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!

SPECIAL POST: Amazing News in the Time of Coronavirus

In Which I Share Some AMAZING NEWS!

Hello! I’m not reviewing any books this week, but I do have some AMAZING news to share instead. I’m thrilled to say that my novelette, “The Demon-Slayers” has been published in the latest issue of “The Society of Misfit Stories.” This is the first piece of fiction I’ve ever been paid for, and I’m so excited to share it with you!

Here’s an excerpt (content warning, suicide):

Azamat was dead. I heard it from his older sister, Mariyam. She rode to my dwelling in the outskirts of Verniy and told me.

I shook my head and said I was sorry. Then I asked how he had died, and my voice trembled when I asked it.

Mariyam stared at the weapon-rack I had put against the near wall.

I couldn’t not know, and so I looked at her closely, trying to figure it out. It seemed like she’d been crying, but she’d had enough composure to do her black hair in its usual long braid. I didn’t know what to make of that.

“How did he die?” I asked again.

“He killed himself.”

It was the beginning of winter. Damnit, everything felt too cold for it to be the beginning of winter.

“Why?” I managed to get out.

Mariyam shook her head. She didn’t know, she said. She had returned home yesterday evening to find her brother slumped in a chair with a slit throat and his knife on the floor, blood on its broad blade.

I shuddered. “Surely you must know why,” I said. “He must have had a reason—”

“Please don’t ask me anymore.”

He must have had a reason.

I nodded and had her sit on the carpet. I flinched. She was carrying Azamat’s dombra, long-necked and two-stringed and inlaid with beautiful gold damask.

Mariyam followed my gaze and slowly held the wooden instrument out to me. “Here.”

“You don’t mean to give me his dombra,” I said.

She nodded.

It had meant everything to her brother. She would probably regret giving it up later.

“He’d want you to have it,” she said.

I didn’t want it. Everything was so cold I was convinced Azamat’s instrument was a shell of ice that would shatter if I touched it. There would be nothing left of him, then.

I wrapped my fingers around the dombra’s neck. It didn’t shatter. “Thank you.”

Mariyam smiled feebly. “I thought that it would help,” she said.

“It does,” I lied. I set it against the far wall where I wouldn’t have to see it.

I turned back to Mariyam. “How are you faring?” I asked. How are you faring. What a nonsensical question to ask. Her red shapan was rumpled, as if she’d slept in the robe overnight, and there was a forlorn look in her dark eyes that hurt to look at. “My god, Mariyam, it must be horrible for you.”

She nodded but didn’t say anything else.

“Do you want anything?” I asked. “I have food and koumiss. We could have a feast in his memory.”

She shook her head. “Just koumiss.”

I gave her a small wooden bowl of the white mare’s milk. She drank it so quickly that some of it dripped onto the embroidered front of her shapan.

“I can help you bury him if you haven’t yet,” I said. I didn’t want to, but Mariyam shouldn’t have to do it alone.

“I did it yesterday. I couldn’t bear looking at his slit throat.”

His slit throat. I nodded.

“Are we still going to kill the demon?” she asked after a pause.

I blinked. “So soon after Azamat—”

“I’m not ready to think about him. Killing the demon will give me something else to do.”

I thought of the shriveled orange leaves littering the dirt streets outside, of the tiny ice shards flowing in the Vesnovka river, and of the flocks of pale cranes that were flying away from the first chill of Kazakhstan’s winter. I thought of Azamat’s laughter, and of last spring, how we’d sat under that thick-trunked apple-tree outside my house feeling warm and sharp from living. He had been strumming the dombra, then. He had played it so well, even though he’d been tipsy on four bowls of koumiss. He had once said that apart from having a friend like me, music was why he was so happy in spite of his troubles.

I found myself staring at the dombra, and maybe I was about to cry, but I stayed that way for minutes on end, and no tears came.

“Please, Balta,” Mariyam said. “The demon shouldn’t be too difficult to slay.”

I looked at the expression on her face. I felt sick. “Okay. Just—just give me some time. A day or so. I need to make preparations.”

“Thank you,” Mariyam said.

When she departed, there was still grief on her face, but the forlorn look had left her eyes. That was really all I had wanted. It gave me some sort of hope that my own sorrow could pass, too.

Click here to read the rest!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Ibsen, Markandaya, and De Lint

In Which I Review Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck,” Kamala Markandaya’s “Nectar in a Sieve,” and Charles De Lint’s “The Onion Girl.”

Hello! Happy Tuesday. There are so many books and so little time (until the end of the summer!) Hopefully I can get in a few more to review before that point. Here’s three, at any rate…

“The Wild Duck,” by Henrik Ibsen,
Translated by Una Ellis-Fermor

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“RELLING: Well, I’ll tell you Mrs. Ekdal. He’s suffering from acute inflammation of the conscience.”

“The Wild Duck” is not about a duck. It’s about a happily-married family…or so it seems. There’s a huge secret at the heart of the marriage, and the husband’s friend is trying to expose it. Frankness will make everything better, right? Ibsen thinks otherwise…

The first few acts felt very confusing. It wasn’t clear to me what was going on until the last few acts. With that being said, the rest of the play was good. Ibsen was great at dramatically revealing characters’ secrets and ulterior motives.

However, he wasn’t so great at making sure the play’s theme was actually supported by the story’s events. Ibsen seemed to want to say that idealism was destructive. But in the play, things seemed to be destroyed not because of idealism, but because of unyielding self-delusion. Or at least, idealism wasn’t the only culprit. That disconnect between the stated theme and the illustrated theme made for a very interesting reading-experience.

Also, parts of this play reminded me a lot of plays written later. A lampshade symbolized concealment in “The Wild Duck,” and a paper lantern symbolized concealment in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Aside from that, the two plays were very different, but it was cool to see how influential Ibsen was.

Anyway, I’d definitely recommend this play.

Nectar in a Sieve, by Kamala Markandaya

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“Then as happens even in the brightest moment, I remembered Janaki. Last year she had come with us, she and her children. This year who knew– or cared? The black thought momentarily doused the glow within me; then, angered and indignant, I thrust the Intruder away, chasing it, banishing it… tired of gloom, reaching desperately for perfection of delight, which can surely never be.”

This is a story about Rukmani, a child-bride in a changing India. She and her husband live in a village, cultivate the land, endure hardship, and experience joy.

Reading this book made me realize how rare it was to read about a sympathetic husband in literature. It felt very refreshing.

Also, the story itself was very engaging. The author clearly cared a lot about her characters, and the story’s ending was beautiful. When rereading its beginning, the story’s ending became even better.

What’s also impressive is that Markandaya wrote this book based on research rather than on any experience of poverty (she came from a wealthy family), but it still felt very realistic. It read a little like Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, only better, since Markandaya’s characters were more engaging.

So this book has great characters and a great story. It’s also very short. Definitely read it.

The Onion Girl, by Charles De Lint

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“‘I suppose the other thing too many forget is that we were all stories once, each and every one of us. And we remain stories. But too often we allow those stories to grow banal, or cruel, or unconnected to each other. We allow the stories to continue, but they no longer have a heart. They no longer sustain us.”

This is a book about Jilly Coppercorn, a woman in her thirties who likes to paint magical beings. She gets into a car-accident, figures out how to enter a magical land called the Dreamworld, and has to confront the trauma of her past to heal from the trauma in her present.

The story was very psychological, which was cool to read about, especially in a fantasy book. A warning: it does contain very dark themes. Even so, the dark themes were handled well, and the book felt more hopeful than nihilistic.

The world-building was also very interesting. The Dreamworld felt fresh and immersive. It didn’t outweigh the characters, though, which made the story even more enjoyable.

Even so, parts of The Onion Girl‘s plot felt formulaic and predictable, which took away a little from its overall impact. Same with some of the descriptions of places and characters. I’d find myself guessing how sentences would end (“The room looked dark… but cozy anyway?”) and then read something very close to that guess. This is probably subjective, though.

The book also could have been much shorter than its actual length of 600ish pages. A lot of the sentences in the book just repeated what previous sentences said, which reminded me of a similar thing that once happened to Dostoyevsky. Finally, entire chapters of The Onion Girl were devoted to explaining the moral of the story. This was entertaining up to a point. Then it felt a little preachy.

Overall, this book had very interesting psychology and world-building, but it was also formulaic and repetitive. If you’re looking for the greatest speculative fiction ever, you might want to consider reading other books (like Anna Kavan’s Ice or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast), but if you’re looking for something that’s still pretty good, you might enjoy this.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Jacques, Ibsen, and Wright

In Which I Review “Outcast of Redwall” by Brian Jacques, “The Pillars of the Community” by Henrik Ibsen, and “The Man Who Lived Underground” by Richard Wright.

Hello! I just turned twenty yesterday (which is exciting and scary). As promised, I’ve reviewed three books for you this week.

Outcast of Redwall, by Brian Jacques

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“Bryony got down from the arm of the chair. ‘No, Bella, I don’t know anybeast who is evil. A little naughty maybe, but not bad or evil. I think that others can drive a creature to naughtiness, always accusing and blaming them. After a while it must make the creature unhappy and drive him–or her–to be naughty because nobody expects them to be good. That’s what I think.'”

This is supposed to be a book about the kid of a evil ferret warlord who is abandoned and is taken in by the good beasts of Redwall, and has to choose between redemption and betrayal. Except the whole book is basically about a badger instead, who is the evil ferret warlord’s sworn enemy.

The ferret kid didn’t even get any real development as a character, whereas the badger’s story turned out to be much more interesting (and better-written). This is sad because the story could have been stronger had Jacques elaborated more on the ferret kid’s interiority. Also, the badger and the ferret kid had similar life-situations (being separated/estranged from their parents), which would’ve made such character-development even more interesting.

Since the ferret kid didn’t get any interiority, the ending didn’t make any logical sense. Also, characters suddenly went from being die-hard believers in XYZ to suddenly thinking ABC even though events would logically have caused them to exclaim “Aha! I knew XYZ was correct all this time!”

I won’t spoil what happens, but it made the good abbey of Redwall feel more like a dystopia than the utopia Brian Jacques seemed keen for it to be.

Overall, I would not recommend this book. I’d recommend Jacques’s Taggerung instead– it has a similar plot about the kid of an evil warlord, but it’s much better-focused, much better-told, and much more logical.

“The Pillars of the Community,” by Henrik Ibsen

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“MISS HESSEL: And you call yourselves the pillars of the community.
BERNICK: The community has nothing better to support it.
MISS HESSEL: Then what does it matter whether such a community is supported or not? what is it that counts here? The sham and the lie, nothing else. Here are you, the first man in the town, living in splendour and happiness, in power and honor– you, who have branded an innocent man a criminal.”

This Ibsen play is about a man who runs a shipbuilding business. He has dark secrets from his past that he tries to keep, even if it might mean betraying the people he loves.

It was very entertaining due to its character-portrayals– Character A saw himself as upright, even as Ibsen showed why that character was not really so upright within the very dialogue that the character was saying to prove his uprightness.

The story was also unexpectedly suspenseful. Ibsen was great at raising stakes. He wasn’t afraid to let crazy things happen to his characters, which surprised me after reading the relatively-tame “A Doll’s House.”

However, the ending felt a little anticlimactic. Even so, I’d recommend reading it.

The Man Who Lived Underground, by Richard Wright

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“Outside of time and space, he looked down upon the earth and saw that each fleeting day was a day of dying, that men died slowly with each passing moment as much as they did in war, that human grief and sorrow were utterly insufficient to this vast, dreary spectacle.”

This is a book about a Black man who gets accused for a crime he didn’t commit. He hides in the sewers where he discovers he could chip away at brick walls to secretly enter bank-vaults and other such places. He’s able to rob people without any consequences, but then he winds up seeing others being accused of the crimes he committed…

Wright’s a genius. His book reminded me of Kavan’s Ice in its near-allegorical nature. Even so, Underground had much more meaning than an allegory– objects could be symbols of ABC, but they could just as easily be symbols of XYZ, and the ability to interpret the story in many different ways gave it a lot of power.

The protagonist’s psychology was also fascinating. It’s easy to compare him to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, but Wright’s protagonist was somehow more interesting. I can’t explain why. Maybe because Dostoyevsky was portraying a stagnant protagonist– he was a mean man with a liver problem, and the whole story was just to explain that he was a mean man with a liver problem. In contrast, Wright’s character developed, and the whole story portrayed that development.

Anyway, definitely read this book. Then reread it. Then rereread it. Then read some more Wright. Then reread…

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Saunders, Dunsany, and Ellison

In Which I Review George Saunders’s “Fox 8,” Lord Dunsany’s “The King of Elfland’s Daughter,” and Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog”

Hello! Below, I’ve briefly reviewed the three books I promised you I’d review. Two are perfect for all ages, while the last one absolutely isn’t.

Fox 8, by George Saunders, Illustrated by Chelsea Cardinal

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“Dear Reeder:
First may I say, sorry for any werds I spel rong. Because I am a fox! So don’t rite or spel perfect. But here is how I lerned to rite and spel as gud as I do!”

Fox 8 was a fun, short read. It’s good for all ages (probably), and is about a literate fox (named Fox 8) who’s enthralled with the world of humans. The only problem is that his fox friends are less enthusiastic. Will our hero be able to convince them to befriend the two-legs?

The book’s idea was cute and the illustrations were fun, but the story didn’t really say much of substance. If you’re looking to read something like this, Fox 8 is perfect for you!

If not, you might want to read something else…

The King of Elfland’s Daughter, by Lord Dunsany

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“And late in the night they all rose up together to go back to their homes, and all kept close together as they went, and sang grave old songs to affright the things that they feared; though little the light trolls care, or the will-o’-the-wisps, for the things that are grave to man. And when only one was left he ran to his house, and the will-o’-the-wisps chased him.”

In The King of Elfland’s Daughter, a king from the mortal realm must go to Elfland to get an elf bride so that the people of his kingdom could experience magic. So he goes and gets his bride (who’s the daughter of the King of Elfland). However, she doesn’t really like how he keeps trying to convert her to his religion…

I really enjoyed this story’s wit and descriptions, which is something I usually don’t enjoy the most in books. In this case, they were hilarious and made the book feel magical.

The story was also very thoughtful. You could do a whole literary analysis on what different aspects of it symbolize (less recommended), or you could just read it and enjoy it (highly recommended).

If you’ve never heard of this book before, think of it as the grandparent of Joanne Harris’s Runemarks. They feel similar and talk about a lot of similar ideas, except Dunsany’s is much shorter and doesn’t have Norse gods in it.

If you haven’t heard of either, just trust me and read Dunsany for yourself.

A Boy and His Dog, by Harlan Ellison

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[About the dog having taught the protagonist to read]: “(the reading’s a pretty good thing. It comes in handy when you can find some canned goods someplace, like in a bombed-out supermarket; makes it easier to pick out stuff you like when the pictures are gone off the labels. Couple of times the reading stopped me from taking canned beets. Shit, I hate beets!)”

You probably wouldn’t like this book if you don’t like obscenities, violence, or otherwise unsettling content.

That being said, A Boy and His Dog is about what it says it’s about, except that it takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the dog’s telepathic, and he helps the boy find girls to have sex with. When the boy starts falling in love with one of the girls, an interspecies love-triangle ensues…

Basically, read this book for its ending. That’s what makes the story good (and thought-provoking). It feels kind of rushed, but it’s still effective, and I’m not spoiling any of it here.

If you get the version of this book with Ellison’s essay about his own dog, that just makes the experience even richer.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Chopin, Le Guin, and Haig

In which I read Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “No Time to Spare,” and Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library.”

Hello! I’ve read three books. They’re all good for summer reading. One has stature, another has eggs, and the third has a lot in common with Tolstoy’s work…

The Awakening and Selected Stories, by Kate Chopin

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“During his oblivious attention he once quietly rested his head against Mrs. Pontellier’s arm. As gently she repulsed him. Once again he repeated the offense. She could not but believe it to be thoughtlessness on his part; yet that was no reason she should submit to it. She did not remonstrate, except again to repulse him quietly but firmly. He offered no apology. The picture completed bore no resemblance to Madame Ratignolle. She was greatly disappointed to find that it did not look like her. But it was a fair enough piece of work, and in many respects satisfying. Mrs. Pontellier evidently did not think so. After surveying the sketch critically she drew a broad smudge of paint across its surface, and crumpled the paper between her hands.”

Kate Chopin’s book is about a woman named Edna Pontellier who seeks independence and selfhood in a male-dominated society.

I’ve never read about a female character with so much stature. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this. I guess it’s just an attitude that the author had towards her which came across in the depiction of her. Her life doesn’t revolve around a guy or other people, and she did have a sense of self.

She also wasn’t made more than she was or judged to be less than she was because of that (such as by fitting her into an archetype of “love interest” or “seductress”). This was a character who could reject her husband’s hand on her arm and also reject her own attempts at drawing without being turned into a joke or a way to illustrate something about another character.

She also didn’t feel like she was just there to make a point about feminism, and this might be what ultimately gives her stature. If you’re writing some story about someone to convey a message, the character becomes less than a fully-actualized being because his or her personhood is subordinated to the message you’re trying to convey.

For instance, in this scene, Edna could’ve drawn a bad picture with her husband’s hand on her arm and then shoved his hand off and drawn a great picture, which could have subordinated her character to the message of “women don’t need men” and reduced her complexity and sense of stature.

Contrast this with the idea of a female character existing in a work that may touch upon themes but which don’t reduce the character’s complexity for their sake. In the scene as it’s written, Edna’s just pushing the guy’s hand off, but even so she’s dissatisfied with the picture for its own sake. That’s fascinating.

Basically, this stature was very refreshing to experience, and the book itself was very good as well. It’s a shame that Chopin’s future works were rejected after this novel was published, but we can help make up for that by reading this book nowadays.

One final note: The short stories weren’t as good, so I would recommend them less. They were much more sketched-out than fully-developed.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters,
by Ursula K. Le Guin

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“So you put your freshly boiled egg into the egg cup–but which end up? Eggs are not perfect ovoids, they have a smaller end and a bigger end. People have opinions about which end should be up, i.e., which end you’re going to actually eat the egg out of. This difference of opinion can become so passionate that a war may be fought about it, as we know from Jonathan Swift. It makes just as much sense as most wars and most differences of opinion.”

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote several essays and published them in this book in 2017. She died a year later. As a result, there was a lot of unintentional irony in this book, like when she wrote about how people never get to experience true solitude anymore.

If only she knew….

Anyway, the essays were entertaining. They weren’t the most entertaining essays ever but they were fun to read, with one exception. She wrote an essay about eating eggs. I never thought I’d laugh so much about someone chopping an egg apart.

Overall, this was an entertaining and quick read.

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

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“Maybe there was no perfect life for her, but somewhere, surely, there was a life worth living.”

The Midnight Library is about a woman who dies and then gets to live all the different lives she could have lived by reading various books from the “Midnight Library.” The woman’s name is Nora Seed (get it?)

This book was a good read. I appreciate anyone who likes to write about how great life is. It felt like a cross between The Magic Treehouse and Mitch Albom’s books. It also reminded me a lot of Tolstoy’s books for various reasons (some good, others less good).

Firstly, it had a very important quality: conviction. There’s something great about someone who can write about something he actually cares about without seeming to worry what others might think.

In other words, there are a lot of carefully-written “safely sophisticated” books out there that condescend to tell you about the boringness of suburbia while clearly trying to come off as profound. Now, here’s a book about the “riskier” topic of life’s meaning which also cheerfully pays homage to a lot of different authors. Even so, the author didn’t come off as condescending or like a pretentious literary try-hard. He was having so much fun that he wanted you to join him!

When an author doesn’t try to take himself too seriously while also enjoying what he writes, he can get away with writing about anything. The book will contain his warmth and enthusiasm, and that sincerity will draw readers in. You see this quality in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and in Anna Karenina, and you also see it in Haig’s book.

Even so, Haig’s characters felt kind of contrived, like they were being shepherded along by the author to have realizations at opportune moments. Also, there wasn’t much subtext, since the author basically spelled everything out about the characters’ psychologies. This is also similar to Tolstoy. There’s a character in Resurrection who’s shepherded about and psychoanalyzed in a very similar way.

In both instances, the characters in question lose out on depth and realism. Their sole function isn’t to live but to serve the message of the story.

Finally, the symbolism and metaphors felt over-emphasized. Sometimes it helps to let readers make some subconscious connections instead of telling them things along the lines of, “Nora Seed’s life is a seed that can grow in different directions!” That also happened in Tolstoy’s Resurrection—“Look! The protagonist always overhears sermons about Jesus and the book’s even titled Resurrection! That means he’s a Jesus parallel!”

In any case, this kind of approach makes the meaning of the story very, very clear to readers, but it takes some of the fun out of the experience for readers who might want to figure some things out for themselves.

So overall, I would say that this book was a good read, but that Haig might eventually write books that are even better (in one reader’s super-subjective opinion).

Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them? I’d love to hear your comments!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: 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: Nix

Well here we are. After last week’s reading of Lirael, I’ve surfaced from writing essays and studying for finals to tell you whether or not Lirael‘s sequel, Abhorsen, was worth reading both it and Lirael. If you haven’t read my Lirael review, do so, because this current review won’t have much set-up, backstory, or plot-point explanations. You see, it gets right into the thick of things…

Abhorsen, by Garth Nix

FRAMEofMIND | Lightning gif, Fractal art, Trippy

“Both glanced over at Tim Wallach as Sam spoke. He had taken a dead soldier’s rifle, sword bayonet, and helmet, and now stood in the rain, much to everyone’s surprise, perhaps including his own. ‘It’s always better to be doing,’ said Sam, quoting the Disreputable Dog. As he said it, he realized that he actually believed it now. He was still scared, still felt the knot of apprehension in his guts, but he knew it wouldn’t stop him from doing what had to be done.”

If Lirael felt like a bunch of exposition and build-up, Abhorsen felt like a bunch of rising tension and climax. That made it feel somewhat strained, even if both the beginning and ending were great, as were the lightning-farms (you’d have to read it to find out what I mean by that). The middle part of the book makes me wonder if it’s worth reading both this and Lirael, though. Maybe if you like really cool talking animals, that might make it worthwhile.

When you have a bunch of climax, you don’t really get much opportunity to breathe or take in what has happened so far, or why it should matter. Yes, I was able to take time to breathe and take in the immense stakes while reading Abhorsen, but it didn’t feel like enough. For one thing, while the characters in Lirael had arcs, the characters in Abhorsen didn’t seem to have any. Or maybe they did and I just couldn’t see the arcs through all that climax.

Basically, I would say definitely read Sabriel, and maybe skip Lirael and Abhorsen and go on to the next one, which is a prequel. I’m not sure that I’ll stand by that statement, though, since I haven’t read the prequel and right now I’m reading the autobiography of the guy who invented the hexaflexagon (see the gif below). Maybe read a book about hexaflexagons in the meantime. Or just read the beginning of Abhorsen and its end and call it a day. Or fold some hexaflexagons…

Hexaflexagon - GIF on Imgur

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Nix

Hello! I hope you all had a good Thanksgiving weekend. In between studying for my finals, I’ve finished another book:

Lirael, by Garth Nix

Dog GIFs | Tenor

“Not that it mattered, because the Disreputable Dog never really answered her questions. Later, Lirael would repeat the same questions and get different, still-evasive answers. The most important questions–‘What are you? Where did you come from?’–had a whole range of answers, starting with ‘I’m the Disreputable Dog’ and ‘from elsewhere’ and occasionally becoming as eloquent as ‘I’m your Dog’ and ‘You tell me–it was your spell.’ The Dog also refused, or was unable, to answer questions about her nature. She seemed in most respects to be exactly like a real dog, albeit a speaking one. At least at first.”

Lirael is the sequel to the wonderful book Sabriel, (which I’ve reviewed here).

Lirael is about two people, Lirael and Sameth. Lirael is a member of the Clayr, which is a group of magicians who can see into the future, except Lirael can’t see into the future, even though she’s at the age when she should be able to do so. Meanwhile Sameth is the prince of the realm. His mother is the “Abhorsen” (basically someone who can travel into the land of the dead and interact with spirits, or who can banish the reanimated dead), and Sameth is the “Abhorsen-in-Waiting.” The trouble is, Sameth fears death and doesn’t want to inherit his mom’s position. There’s also a talking cat and a talking dog, both who are the coolest talking animals I’ve met in literature (up there with Bulgakov’s cat). After some lengthy introductory scenes, all these characters (except for Bulgakov’s cat, obviously) find themselves together on an adventure.

This book feels like one story told in the form of a bunch of short stories that get progressively longer. There would be the short-ish story of how one of them gets a certain position in life, then a slightly longer story of how that person gets a magical blade, and then a longer one about how that person goes on an adventure in the bigger world, which is interspersed with the story how the other person gets started on the same adventure. Basically, even though it’s supposed to be a book, and even though it tells one story about two main characters, the parts of the stories are so self-contained that they feel like short stories.

Also, this book was mostly setup. Even though it had self-contained stories leading up to the climax, the book’s overall plot wasn’t resolved at the end. You have to wait for the sequel for that.

This cliffhanger makes for good suspense but it doesn’t really make for as good of a reading experience. Unlike Sabriel, which was very self-contained and satisfying overall, Lirael felt more like a teaser trailer than an actual story. Because Lirael was all setup, it had a lot of backstory and scenes that seemed irrelevant/unneeded. All that setup didn’t feel like it had direction or as much substance as it could probably have had if the book had been structured less as a bunch of setuppy short stories and more as a big story in and of itself. I still did think the structure was an interesting approach, even though it wasn’t as satisfying as Sabriel.

Overall, after mentally weighing Lirael‘s sense of incompleteness against the merits of Sabriel, I’m still not sure if I’ll recommend this one, but I also don’t want to say that yet. Nix is definitely a good writer, and I’m confident he hasn’t lost his good writing abilities, so I’m willing to cut him some slack and wait to finish the sequel before I give a more concrete statement.

So like the ending of Lirael, this review will have to end with a cliffhanger. Who is the Disreputable Dog? What happens next? And will the next book be satisfying enough to be worth also reading Lirael?

DUN DUN DUNNNN!

Until then, stay well.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Nix

Hello! Happy first day of fall. It’s very sad that summer’s gone, but now there will be piles of leaves to jump in. That’s not much consolation, I know. Maybe reading a book will help!

Sabriel, by Garth Nix

Cat Reading GIFs | Tenor

 “‘Go and give the regimental Sergeant Major my compliments and ask him to personally organize a section of the scouts. We’ll go out and take a closer look at that aircraft.’ ‘Oh, thank you sir!’ gushed Leftenant Jorbert, obviously taking the ‘we’ to include himself. His enthusiasm surprised Horyse, at least for a moment. ‘Tell me, Mr. Jorbert,’ he asked, ‘have you by any chance sought a transfer to the Flying Corps?’ ‘Well… yes, sire,’ replied Jorbert. ‘Eight times.’”

Sabriel is about a girl whose father gets trapped in the world of the dead and she has to go to rescue him. She’s a necromancer, which helps a bit. She has a bunch of magical bells that she can use to make living people and dead spirits do all sorts of things. Being a necromancer also has its drawbacks—it means she has all sorts of enemies who chase her as she tries to reach her goal. So she makes some friends to compensate, including one of the funniest talking cats I saw since Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

Sabriel had a good beginning and a good middle, with interesting ideas, fresh similes, and funny talking cats. So I thought it would be a decent book overall. However, the end was much better than anything that came before it, so it turned out to be a better book than I’d thought.

Why was the ending better? Maybe because it happened in multiple stages. It wasn’t just “boom boom pow!” At the point when I thought things would be resolved, another setback happened instead. When the characters overcame that setback, they then realized they had to go somewhere else to succeed in their mission. Along the way, the characters kept getting into worse and worse trouble. So the longer ending helped by gradually building tension.

It also helped by giving the author time to build up the characters more, and to reveal some surprises about them before the actual finale. This made them feel more real than they had felt throughout the beginning and middle of the book. The characters weren’t artificially made stupid for the sake of suspense, either. They even seemed smarter than they’d been in previous parts of the book. For instance, in the past, a character had a marked propensity towards procrastinating before setting out somewhere. In a similar situation in the finale, this procrastination was nowhere in sight. I was very excited to see this growth.

Then there were plot twists in the finale that weren’t contrived because they were set up ages in advance (No spoilers, don’t worry).

So the gradual buildup and the character development and the twists all likely helped make the ending better than the beginning and middle. All of these aspects helped make the ending feel earned, and raised the book to a new level of entertainingness in my eyes.

One last note: I would recommend listening to the audiobook version if you can. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

Until next week!