Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Steinbeck, Pasternak, and Steinbeck

In Which I Review Books By John Steinbeck and Poems by Boris Pasternak.

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you are all well, and if you’ve experienced Henri, that you are safe. I survived, thankfully, and so I’m bringing you three more reviews. Two of them are about early Steinbeck novels, and one of them is a review of an online poetry collection…

The Red Pony, by John Steinbeck

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“As the gray and silent army marched past, led by Jody, the animals stopped their feeding and watched it go by. Suddenly Jody stopped. The gray army halted, bewildered and nervous. Jody went down on his knees. The army stood in long uneasy ranks for a moment, and then, with a soft sigh of sorrow, rose up in a faint gray mist and disappeared.”

This is a book of one longish story and a few shorter stories. They focus on a boy named Jody who lives on a farm in California. The first one’s about him getting a red pony to train and keep as his own. The other stories are about him doing other things on the farm. Somehow it’s supposed to be a collection about coming-of-age, but I didn’t see much coming-of-age in the stories themselves.

Anyway, the first story was good, but the others weren’t as good. My reasoning was ridiculously subjective: I was expecting more horses in this collection than there were, so I was distracted a lot of the time wondering when they would show up. When they finally did show up, they felt anticlimactic. So learn from me: there weren’t that many horses in these stories.

However, if you love occasional horses and want to read some early Steinbeck, this book would be an enjoyable read.

Online Poems of Boris Pasternak

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“Is it only dirt you notice?
Does the thaw not catch your glance?
As a dapple-grey fine stallion
Does it not through ditches dance?”

Recently, I came across this really cool website of poetry, and started reading all the poems on Boris Pasternak’s page. So, this isn’t really a review of a Pasternak poetry book. Instead it’s a review of the poems I read on the website.

Pasternak was interesting to read. Sometimes, he never really said anything about a specific object but referred to it indirectly through a mood or certain word-choices. Thus, a poem would seem to be about a bunch of curtains but in reality it was about an affair.

Some of the poems were unsatisfying since they were so confusing. Others were great. I could figure out what they were about, but it took some work to do so.

Other poems were entertaining because they were very evocative of seasons (springtime) and moods (sadness). Reading Pasternak also gave me an appreciation for how many ways someone could write about the same subject (springtime) or about the same mood (sadness). In fact, another name for Pasternak could be, “The Sad Poet of Springtime.”

Overall, I would recommend checking out at least some of the poems on the website. I’ve actually been inspired to check out more books by Pasternak in the future, so stay tuned…

Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck

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“The sergeant lined [the men] up in front of his desk. They passed everything but the sobriety test and then the sergeant began his questions with Pilon. ‘What branch do you want to go in?’ ‘ I don’ give a god-dam,’ said Pilon jauntily. ‘I guess we need men like you in the infantry.’ And Pilon was written so. He turned then to Big Joe, and the Portagee was getting sober. ‘Where do you want to go?’ ‘I want to go home,’ Big Joe said miserably. The sergeant put him in the infantry too. Finally he confronted Danny, who was sleeping on his feet. ‘Where do you want to go?’ ‘Huh?’ ‘I say, what branch?’ ‘What do you mean, “branch?”‘ ‘What can you do?’ ‘Me? I can do anything.'”

I don’t understand why this book wasn’t advertised as funny on its jacket because it is. It’s about a Californian man named Danny and his friends who live in a house called Tortilla Flat and go to ridiculous ends to get more wine to drink. It’s based on the legend of King Arthur somehow. Aside from some vague similarities, I didn’t really see any real parallels.

As I said before, the book was hilarious, and funnier than a lot of other “funny” things I read. Steinbeck seemed to be enjoying himself when he wrote this. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been as enjoyable as it was.

However, the end wasn’t as good. Steinbeck seemed to stop enjoying himself somewhere near the end of Chapter XII. The rest of the book felt phoned-in somehow. It was still funny, but then it became less and less funny, and then it turned into what felt like Steinbeck trying hard to get readers to feel emotions that he himself didn’t feel as a writer. To me, this forced emotionality marred the ending of what was otherwise a hilarious book.

So overall, the book was funny, and I’d definitely recommend it. Just don’t expect a greatly-written ending…

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Chekhov, Nye, and Kawabata

In Which I Review Stories by Anton Chekhov, Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, and a Novel by Yasunari Kawabata

Hello! Happy August. I hope you’re well. I’ve read three books (again). One’s of short stories, one’s of poems, and one’s a novel…

Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, by Anton Chekov,
Translated by Constance Garnett

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“The town was a little one, worse than a village, and it was inhabited by scarcely any but old people who died with an infrequency that was really annoying.”

So here we are with more Chekhov. This book had a lot of stories I already read, and a few new ones.

In reading the new stories (including “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” “The Grasshopper,” “Easter Eve,” “The Dependents”, and “In the Ravine”), it was interesting to see their varying quality. “Easter Eve” felt like a better story than “The Grasshopper,” for instance, even though “The Grasshopper” was written much later.

The (super-subjective) reason: in some of his stories Chekhov came to rely too much on theme for an effect at the expense of his characters. “Easter Eve” was just a story about a man grieving his friend’s death. “The Grasshopper” was trying to get across a moral about women who have affairs. That made the characters less realistic, which somehow made the story less enjoyable.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to contrast “Ward No. 6” with “The Lady With The Dog.” In “Ward,” Chekhov prioritized his theme. “Lady” had more of a focus on characters. While both stories were obviously very good, “Ward” felt to me like a less well-written version of “Lady.” There was the sense that “Ward’s” characters were thinking and acting like they did because Chekhov needed for them to act that way to illustrate his theme, and not because that was how they actually would have reacted given their circumstances. Meanwhile “Lady” had a theme, but the characters didn’t act contrivedly–when they thought about the theme, they were doing so in reaction to something that could have logically made them react that way.

In any case, Chekhov’s still a great writer. Anything I say about him is going to be subjective, and I’d still definitely recommend this book.

Voices in the Wind: Poems for Listeners, by Naomi Shihab Nye

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“If this is the best you can do, citizens of the world,
I resolve to become summer shadow,
turtle adrift in a pool.”

This is a book of poems written in 2018. They were interesting to read, especially after having read a lot of books from the 1800s and 1900s. It also showed how even references to 2018-era events could become dated or unintentionally ironic in the face of 2021-era events.

The poems themselves were good, though. I have a feeling they’d be even better on audiobook. They were humorous and sometimes poignant. I liked how Nye told stories in some of her poems. They felt like anecdotes in poem-form, which meant they usually left me with something to think about.

Even so, sometimes it would feel like one of the poems was gearing up to leave the reader with a very interesting idea to contemplate, only to end with a line about how the poem was talking about something in a museum. I haven’t read as much poetry as I have read prose, but this seemed to me like it limited the poem’s scope.

In any case, I still enjoyed this collection, and if you’re looking for something to think about, you might enjoy it as well.

Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata,
Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

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“As he caught his footing, his head fell back, and the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.”

The book is about an affair between a man named Shimamura and a geisha named Komako. Also, out of the two best sentences I’ve ever read, this book has one of them (included above for your enjoyment. If you’re curious about the second sentence, see here).

Anyway. Snow Country‘s plot was nonexistent, and early on I almost gave up reading it because it felt boring. Thankfully, the second half of the book was much more interesting (even if it didn’t really have a plot, either).

I’ll explain by contrasting this book with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts. Both were plotless, but while the clichés and shallow-seeming characters in Lahiri’s book didn’t make up for that (in my subjective opinion), Snow Country had a lot of interesting language (see that great sentence) and characterization.

Here’s what I mean about characterization: early on, I wasn’t sure exactly why Character X kept acting a certain way. As the book went on, Kawabata was able to gradually convey the reason. Not only did this make the character very interesting, it also made the book feel more engaging, since the character’s behavior gave new significance to the overall story.

So, if you’re someone who likes poetic language, interesting characterization, and a book where nothing happens (but is actually not boring to read), this is for you.

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Portis, Miller, and Palahniuk

In Which I Review Charles Portis’s “True Grit,” Arthur Miller’s “Incident at Vichy,” and Chuck Palahniuk’s “Consider This”

Hello! Happy August. I hope you’re vaccinated or are getting vaccinated, and that you’ve been able to read and enjoy the summer some.

If you’re looking for reading material, I’ve reviewed three more books that might give you some ideas…

True Grit, by Charles Portis

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“‘I will inform them myself,’ said I. ‘Who is the best marshal they have?’ The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, ‘I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them [….] The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into this thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.’ I said, ‘Where can I find this Rooster?'”

This book, which inspired the movies, is about a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie who wants to avenge her father’s murder in the Wild West. So she enlists the help of Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed marshal with dubious morals.

What made the book good was the dialogue. All the characters were very witty and could hold their own, and entertain the reader at the same time. Meanwhile, Portis was usually able to get away with this without coming off like he was forcing his characters to be witty for the sake of showing off to the reader. That made the dialogue work, in my opinion.

The plot was interesting, too, but an important part of it felt illogical and sexist (I won’t spoil it, though–you’ll have to see for yourself whether you agree). This didn’t ruin the book, but it did make the story less impactful than it could have been.

Basically, if this book didn’t have any dialogue, it would not be worth reading. Fortunately for us, it does.

“Incident at Vichy,” by Arthur Miller

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“Many times I used to ask my friends– if you love your country why is it necessary to hate other countries? To be a good German why must you despise everything that is not German? Until I realized the answer. They do these things not because they are German but because they are nothing. It is the hallmark of the age– the less you exist the more important it is to make a clear impression.”

This play by Arthur Miller is about a group of people in Vichy France in 1942. They’re prisoners of the Nazi collaborators and they don’t know why. This set-up lets Arthur Miller examine ideas like collective guilt, the psychology of groups and individuals, idealism and nihilism, and so on.

The play was thought-provoking. It reminded me of Sartre’s “The Condemned of Altona,” except Miller’s play was much shorter and asked more questions than it answered. It also seemed to have more psychological depth when examining the nature of guilt.

In contrast to another play (Miller’s tragic “Death of a Salesman”), “Vichy” felt fresher. “Salesman’s” characters had to adhere to Miller’s pre-ordained tragic plot-formula. “Vichy’s” characters didn’t adhere to a formula, which meant that Miller didn’t have to contrive everyone’s actions to fit into it. “Vichy’s” characters were being explored, which gave them more room to act like real humans, whereas if Miller had let “Salesman’s” characters act too human, they wouldn’t have fit well into the play’s tragic formula.

So even though “Salesman” is more lauded than “Vichy” (Pulitzer Prize, etc.), and more emotionally-engaging (personal opinion), I would still argue that “Vichy’s” characters are more realistic than “Salesman’s.”

Anyway, I would recommend it.

Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, by Chuck Palahniuk

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“This is another reason to bother collecting stories. Because our existence is a constant flow of the impossible, the implausible, the coincidental. And what we see on television and in films must always be diluted to make it ‘believable.’ We’re trained to live in constant denial of the miraculous. And it’s only by telling our stories that we get any sense of how extraordinary human existence actually can be.”

This is a book of writing advice. It read a lot like, “remember to use verbs instead of adjectives! And remember to do XYZ!”, and a lot of it felt obvious or were things I already did in my writing. Even so, they were good reminders. Also, it was interesting to read them because Palahniuk brought a new perspective to why these different things were important to do.

Palahniuk also included memoir-like sections about his crazy fans, how he learned to write, and how his experiences shaped his views on the craft. These sections were filled with anecdotes like, “I did XYZ and it worked for me so much in writing Story ABC.” Even if people give you writing techniques, it helps for them to also give you real anecdotes that explain how such techniques worked for them.

Overall, everything wasn’t different after I finished reading this book, but it enriched things a little bit. In terms of substance, Consider This felt more useful than Cortázar’s book on writing, less useful than Stephen King’s book, and equally useful as Vargas Llosa’s.

So I would recommend it.

Until next week!

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: 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: 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!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Saunders, Lahiri, and Tolstoy

In which I review George Saunders’s “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Whereabouts,” and a surprise book by Leo Tolstoy.

Hello! After keeping you in suspense all week, I’ve read and reviewed the two books I promised you last week, as well as a surprise masterwork…

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders

George Saunders

“It’s also made me feel this: these Russians did what they did so beautifully, there’s no need for me, or anyone, to keep doing it. Which is another way of saying that part of my job (part of your job) is to find new paths for the story form to go down; to make stories that are as powerful as these Russian stories but that, in their voice and form and concerns, are new, meaning that they response to the things history has given us to know about life on earth in the years since these Russians were here.”

This book was interesting to read. It contained several Russian short stories and Saunders’s analysis of them from a craft perspective. Some of the analysis was very insightful, like in the case of Chekhov’s “In The Cart” and Tolstoy’s “Alyosha the Pot.” I also loved hearing about Saunders’s own journey as a writer in the “Afterthoughts.”

Some of the analysis could have been more insightful, such as in Tolstoy’s “Master and Man.” There is some good analysis here, but later on there’s also this: Saunders mentions that part of what makes this story great is that it’s highly organized. He then raises the question of how to achieve this in a story, and then says, “some of us can hit a curveball and some of us can’t. The difference between a great writer and a good one […] is the quality of the instantaneous decisions she makes as she works,” and leaves us with that.

Surely that’s not all. Consider everything Poe has to say about writing organizedly in his great essay about art, even what Tolstoy himself says about writing in his own book, What is Art?, and it becomes clear that there’s much more to it than just “some of us can and some of us can’t.”

Also, once upon a time, Tolstoy wrote not-so-good stories. Metaphorically speaking, even he wasn’t born being able to hit wicked curveballs.

So there were questions that didn’t feel as thoroughly-answered as they probably could have been, which disappointed me.

Another thing I will say is that the interpretation of Chekhov’s “The Darling” misinterpreted an important aspect of the Russian original (courtesy of this reviewer). This didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story or its interpretation, but it did make me wonder how stories can actually gain new depth and meaning from being translated into other languages, which is interesting in and of itself.

For all that grumbling, I really did enjoy this book and would definitely recommend it. You can probably learn 80% of what he’s written about from the Writer’s Digest website, but that extra 20% was very enlightening. Even so, if you’re seeking out all the answers ever about how to write great stories, this probably shouldn’t be the only book you consult. It is a good starting-place, though.

Whereabouts, by Jhumpa Lahiri

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“I mourned those wasted tickets, and that trip never taken, more than I mourned for you.”

(Disclaimer: I got this book from an author event.)

Whereabouts is about a woman who meanders around Italy and thinks and broods and breathes. What’s impressive is that Lahiri wrote it and translated it herself.

Other than that, I’ve heard that there was a split reaction to this book. Some people loved it but other people didn’t. I was 100% in the second category.

First, the protagonist didn’t seem to have anything interesting to do. While this plotless approach could work in some stories, it didn’t work in Lahiri’s story because there wasn’t a redeeming element.

The protagonist’s psychology wasn’t that interesting. She felt defined by one dynamic which felt too narrow and limited to sustain a whole book.

Well, maybe this book had sparklingly insightful ideas and language. Nope. The ideas weren’t original and the language was filled with clichés (literal example: “He’s a bit cheeky, some might even call him a pain in the ass, but he doesn’t get on my nerves.”)

What’s left? Nothing much.

Yes, there were two sections that felt more interesting than the others, but that was all, so I felt let down. I’m hopeful that her next book will be much better, since I really enjoyed her short stories. Even so, maybe read this anyway, since you might enjoy it more than I did.

I’m also curious: have any of you read Whereabouts and loved it? If so, what did you enjoy about it? Let me know.

Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy

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“Then he had looked on his spirit as the I; now it was his healthy strong animal I that he looked upon as himself. And all this terrible change had come about because he had ceased to believe himself and had taken to believing others. This he had done because it was too difficult to live believing one’s self; believing one’s self, one had to decide every question not in favour of one’s own animal life, which is always seeking for easy gratifications, but almost in every case against it. Believing others there was nothing to decide; everything had been decided already, and decided always in favour of the animal I and against the spiritual.”

Resurrection by Tolstoy is about a guy called Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov. As a boy, he seduced a young woman and caused her downfall. Now he encounters her as she’s being tried for murder, and experiences a resurrection.

This book was interesting, especially in its first half. Tolstoy began with the trial, but unlike some writers he didn’t include entire speeches, which made it much more enjoyable.

However, after the trial ended, the story became something like a manifesto. It felt like Tolstoy was saying, “everything is absolutely like XYZ, no exceptions, and ABC is the only way for things to improve.”

It also felt like some of the descriptions of the prisoners were unrealistic. After having read a couple of books on the subject, Tolstoy’s prisoners felt too kind-hearted and idealistic to actually exist anywhere outside a Victor Hugo novel.

Finally, the ending felt anti-climactic. While I admire Tolstoy for not taking a contrived approach to the protagonist’s situation, his ultimate epiphany felt forced and unconvincing.

In other words, sometimes you come up with a super-intense question about the meaning of it all, and you try too hard to answer it absolutely, which is impossible for anyone to do. Yet here’s Tolstoy, trying to get away with giving a cut-and-dry solution to all the problems in the world. To me, that felt like it limited the scope of his book’s power.

Overall, Resurrection raised a lot of terrific ideas and had a lot of great scenes and descriptions. On the other hand, a lot of it felt too intellectualized for it to be as expansive and effective as his other books. It’s still worth reading, though, just for the experience.

So, have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Lonergan

Hello! I hope you’re all well. It’s the season of final exams and allergies, so I wanted to read something funny…

“Lobby Hero,” by Kenneth Lonergan

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“WILLIAM. OK, good. I’m glad to hear it. But that’s why I try to get you to improve your mind a little bit and apply yourself to something. Aim a little higher. But I can see it’s a hopeless cause. You’re probably intended to be just one of those guys who drifts through life doing one job or another, no plan, no specific intentions of any kind. And one day you’re gonna wake up in a lobby just like this one, except everybody’s gonna be calling you ‘Pops.’ And then you’re gonna look back and remember, ‘I should have listened to that guy William. He’s the only one that ever took the time to try to encourage me to cultivate my potential. My whole family was content to see me fritter my life away, but that William, man, he really tried to get me to focus my energies a little bit. And doddering useless old unemployed Pops doorman that I am, I have to admit he could have been a positive influence on me if I hadn’t been such a callous, careless kind of joke-telling, sit-on-my-ass-my-whole-life type of person when I was younger.’ But I guess that’s all right, because you’re not really trying to climb any higher anyway. You see what I mean?”

“Lobby Hero” probably could have been called, “The Play in Which Everyone Tries to Figure Stuff Out.” It’s about a man named Jeff who works in a lobby. He’s trying to figure out his life. Meanwhile, his boss William has a brother who’s in trouble with the police. William has to figure out how to help his brother, and one of the police officers, named Dawn, has to figure out her relationship with one of her superiors.

Parts of this play reminded me a lot of Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” in terms of their levity and humor. That was very surprising, considering that the playwright of “Lobby Hero” was the same man who wrote the script for that super-sad movie from a few years back. You know, the one called Manchester by the Sea.

In any case, “Lobby Hero” felt a bit like a sketch instead of a fully fleshed-out experience. Maybe it was because the entire play took place in a lobby and 90% of the play’s important action happened off-stage. That meant the majority of the play consisted of characters talking about all the interesting things that happened in other places. Imagine the entirety of “Hamlet” being told from the perspective of one of the pirates who capture Hamlet during his voyage to England—“Oh, yes, I knew Prince Hamlet, he was a bloke I captured. He had to avenge the death of his father, who was killed by his uncle. Did Hamlet succeed? Oh, yes, his friend Horatio just sent me a postcard telling me he did. Well, that’s all there is to that story. Now I have to figure out my life.”

In other words, all of the interesting action felt like it was just being summarized instead of being enacted on the stage, which took away from its power.

This type of approach could work in certain cases (like Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” or O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), but the character’s inner-life has to be interesting enough to compensate for the plot’s lack of immediacy. In Chekhov and O’Neill, the characters had a lot of cool layers, subtext, and secrets that the audience didn’t learn about right away.

Meanwhile, considering the fact that Jeff’s only real depth was that he couldn’t figure his life out and that the audience basically came to understand that upfront, his inner-life didn’t feel interesting enough to make the play feel fleshed out. The same felt true for the other characters, too.

So basically, read “Lobby Hero” if you want to see the writer of Manchester by the Sea being funny. That alone is pretty enjoyable.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Auburn, James, and Vonnegut

Hello! Happy spring. For those who celebrate, I hope you enjoyed your Easter. I’ve been writing a lot of papers for school, but I still managed to read three books. For your enjoyment, here they are:

“Proof”, by David Auburn

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“CATHERINE. I haven’t been lazy, I’ve been taking care of you. ROBERT. Kid, I’ve seen you. You sleep till noon, you eat junk, you don’t work, the dishes pile up in the sink. If you go out it’s to buy magazines. You come back with a stack of magazines this high—I don’t know how you read that crap. And those are the good days. Some days you don’t get up, you don’t get out of bed. CATHERINE. Those are the good days. ROBERT. Bullshit. Those days are lost. You threw them away. And you’ll never know what else you threw away with them—the work you lost, the ideas you didn’t have, discoveries you never made because you were moping in your bed at four in the afternoon.”


This is a play about a woman named Catherine who took care of Robert, her mathematical genius of a father who was suffering from delusions. Robert has just died, and now a mysterious proof has been found among his belongings which might revolutionize the field of mathematics…a proof that may have been written by Catherine.

This play was interesting but not very good in my opinion. Mind you, it won a Pulitzer Prize, but I’ll give my thoughts anyway:

First, the play’s structure hinged on a mystery that somehow seemed irrelevant to the story’s overall arc. Maybe this was because the characters never really grew as a result of the mystery. In other words, it was like the mystery was happening to the characters instead of the characters actually growing and making meaningful choices that solved the mystery. That disconnect seemed to weaken the story.

Second, the characters felt more like “types” than actual nuanced people. For instance, there are plenty of angry-but-secretly-vulnerable women out there in the literary world, and the protagonist of this play was one of them. I was excited to see if something would happen to give her more depth and nuance, but nothing did.

Third, some of the dialogue wasn’t believable. At one part, I got the sense that the playwright was just writing what he thought a genius would sound like without thinking about how such a genius could possibly exist in reality.

Finally, there were loads of backstory dumps that felt like they were just in the play for the sake of informing the audience instead of something the characters had an organic need to say. When you have lines similar to, “Your father was a genius, Catherine, surely you know how he revolutionized the math world”, you tend to stop and wonder why the other character is telling Catherine something she obviously already knew.

So overall, the play had some good parts but it wasn’t that good in my opinion. Maybe read John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” instead (which also won a Pulitzer Prize). Or maybe read “Proof” anyway. You might enjoy it more than I did.

The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

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“The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house that had gathered us for the occasion—an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shocked him [….] ‘I quite agree—in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have been concerned with a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?’ ‘We say of course,’ somebody exclaimed, ‘that two children give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them.’”

The Turn of the Screw is about a woman who becomes governess to not one, but two children. The woman sees ghosts in the house and tries to keep the children from also seeing them. I won’t spoil any more.

I heard so much about how subversive and mind-blowing this book was going to be that I got very engrossed in trying to figure out the plot twist in advance. I completely overthought the whole situation to the point that when I got to the twist, I was very underwhelmed. The moral: don’t do what I did.

Anyway, about the actual book. A better title for it could have probably been “The Perils of Babysitting,” because the two children basically give the protagonist a lot of trouble. The build-up in figuring out what exactly was happening with the ghosts was the most interesting part of the book.

There were some parts where it felt like James was just trying to fill space without really knowing where he was going. Or maybe because he was writing this as a serial, he had to write a certain number of installments to get paid. Either way, those parts kind of took away from how interesting the book was.

In the end, though, it was a good read. Just don’t over-hype it, and don’t read it while babysitting someone’s kids.

Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

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“‘But,’ he said, ‘but how the hell innocent is a man who helps make a thing like an atomic bomb? And how can you say a man had a good mind when he couldn’t even bother to do anything when the best-hearted, most beautiful woman in the world, his own wife, was dying for lack of love and understanding…’ He shuddered, ‘Sometimes I wonder if he wasn’t born dead. I never met a man who was less interested in the living. Sometimes I think that’s the trouble with the world: too many people in high places who are stone-cold dead.’”

This book left me wondering why Vonnegut never won a Pulitzer. Let me explain.

Cat’s Cradle was so cool. It’s about a man who tries to find out about a scientist who helped build the atomic bomb. In the process, the protagonist learns about a dangerous substance called Ice-Nine and becomes king of an island.

As usual with a Vonnegut book, Cat’s Cradle was very funny. There’s just something about Vonnegut’s ability to understate things.

Also, he had some profound ideas and was able to get across their profundity very well. This was probably because Vonnegut didn’t seem to take himself too seriously. He didn’t present them to the reader as if the reader had to agree with him, and he didn’t try coming off like the absolute authority on life’s meaning. So even though he was making all these statements about nihilism, religion, science, and how people kill each other out of stupidity, the statements weren’t the only reason for the book to exist. The statements felt like they were just part of the book’s story.

Basically, read it. Then wonder with me about why he didn’t win the Pulitzer. Finally, watch the Vonnegut cameo from the movie “Back to School”:

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