Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Chekhov and French Tales

Hello! I hope you’re all well. It’s Midterms Week here at school, so I’ve only been able to read two books. They were worth it, though…

The Tales of Chekhov Volume 1, Translated by Constance Garnett

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“‘And why did you leave us so early on Thursday, Nikolay Timofeitch?’ ‘Hm! It’s queer you noticed it,’ says the shopman, with a smirk. ‘You were so taken up with that fine student that . . . it’s queer you noticed it!’ Polinka flushes crimson and remains mute. With a nervous quiver in his fingers the shopman closes the boxes, and for no sort of object piles them one on the top of another. A moment of silence follows. ‘I want some bead lace, too,’ says Polinka, lifting her eyes guiltily to the shopman. ‘What sort? Black or coloured? Bead lace on tulle is the most fashionable trimming.’ ‘And how much is it?’ ‘The black’s from eighty kopecks and the coloured from two and a half roubles. I shall never come and see you again,’ Nikolay Timofeitch adds in an undertone.”
(From “Polinka”)

This was an interesting collection of six Chekhov stories. They were of varying lengths. What struck me the most about them was that Chekhov can write about people in a way that reminds you of people you know in real life. I experienced this when reading his “The Darling.”

Also, I used to think of Chekhov as someone who did character sketches but now I think of his stories more as relationship sketches. Yes, Chekhov gets you to know his characters, but he does that so he can then get you to understand their relationships with other people. For instance, in one of his stories, you could figure out pretty easily that Character A secretly likes Character B, but you don’t really understand the full meaning of that dynamic until Chekhov develops it in the rest of the story.

Sometimes, it felt that he went on too much about a relationship dynamic. There was one story where Character C kept crawling back to his beloved Character D after supposedly leaving her for good. After he crawled back to her for the fourth time, I found myself wondering what the point was.

Overall though, it was an entertaining collection that I would recommend. If you’re just out to read one or two stories from it, I’d recommend “Polinka” and “Anyuta.”

French Tales, Translated by Helen Constantine

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“Hugues Barros can no longer see anything on this earth. A slight foam rises through the corners of his mouth, frequent spasms shake his limbs. With one last effort he raises himself little by little into a sitting position. And he dies sitting up, his eyes vague, like a creature that is just awakening.” (From “The Bull From Jouvet”)

This is a collection of 22 French short stories by writers including Annie Saumont, Guy de Maupassant, and Émile Zola. Each story is set in one of France’s 22 regions.

Most of the stories were enjoyable. They also introduced me to some new French authors (like Alphonse Daudet) and made me sad about the fact that more of their work hadn’t been translated into English (like Annie Saumont). In fact, you can’t find English versions of some of the stories anywhere outside of this collection. Believe me. I tried. That alone makes it worth reading.

Some things made the collection less enjoyable than it might have been. Some of the stories felt like they had the exact same ending, to the point I found myself correctly guessing the resolution in advance. Also, a few of the stories were less interesting than others, but that might just be personal taste.

The good news is that there were so many interesting stories. Some of my favorite stories included Annie Saumont’s “You Should Have Changed at Dol”, Stéphane Émond’s “House in the Woods”, Daniel Boulanger’s “The Cattle Man”, Colette’s “Where Are the Children?”, Guy de Maupassant’s “A Mother’s Tale”, Paul Hervieu’s “The Bull from Jouvet”, and Alphonse Daudet’s “The Pope’s Mule.”

So even though the collection wasn’t perfect, I’d still recommend that you take a chance on it.

Until next week!

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Giono, Morris, and O’Neill (and Something More Inspiring)

Hello and happy Tuesday. We’re almost at the end of 2020, thankfully. I hope we have a better 2021. In the meantime, here are the last 3 books I’ve read this year. I wouldn’t recommend them as a hopeful way to cap off 2020, though, unless your idea of hopefully capping off a year somehow consists of reading a bunch of very sad books.

A King Alone, by Jean Giono

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“We stayed like that for a short time, face-to-face across fifty meters. Then Langlois moved toward the man, step by step, until he was three steps away. Then, once again, they seemed to come to an unspoken agreement. And then, truly, at the moment we could no longer bear to be there, when we were about to shout, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ there was a loud detonation. The man fell. Langlois had shot him, twice, in the stomach; a gun in each hand, at the same time. ‘It was an accident,’ he said. When Langlois got back to our town, he’d found the resignation letter he’d begun to write; he added: ‘Regrettable lack of sangfroid on the job…worn down pistol triggers, which should have been detected by a careful examination of the weapons, occasioned this terrible accident for which I have no excuse.'”

I don’t even know what A King Alone was about. It was set in the French countryside and seemed to be about a murderer on the loose, but then it got to telling about a wolf-hunt, and then about how one character wanted to get married. The ending was really good, though, and it reminded me a bit of Thomas Bernhard.

Let me talk a bit about what this book had to offer. It was well-written in terms of its sober but subtly-moving style, and its characters were interesting and sometimes funny. There are parts of the book where you don’t know what’s going on (why is Character X suddenly trying to get married when the book is supposed to be about a murderer?) but for some reason it all worked in the end. I don’t really know what else to say about this book. Sometimes it felt a bit drawn-out because of all the description of things. I’m not sure why it was called “A King Alone,” either. Somehow it feels like there was a big meaning to this book I never figured out.

Maybe read it yourself and figure out that meaning for yourself.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris

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“Lale thinks about the date, April 4, 1944. When he’d seen it on his work sheets that week, ‘April’ had jarred with him. April, what was it about April? Then he realized. In three weeks’ time, he will have been here for two years. Two years. How has he done it? How is he still breathing, when so many aren’t? He thinks back to the vow he made at the beginning. To survive and see those responsible pay. Maybe, just maybe, those in the plane had understood what was going on, and rescue was on the way. It would be too late for those who died today, but maybe their deaths would not be entirely in vain. Hold that thought. Use it to get out of bed tomorrow morning, and the next morning, and the next.

This book is about a tattooist in Auschwitz, named Lale, who falls in love with a fellow prisoner, named Gita. He promises her he will marry her after they leave Auschwitz, but first they have to survive Auschwitz.

What’s most interesting about this book is that it’s based on a true story. A man named Lale who’d survived the Holocaust went to the author Heather Morris and told her his story for it to be remembered, and she went on to write a book about it.

This background is interesting because it seems to have informed how the story was told. Some parts of it felt like Morris was reporting/paraphrasing things Lale had probably told her– “Lale was born in X town on Y date, and he worked at job Z before the Nazi invasion,” or “Lale tried to deal with his troubles by thinking ABC, because he knew that QRS would happen which would mean LMNOP.” Then there were other parts where it felt like Morris was trying to guess what it was like to be in Lale’s situation, but for some reason that guessing mostly involved peoples’ hearts beating in their throats, peoples’ knees going weak, and other such clichés. They made me feel less like I was reading something based on a true story and more like I was reading someone’s idea of what it might have been like to be in a situation like Lale’s.

I don’t mean to sound harsh. There were several very good and surprising parts of the book. These parts felt like the author was able to get at something real and meaningful rather than trying to paraphrase thoughts or go for uninteresting descriptions. This happened more in the middle to end of the book instead of at the beginning. This variation gave the book an uneven quality. One minute I felt like I was reading an engrossing story. The next I felt like I was reading a soap opera, and the minute after that I felt like I was reading a piece of journalism.

I would say that if you’re interested in history and the Holocaust that this is a good book to read. Another book that I would recommend more strongly is Livia-Bitton Jackson’s I Have Lived a Thousand Years. That book stayed with me, and continues to haunt me to this day.

In the end though, everyone is different. You might enjoy the Tattooist of Auschwitz more than I did, and it does tell an important story.

Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill,
Edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer

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“There’s nothing like having a real good ailment. It’s one thing that never bores you, or leaves you at a loss for a word. I’m sure if one of the Knitting Women had called to Louis XVI as he ascended the guillotine, ‘Well, Capet, how’re the old kidneys lately?’, he would have waved the headsman aside and begun a serious conversation as follows: ‘Well, not so good, Sister [….] I never get a wink of sleep any more. I don’t know how I stand it.’ At this point the headsman would have interrupted with a little anecdote about his arthritis, and all the veins, flatulence, flat feet and what not. Danton would have muscled in with a long harangue on the horrible hangover he had yesterday morning. Robespierre would have addressed the mob for two hours on the new pills he was taking to get rid of his pimples. The Revolution would have been forgotten. Louis would have become the Well Beloved again–a Royal Pal. The Bourbon dynasty would have been saved.”

This book contains a bunch of letters written by Eugene O’Neill from his youth to his old age. It’s interesting to see how he develops over time, and what he thinks about his plays and other people. In the end, the letters are very sad because O’Neill spent his whole life seemingly searching for the meaning of life without having found it. In the end, he does seem to have found something, though–friendship, writing, and love, but it’s never clear if he ever found solace from that. Also, by the time he realized the value of these things to him, his friends were dying, Parkinson’s had robbed him of the ability to write, and his beloved wife was going insane. That’s a horrible way to go, and so the end of the letter collection had me crying some.

Still, there was lots of wisdom in the letters. The wisdom came in two flavors: writerly wisdom and life wisdom. Writerly wisdom consisted of things along the lines of “set your manuscript aside for a few months if you’re not sure yet what you’re trying to say with it” and “experimental works usually fail because they’re done just for the sake of experimentation instead of for the sake of having something to say,” and the life wisdom had things like “stop relying on others to figure out your life, figure it out yourself.” I was surprised by how wise O’Neill turned out to be (though he also seemed to be somewhat racist and sexist, which is absolutely not wise).

Basically, if you’re interested in O’Neill’s plays, these letters are insightful, but they are also likely to be sadder than his super-sad and super-tragic play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Read at your own risk.

Now, because I don’t want to end the year with such a pessimistic note, I want to end by recommending a more inspirational poem, and that is William Ernest Henley’s Invictus:

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Wishing you all a terrific 2021.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Filipovič, Flaubert, and Tolstoy

 

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe (as always). Today is Hemingway’s birthday. Even though none of the books I’ve read for this week are by him, I hope you still find them inspiring:

Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo, by Zlata Filipovič

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“I went with Alexandra to the old Sarajevo library, the Vječnica. Generations and generations of people enriched their knowledge by reading and leafing through countless books. Somebody once said that books are the greatest treasure, the greatest friend one has. The Vječnica was such a treasure trove. We had so many friends there. But now we’ve lost the treasure and the friends and the lovely old building. They all went up in the destroying flames. The Vječnica is now a treasure trove of ashes, bricks, and the odd scrap of paper. I brought home a piece of brick and a fragment of metal as a memento of that treasure-house of friends.”

In 1991, ten-year-old Zlata Filipovič started keeping a diary of her life in Sarajevo, the capitol of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At first she wrote about her days at school, her friends, and her piano lessons. In 1992, the Bosnian war began, and Zlata started writing about her days sheltering from bombs, her dead friends, and her ruined childhood.

She also wrote about how she found solace. Sometimes, after being without electricity for days, it would turn on, and she and her family would get to enjoy TV. Other times she’d be able to meet some of her surviving friends. In spite of these reprieves, Zlata wanted to enjoy her childhood again, and she spent about three years before she could.

Early on in her diary, Zlata wrote that since Anne Frank named her diary “Kitty,” she wanted to give her own diary a name, too. She decided on “Mimmy.” As time passed, parts of her diary were published. These sections were used to help the international peace efforts, and people began thinking of Zlata as the Anne Frank of Sarajevo. At that point, Zlata no longer wanted to be like Anne Frank. Anne Frank wound up dead, and Zlata didn’t want to die. The interesting thing is that while Anne Frank kept a diary and died, Zlata’s published diary gave her international attention, which likely wound up being a reason she and her family were finally able to be transported out of war-torn Sarajevo to Paris.

Her diary is worth reading. It’s one of those accounts that make you grateful for what you have. It’s also one of those accounts that show how seeking hope can help people through times of tragedy.

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857, Translated by Francis Steegmuller

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“What worries me in my book [Madame Bovary] is the element of entertainment. That side is weak; there is not enough action. I maintain, however, that ideas are action. It is more difficult to hold the reader’s interest with them, I know, but if the style is right it can be done. I now have fifty pages in a row without a single event [….] If I bring it off, it will be a great achievement, I think, for it will be like painting in monotone without contrasts—not easy. But I fear all these subtleties will be wearisome, and that the reader will long for more movement. Still, one must be loyal to one’s concept. If I tried to insert action, I would be following a rule, and would spoil everything. One must sing with one’s own voice, and mine will never be dramatic.”

This book has a bunch of letters by the writer Gustave Flaubert, spanning from the first letter he ever wrote as a child to the letters he wrote when he published Madame Bovary. The book’s like a diary in a way. You see how Flaubert develops as a writer. He goes from being obsessed with sentimentality to despising it and wanting to achieve a pure prose. You also see the way his awkward similes gradually transform into astutely-conveyed images. Later on, you can see his struggles with Bovary, which turned out to be one of the best parts of the letters.

Seeing all of the thought he put into his book gave me more respect for him as a writer. After I read Bovary, I thought it was overrated and sometimes boring. I didn’t see how style alone could sustain a book. Maybe Flaubert didn’t even think it might come off as uninteresting at all. After gaining some context from these letters, I still think Bovary is boring, but now I see that Flaubert was much more reflective than I thought. He created his own vision of a style-based story, and he knew that people might be bored by his story, but was determined to write it that way because it was just who he was. Now that’s inspiring.

So overall, I’d say these letters are interesting to read because they show you how Flaubert came into his own as a writer.

War and Peace Part 2, By Leo Tolstoy

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“Sidorov winked at them and began talking to the French, rapidly gabbling out incomprehensible words: ‘Kari, mala, musiu, paskavili, muter, kaska, moushchit,’ he gabbled, trying to pronounce the words with an expressive intonation. ‘Ho, ho, ho! Ha, ha, ha, ha! Uh! Uh!’ The soldiers broke into a roar of laughter so hearty and jolly that it was involuntarily communicated across the line to the French, after which it seemed that they all really ought to unload their muskets, blow up their ammunition and go back home as quickly as possible. But the muskets remained loaded, the loopholes in the houses and fortifications gazed forward as menacingly as ever and the cannon detached from their limbers remained facing each other just as before.”

In the second part of Tolstoy’s epic first draft of War and Peace (first part here, third part here, fourth part here, fifth part here, sixth part here, seventh part here), some of the characters go to war. These characters include Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, a guy named Dolokhov, a guy named Rostov, and a guy named Denisov.

There are basically two groups of soldiers, and the characters are split between these two groups. Some of the characters go from one group to the other, and other characters stay in the same group. In the end it all culminates in an epic-ish battle, which is nice.

Splitting his characters into two groups enables Tolstoy to shift points of view a lot without causing too much confusion. It also enables him to draw parallels. There would be one scene of a character hearing about someone stealing something, and then there’ll be another scene of a character in the other group being stolen from. There’ll be a scene where one character in the first group hears about a certain army being defeated by Napoleon, and then there’ll be another scene where other characters in the second group fight against Napoleon (I won’t spoil what happens).

Part 2 isn’t what you’d expect from an account of war. If you’ve ever read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (you should), you would remember how most of the book is about the awful horrors of war. There’s some horror in Part 2 of War and Peace, but not as much as I expected. There’s a surprising amount of happiness, actually—happiness about potentially being promoted in the army, happiness about being able to command armies, and happiness about hanging around in the barracks doing nothing. Now, if you’ve ever read Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, you’d find jolly talking mice laying siege to some castle. Part 2 of Tolstoy’s book reminded me more of that (minus the talking mice). I’m guessing there’ll be more horror in future sections, but Tolstoy can’t pile it all on this early or it’ll get boring. With that being said, all the happiness in Part 2 makes it surprisingly refreshing.

One other thing: This is a first draft I’m reading. Part 1 doesn’t read much like a draft. Some of Part 2 does. This kind of shows in Tolstoy’s descriptions of battles. The narration comes off more like something you’d read in a history textbook, with random details scattered in that sound like something the narrator heard from his uncle who fought in the war. Come to think of it, Tolstoy probably did hear those details from one of his relatives, since they did fight in the war, and Tolstoy did ask them about their experiences when he was researching for the book.

In any case, even if the battles don’t quite come to life, the characters always do, and on the whole, this surprisingly happy section was pretty entertaining.

Until next time!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Hugo, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky

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Hello! I hope you are all well. I have reviewed three great books for today. Beforehand, I tried to read other books (like Moby Dick and The Red and the Black) but I couldn’t get through them, even though I’m sure they are also great books. Meanwhile:

Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo

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“[Javert’s] brow was not visible; it disappeared beneath his hat: his eyes were not visible, since they were lost under his eyebrows: his chin was not visible, for it was plunged in his cravat: his hands were not visible; they were drawn up in his sleeves: and his cane was not visible; he carried it under his coat. But when the occasion presented itself, there was suddenly seen to emerge from all this shadow, as from an ambuscade, a narrow and angular forehead, a baleful glance, a threatening chin, enormous hands, and a monstrous cudgel.”

I saw the musical first, then read the book. The book is better.

It’s also super-long, but somehow it’s still interesting. It’s about the French Revolution and focuses on a criminal named Jean Valjean who strives for redemption while being pursued by an inspector named Javert. It’s also about the lovers, Marius and Cosette, a feisty kid named Gavroche, and many others. It’s also about sewers.

The sewers are a digression. There are a lot of digressions in Les Mis that try to develop the writer’s ideas about the problems in France and how to solve them.

If the book just consisted of digressions, it would have been boring. Fortunately, there’s also a fascinating story with well-written scenes and vivid characters. Hugo wasn’t afraid to explore the highs and the lows of life. That means the reader can become super-involved with the story to the point that he or she doesn’t mind the digressions as much. Maybe that was just my experience, but maybe it will be yours, too.

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

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“We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it. A very foggy night, with great rings round the lamps in the streets! There was an indistinct talk of its being wet. I considered it frosty [….] A man, sitting in a pigeon-hole-place, looked out of the fog, and took money from somebody, inquiring if I was one of the gentlemen paid for, and appearing rather doubtful (as I remember in the glimpse I had of him) whether to take the money for me or not. Shortly afterwards, we were very high up in a very hot theatre, looking down into a large pit, that seemed to me to smoke; the people with whom it was crammed were so indistinct.”

This book is filled with surprises.

For one, I read Dickens when I was younger and found him uninteresting, but maybe I was too young to enjoy it, because this book was surprisingly-good.

David Copperfield is about David Copperfield. That’s it (I’m kidding). David Copperfield is a boy in Victorian England who endures hardships and grows up to become a famous writer. The story starts out detailing Copperfield’s hard upbringing. Later on, the scope widens to include the numerous subplots he becomes involved with. It is here where he meets notorious characters like Mr. Micawber and Uriah Heep.

Dickens tries to tie everything together at the end, and partially succeeds. A lot of the book is truly impactful due to plot twists that work out amazingly. Other parts (including the very end) are super-contrived due to plot twists that don’t work.

Parts of the book made me think Dickens was anticipating the advent of cinema. He included the literary equivalents of jump-cuts and time-lapses, for instance (like in the passage I quoted). This made the book feel surprisingly modern.

Another surprise to me is that, while Dickens is sometimes thought of as a depressing writer, I didn’t find that to be the case. Yes, he occasionally writes about depressing topics, but the story’s outlook on life is much more hopeful than depressing. It’s like the difference between a story that recounts tragedies and is suffused with a sentiment of, “Everything is awful” and a story that recounts tragedies but whose spirit is more, “All is not lost, there can still be hope.” Maybe that is just the way I see it. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this if you have read Dickens.

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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“It’s God that’s worrying me. That’s the only thing that’s worrying me. What if He doesn’t exist? What if Rakitin’s right—that it’s an idea made up by men? Then if He doesn’t exist, man is the chief of the earth, of the universe. Magnificent! Only how is he going to be good without God? That’s the question. I always come back to that. For whom is man going to love then? To whom will he be thankful? To whom will he sing the hymn? Rakitin laughs. Rakitin says that one can love humanity without God. Well, only a sniveling idiot can maintain that.”

I found this book somewhat interesting and somewhat boring.

The idea of the main plot is interesting. A guy named Dmitri Karamazov is accused of murdering his father. His two other brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, are horrified, and chaos ensues.

The rest of the book is somewhat boring. It’s filled with all sorts of philosophical talk that sometimes seem relevant to the characters and sometimes don’t. I found the relevant philosophizing to be interesting, but not the irrelevant philosophizing.

Overall, while Dostoyevsky seemed keen on developing every nuance of every thought, he seemed to do it at the expense of telling an engaging story. Unlike in the case of Les Mis, I didn’t find that the remainder of The Brothers Karamazov could make the digressions worthwhile. In Les Mis, you could take out the digressions and still have a good experience. In Dostoyevsky, if you take out the philosophizing, you’re not left with much that’s actually interesting (other than the idea of the plot).

In Les Mis, the plot is interesting and the characters are interesting, because they have consistent and understandable motivations. In The Brothers Karamazov, the characters are unfathomable and inconsistent. That’s perfectly alright in the emotionally-fraught scenes where the characters themselves probably don’t understand themselves. However, this also happens in less-tense scenes. For instance, a lot of this book consists of the youngest brother, Alyosha, desperately wanting to see one of his other brothers, only for him to conveniently forget about them a second later when Dostoyevsky wants to develop other characters instead. After a scene of developing the character of Mrs. So-and-So, Alyosha would suddenly remember, “Oh yes! I desperately need to visit my brother! I can’t believe I forgot that!”

So in the end, I found that Dostoyevsky’s book has big philosophical digressions and unfathomable characters.

I will say that I found one part of the book interesting. It’s a subplot that stars a bunch of kids who act consistently and also philosophize. The only difference is that their philosophizing is relevant to their characters, and doesn’t bog the story down. If the rest of the book could have been like that, I would have loved it.

As it is, it’s great that Dostoyevsky explored his ideas about the future of Russia, but I was left wondering why he did so in story-form when the story itself doesn’t seem exciting enough to make all the philosophy worth it. Then again, these are just my thoughts in the 21st century. I would imagine that this book would have been very exciting to read when it was originally published. Also, I would imagine that this book is still very exciting for people to read in the 21st century. Maybe you’ll find it more engaging than I did. If you don’t, there’s always the juggling group called the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

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Keep healthy, keep safe, and keep reading!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Solzhenitsyn, Vian, and Madox Ford

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Hello everyone! I hope you’re all doing well. Here are two sad books I’ve read that I wouldn’t recommend to you now, and one funny one. The funny one is distinguished from the others via its color photo. See it? That’s the one I recommend.

 

A World Split Apart, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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“In today’s Western society, the inequality has been revealed between the freedom to do good and the freedom to do evil. A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him, parliament and press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that each single step of his is well-founded and absolutely flawless. Actually, an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself; from the very beginning, traps will be set out all around him. Thus mediocrity triumphs, with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.”

Pictured above, the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is famous for his huge book on Soviet gulags called The Gulag Archipelago. If you don’t want to read that just yet, you might want to start out with A World Split Apart. This book is a transcription of the commencement address he gave at Harvard University in 1978. Like The Gulag Archipelago, this book contains profound ideas. Unlike The Gulag Archipelago, It’s a very short read.

Solzhenitsyn makes interesting points about how we’re facing spiritual decay in the face of modern life, and that without preserving our spiritual nature (like morality and so on), we’re doomed. It’s fascinating, because it makes you think about the nature of good and evil, and the role that both society and the individual play in promoting morals.

Basically, A World Split Apart is a good book to get a sense of Solzhenitsyn the thinker. It’s short, it’s accessible, and it’s not The Gulag Archipelago.

 

To Hell With the Ugly, by Boris Vian

To Hell With The Ugly

“To hell with the ugly.”

The reason for this short quote is because I took this book out from the library, then returned it, and now don’t have it with me anymore to quote from. If you want a sense of what it’s like, cross Holden Caulfield with Raymond Chandler, and throw in some sex for good measure.

Compared to Solzhenitsyn, To Hell With The Ugly is shallow. However, it’s very entertaining to read. Here’s the basic premise: Beautiful people are captured. Then they’re forced to reproduce with other beautiful people to create more beautiful people who are programmed to take over positions of high power in the government.

“Take over the government for what?” you might ask.

You’ll never know the true reason, because Vian doesn’t give it. Instead, you’ll get the idea that although beautiful people are beautiful, ugliness is needed, too, to provide a contrast to beauty, so ugliness itself can be a form of beauty. You’ll also get a lot of laughter.

So in the end, even though the book’s mystery is never really solved, it’s still worth reading for its humor.

 

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier

“She knew nothing—nothing of life, except that one must live sadly. That she now knew. What happened to her on the night when she received at once the blow that Edward wished her to go to her father in India and the blow of the letter from her mother was this. She called first upon her sweet Saviour—and she thought of Our Lord as her sweet Saviour!—that He might make it impossible that she should go to India. Then she realized from Edward’s demeanour that he was determined that she should go to India. It must then be right that she should go. Edward was always right in his determinations. He was the Cid; he was Lohengrin; he was the Chevalier Bayard.”

This book took me forever to read. I started it about a year ago, left it, then went back to it and so on. It’s about two couples who are friends. John and Florence are one couple, and Edward and Leonora are the other, and John tells the story about their lives. Some people live. Some people die. In the end, it’s a tragedy.

For some reason I went into this expecting it to be a murder mystery. Obviously, it’s not. Instead, it’s an interesting experiment in structure (it’s apparently “literary impressionism” due to its non-linearity). However, the language itself is stodgy, and doesn’t really bring the tragedy to life. This could be a good thing. You probably won’t feel sad reading it. However, it also won’t make you laugh. All in all, if this were a happier time, I would recommend that you read The Good Soldier. Not now, though.

Go read Boris Vian instead.

Until next time!

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