Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Nurpeisov, Nurpeisov, and Nurpeisov

In Which I Review An Underrated Epic…

Hello! I’ve read a 700-page book this past week (somehow). It was very fun to read, and it felt very close to being a great book.

I’ll start with my review and end with some favorite quotes.

Blood & Sweat, by Abdi-Jamil Nurpeisov,
Translated by Catherine Fitzpatrick

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Blood & Sweat is an epic novel set in Kazakhstan before and during the Russian Civil War. It’s about several characters, but mostly, it’s about a Kazakh named Elaman who lives in an aul (nomadic settlement) near the Aral Sea. He falls in and out of love with various women, struggles to find his place as Russian influence increases, and eventually finds himself fighting for his life during the Civil War.

This book (which consists of three smaller Books) read a lot like a Kazakh version of Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. Yes, Blood & Sweat was less consistent in quality, and it had a LOT of typos. Even so, the typos should be ignored, since parts of Blood & Sweat actually felt broader and richer than Roth’s book. Nurpeisov was especially good at bringing several characters together and having them unexpectedly impact each other. Character A might seem unimportant until he stumbles upon the major Character B and kills him, for instance.

The characters quarreled a lot, though. Especially in Book 2, some of the quarrels felt melodramatic and repetitive. Also, Blood & Sweat seemed to underuse its female characters. For instance, one of Elaman’s love-interests only thought of him, and how excited she was to make his dinner every night and care for his kids. Meanwhile, the men thought about their wives, but they also thought about things like the meaning of life and how they would adapt to the changing aul. Given that the men had this range of thoughts, it would have been realistic for at least a few of the women to also have complex thoughts. So, the repetitive bouts of melodramatic arguing and underused female characters meant that parts of this book felt less well-written than they could have been.

Book 3 was the best in my opinion. Whereas the earlier books didn’t usually have the characters being compassionate towards each other, this last book did! It was surprising to me how much of a difference it made to see characters caring about each other. In fact, some of the best moments in the book came out of this dynamic, since they helped the characters become less cardboard-y and feel much more human.

Also, the characters tended to gain more depth as the book went on. Character A would seem like an absolute jerk, but then two hundred pages later Nurpeisov would describe his backstory and the character would become much more sympathetic/relatable. So the book’s psychological texture (especially nearer the end) was excellent.

To me, the author’s sympathy for his characters, as well as the characters’ eventual sympathy for each other was what made the epic cast of characters so effective.

Overall, Blood & Sweat was really good. It was uneven in quality (with some truly great scenes intermixed with some less-great scenes). Even so, while it was consistently uneven, it was also consistently engaging and entertaining to read. So if you can read it, definitely read it.

Now, as promised, here are some favorite scenes/excerpts:

“The broken boards of the boat crushed Andrei’s legs, and [he] fell out onto the ice, and shouted, ‘Jalmurat!’ Jalmurat did not answer. Then Andrei, his fingernails ripping off, grabbed his frozen coat, dragged him on the ice, and began breathing into his mouth. ‘Hey!’ he called Jalmurat, shaking him. ‘Can you hear me? Can you hear…’ And only now did he notice that Jalmurat’s arms and legs had turned to stone. Jalmurat was dead. Andrei was so frightened that he was about to drag Jalmurat’s body away, when he caught himself, and dropped him. Then in a delirium, he meandered along somewhere with the wind […] In the darkness, he didn’t notice a crack in the ice beneath him. He tripped over the crack, plunged forward, and fell flat on the ice, breaking his face. He lay for a while, and then tried to get up. The storm wind blew all the powder off the ice, and the ice was smooth and strong as glass.” (From Book 1)

“[Kalen said…] ‘I will not die before my death.'” (From Book 1)

The steppe slowly awakened. Thawed by the spring sun, it dosed and breathed steam. Near the auls, in the depths of a ravine overgrown with meadowsweet, where the sun didn’t reach, yellowish snow still gleamed on the ground, like a souvenir dropped by the stern guest who had only recently stormed through the steppe.” (From Book 2)

After finally finding a bit to eat, and having a drink of hot tea, Dyakov felt his eyelids were growing heavy again. He wanted nothing more than to fall asleep, even right here at the table.  […] he hadn’t noticed how Selivanov had moved his chair closer and sat down next to him. He hadn’t sensed the pitying gaze of his host, either. His thin body was bent on the [chair]. He sat obliviously, with his head on his chest, although at the edge of awareness he realized that it was time for him to return to the regiment. ‘Pyotr Yalovlevich, lie down in the bed,’ said Selivanov, touching his shoulder. ‘No, no,’ Dyakov said, rousing himself. ‘Thank you. I’ll leave now.’ […] ‘Pyotr Yakovlevich…’ ‘Yes?’ ‘You have probably had a hard time in life, eh?’ ‘Hmm… Do you have anything to smoke?’ ‘But you’re not allowed?’ ‘Although…yes, of course. What time is it?’ ‘It’s after 1:00 AM.’ ‘I’ll go.’ […] Recalling Selivanov’s question, whether he had had a hard life, he suddenly laughed and said, in a singsong voice, ‘You know, “…fate gave him a brief age, a glorious name, consumption and Siberia…” That’s how it is, brother. Well, goodbye!’ And after shaking Selivanov’s warm, soft hand, Dyakov went out into the night’s gloom.” (From Book 3)

Until next week!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I’d highly recommend this book.

Tales, by Alexander Pushkin, Illustrated by Oleg Zotov

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Abai

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe. To those who celebrate, happy Passover.

Today I’m reviewing a book that I stayed up late reading…

Selected Poems, by Abai Kunanbayev

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“My puppy grew into a dog—
And my leg it bit one day.
I taught a youngster once to shoot
He may take my life away.”

This book was written by Abai Kunanbayev, considered to be the greatest poet in Kazakhstan. It was super-interesting, which was why I stayed up late with it.

First of all, the poems themselves were interesting and fresh. The gist of a lot of them was “you need to pay attention to what I’m writing” or “life is transitory” or “politicians are corrupt” or “people these days don’t try hard enough.” Sometimes Abai seemed pretty cynical, but the disappointment he expressed in his poems also had a hint of hope. Maybe, just maybe, if the right person were to read his poems, Abai would be able to get his point across and help someone become less lazy.

What was also interesting about these poems was how much they reminded me of other poems. Many of them made me think of Attar’s “The Conference of the Birds” (which you should definitely read if you haven’t). The same ideas came up in both—the poet offering riches that are overlooked by ignorant masses, life being transitory and poisonous, and the importance of reading things closely. I’d say Attar did it slightly better, since Abai’s poems sometimes had an echo-like quality, as if he were just going through the motions of saying “poets throw pearls before swine” instead of always meaning it.

There was also a poem by Abai that reminded me a lot of Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young.” Interestingly, Abai wrote his poem in 1892, four years before Housman wrote his. Could Abai have influenced Housman? Probably not, but it’s cool to see that Abai beat Housman to the punch.

So in the end I would definitely recommend this book. Some of the poems felt like watered-down imitations of Attar, but the majority of them felt fresh and original and worth the read.

Have you read any poems that reminded you of others? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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: Walker, Aitmatov, and Gogol

Hello. I hope you are well. I’ve read three more books, and I hope you find them as enjoyable as I did.

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

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“Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing. Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool. Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr. __________’s evil sort of shrink. But not altogether. Still, it is like Shug say, You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.”

The Color Purple is the story of Celie, a child wife in the South who writes letters to God and gradually comes into her own, while her sister Nettie writes letters to Celie about being a missionary in Africa.

There were several exciting things about the book. First off, it was written in 1982 (way before Swordspoint) and had a terrifically-written African American LGBTQ protagonist. That alone was exciting.

Also, it introduced a second protagonist and viewpoint halfway through in the form of Nettie. Somehow Walker was able to do this without making the book less engaging. Yes, sometimes there were parts that felt less interesting than others, or that felt like they were included just to provide suspense. Most of the time though, the dual narrators made the book more compelling, since there were all sorts of parallels and contrasts to draw between Nettie’s story and Celie’s story.

There were other parts of the book that were confusing at first but turned out to make sense. Sometimes it felt like Celie was just doing what other characters had inspired her to do, or that she wasn’t doing much at all. Then I realized that during the times when Celie wasn’t doing a lot, she was still reflecting and growing, and that the ending of the story (where she actually made decisions without being inspired by others) worked as well as it did because of those reflections.

Needless to say, I would definitely recommend reading The Color Purple.

To Have and To Lose, by Chingiz Aitmatov, Translated by Olga Shartse

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“[…] suddenly an idea struck me: ‘I’ve time enough to go and tell her and then come back here. What does it matter if I start out a few hours later? I’ll explain it to the chief afterwards, maybe he’ll understand, if he doesn’t he’ll give me hell… But I can’t help it, I’ve got to go.’ […] ‘Hey, Ilyas, get under the crane,’ the operator called out to me. The crane poised above me, now it was too late. There was no going anywhere with a load of export goods [….] I looked out of the rear window: the container was being lowered into my lorry. It was coming down and down. ‘Look out,’ I yelled, and shot forward, slipping from under the descending jib. (My engine was running.) Behind me I heard shouts, whistles and curses.”

This book mostly consists of a lorry driver named Ilyas telling his life-story to an unnamed viewpoint character.

The majority of this life-story was about how he fell in love with two women, which basically meant that Ilyas was a walking mess. I don’t mean it in the way he was written, but in the choices he made (like in the above excerpt). Considering the fact that Aitmatov was still able to make him sympathetic in spite of these choices, I would say that he was well-written.

The story didn’t feel as fleshed-out as some of Aitmatov’s other stories. It wasn’t the lack of backstory—there were hints that Ilyas had once fought in a war, and I doubt that having had a whole section about his war-time experience would have added to the story. Maybe it was because all of the characters in this book fell in love so readily that it felt unbelievable.

Then there’s the mystery of the unnamed viewpoint character. He apparently knew a lot of things about Ilyas’s story that Ilyas himself didn’t know, but Aitmatov never tells us what that means. This made the story both frustrating and fascinating. If you think of Hemingway, he excludes important details from his stories but leaves enough in for the reader to figure it out. Aitmatov just hints that the viewpoint character knows something important about the story’s events and then doesn’t let us know anything else, which can be frustrating. However you could also interpret it as realism. In life, there are many things about others’ stories you will never know and will always wonder about. In his story, Aitmatov manages to convey this experience to the readers. You know there’s more but you won’t ever know what it is, which could make for a fascinating read.

So in spite of the instant-romances, and a little bit because of the unresolved mystery, I would recommend this book.

Dead Souls, Part One, by Nikolai Gogol

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“Yes, readers of this book, none of you really care to see humanity revealed in its nakedness. ‘Why should we do so?’ you say. ‘What would be the use of it? Do we not know for ourselves that human life contains much that is gross and contemptible? […] Far better would it be if you would put before us what is comely and attractive, so that we might forget ourselves a little.’ In the same fashion does a landowner say to his bailiff, ‘Why do you come and tell me that the affairs of my estate are in a bad way? I know that without your help. […] Kindly allow me to forget the fact or else to remain in ignorance of it, and I shall be much obliged to you.’ Whereafter the said landowner probably proceeds to spend on his diversion the money which ought to have gone towards the rehabilitation of his affairs.”

Apparently, Dead Souls was written in two parts. Gogol only wanted Part One published so he tried to burn Part Two to ashes. However, as Mikhail Bulgakov could have told him, manuscripts don’t burn, so there are copies of Dead Souls out there with both parts in them.

Now, Part One of Dead Souls is about a man named Chichikov who wanders around a Russian town trying to buy dead souls (peasants who had died and still had to be paid for by their masters for some reason). The whole book consisted of the people who were selling the souls asking why Chichikov would want to buy them if it would cost him and benefit the sellers. Then the sellers would try to sell the dead souls for exorbitant sums of money, or would try to sell the dead souls and their least favorite horse, and so on.

It was very funny to read. I spent the whole book wondering why Chichikov was buying dead peasants, and since Gogol spends the whole book keeping the reader in suspense about this very question, I had an enjoyable reading experience. The very end came out of nowhere though—Gogol randomly went off on a tangent about how great he thought it would be for Russia to colonize more parts of the world. Did he really believe that? Was it just (hopefully) part of his satire? Who knows? Maybe we’ll find out in Part 2.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kekilbayev, Xun, and Aitmatov

Hello. I hope you are all well in the aftermath of last week’s tragic events. I have read three books. I’ll review them below, since I believe that reading can spread hope.

Ballad of Forgotten Years, by Abish Kekilbayev

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“Now, he is playing a kiuiy [instrument], singing how sweet life is on earth, how magnificent in its glorious expanses. And why must they fight and kill each other, these brother nations, when it is so good to live out one’s days in joyful labor; days watching the children grow, and seeing them prosper, days which reach wise old age.”

This book is about fighting between two Central Asian nomadic groups–the Adai Kazakhs and the Turkmen. A Turkmen warrior named Zhoneyut wants to avenge his brother’s death and sends his son to do so. Tragic consequences ensue.

The book itself was well-written. It had action but it also had a lot of wisdom about the senselessness of violence and art’s power to heal (sometimes). Sometimes Kekilbayev just described a character’s actions, and I found myself wondering what the character was thinking. I also wondered why he didn’t tell us, but then I realized it could have been because the character in question was emotionally-suppressed, since later on this character got more internal monologues. If that was what Kekilbayev was going for, it was pretty cool to see.

Overall, Ballad of Forgotten Years may be hard to find, but it’s worth reading for its story and ideas.

Silent China, Selected Writings of Lu Xun, by Lu Xun,
Translated by Gladys Yang

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“The most deplorable is my elder brother. He’s a man too, so why isn’t he afraid, why is he plotting with others to eat me? Does force of habit blind a man to what’s wrong? Or is he so heartless that he will knowingly commit a crime? In cursing man-eaters, I shall start with my brother. In dissuading man-eaters, I shall start with him too.”

This was a short but very interesting book. It’s made up of short stories, reminiscences, poems, and essays. The short story quoted above is called “A Madman’s Diary” and is about a man who thinks everyone wants to eat him. The other short stories ranged from comic to serious, and I found them the best part of the book. Some of the reminiscences were good, too. Basically, I enjoyed the pieces in the book that evoked emotion. Meanwhile, the essays were sometimes entertaining, sometimes baffling, and other times propagandistic (Lu Xun apparently contributed to Communism’s rise in China).

Overall, I’d say this was a good book, but that I feel I probably could have skipped the essays and not have lost out on much.


Farewell, Gyulsary!, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“Old Torgoi’s prediction came true. The pacer’s star rose quickly that spring. Young and old, everyone knew of him. ‘Gyulsary!’, ‘Tanabai’s pacer’, ‘the glory of the village’ was how they referred to him. Barefoot boys of three and four galloped up and down the dusty street, imitating the pacer’s gait, shouting: ‘I’m Gyulsary!’, ‘No, I’m Gyulsary!’, ‘Mamma, tell him I’m Gyulsary! Come on, boy! I’m Gyulsary!’

This is a book about a man named Tanabai and a horse named Gyulsary. Both of them are old and dying, and Tanabai spends the book reflecting on his life with Gyulsary on the collective farms of Kyrgyzstan.

Farewell, Gyulsary! was the first book by the Kyrgyz writer, Chingiz Aitmatov. It sort of showed. It wasn’t amateurish in any way, but his later works are more emotionally-impactful for some reason. Even so, this book had its moments of fun and sorrow, and given the fact it’s all available online, I’d highly recommend checking it out if you’re an Aitmatov fan. It includes a lot of themes that Aitmatov would come back to in later books, like the meaning of life, nature, and humanity.

If you’re an Aitmatov fan-to-be, maybe check out another of his works first, like Jamila, or The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years, or The Place of the Skull, or…well, you get the idea.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov

Hi everyone. If you’re in the US, I hope you are voting or have already voted (safely, of course).

Now, if you’re looking for something to entertain you that’s marvelous and life-affirming and not election-related, you’ve come to the right place.

Jamila, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“We were crossing the steppe along the soft, beaten road. Daniyar’s voice soared, ever new melodies followed one another with astounding grace. Was he so gifted? What had happened to him? It was as if he had been waiting for this day, for this hour to come! And suddenly I understood his strangeness which made people shrug and smile–his dreaminess, his love of solitude, his silences. I understood why he spent his evenings on the look-out hill and his nights alone on the river bank, why he was constantly listening to sounds inaudible to others, and why his eyes would suddenly sparkle and his usually drawn eyebrows twitch. This was a person who was deeply in love. And I felt that this was not merely love for another person; this was different, it was a tremendous love–of life, of the earth. Yes, he kept this love within himself, in his music–it was his guiding light. An indifferent person could never have sung as he did, no matter how great his voice.”

Here’s another Chingiz Aitmatov story, which some have called the greatest love story ever.

It’s set in Kyrgyzstan and is about a woman (her name’s Jamila) whose husband is away fighting in World War II. She falls in love with a crippled soldier who was sent back from the front to help out in the large USSR-owned farm called the collective.

All of this is told from the perspective of a guy who’s reminiscing about his childhood and what got him interested in painting, so it’s technically two stories in one. That means it’s not really a love story in the traditional sense. It has traditional love, too, but it also has other forms, too (like love of life, family, etc.)

That was refreshing, especially as someone whose main experience with “love stories” was mostly-cheesy YA novels (with some important exceptions) filled with mushy and contrived love-triangles. To me it seems there has to be something aside from two peoples’ attraction to each other for a love story to not seem cheesy. Fortunately, Aitmatov’s story doesn’t seem cheesy. Actually, I was surprised by how real the characters felt. They felt like people I knew, unlike the people in those cheesy YA novels.

Well, I don’t think any of this is really giving you any real sense of what makes this story good. Let me take another crack at it…

I once heard someone say that certain events in real life are less profound than people imagine them to be. Given that reasoning, an understated love story would be more realistic and powerful than an over-stated one with love-hexagons thrown in for good measure. Such a love story would also exist in a world where it’s clear that the love story is just a part of the world, and not the entire world. Such a love story would thus benefit from the fact that realistic and engaging characters don’t have to be flattened out for the sake of contrived and steamy plots. Also, the ultimate meaning of this type of story wouldn’t be limited to just two peoples’ love for each other (like some YA novels where whatever plot that’s introduced gets thrown away for the sake of incessant obsessing about the love-interest). Finally, the ultimate meaning to such a story would resonate with any type of person, regardless of his or her hormonal state. That’s exactly what happens with Aitmatov’s story.

So there you have it. And the best part? You can read the story for free via one of the links on this Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamila_(novel)

Happy Tuesday! See you next week.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov

Hello. I hope you are all healthy and safe, and doing your best to stay that way. I’m in the middle of midterms week at school, but I’ve managed to read a great book. I wanted to share it with you:

The Place of the Skull, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“If only I could write something, something that would get a reaction from thousands and thousands of people, people who would treat it as something of intimate concern to them personally, as a fire in their own house, a misfortune affecting their own children, only then could the Word, caught up by thousands of people, none of them indifferent, overcome the power of profit and triumph over vice!”

Basically, if you have a chance to read Chingiz Aitmatov, get your hands on everything you can by him. He’s criminally-underrated. (I’ve reviewed another one of his masterpieces here).

The Place of the Skull is another modern-ish classic. It’s a bunch of stories woven into one. It’s the story of a family of wolves living on the Kazakh steppe, an absurdly-idealistic Russian who’s expelled from a seminary, Jesus Christ, and a farmer. The wolves just trot along through the story and make you feel a bit like you’re reading Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. The idealistic Russian wants to infiltrate the drug trade to see what makes people sink to depravity (he also wants to reform some of the depraved people, which is fascinating to see). Jesus Christ gets crucified. The farmer (named Boston for some reason) has to deal with Soviet collectivization (where the USSR forced Kazakhs to work on a big farm instead of working on their own individual farms), and with the wolves that trot their way into his plotline. It’s all very exciting in actuality.

One thing I will mention. It… has… a… lot… of… ellipses. But once you get over that…

…the book’s a joy to read.

It’s fresh with ideas and heart. Its plot is well-done, too. You have a bunch of stories but they work well together, and the overall story wouldn’t have the same impact it does have if it weren’t to have all of those stories within it. Its grand scope also enables it to talk about environmentalism, the meaning of life, wolves, and morality.

Another thing I’ll mention. This book has all this philosophy in it, but for some reason it’s able to make it entertaining to read (unlike some Russian novels I’ve read–my opinion only).

The philosophy in Aitmatov’s novel asks questions that are actually interesting to contemplate: What makes people sink to immorality, how is the environment related to humanity, what gives people the power to be good, can humanity ever redeem itself, etc. So instead of having some boring guy droning on about a philosophical parable, Aitmatov’s book has characters who are actually struggling with topics that are super-relevant to their existence, and for some reason, you feel a sense of urgency when you read it. Maybe it’s because you get the sense that the author cares a lot about what he’s writing about, or he makes it so you understand why the characters care about it, and why you should care about it, too. At some points I thought he could’ve taken his ideas farther than he did, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment.

Basically, read it for yourself.

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:

The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years #Offtopicday | Cartoon ...

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.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Gorky, Bowker, and Said

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe. I’ve read three very interesting books. Some you might not want to read, but others you probably would.

 

Mother, by Maxim Gorky

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“People love their own feelings—sometimes the very feelings that are harmful to them—are enamored of them, and often derive keen pleasure even from grief, a pleasure that corrodes the heart. Nikolay, the mother, and Sofya were unwilling to let the sorrowful mood produced by the death of their comrade give way to the joy brought in by Sasha. Unconsciously defending their melancholy right to feed on their sadness, they tried to impose their feelings on the girl.”

Mother by Maxim Gorky is (you guessed it) about a mother in Russia under the Tsar. Her son is a revolutionary and he brings home revolutionary friends and the mom eventually becomes a revolutionary, too. Maybe that’s why Gorky’s book is called the “Great Revolutionary Novel,” but may as well be called the “Stilted Ideological Tract.”

Most of what the characters do is to explain why socialism is great and why imperial rule is bad. Gorky tries to get you invested in these ideas by making the characters sympathetic, but his idea of making people sympathetic seems to be slapping on sympathetic-sounding tags. Someone has kind eyes and smiles warmly and the mother is very happy her son has made such a good friend.

Also, the book says that people should think for themselves and that by thinking for themselves, they will realize socialism is good. Well, the mother never really thinks for herself. She just hears her son talk about socialism, and is amazed by his oratorical skills. So she comes to like socialism not because she thinks for herself about whether she likes it or not, but because she likes her son’s speaking skills. The rest of the people in the book don’t really think for themselves, either. It’s obvious they’ve just gobbled down someone else’s Manifesto and are spouting words from it, because what they say about socialism usually comes out very stilted and forced. So if you write characters with kind eyes and warm smiles, and a mother who accepts their ideology without showing her processing it and coming to terms with it, how can you get your reader invested in the ideology, too? You can’t.

Yet this is what Gorky tries to do, and then he seems to expect the readers’ investment in his ideology to be the most compelling reason for them to keep reading. Well, it’s not compelling. Gorky doesn’t even develop the opposing ideas so he can show their flaws. There’s a scene where someone gives a speech about these opposing ideas. Instead of giving us the speech, Gorky glosses over it, labeling it as bad, and then spends long pages quoting someone else’s speech about socialism and labeling it great. What are we left with? For me, at least, an inability to connect with Mother’s ideas.

It’s interesting because in the book a character repeatedly says that you can’t just tell people ideas, you have to connect with their hearts, but the book rarely connected with my heart.

Here are the rare parts where it did: when the characters stopped acting like mouthpieces and started acting like humans. The son felt affection for a girl. The mother sometimes thought about life’s wonders. A few characters sometimes reflected on other peoples’ situations. We got to understand the source of one character’s troubled outbursts.

None of these things really have much to do with socialism. Everyone, even non-socialists, can have such experiences.

And then the book seems to contradict its own ideas. First, Gorky writes that we should try to understand everyone, then he has one character say that a lot of rich people are inherently evil and so there’s nothing to understand, they just have to be done away with violently (and the other characters agree). First one character says you shouldn’t get married because it would go against socialism. Then Gorky implies that the very same character winds up marrying anyway.

Overall, Mother wasn’t as provocative as I thought it would be. It mainly made me think of how misguided idealism could wind up causing more trouble than there already is. The very system that the socialists criticize kind of turns out to be the same system the socialists establish. In Gorky’s Tsarist Russia, people can’t read certain books, the government takes their money for its own purposes, and people are shot and imprisoned by the Tsar’s police force if they rebel. In Communist Russia, people couldn’t read certain books, Stalin’s government took their money for its own purposes, and people were shot and imprisoned by the secret police force if they rebelled. But, unlike in Tsarist Russia where one of Gorky’s characters says, “the prison is our place of rest and study,” the prisons in Stalinist Russia were anything but restful.

 

Inside George Orwell: A Biography, by Gordon Bowker

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“Two days after his visit [to Orwell], Muggeridge lunched with Warburg [Orwell’s publisher] and reported, somewhat uncomfortably, that ‘a characteristic remark of Warburg’s was, in a rather plaintive voice, that what George should do was to use his little remaining span of life and energy to write at least two more books.’ Nineteen Eighty-Four, he told him shortly afterwards, ‘had a very good chance of having a large sale.’ The implication was that Warburg now saw his ailing author only as the source of more books, and, presumably, more profit to Warburg.”

This book is a biography of George Orwell. It gives a fresh picture of Orwell. He’s not just a saint, but a womanizer with flashes of cruelty. Inside George Orwell also gives great insight into the inspirations for his books. Working for the BBC during WWII inspired 1984, living near a farm with the word “Manor” in its name partially-inspired Animal Farm, and so on.

For some reason, I didn’t think the book was as engaging as it could have been. Maybe I would have thought otherwise had I not been reading other biographies at the same time that were better. Those biographies have arcs to them—Beethoven was amateurish at first but then he started taking risks and look at how his music grew in complexity! Orwell’s bio lists what happened to him in the year of X, what he did in this war, what he did in that war, how he was storing up ideas for the future, and so on. In one part, the author seems to be writing about Orwell’s love-life, but then in the next paragraph he writes about the publication of one of Orwell’s books, before returning to Orwell’s love-life two paragraphs later. I found these disconnected ideas sort of confusing.

On the reading-front: Read this for its insight into his psychology, what inspired his books, how he died from over-work, and how he was exploited by his publisher for the sake of profit.

 

Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said

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“Nino was bending over the atlas. ‘I’m looking for a country that is at peace,’ she said, and her finger crossed the many-coloured border lines. ‘Maybe Moscow. Or Petersburg,’ I said, mocking her. She shrugged her shoulders, and her finger discovered Norway. ‘I’m sure that’s a peaceful country,’ I said, ‘but how do we get there?’ ‘We don’t,’ sighed Nino. ‘America?’ ‘U-boats,’ I said cheerfully. ‘India, Spain, China, Japan?’ ‘Either they’re at war, or we can’t get there.’ ‘Ali Khan, we’re in a mousetrap.’ ‘You are quite right, Nino. There’s no sense in running away. We will have to find a way to get a bit of common sense into our town, at least till the Turks come.’”

You’ll probably want to read this book. It’s a love-story between a Muslim Azerbaijani boy named Ali (who narrates the book) and a Christian Georgian girl named Nino. It is set in Azerbaijan, during World War I and World War II. At that time, there were still horses and swords and princes in Azerbaijan, even when Europe had cars and guns and republics.

The conflict comes from the romance between Ali and Nino and how they navigate a changing world. The lovers’ parents disapprove of their relationship for religious reasons, and they themselves have clashing values. Ali represents Asia, and Nino represents Europe, but they manage to get along anyway. Meanwhile, the world around them changes. Azerbaijan is ruled by imperial Russia for a while, then becomes independent, then gets caught in a tug-of-war between Asia and Europe. These global dynamics have a huge impact on the story.

The book itself is very well-written in terms of its style and story. When Said writes about mundane things, you’re interested. When Said writes about epic chases through the desert, you’re interested. Maybe it’s because Said manages to get across Ali’s excitement about everything he experiences, which makes you excited, too. Maybe it’s also because the story is really good, and it’s filled with intriguing ideas about Europe and Asia. Somehow, Ali and Nino manages to get all this across without becoming a Stilted Ideological Tract like other books out there. That must be the reason Ali and Nino is known as Azerbaijan’s national novel.

In any case, you won’t regret reading this book. If you do read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Until next time. Enjoy the summer!

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