Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Pavlova, Schiller, and Aitmatov

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I’ve read three more books this week. One’s hilarious, one’s serious, and one literally made me cry.

A Double Life, by Karolina Pavlova,
Translated by Barbara Heldt

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First Excerpt (The Prose):

“It was the same simple story once again, old and forever new! It was true that Dmitry was captivated by Cecily. The magnetism of other people’s opinions always had an astonishing effect on him. Seeing her that evening, so dazzling and so surrounded, he could not fail to be satisfied with her and far more satisfied with himself. He was one of those weak creatures who grow drunk on success. At that moment, he was no longer merely calculating: he saw himself placed higher than all the rest by Cecily, higher even than Prince Victor, the arrogant object of his secret envy; and his head began to turn.”

Second Excerpt (The Poetry):

“Because for the universe this is/An inexhaustible blessing,/For holy gifts are everywhere/Where there is someone to understand them./For every creature of the world/Must, fulfilling its existence,/Contribute its own fragrance,/Shine with its own light through the darkness.”

This book was written by Karolina Pavlova, and it was so good it made all the men of 1800s-era Russia jealous of her. For good reason. Who among them (aside from people like Gogol and Lermontov) could ever hope to write a book so good? None of them.

Anyway, this book is about a woman named Cecily who has a double life. During the daytime (which is told in prose), she is everything a 1800s-era Russian woman should be–pretty, demure, submissive to others’ whims, and mindlessly conforming.

At night, she has dreams that are expressed in poetry. These dreams express her true essence, and are anything but mindlessly conforming.

The prose sections are hilarious. They’re as funny as Gogol (only without the absurdism). The poetry sections are also very good. They’re beautiful and moving and full of substance, and their sincerity makes a nice counterbalance for the humorous prose sections.

Overall, this is a severely-underrated book that should be recognized as a classic. Her contemporaries weren’t up for the challenge of admitting a brilliant woman into their ranks. Hopefully now we can read her book ourselves and see it for the great piece of literature it is.

“Wallenstein’s Camp,” by Friedrich von Schiller,
Translated by Charles E. Passage

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“For Art, which binds and limits everything,/Brings all extremes back to the sphere of Nature./It sees this man [Wallenstein] amid the press of life/And shows the greater half of his wrong-doing/To be the guilt of inauspicious stars.”

This play is a historical dramatization of the story of a General named Wallenstein who fought during the Thirty Years’ War and was murdered.

Was Wallenstein’s guilt really the result of inauspicious stars? I don’t know yet because I only read the first part of the play which doesn’t even include him. Instead, “Wallenstein’s Camp” focuses on what its title suggests.

It’s interesting because there are soldiers who are sick of being soldiers and just want to have fun via gambling and debauchery. Meanwhile, there’s a priest who comes and tries to chastise them for this behavior, only to be chased away. In other words, Schiller was great at showing the overall dynamics at play within a large group of soldiers in an unexpectedly-interesting way.

Something else interesting about the play is that at the beginning of it, a peasant named Piccolomini plays with a loaded die and gets chased out of the game by his enraged fellow-players. Yet at the end of this section, the soldiers magically forget their anger and enthusiastically decide to let him be the bearer of some important news.

How much of this was a result of inauspicious stars and how much of it was just human forgetfulness? What does it have to do with Wallenstein? We may never know, but hopefully the second part of the play (promisingly called “The Piccolominis”) will reveal some answers to this mystery.

The White Ship, by Chingiz Aitmatov,
Translated by Mirra Ginsburg

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“At the bank [his uncle] squatted down, dipped his hands into the water and splashed it on his face. ‘I guess he’s got a headache from the heat,’ the boy decided when he saw what Orozkul was doing. He did not know that Orozkul was crying and could not stop. That he was crying because it was not his son who came running to meet him and because he had not found within himself the [?] needed that was needed to say at least a human word or two to this boy with his school bag.”

This book was so sad. I literally cried after reading it.

It’s about a boy who was abandoned by his parents at a young age. He lives with his grandparents. If he climbs a certain hill he can see the distant sea. Every now and then, a white ship appears. The boy believes that his father is on the ship, and he wants to become a fish to swim after the ship. In the meantime, he has to contend with his abusive uncle and find solace in the legends told by his kind grandfather.

This is one of Aitmatov’s better books because unlike some of them, it isn’t melodramatic. This ties into something that helped make it sad: its amazing telling details.

We learn that the boy feels lonely not because Aitmatov writes, “Oh! He felt so lonely!” Instead, Aitmatov describes how the boy plays alone and talks to his schoolbag as if it’s a real person, because he has nobody else to confide in.

There were also mythological elements that paralleled the main story. They eventually played a role in the story. I won’t spoil how, but it was very impactful and reminded me of another masterpiece by Aitmatov called The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years.

Overall, The White Ship had a lot of heart and insight into the nature of kindness and indifference. If you’re okay with crying, definitely read this. It’s short and devastating, but totally worth it.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Tolkien

Hello! Today’s post will be short, but worth it. I’ve reread an old favorite…

The Children of Húrin, by J.R.R. Tolkien

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“But Túrin sped far before them, and came to Cabed-en-Aras, and stood still; and he heard the roaring of the water, and saw that all the trees near and far were withered, and their sere leaves fell mournfully, as though winter had come in the first days of summer.”

This story is about a man named Túrin, who’s the son of Húrin, a warrior in Middle-Earth. The story’s a tragedy, since Túrin’s family has been cursed by evil.

It’s a good tragedy. The first time I read it, I listened to it on audiobook and loved it. This time, I also loved it. I even enjoyed it more than The Lord of The Rings.

It was interesting to see how Tolkien could tell many different story types. In The Hobbit, he was able to tell a fun story, in The Lord of the Rings he told a more serious and epic tale, and in The Children of Húrin he told what felt like a legend.

In spite of his distant style of narration (“It was said that X and Y and Z happened”), Tolkien provided enough humanizing details that I was still able to connect with the characters (“Túrin wept bitterly after XYZ but went to character ABC and said, ‘LMNOP’ [something kind]”). In tragedies, it seems the character is the most important aspect. Yes, some of the tragic events in this story felt a bit like they were based too much on coincidence and accidents, but the characters felt real enough for that not to matter much.

Overall, if you haven’t read this yet, do so. You won’t regret it (though you may cry!)

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Yezierska and Jerome

Hello! Happy almost-Purim. I’ve read two books this week, one Purim-related, one boat-related. You can probably guess which is which.

Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska

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“I pressed my face against the earth. All that was left of me reached out in prayer, ‘God, I’ve gone so far. Help me to go on [….] Help me not to want their little happiness. I have wanted their love more than my life. Help me be bigger than this hunger in me. Give me the love that can live without love.’ Darkness and stillness washed over me. Slowly I stumbled to my feet and looked up at the sky. The stars in their infinite peace seemed to pour their healing light into me. I thought of captives in prison, the sick and the suffering from the beginning of time who had looked to these stars for strength. What was my little sorrow to the centuries of pain which those stars had watched? So near they seemed. So compassionate. My bitter hurt seemed to grow small and drop away. If I must go on alone, I should still have silence and the high stars to walk with me.”

Bread Givers was written in the 1920s and is also set in the 1920s. It’s about a girl named Sara who grows up in a Jewish-American family in New York City. Her super-religious and self-centered father forces her three older sisters to marry wealthy-seeming men who make them miserable. Sara decides she doesn’t want to be married off and pursues a college degree instead.

I was very inspired by Sara’s strong sense of self. She was tempted to sacrifice herself and her ideals to marry a wealthy handsome man. She didn’t, since she knew herself well enough to realize she wouldn’t ever be happy in such an arrangement. Considering the fact that the book was written in the 1920s, this aspect of her character was especially striking.

There were two other things that stood out to me about the book. First, even though there were some very unsympathetic characters, such as Sara’s father, there would always be a part in the book that portrayed them in a sympathetic way. I still didn’t like Sara’s father, but these flashes of sympathy helped me understand why he was who he was. This sense of nuance enriched the story and made it better.

The other thing that stood out to me was the ending. Obviously I won’t spoil it. I will say that sometimes you read a book’s ending and it works very well. It may not have been expected but you could tell that the author put a lot of thought into it and realized that such an ending could be the only possible ending. These endings are very rare. I felt that the ending of Bread Givers was one of them.

One warning: The book was sort of sentimental at points. Some characters wept and wailed and banged their heads against the wall. This felt melodramatic because there are too many characters in the world who’ve done exactly the same thing. This melodrama was rare, though. I still recommend the book wholeheartedly.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome

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“I always determine […] that I’ll get up early every morning, and go and have a dip before breakfast [….] But when I get to the sea I don’t feel somehow that I want that early morning bathe nearly so much as I did when I was in town [….] Once or twice virtue has triumphed, and I have got out at six and half-dressed myself, and have taken my drawers and towel, and stumbled dismally off [….] And when I do get to the sea, it is rough and quite insulting. One huge wave catches me up and chucks me in a sitting posture, as hard as ever it can, down on to a rock which has been put there for me. And, before I’ve said ‘Oh! Ugh!’ and found out what has gone, the wave comes back and carries me out to mid-ocean. I begin to strike out frantically for the shore, and wonder if I shall ever see home and friends again, and wish I’d been kinder to my little sister when a boy (when I was a boy, I mean). Just when I have given up all hope, a wave retires and leaves me sprawling like a star-fish on the sand, and I get up and look back and find that I’ve been swimming for my life in two feet of water. I hop back and dress, and crawl home, where I have to pretend I liked it.”

This book is about three friends, “J”, George, and Harris, who go on a boat ride down the river Thames to cure themselves of “overwork.” They also take their dog with them.

Three Men in a Boat was great. The characters got into all sorts of mishaps which reminded them of previous mishaps and even future mishaps. 99% of the mishaps were hilarious. Three Men in a Boat also had some sober parts in it. Sometimes they felt cheesy but other times they were beautiful. Overall they helped vary the tone and made the funny parts funnier.

Anyway, I was laughing my way through this book, thinking that Jerome K. Jerome really knew how funny life was these days. Then about halfway through, I got to this line: “There is no more thrilling sensation I know of than sailing. It comes as near to flying as man has got to yet—except in dreams.” I also started seeing all these references to “nowadays in the 19th century.” This made me realize that this extraordinarily fresh-seeming book had been written in the 1800s, before airplanes had even been invented. So much for stuffy old writers!

Read it and weep (with laughter).

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov, Gogol, and Aitmatov Again

Hello! I hope you’re well, and if there’s a blizzard raging around outside, I hope you’re also warm. I’ve reviewed three more books. If you’re warm enough to read at least one of them, I would highly encourage reading the last book.

On Craftsmanship, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“Man should think about everything, even about the end of the world…What is the power of the human spirit, how does man overcome the cruel obstacles which confront him, what gives man the right to be human and say, in reviewing his life: ‘I lived and knew life’? These questions are unavoidable for an artistic understanding of reality, no matter what the subject.”

On Craftsmanship is a collection of essays written by the greatest underrated writer ever, Chingiz Aitmatov. The essays express his views on various topics from writing to space-travel to world peace. Aitmatov also gives a brief autobiography which was one of the more interesting parts of the book.

Aside from his autobiography, other rewarding parts of the book were about how he approached his works and his ideas about art’s role in society. Other parts read more like propaganda (apparently Aitmatov wrote the book while Kyrgyzstan was still part of the USSR).

He also had a whole essay about the unprecedented technological advances of the 1970s, and another essay about how humanity was slowly but surely starting to threaten nature. Given the technological advances of the 2000s and the unprecedented level of global warming we’ve been experiencing, these essays felt a bit outdated.

In the end, On Craftsmanship gave me a better sense of how Aitmatov thought, but it didn’t change my life.

Dead Souls, Part 2, by Nikolai Gogol

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“‘You will do well to harken unto Him who is merciful,’ he said, ‘but remember also that in the eyes of the All Merciful, honest toil is of equal merit with a prayer. Therefore take unto yourself whatsoever task you may and do it as though you were doing it not unto man but unto God. Even though to your lot there should fall but the cleaning of a floor, clean that floor as though it were being cleaned for Him alone.’”

Dead Souls originally had two parts to it, but Gogol tried to burn away the second part. In my review of the first part, I foolishly thought that since the second part still existed, Gogol had utterly failed. Actually reading the infinitely-disappointing second part made me realize how wrong I was.

The second part begins with Gogol giving the life-story of a new character. The character meets Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, the protagonist of Dead Souls Part 1. Things seem to be going along swimmingly. Then there’s what my version termed “a long hiatus in the original” (also known as a missing part) and we never hear from that character again. Chichikov gets into all kinds of trouble, and we encounter more long hiatuses in the original, after which we find Chichikov magically wanting to change his ways. Irrelevant characters come and go, convenient coincidences and deus ex machinas abound, and whole reams of previously-undisclosed backstory unfurl themselves before the reader’s bewildered gaze. We wonder: Will Chichikov change his ways? Won’t he? The suspense nearly kills us.

I’m not giving anything away: the original ends with an infinite hiatus.

So my suggestion to you is to read the first part and then take a hiatus from the book before you reach the second part. Better yet, make that hiatus an infinite one.

Piebald Dog Running Along The Shore, by Chingiz Aitmatov, Translated by Alex Miller

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“‘Drink,’ said Organ. Kirisk hesitated. Although dying of thirst and eager to empty those few swallows of water down his own throat, he knew he must not. ‘No,’ he said, struggling with the consuming desire inside him. ‘No, Grandad, drink it yourself.’ And he felt giddy. Organ’s hand trembled at these words and he sighed heavily. His gaze softened and he looked affectionately at the boy. ‘I’ve drunk, oh, so much water in my time. But you have a long time to live yet before…’ He did not finish. ‘You understand me, Kirisk? Drink, it’s necessary, you must drink up, but don’t worry about me. Here!’ And again, as he swallowed the water, only for a moment did the boy feel the fire within him dampened and subdued, and again, after the relief, he promptly wanted another drink.”

Guess what? This story isn’t about a dog. It’s about a kid named Kirisk who’s going seal-hunting for the first time in his life with his grandfather, his father, and his uncle. Kirisk is very excited about this rite of passage, but little does he know how life-changing the expedition is going to be…

This story reminded me a lot of Jack London in the way Aitmatov depicted the harsh wilderness. However this story was richer than most of Jack London’s stories because Aitmatov also got across so much about his characters’ inner lives.

What makes the story work seems to be that Aitmatov alternates between showing characters’ thoughts and flashbacks and having them act. The thoughts increase the stakes of their situation which gives their actions more meaning. Then the actions produce unforeseen consequences which go on to reverberate through the next series of thoughts, which further heighten the stakes and so on. Basically, Aitmatov uses both internal and external events to build up suspense, tension, and investment, and since it all culminates in one epic final moment, the whole story is filled with a sense of direction and momentum. Who knew that reading about people drifting around in a canoe could be so engrossing? I didn’t.

You can read it for free here.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Feynman, McCormack, and Saki

Hello and happy holidays! I hope you all enjoyed the Great Conjunction last night and are excited for the New Year. If you’re thinking of what you could read in 2021, (or sooner) here are three books I would recommend:

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character, by Richard Feynman

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“Then I had another thought: physics disgusts me now but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing. It didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with [….] So I got this new attitude: now that I am burned out, and I’ll never accomplish anything, [….] I’m going to play with physics whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever. Within a week, I was in the cafeteria and some guy fooling around throws a plate in the air [….] I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate [….] I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, ‘Hey Hans, I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is…” and I showed him the accelerations. He says, ‘Feynman, that’s pretty interesting but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?’ ‘Ha!’ I say. ‘There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.’ His reaction didn’t discourage me. I had made up my mind. I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked. I went on to work out equations of wobbles [….] Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it. There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.”

Richard Feynman is known for winning a Nobel Prize in Physics and for helping to invent the hexaflexagon, but his super-accessible and funny memoir is less about his scientific work and more about his life. Yes, he does tell about how he started out in science, how he worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, and how he came to win the Nobel Prize. However, he also tells about his adventures dancing samba in Brazil, his stints as an artist and drummer, and his time in Japan.

Reading (or in my case, listening to) this book was like having a really interesting and wise friend sit across from you and tell about all of his hijinks. Some of them were questionable, others weren’t, but all of them were entertaining, and it was great to hear about Feynman’s unique take on life. Yes, sometimes Feynman repeated himself (saying stuff similar to “I went to Japan and it was very interesting. Japan was really a very exciting place”) but that didn’t matter much. Also, in the audiobook version, the narrator occasionally read sentences twice in a row, but that happened so rarely that it didn’t matter much, either.

In the end, Feynman’s memoir was definitely worth the read. It was humorous, (usually) wise, entertaining, and insightful.

The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist, Second Edition, by Thomas McCormack

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“Still another genus is the craving for a certain meaningful modulation right here in the narrative. For an example, consider Hemingway’s feeling a need for the fishing scene in The Sun Also Rises; Tolstoy’s urge to send Levin out for a whole chapter just to reap wheat; Melville to ask, ‘How can I hope to explain myself here?’ and yet to know that ‘in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught,’ and then indite his fearsome, magniloquent passage on ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’; or Shakespeare to trouble forth his witches in Macbeth—all episodes that, by any artlessly mechanical measure such as ‘everything must advance the story’, would be deleted, at immense aesthetic loss.”

I heard about McCormack’s book from another book I read, and since McCormack edited The Silence of the Lambs, I figured he’d have some interesting things to say about writing.

He did have some interesting things to say about writing, but his book also felt thin. I read it over the course of an hour or so.

In terms of interestingness, McCormack talked a lot about how editors couldn’t just rely on fixing the more easily seen surface-level problems with books (“this scene is irrelevant to the story, the ending doesn’t work, etc.”) but also have to keep searching for subtler, “internal” problems—there may be nothing wrong with a story in and of itself, but there may be aspects missing from it that make it not as satisfying as it could be. Without knowing what the story lacks, the editor wouldn’t be able to fix such problems.

So then McCormack says that we all need an editors’ textbook, and spends the rest of the book trying to explain some things about editing. Maybe some stories don’t work because their characters aren’t as strongly affected by each other as they should be. Maybe other stories don’t work because the writer shoves in a lot of backstory near the beginning that doesn’t really contribute to the forward momentum of the story.

Maybe other stories do work because the writer included something extra that wouldn’t be seen as traditionally relevant but wound up actually enhancing the story, like in that excerpt above where he wrote about Tolstoy and Hemingway and Melville. Imagining the stories without those insertions, who would have thought that anything was missing? Nobody but the writers themselves.

That was the most interesting part of the book, in my opinion, but I’m sure that there’s much more that’s interesting in the book, too. It’s definitely given me some things to think about, and it feels like the kind of book you can return to multiple times and get new things out of each time. So, if you’re a writer or editor or even just a reader wanting to learn more about how books work or don’t work, McCormack’s book is a good read.

Reginald in Russia, and Other Sketches, by Saki

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“The silence continued. As a rule Lady Anne’s displeasure became articulate and markedly voluble after four minutes of introductory muteness. Egbert seized the milkjug and poured some of its contents into [the dog] Don Tarquinio’s saucer; as the saucer was already full to the brim an unsightly overflow was the result. Don Tarquinio looked on with a surprised interest that evanesced into elaborate unconsciousness when he was appealed to by Egbert to come and drink up some of the spilt matter. Don Tarquinio was prepared to play many roles in life, but a vacuum carpet-cleaner was not one of them.”

I stumbled upon Saki very recently and have been reading him since. Reginald in Russia was where I first stumbled upon him. This is a collection of short stories and one little play. One of the short stories is obviously about a guy named Reginald and his adventures in Russia, but the others are about different characters in different places.

Even though Saki was around in the stodgy old 1800s, he’s one of the funniest writers I’ve read (up there with Gogol). There’s something about the way he sets something up to happen, then has the reader spend the whole story waiting for it to happen, then making it happen near the end while revealing something that completely changes the meaning of what just happened. He’s probably so funny because he’s so good at causing this surprise.

I don’t really know what to compare it to. It’s sort of like spending all day anticipating a dinner where you’ll eat a chocolate fudge cake that someone made for you, only to find when you actually do bite into its frosty surface that it was secretly made of ice cream the whole time.

Something interesting about the twists though: They only seem to work when they create an emotional reaction in the reader that makes the twist worthwhile. In Saki’s case, this happens when the twist makes the story funnier than it was previously. Fortunately for us, this usually happened when reading Reginald in Russia.

A few of the stories I enjoyed the most were “The Reticence of Lady Anne,” “The Bag,” “A Young Turkish Catastrophe,” and “The Soul of Laploshka.” If you’re only going to read one Saki story from this entire book, I would recommend either “The Reticence of Lady Anne” or “The Bag.” Of course, reading only one story from this collection is much less enjoyable than reading the whole book, so you might as well do yourself a favor and read the whole book. The stories are hilarious and they’re great for the holidays.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Barry and Pearson, Buck, and Tolstoy

Hello! Happy Tuesday and happy August. Here are three more books I’ve reviewed. All of them have people who try to fly (with varying degrees of success).

Peter and the Sword of Mercy, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

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“Wendy again squeaked, chirped, and chittered at the water. Again, nothing happened. Now, to Wendy’s further embarrassment, a second dockworker, apparently a friend of the first, ambled up. ‘What’s this?’ he asked his friend. ‘This girl,’ said the first man, pointing at Wendy, ‘is talking to the porpoises.’ ‘Is she, now?’ said the second man. ‘I do that myself sometimes.’ ‘True,’ said the first. ‘But only when you’ve been drinking.'”

You may have heard of Peter Pan, that flying boy from J.M. Barrie’s classic children’s story. You may have also heard of Tinker Bell and Captain Hook, but you probably haven’t heard of the Starcatchers.

That’s okay, because they’re not actually part of Barrie’s story. They’re part of the Peter Pan spin-off series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. For those of you who don’t know, the Starcatchers are a secret organization that looks for “starstuff.” Starstuff is a magical substance that falls from the sky that can make people (like Peter Pan) fly. There is another secret organization, called the Others, that wants to use the starstuff for evil purposes. So, we have the basic plot of The Sword of Mercy: Starcatchers vs Others.

The only problem is that the Starcatchers were disbanded years before Sword of Mercy, so nobody’s around to prevent the Others from looking for a secret cache of starstuff hidden somewhere in London. The only person who can stop the Others is a girl named Wendy, and the flying boy named Peter. So the actual plot of Sword winds up being more like this: Wendy has to find Peter and then work with him to save the day.

Well. Now that the long-winded summary is out of the way, let’s move on to the review.

I’ve always been a fan of these books when I was little. They were so expansive and fun. I revisited them to see if they would still hold up. Some of the books do (like Peter and the Shadow Thieves), but this particular book doesn’t. The historical elements are entertaining (it takes place in 1902), but the characters are too thinly-drawn for me to feel much about them.

Also, the chapters in Sword don’t seem to be as rich as the chapters of other books in the series. In those books, it felt like the writers took care and effort to develop their scenes to be effective. The stakes would be set, the action would happen, and you’d get some sort of resolution or cliff-hanger. Since the scenes were well-structured, the resolutions were satisfying and the cliff-hangers were exciting.

Many chapters in this book are too brief to be developed with that level of panache. The writers don’t seem to take the time to really ground their scenes and build their stakes meaningfully. The action can sometimes be interesting, but because the set-up is rushed, the resolutions of the scenes aren’t as satisfying.

That is, if there even are resolutions. 99% of the time, these super-short chapter-scenes end with cliff-hangers. All well and good, but the lack of set-up makes it so these cliff-hangers don’t feel as meaningful or exciting as they should be. Finally, Sword reuses plot devices from previous books in the series without trying to make them new and fresh.

With all that being said, Sword feels more like the authors are just going through the motions of churning out a book instead of really investing time and effort into making the book good. So I’d recommend this book for younger people who would enjoy the book’s ideas, but I’d tell older people to check out earlier books in the series (like Peter and the Shadow Thieves).

The Mahabharata, Translated by William Buck

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“‘Do not call me Death!’ she replied. ‘I will never kill for you.’ Brahma looked at that winsome girl. ‘I will make them equal. You will not have to take them, either men or gods or devils. I will make greed and anger and malice and shame and jealousy and passion. I will make them this way and that way. I will make disease and war from your tears. Those two only I will make that way. Do nothing–they will all come to you, soon or late. There is nothing to do, nothing to stop doing, for you or for them. But only greet them well in their hour. You have nothing else to say, they will kill themselves. And only the foolish will weep over what none can avoid.’ Then Shiva began his dance, for till then, though he raised his foot, he could not put it down.”

The Mahabharata is an ancient Sanskrit tale about two warring families. It’s so epic. It’s epic in size, and it’s epic in contents. The good thing for me is that the version I read was condensed to 293 glorious pages.

The entire story is intact. The only thing missing from it is the Bhagavad Gita. The condensed version feels epic anyway. Maybe because of its poetic style, or because of the various stories within, or because its cast of characters includes gods walking the earth and struggling alongside humans. Compared to the other mythologies I’ve read (Greek, Norse, the Bible), this is something new. The gods actually fly down to earth and have stakes in the story, instead of just watching everything from the heavens.

I expected the characters to be cardboard cutouts, but for some reason they came across as surprisingly human. Instead of just reading about their actions, you also get a sense of their interiority and emotions, which makes the book even more enjoyable.

For me, the story’s philosophical richness was probably the best part. The Mahabharata doesn’t say that the gods would solve every problem ever, so it’s able to explore things like life’s meaning, the source of discontent, and ways people can overcome vice. Even better: It explores them well.

So there you have it: war, love, death, life, philosophy. Now do yourself a favor and read it.

War and Peace Part 5, by Leo Tolstoy

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“‘How did you fly, with wings?’ asked Nikolai. ‘No, just with my legs. You just have to make a bit of an effort with your legs.’ ‘Oh yes. Oh yes,’ Nikolai said with a smile. ‘Like this,’ Natasha said, promptly leaping up on to the divan. She put an expression of effort on her face, stretched her arms out in front of her and tried to fly, but only jumped down to the floor. Sonya and Nikolai laughed. ‘No, wait, that’s not right, I will fly, I will,’ said Natasha.”

(Parts 1 2 3 46 7 here).

Even though Natasha is the only character in this week’s review who fails to fly, Part 5 of the first draft of War and Peace is still worth reading. For one thing, it’s much better than Part 4. There’s still no war, but there is variety. There are hunting scenes, theater scenes, and even a scene where someone holds a kind of intervention. The scenes are very entertaining in their own right, and you get to see the characters not just as lovers but as hunters and singers and musicians and people.

Now, Tolstoy spent like the entirety of Part 4 giving painstaking details and trying (and perhaps failing) to convince you that his characters were in love with each other.

Even though there’s less romance in Part 5, the romance that exists is much more believable. Maybe because it’s easier to care about actual people falling in love. Even when the characters act super-dramatically about their love, it works better than Part 4, because now you understand where they’re coming from. Yes, in Part 4 there was one character working very hard to reform legislation, but the legislation in question wasn’t that interesting (at least for me), so the character didn’t get any more humanized, and his love scenes didn’t benefit.

So maybe it’s that entertainingness that makes Part 5 work. You join the characters on their hunting expeditions, you laugh aloud with them, and in the process you stop seeing them as characters and start seeing them as people. When they finally do fall in love, you actually care.

Also, I may have mentioned in my previous reviews of War and Peace that parts of some sections read like first drafts. Part 5 doesn’t suffer from that. Maybe Tolstoy really is hitting his stride now.

Until next Tuesday! I hope you all stay healthy and safe, and that your feet remain firmly on the ground.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Orwell, Theophrastus, and Aitmatov

Hello. I hope you are all well. I’ve been able to get back to the library to take out some really thick and really thin books. One of them is reviewed here. The others will probably take a while longer to get through.

Meanwhile, here are my reviews:

Animal Farm, by George Orwell

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“‘I have little more to say. I merely repeat, remember always your duty of enmity towards Man and all his ways. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend. And remember also that in fighting against Man, we must not come to resemble him. Even when you have conquered him, do not adopt his vices.’”

Animal Farm is about a bunch of animals on a farm who rebel against their human farmer, kick him out, and try to govern themselves. It’s also an allegory about the Russian Revolution. Will the animals manage to live in peace among themselves and preserve their enmity towards Man? Will they remain steadfast in their determination not to adopt his vices? If you’ve already read the book and are re-reading it like I did, you’ll know the answer.

Yet is the book still worth re-reading? For me it was. The first time I read it, I was really young and didn’t fully understand all of its political subtext. This time I did understand the subtext, and so I found myself laughing at some of the references to the Russian Revolution.

Even if you did understand the subtext first time around, Animal Farm is one of those books that become more enjoyable when you know the ending. You now have time to think. How exactly do the animals wind up in their situation? Could it have been prevented? What lessons can we learn now?

Basically, Animal Farm is still as classic as ever. It’s also very short and worth the hour-and-a-half it would take to read, or to re-read, or to re-re-read.

 

Characters, by Theophrastus

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“When he’s serving in the military and the infantry are advancing to attack, [the Coward] calls to his comrades and urges them to stand alongside him first and survey the field, saying it’s hard to tell which men are the enemy. Hearing a roar and seeing men falling, he tells his comrades that in his haste he forgot to bring his sword. He then runs to his tent and sends his slave outside, ordering him to see where the enemy troops are. Hiding the sword under his pillow, he then spends a long time pretending to search for it.”

Characters is that book that you take out when you’re able to get back to the library for the first time in months. It’s written by a Greek named Theophrastus. In it, he satirizes different types of people he’s met in Athens (such as the Coward, the Pinchpenny, and the Complainer). The satirical sketches are short and sometimes entertaining. They’re much more entertaining when you realize they were written thousands of years ago, and that people haven’t really changed much since then.

 

The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“‘I have no writing table. As soon as my brood settle down to sleep, Zaripa reads, and I write down things while I can still remember what happened—about the war, and especially my years in Yugoslavia. Time passes and the past goes further away into the distance.’ He was silent, and then added, ‘All the time I’m thinking about what I can do for my children. Of course there is a general truth for everyone, but everyone has his own understanding about things, and this understanding dies with him. When a man hovers between life and death in the midst of a world conflict; when he is nearly killed a hundred times over and yet still survives, then he has learnt a great deal about good and evil, truth and falsehood […] My legacy is my soul, my writings, and in them is all that I understood and learnt from the war. I have no greater riches to leave to my children.’”

This book is so amazing that its essence can’t really be summarized by one quote. Written by Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov, it’s set in Kazakhstan under the Soviet Union. It takes place during one day in the life of a man named Yedigei, who’s going to bury his friend, Kazangap, in the desert. It’s also about aliens, nuclear war, traditional legends, and peoples’ lives. It’s funny, tragic, and heartfelt. It feels so epic, but it’s only like 350 pages long.

With all that epicness, Aitmatov’s book can also be interpreted as a criticism of the Soviet Union’s treatment of Kazakhstan. Basically, he implies that the Soviet Union tried to erase the Central Asian peoples’ history and traditions to better oppress them. What’s surprising is that this book was published while Kazakhstan was still a Soviet state—Aitmatov was able to get this book (Soviet criticism and all) past the censors and into print.

The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years may remind you of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five because of its aliens, non-chronological progression, and intellectual leanings. There’s a difference, though. Vonnegut’s book has more of a detached intellectualism. Aitmatov’s book has some intellectualness, but it’s mainly a compelling and compassionate story about people.

Its cover is really cool, too:

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I can keep rambling on incoherently and listing adjectives to try to convince you to read it, but I won’t. I’ll just say that Aitmatov’s book is amazing and underrated and that it should be a classic.

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Until next time! I hope you are all safe, healthy, happy, and reading.

I Read, and Reflect Upon the Horrors of War

 

Enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I Read, and Refuse to Consume Liver and Cabbage for Dinner

I have read three more books, and I have reviewed them below. One of them involves liver and cabbage, and I will leave it up to you to find out which one that is…

Native Son by Richard Wright

Favorite Quote: “He was too weak to stand any longer. He sat again on the edge of the cot. How could he find out if this feeling of his was true, if others had it? How could one find out about life when one was about to die? Slowly he lifted his hands in the darkness and held them in mid-air, the fingers spread weakly open. If he reached out with his hands, and if his hands were electric wires, and if his heart were a battery giving life and fire to those hands, and if he reached out with his hands and touched other people, reached out through these stone walls and felt other hands connected with other hearts—if he did that, would there be a reply, a shock? Not that he wanted those hearts to turn their warmth to him; he was not wanting that much. But just to know that they were there and warm! Just that, and no more; and it would have been enough, more than enough. And in that touch, response of recognition, there would be union, identity; there would be a supporting oneness, a wholeness which had been denied him all his life.”

This book is so great that it beat out all the other books on my top ten list aside from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

This book is about an African-American named Bigger Thomas who commits a crime in Chicago, and winds up confronting racism and the law.

This summary doesn’t really do the book justice. The reason Native Son is so good is because it unites emotion and ideas with this exciting plot. Also, whereas some authors make their books good just in the beginning, Native Son is uniformly excellent all throughout. It does not wimp out on any aspect of its premise and it forces its characters to deal with the harsh consequences of their actions. It does not shy away from itself, and is brutally honest, both in its situational outcomes and its portrayal of life.

It is not to be missed.

Farewell Summer by Ray Bradbury

Favorite Quote: Every time you take a step, even when you don’t want to. . . . When it hurts, when it means you rub chins with death, or even if it means dying, that’s good. Anything that moves ahead, wins. No chess game was ever won by the player who sat for a lifetime thinking over his next move.”

Bradbury wrote this as a sequel to his book, Dandelion Wine, about a kid named Doug who experiences the wonders of summer. In Farewell Summer, Doug encounters old age and metaphorically goes to war with mortality. The book was okay, but you’d be much better off reading Dandelion Wine first. You get more invested in the characters and their story that way. Also, in the afterword of Farewell Summer, Bradbury even admits that this book is just a compilation of scenes and metaphors, while Dandelion Wine had more of a story. So, if you prefer more story, read Dandelion Wine, but if you prefer super-vivid imagery, try Farewell Summer.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” by Neil Simon

Favorite Quote: “EUGENE: Oh, God! As if things weren’t bad enough…and now this! The ultimate tragedy…liver and cabbage for dinner! A Jewish medieval torture!… My friend Marty Gregorio, an A student in science, told me that cooked cabbage can be smelled farther than sound traveling for seven minutes. If these memoirs are never finished, you’ll know it’s because I gagged to death one night in the middle of summer.”

As you can see, this is a funny play. It takes place during the Great Depression and focuses on various plot lines in the family of a kid named Eugene Jerome. For instance, Eugene’s cousin wants to dance on Broadway, and his brother may lose his job because he stood up to his boss. The version I read contained pictures from the film with captions saying that Eugene “had matured from a boy into a man” but I didn’t really pick up on that so-called maturation from my reading. Perhaps he did mature. Perhaps you should read it and see for yourself.

I hope you enjoyed my book reviews. Also, as it is summer, I am taking a hiatus to catch up with the real world. I will be back in September with more book reviews and writing advice. Stay tuned!

Top Ten Books I Read in High School

Today is my last day of high school ever. I’ve reviewed many books on this site. In celebration and commemoration of this rite of passage, here’s a countdown of the top ten books I’ve read in high school:

10: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I read this in 10th grade. This sci-fi classic is great because of its writing style, which remains consistently engaging and impactful throughout the book. Also, Bradbury’s book oozes with bibliophilic sentiment. What’s not to love?

9: “The Great Highway” by August Strindberg

I read this in 12th grade. I loved the ending to this play. It has to do with living up to one’s ideals, which I related to immensely. Also, it’s Strindberg’s last-ever play, so it doesn’t get much better than this.

8: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

I read this in 9th grade. This book was amazing at bringing humanity to war, in a way that showed war’s futility. In other words, it juxtaposed the humanity of the soldiers with the inhumanity of war–in the face of humanity, Remarque made war seem absolutely stupid.

7: A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

I read this in 12th grade. I loved the anti-hero in it. He was so irreverent, and served as the prototype for the Byronic hero, and many other anti-heroes throughout history.

6: The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas

I read this in 10th grade. It’s great. I planted three trees in my backyard. I named them Athos, Porthos, and Aramis after the characters in this funny swashbuckler. That should give you an idea of how impactful this book has been on my life.

5: Confessions by Jean- Jacques Rousseau

I read this in the beginning of 11th grade, and found a kindred spirit in Rousseau. Both of us loved life and didn’t feign apathy towards it. It makes me really wish I’d known Rousseau in person, but really glad I read this book.

4: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I read this in 11th grade. I liked the book’s development and its complexity. Instead of glorifying war, it glorified the best of humanity. Books like that are rare, and well-done books like that are even rarer. Here’s to you, Anna Karenina!

3: Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

I read this in 11th grade. It showed me that writers can write for full orchestra. Here is my review of it.

2: Native Son by Richard Wright

I literally just finished reading it and it is amazingly well-executed. As promised, here’s the link to my full review.

1: “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare

I read it in 9th grade and then reread it in 10th grade and then again in 12th grade. Because this book can be interpreted any way you want it to be interpreted, everyone can find something within that is relatable. Also, it has amazing imagery. Read it, and you won’t be disappointed.

Honorable Mentions

These books were really good, and would definitely be in my top 30:

Martin Eden (Jack London)

“Long Day’s Journey into Night” (Eugene O’Neill)

Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Laura Hillenbrand)

“Death of a Salesman” (Arthur Miller)

Man’s Fate (Andre Malraux)

The Tartar Steppe (Dino Buzzati)

Jonathan Livingston, Seagull (Richard Bach)

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

The Natural (Bernard Malamud)

The Once and Future King (T.H. White)

“The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail” (Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence)

4 Plays of Chekhov (Anton Chekhov)

The Man Who Laughs (Victor Hugo)

The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)

The Children of Hurin (J.R.R. Tolkien)

“Cyrano de Bergerac” (Edmund Rostand)

Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey)

Bullfinch’s Mythology (Thomas Bullfinch)

“The Condemned of Altona” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

The Lay of the Nibelung

This Boy’s Life (Tobias Wolff)

Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)

Mortality (Christopher Hitchens)

I hope you’ve enjoyed my books. If you’ve read any books on these lists, feel free to comment below about them.