a result.

Even though the book had a good ending, I was left wondering if the dual plot was worth it. Maybe it was, since this is the second book in a trilogy. Second books usually don’t have enough momentum to keep you interested, but the book’s dual plot itself helped it keep a sense of momentum because you were always wondering what was happening elsewhere.

An interesting insight I got from this book was that the parts that I found to be the best were the most realistic parts. Not in the sense that dragonless parts were better than dragon-filled parts (dragons are too cool for that), but in the sense that when the characters felt true, the story was better. Which is more satisfying? A cliché reaction, or a different, more genuine-feeling one? Probably the second one. It makes you think more deeply about what’s happening, instead of glossing over it as just another cliché.

With all that being said, this book had its clichés, but it also had those more genuine parts, and for me, the genuine parts, along with its momentum, made it worth the listen.

War and Peace Part 7, by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy GIF | Gfycat

“Let me not be reproached with selecting trivial details to describe the actions of people who are acknowledged as great, like this Cossack, like the bridge at Arcole, and so on. If there were no accounts attempting to portray the most banal details as great, then my descriptions would not exist either. In a description of Newton’s life, the details of his food, the fact that he stumbled, cannot have the slightest impact on his significance as a great man—they are extraneous; but in this case the opposite is true. God knows what would be left of great men, rulers and warriors if all of their actions were translated into ordinary, everyday language.”

(Parts 1 2 3 4 5 6)

That quote is basically this last part in a nutshell. You get to see the trivial details that went into the makings of a masterpiece. Let me explain.

I didn’t know what to expect from this part. War and Peace had been so hyped up, what with everyone who was anyone calling it a great book.

It turned out not to be as good as I thought.

The beginning and middle of the end were good (some of it reminded me of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5), but the very end felt sketched-out and illogical. That left me shaken at first. This? The greatest book ever?

Then I remembered this was Tolstoy’s first draft, and remembered that quote up above, and felt inspired.

In this version of War and Peace, I got to see Tolstoy not as some god-like figure, but as a writer just like the rest of us, who had the same struggles as us in figuring out how to fit grand ideas into a story, and how to give that story a satisfying ending. The thing is, I know Tolstoy eventually succeeded in overcoming these struggles to make his book great.

After reading this book, I looked up the Wikipedia summary of the actual War and Peace. Its ending was very different. Plot points that seemed half-developed in this version were fully developed there, and ideas that were partially-explored here were fully-explored there. From reading that summary, I realized that Tolstoy was able to make his book great, but that the foundation of that greatness was already present in this version.

For instance, he took some parts of the plot that seemed to have little impact in the first draft, and connected them to other parts to build them up to be impactful. Or he took plot-points to their logical and more dramatic conclusions. Or he fleshed out mini-resolutions and framed them as steps in the development to the overall resolution. So in the final version, the emotional impacts from each mini-resolution aren’t isolated episodes, but necessary parts in making for a satisfying ending.

But the thing is, in this version of War and Peace, I saw how that transformation became possible. In official biographies of Newton, it may not matter if he stumbled or ate food, but in the grand scheme of things, stumbling could have made his gravitational discoveries possible.

In the case of Tolstoy, you could see his first draft as being not-so-great/relevant-to-his-greatness, or you could see it as a beginning of his greatness. He was able to revise it to greatness.

All that being said, I found this book a very valuable read, because I saw that such a transformation was possible. Even if your story ends in a really measly way, you could always make it amazing, and for all Tolstoy’s talk about life and death and meaning, the story of his own transformation was the most profound part of this book.

That’s why I’ll close by saying that Tolstoy’s first draft of War and Peace was one of the most inspiring things I ever read. We all have so much potential.

7 thoughts on “Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Stephens and Tolstoy

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