Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Anderson, Leskov, and Roth

In Which I Review Books By M.T. Anderson, Nikolai Leskov, and Joseph Roth

Hello! Happy Tuesday, and happy Rosh Hashanah. I’m back on campus at last, so I’ve been able to read a lot of new books (celebrating this). Below are three of them:

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, by M.T. Anderson

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“A lot of young Shostakovich’s pleasure came from a warm and happy home. His mother doted on him. His father cracked jokes. His older sister, Maria, played piano duets with him. His younger sister, Zoya, was growing into an angular, eccentric girl with a huge amount of energy and verve. She insisted on hanging all the pictures in the house at a slant.”


The best part of this book is its title, but the rest of it is pretty good, too. It’s about Dmitri Shostakovich, a Soviet composer who was kind of anti-Soviet at the same time. He wrote a symphony during the siege of Leningrad, and the Soviets decided to play it to boost morale. So it’s Shostakovich’s story and also the story of World War II.

To me, it read like a cross between a biography and a history book, with the best features of both: interesting anecdotes about the composer and other historical figures, and vivid accounts from people experiencing the siege.

Anderson made it very readable, and managed to balance out the grimmer parts of the book with some humorous parts. This made it more palatable than the haunting Enemy at the Gates (an amazing book about the Battle of Stalingrad).

What also made it more palatable was that Anderson included some profound insights into the human condition. For instance, the Nazis had calculated that they could starve Leningraders to death since it was physically impossible to survive on the amount of food within the besieged Leningrad. However, some Leningraders persevered anyway, and the ones who did reflected later on that “‘what saved us […] was hope and love.'” It may sound schmaltzy out of context, but it didn’t sound that way in the book.

So I’d definitely recommend reading it.

The Enchanted Wanderer: Selected Tales, by Nikolai Leskov, Translated by David Magarshack

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“The old man had mushrooms with buckwheat porridge for supper and this gave him heartburn; suddenly he was seized with a cramp in the pit of his stomach, began vomiting, and died towards morning, just like the rats in his granaries.”

I had never read anything by Leskov before so this was an interesting experience. This book contained five stories by him (in fact, Shostakovich wrote an opera about one of them).

The stories read like fairytales in that they didn’t have much interiority or atmospheric description. That was fine. They were entertaining enough as they were.

One involves a woman who kills many people for the sake of her lover, another involves a wanderer who goes on various adventures (like Odysseus but without boats and magical creatures). The others involve microscopic metal fleas, guards, and ghosts.

I would recommend the first two stories (“Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” and “The Enchanted Wanderer”) and the fourth (“The Sentry”), but the other two were less interesting. Leskov constantly seemed to go on about how Russia was absolutely the best at everything to the point where it got distracting and annoying.

So if you want to read Leskov, those three stories I mentioned above would be a good place to start.

Perlefter: The Story of a Bourgeois, by Joseph Roth,
Translated by Richard Panchyk

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“Once Henriette had left the house the maids changed quickly, and Perlefter could tolerate no new faces or new names. He called all the girls Henriette– whether their names were Anna, Klementine, or Susanne. Usually their name was Anna.”

This was a not-so-interesting book. It basically describes a guy (Perlefter) and his family. Random characters appear and disappear, and nothing happens. All of this is expected, because this book was actually a fragment Roth left behind instead of a story he published.

Considering that, parts of it were still funny. Also, this was written right before Roth wrote books like The Radetzky March, which makes for interesting comparisons. For instance, that fragment I quoted up above was very similar to a part of The Radetzky March where one character’s servant dies and he goes on to name all his future servants after the original one.

This goes to show that nothing a writer does is wasted. Roth may have abandoned this story but he didn’t abandon The Radetzky March, and so his ideas lived on.

So basically, if you’re interested in seeing the evolution of writers’ ideas into great pieces of literature, I would recommend this book. If you just want to read great pieces of literature, I would recommend The Radetzky March instead.

Have you read any of these books? Let me know in the comments below!

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: Bidpai/Ramsay Wood

Hello. I hope you’re all healthy and safe and hopeful and reading. Today, I’m reviewing a long-lost classic. It’s a bit like “Aesop’s Fables” but it’s better.

Kalila and Dimna, by Bidpai, Retold by Ramsay Wood

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“I was alone; myself at last, as I really am—just an ordinary rat, competent at some things, hopeless at others. Super Rat was dead. I had a type of pity for him, as one does for anything that wastes potential. I saw his pride, his arrogant falsity which gave him grandiose desires—his greed, in short, for that was his supreme disease—greed for more and more of what he did not need. Such ignorance was the price of pain, and he had spent and spent and spent. Now the burden of hankering care soared free; I lay defeated yet content, a winner of my own war on want.”

Kalila and Dimna was a very good read. It’s from ancient Arabic literature (from a genre called adab), and was supposed to act as a manual for rulers about how to rule well. It’s much more entertaining than a manual like Machiavelli’s The Prince, though. This manual teaches its lessons in the form of animal stories (with stories within stories), kind of like “Aesop’s Fables” but better.

The main story is about two jackal brothers named Kalila and Dimna. Dimna wants to gain as much influence as he can over the lion king of their animal kingdom. Kalila wants him not to. Along the way, they tell each other stories, and Dimna comes up with dastardly plots against their king’s most trusted advisor, a bull named Schanzabeh. There’s also another story called “Zirac and Friends” about a mouse named Zirac who befriends a bird, a turtle, and a gazelle. The plot of that story can best be summed up as a lot of fun adventures.

Both stories are very entertaining, especially thanks to the work of the “reteller,” Ramsay Wood. There are also morals in these stories that are applicable to life, but because they’re told so entertainingly, they don’t feel like morals. In fact, it’s hard to even remember that there are morals (unlike Aesop’s “The moral of the story is…”). Apparently the original goal of Kalila and Dimna was to be entertaining enough that anyone could enjoy it for its story alone. Then, if readers wanted to search for more meaning, they could re-read it and find new lessons upon each re-read. So while you may have read “Aesop’s Fables” once in elementary school and then forgot about it, you can read Kalila and Dimna at any age, and then re-read it years later and gain completely new insights from it. In my view, that makes it better than Aesop.

There’s one drawback to Ramsay Wood’s version of this story. There are many more stories that were part of the original K&D that didn’t make it into this book. That’s disappointing. It’s like a cliffhanger. The good news is that the other stories are available in other English-language translations of Kalila and Dimna.

So if there are more complete translations out there, why should you read this one? In my extremely limited experience of reading only two versions of Kalila and Dimna, this version’s funnier. It’s also the only version that my entire library system had available. For those of you who have no experience with Kalila and Dimna, you can think of this version as a “free trial” that may be more readily available to you at your library than other versions you’d have to pay for.

Basically, no matter who you are, you’ll probably get something out of reading (or rereading) Kalila and Dimna, and if you’re looking for a version that’s more likely to be available than not, I’d definitely recommend this version.

If any of you have read other versions of K&D before, I’d love to hear your thoughts about how this version seems to measure up. Is it really the funniest and most-accessible version out there?