Lit in the Time of War: Dragomán, Mussorgsky, and Half of Pasternak

Hello! I hope you are all well. I’ve read three-ish books this week (one I’ve only read half of thanks to final exams). I’ll be back to reading three books next week. At the end of this post, I’ve also given a list of places you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need. Please do.

The White King, by György Dragomán,
Translated by Paul Olchváry

“By then we’ve been without Father for more than half a year, though he was supposed to have gone away for only a week, to a research station by the sea, on some urgent business, and when he said goodbye to me he said how sorry he was that he couldn’t take me with him, because at that time of year, in late autumn, the sea is a truly unforgettable sight, a lot fiercer than in summer, stirring up huge yellow waves and white foam as far as the eye can see; but no matter, he said, and he promised that once he got home he’d take me, too, so I could have a look for myself. He just couldn’t understand how it could be that I was already past ten years old and still had never seen the sea, but that’s OK, he said, we’d make up for that along with everything else we’d make up for, no sense rushing things, there would be plenty of time and more for everything, because we had a whole life ahead of us. This was one of Father’s favorite sayings, and although I never did quite get it, when he didn’t come home, after all, I thought about it a lot, and that farewell came to my mind a lot, too, how it was when I saw Father for the last time, when his colleagues came to get him with a grey van.”

This book is about Djata, an eleven-year-old boy who’s waiting for his disappeared father to return home. The problem is that his father has been arrested by the totalitarian state. Meanwhile Djata deals with the regime, his grief, and other kids.

This book takes the form of a bunch of loosely-connected short stories, but unlike some books of loosely-connected short stories, this one works very well. There’s a main through-line (Djata’s father) that ties it all together. It’s actually so unified that it sometimes feels more like a novel than a bunch of short stories.

The book itself is very good and very moving (it may make you cry a lot). The good news is that while it can be very sad, it also has hilarious parts, which makes for a good balance, and its ending is very satisfying (from a craft-based point of view).

The book’s style is interesting (but I didn’t realize until late into it). The author uses a lot of run-on sentences, and he doesn’t include quotation marks around dialogue. The good news is that this stylistic stuff doesn’t get in the way of the story’s substance. It actually augments the narrative, since it makes Djata out to be a super-talkative kid (who may even be trying to cover up his grief by being super-talkative).

So if you want to be emotionally devastated by a book, I recommend The White King.

Boris Godunov, by Modest Mussorgsky,
Based on the Play by Alexander Pushkin

“GRIGORI: Boris, Boris—you make the country tremble,
and no one ever dares remember
the fate you meted out to the Tsarevich.
Yet in this quiet cell
a monk recorded all that he knew
of this most heinous murder.
You will be called before your earthly judges,
nor can you flee
the judgment of the Lord.”

This is an opera libretto based on a historical play by Alexander Pushkin. In it, the Macbeth-like Boris Godunov murders his way to tsardom and then guilts about it while other people try to stir up rebellion against him. I’d previously seen Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera, and so was curious to read Mussorgsky’s libretto.

Interestingly, there are different versions of the opera—Mussorgsky originally wrote a version about Boris, with a few scenes focusing on some other character called Dmitri the Pretender. Later, Mussorgsky was told that the opera couldn’t be performed unless he included a more prominent female character in the opera. So he created a second version (which I read for today) which included a love-interest for Dmitri.

The version I saw at the Met didn’t include this love-interest. In that version, the plot flowed better. In the version that I read, the love-interest seemed to be there for no real reason other than to be there (she didn’t even really contribute to the plot). However, the version that I read had a good scene in it that was cut from the Met. You just can’t win.

Overall, I wouldn’t really recommend this libretto. It’s not that good (though there are some good parts), but it has made me very interested in reading the actual play by Pushkin.

An Essay in Autobiography, by Boris Pasternak,
Translated by Manya Harari

“It was only later, when an attempt was made to establish a resemblance between Mayakovsky and myself, that I was credited with a gift for tonal and rhetorical effects. This is quite untrue—I have no more of this gift than anyone who uses words. On the contrary, my concern has always been for meaning, and my dream [is] that every poem should have content in itself—a new thought or a new image.”

This book contains both Pasternak’s autobiographical essay and his poems. I’ve only read his essay so far. The poems are written in both Russian and English, and I’ve been spending more time than I should comparing the Russian to the English, which has taken up more time than allows for in my week. So I’ll probably review the poems next week. For now, I’ll review the essay.

This essay is basically about Pasternak’s youth and the people he met who inspired the approach he developed towards writing. Among others, he talks about Marina Tsvetaeva, Rainer Marie Rilke, Alexander Scriabin, and Paolo Yashvili.

If you’re looking for a definitive autobiography of Pasternak (something like Gorky’s 3-volume autobiography), it doesn’t exist. There’s only this essay and another essay he wrote earlier on. He thinks this essay is better and less pretentious than his earlier one. I haven’t read the other essay, so I can’t say for sure, but I agree that this essay is not pretentious. Pasternak has a lot of sensible ideas about art, and is very grounded in what he says (he cares for meaning over rhetorical flourishes, for instance).

Also, a fun fact about Pasternak: he wanted to be a composer when he was a boy because Alexander Scriabin was his neighbor and Pasternak once walked through the woods between their houses, heard Scriabin play, and got obsessed. Pasternak even became a good composer, but stopped, because though he was able to compose sophisticated and rich music, “I played wretchedly and I read music like a child learning to spell” and, “The discrepancy between my musical themes, new and difficult in themselves, and my lack of practical skill turned the natural gift which should have been a joy to me into a torment, and in the end I found it unendurable.”

What was also interesting was that as a youth, Pasternak didn’t see the need for hard work. He thought genius would just flow out of him like carbon dioxide flows out of someone’s nostrils. He obviously got wiser afterwards (see the rest of his autobiographical essay), but it’s interesting to get a sense of what he used to believe (art is the result of effortless genius) and what he went on to realize (art is the result of a lot of hard work).

Overall, if you’re looking for very insightful portrait of someone’s artistic development, I would definitely recommend this essay. It’s wise without being condescending, and thought-provoking without being pretentious.

Now, as promised, here’s a list of places you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need:

Save The Children: Gives emergency aid to children in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.savethechildren.org/us/where-we-work/ukraine

Urgent Action Fund Ukraine: Supports evacuation efforts, provides disaster survival training, provides access to alternate communication methods for Ukrainians and more. Donate here: https://urgentactionfund.org/

Global Empowerment Mission: Gives plane tickets to Ukrainian refugees so they can reach friends and family they have in Europe. Donate here: https://www.globalempowermentmission.org/

World Health Organization: Helps treat injured Ukrainians and provides life-saving medicines. Donate here: https://www.ukraine.who.foundation/

Lit in the Time of War: Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky

In which I review books by Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky.

Hello! I hope you are well. Today at Princeton is officially Dean’s Date—when all essays are due. As a result, I’ll keep my reviews shorter than usual. Also, there’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need.

Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir, by Shahrnush Parsipur, Translated by Sara Khalili

“Although this madness [PTSD from prison] was my own, I wonder if society can be struck by a similar sort of collective insanity when pressure mounts beyond the peoples’ tolerance. Do they abandon all beliefs and begin to exist in an illusory world of their own creation? In that state, will they believe everything they are told?”

This book is about an Iranian writer who gets imprisoned. She experiences traumatic events in Evin Prison along with in other prisons. She gets released, then re-arrested, then released, then re-arrested again. Through it all, we see her remarkable character (she is very resilient and spirited), and learn about the horrors of incarceration.

I would recommend.

The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin,
Read by Eugene Yelchin

“‘‘Turn that thing [the radio] off, Yevgeny.’ ‘I can’t, Grandma,’ I said. ‘I’m in attitude.’ I was trying to balance on one leg in attitude, which Vaganova described as a pose on one leg with the other lifted at an angle of ninety degrees and carried back, bent at the knee. ‘You hurt your leg, Yevgeny?’ ‘No, Grandma. It’s…nothing.’ ‘He stands on one leg for nothing. You a stork?’ ‘I’m practicing ballet.’ ‘With a bad leg?’”

This book is a memoir about Yelchin’s experiences growing up during the Cold War. His mom’s obsessed with the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, his dad’s obsessed with poetry, and his brother’s obsessed with his newfound talent for ice-skating. Yelchin’s parents say he needs a talent, too—talent gets you a luxurious apartment and other such privileges. Yelchin’s brother is all set, but no matter what he does, Yelchin turns out to have no talent at anything. The only enjoyment he gets is from the drawings he makes at night under the table.

This book is funny, heartwarming, and extremely well-crafted. I would recommend.

Selected Poems, by Joseph Brodsky,
Translated by George L. Kline

“People and things crowd in.
Eyes can be bruised and hurt
by people as well as things.
Better to live in the dark.”

This is a book of poems by Brodsky translated into English and with a foreword by W.H. Auden, who says that Brodsky is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. This is also back when Brodsky was an unknown (1973, before his 1987 Nobel Prize).

In any case, I found the poems to be good but not as good as I’d hoped (I’d read some poems by Brodsky here and they were terrific).

Even so, there were some very good poems in this collection, and I’d recommend it. Also, while I never mention footnotes, I do have to say that Brodsky’s book has great footnotes about untranslatable nuances of the Russian original which were very helpful and insightful. I’d recommend.

As promised, a list of places to donate and help Ukrainians in need:

Direct Relief: Provides trauma kits, insulin, and other important medical supplies to Ukrainians. Donate here: https://www.directrelief.org/emergency/ukraine-crisis/

Nova Ukraine: Supports Ukrainians by evacuating refugees, serving meals, and providing aid packages. Also the first volunteer group to enter Bucha and provide food and reconstruction assistance there. Donate here: https://novaukraine.org/

WithUkraine: The official fundraising effort by the Embassy of Ukraine to the UK. Provides food and medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://www.withukraine.org/

Plan USA: Gives aid focusing on refugee children in Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/humanitarian-response-ukraine-plan-usa/

Lit in the Time of War: Brady, Blok, and Yelchin

Study for exams! Read books! Stop the war!

Hello! I hope you are as well as can be hoped for during these awful times. I have reviewed three books this week, and have included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukraine:

Profile of a Prodigy: The Life and Games of Bobby Fischer,
by Frank Brady

“Psychologically, he seems trapped by his own temperament, unable to realize that a sensitivity to the rights and interests of others is a condition of social being. He has backed himself into such a small cultural corner that his ideational mobility suffers every time it is tried, as is shown by the almost pathetic lack of sophistication in his statements since Curaçao. Indeed, he is scarcely able to communicate with the world of larger interests except through the medium of the chessboard. Mikhail Tal one said in an interview that Bobby should read more outside of chess or else his game would eventually  suffer from the thinness of his education. Bobby replied by slighting his critic’s chess ability and adding a series of sneers at intellectual pretensions on the part of certain chess masters.”

This book is about the famous chess player Bobby Fischer, who was a prodigy as a kid and who went on to become the world champion of chess.

What makes this book more interesting is that the author knew Fischer personally. Also, this book was written and published in the 1960s, when Fischer was on hiatus from chess and before he returned to win his famous matches in the 1970s. So here we only have a partial profile of a prodigy rather than the whole story (which is what most standard biographies would give you). So think of this book as being more of a snapshot than a comprehensive biography.

The book was good. It was interesting to learn about the world of chess. Fischer was a very good chess player at a very young age, but he was also very immature. At the time this book was written, his immaturity was limiting him by causing him to decline to participate in chess. He had wanted to compete in the world championship, for instance, but, after convincing himself that the game was rigged against him in favor of his Soviet rivals (which he only complained about when they beat him), he also convinced himself to take a hiatus from the game.

 The book also contains annotated diagrams of Fischer’s greatest games (up to the 1960s). Though it was mildly interesting to flip through these (“14 RxB!!”), it was more interesting to read the biography portion of the book. What made it stand out the most to me was its chapter trying to dissect Fischer’s psychology. He apparently tied his sense of self-worth to chess to the point where he wound up sabotaging his chances at the world title in the 1960s to preserve his sense of superiority over other players.

So, if you’re interested in a psychological portrait of a (sometimes comically-whiny) prodigy, I’d recommend this book.

Poems by Alexander Blok, Translated by Yevgeny Bonver

“Years that burned everything to ashes!
Do you bring madness or grace?
The war’s and freedom’s fire flashes
Left bloody light on every face.”

After reading Pasternak’s poems on a website and reviewing them on this blog, I have found another website with a lot of poems by Alexander Blok.

The poems were good. They made me think about the world in a different way. Some were particularly striking, like “All perished, All!” and “He, who was born…” All in all, it was a very good compilation.

The only thing I would say about these poems is that the English translation loses out on nuances in the original. For instance, in “Night, Streets, the Lantern…” the original’s last line has to do with ice flowing (or something that shows that in spite of the frozenness of ice, it still contains a glimmer of motion). This nuance was completely lost in the translation, which mentioned something about a swelling canal in the night. Obviously not all translations can be perfect, but it has made me wonder how much nuance has been lost in the other poems translated here.

In any case, I would recommend just to get exposure to Blok. If you can read the originals, I would recommend them even more.

The Haunting of Falcon House, by Eugene Yelchin,
Read by Michael Bakkensen and George Guidall

“I hesitated, deciding which book to open first. Not that it mattered. It shouldn’t be too hard for me to pass what was required. French I didn’t need to study. I already knew it. Of course, en garde, prêts, allez were the only words I knew, but they were the most important words in French. You couldn’t start fencing without saying them. I didn’t have to bother with the Russian grammar, either. Russian is my mother tongue, and besides, I write in cursive neatly. Well, almost neatly. As for arithmetic…true, numbers had always troubled me a little, but I could draw them well. Zeros in particular.”

This book is about a prince, Lev Lvovich, who is sent to live with his aunt Olga in a house called Falcon House, which just so happens to be haunted. As he tries to live up to his grandfather’s legacy (his grandfather was apparently a fancy general in the Russian army), he meets a mysterious boy named Vanyusha who has mysterious secrets, studies half-heartedly for admittance into a fancy Russian military academy, and finds himself drawing pictures better than he ever had drawn them before.

The book started slow but gets really good at the end. Was it worthwhile? I found it to be so. It was fun to read, with humor, action, and heart. I felt like some aspects could have been developed more (we learn about the protagonist’s grandfather but not so much about his father, for instance), but there was enough to keep the read entertaining.

So, if you’re looking for a book with some humor and a terrific ending, read this. And if you just so happen to be cramming for final exams and writing essays for final assignments, I’d recommend this book even more for its inspirational take on academics (see excerpt above!)

As promised, here’s a list of Ukrainian organizations to donate to. In case you missed out on previous lists, some entries are repeated here:

UN Refugees: Supports Ukrainian refugees by giving them supplies and assistance. Gifts are being matched up to 1 million dollars. Donate here: https://www.unrefugees.org/

World Central Kitchen: Provides food to displaced Ukrainian refugees and to civilians still in Ukrainian cities. Donate here: https://wck.org/

Razom for Ukraine: Provides medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

Plan USA: Gives resources and psychological support to girls and women in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/

Lit in the Time of War: Sergey, Marina, Ilf, Petrov, and Yelchin

Hello! I hope you had a happy Easter/Passover/Ramadan. This week I’ve reviewed three books, and, as usual, provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukraine during this awful war.

The Scar, by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko,
Translated by Elinor Huntington

“The world is preserved by the mother of all roads. She looks after the faithful traveler, relieving his solitude. The dust of the road covers the hem of a cloak, the dust of the constellations covers the curtain of the night sky, and the wind blows both the clouds toward first light and sheets hung up the dry with the same eagerness. It is no misfortune if the soul is scorched by the sun; it is far more disastrous if a raging fire devastates the soul. It is no misfortune if you do not know where you are going; it is far worse when there is no longer anywhere to go. He who stands on the path of experience cannot step away from it, even when it has come to its end. For the path is without end.”

This is a book about a guy named Egert who starts out being a self-absorbed jerk and a member of the royal guard. He’s very brave, but he bullies his friends, chases after other men’s loved ones, and so on. But one time, he winds up killing a woman’s fiancé in a duel, and gets cursed by a mysterious man called the Wanderer. The curse rids Egert of his bravery and sets him fleeing from everything. Now he needs to figure out how to break the curse before it’s too late.

This was a fun read. The protagonist was initially very unsympathetic, but wound up becoming more sympathetic as the book went on and he learned how to be compassionate towards others instead of just thinking about himself. What also made this book good is that even though nothing seems to happen and there are no real big battles or anything (except at the beginning and the end) it still feels as though a lot is happening (even though the characters just walking around living life). I guess that’s a testament to their authors’ skills with characterization.

It’s also a compelling read—I found myself prioritizing this book over my schoolwork. So if you’re in the throes of studying for final exams, etc, be warned.

In any case, I’d recommend this book.

The Twelve Chairs, by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov,
Translated by John Richardson

(So funny I had to include 2 excerpts)

Excerpt 1:

“The same old story of Gavrila was begun again [by Nikifor Lapis], but this time with a hunting twist to it. The work went under the title of ‘The Poacher’s Prayer.’

‘Gavrila lay in wait for rabbits.
Gavrila shot and winged a doe…’

‘Very good,’ said the kindly Napernikov. ‘You have surpassed Entich himself in this poem, Trubetskoi. Only there are one or two things to be changed. The first thing is to get rid of the word “prayer.” ‘And “rabbit,”’ said the rival. ‘Why rabbit?’ asked Nikifor [Lapis] in surprise. ‘It’s the wrong season.’”

Excerpt 2 (Also about Lapis):

“‘Well, how have you been making out?’ asked Persidsky. ‘I’ve written a marvelous poem!’ ‘About Gavrila? Something peasanty? “Gavrila ploughed the fields early. Gavrila just adored his plough?”’ ‘Not about Gavrila. That’s a pot-boiler,’ said Lapis defensively. ‘I’ve written about the Caucasus.’ ‘Have you ever been to the Caucasus?’ ‘I’m going in two weeks.’ ‘Aren’t you afraid, Lapis? There are jackals there.’ ‘Takes more than that to frighten me. Anyway, the ones in the Caucasus aren’t poisonous.’ They all pricked up their ears at this reply. ‘Tell me, Lapis,’ said Persidsky, ‘What do you think jackals are?’ ‘I know what they are. Leave me alone.’ ‘All right, tell us then if you know.’ ‘Well, they’re sort of… like… snakes.’”

This is a very funny book. it stars con-man Ostap Bender, the “smooth operator” (or “великий комбинатор” in the Russian original) and his guileless acquaintance Ippolit Matveyevich, who’s much less smooth of an operator. Ippolit Matveyevich has just gotten an inheritance of 12 chairs from his mom, and one of the chairs contains a fortune sewn within it. The only problem is that Ippolit Matveyevich does not have the chairs—they have started to be dispersed around Russia. When Ostap Bender learns about this, he insists on getting into the chair-hunting business. Thus begins an epic and funny chase around Russia.

This book reminded me a lot of Gogol’s Dead Souls in that there are different episodes that the characters go through to swindle others of their money, and each episode is pretty funny. While not as funny as Ivan Chonkin by Voinovich, it’s still very funny (and some episodes are absolutely hilarious). Not to mention that this book has a very surprising and exciting twist ending that somehow gets cancelled out in the second book of the series which you should also lie in wait for (like Gavrila with the doe that he intends to wing).

In any case, I would recommend.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose, by Eugene Yelchin,
Illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, Read by Mark Turetsky

“‘Why is “The Nose” still so important to us?’ No hands go up, and I’m not surprised. He’s talking about a crazy old story they always make us read called “The Nose.” It’s really stupid. Some guy’s nose is dressed up in uniform, imagine that, and it starts putting on airs as though it’s an important government official. It takes place way before Stalin was our leader and teacher, of course. Could something like this happen now? No way. So why should Soviet children read such lies? I don’t know. I’m in no hurry, so I keep listening. ‘What “The Nose” so vividly demonstrates to us today,’ says Lushko, ‘is that when we blindly believe in someone else’s idea of what is right or wrong for us as individuals, sooner or later, our refusal to make our own choices could lead to the collapse of the entire political system. An entire country. The world, even.’”

This book is about a kid named Sasha Zaichik whose father is an official in Stalin’s government. Sasha is a model Soviet student, and he wants to become a Young Pioneer (the Soviet equivalent of Boy Scouts) at an upcoming ceremony at his school. The only problem is that his father is arrested by the Soviet government, and now Sasha has to go to school and hope that his father comes back in time for the ceremony (spoiler alert: he doesn’t).

Along the way, he meets friendly enemies of the people (classmates whose parents had also been arrested), breaks the nose off a bust of Stalin (which could get him arrested), and is lectured to by a life-sized version of Stalin’s nose smoking a pipe (see drawing above).

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Who cares that it’s for kids? the author is terrific at dramatic irony (Sasha remains in denial about his dad’s arrest, but we know too well what’s probably happened to him), and at drawing through-lines through the story (Character A does something mysterious, we wonder about it for a while and then forget about it, only for it to pop back up again at the end of the book).

The author is also great at humanizing the characters. I found myself sympathizing with even the least sympathetic of them (Sasha’s classmates). It also goes without saying that Sasha himself is also very sympathetic.

The book is also apparently illustrated. I didn’t get to see that, as I read the audiobook version, but the illustrations look pretty good based on what I could find online…

In any case, I definitely recommend this book. Who cares if you’re an adult? Read it anyway. You won’t regret it.

As promised, here are some places you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need:

The American Jewish Distribution Committee: Supports those in Ukraine, those fleeing Ukraine, and Ukrainians residing in Hungary, Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.jdc.org/

Muslim Hands: UK-based organization supporting Ukrainian refugees in Poland (can choose to donate in dollars). Donate here: https://muslimhands.org.uk/donate/ukraine-refugee-crisis/ukraine-refugee-crisis

Jeremiah’s Hope: Christian organization that provides evacuation assistance, relief, and long-term rebuilding support. Specifically focuses on helping orphans. Donate here: https://www.jeremiahshope.org/

International Committee of the Red Cross: Provides medical support to wounded Ukrainians. Donate here: https://www.icrc.org/en/donate/ukraine

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Durang, Kuznetsov, and Duras

Hello! Happy post-Valentine’s Day! I hope you are all healthy and safe and warm.

I’ve read three books. One has to do with translation, another with the internet, and the last one with love.

“The Idiots Karamazov,” by Christopher Durang

Dostoyevsky GIF - Dostoyevsky - Discover & Share GIFs

“(Enter Mary Tyrone Karamazov, the Karamazov family mother. She wears a high-necked, long dress and carries as carpetbag.)

MRS. KARAMAZOV. Is the Blessed Mother here? (To Grushenka.) Are you the Blessed Virgin? (Smerdyakov humps her leg). Not now, dear.

IVAN. Mother, why aren’t you at Father’s funeral?

MRS. KARAMAZOV. No one else was there. I got lonely. Oh, my nose is stopped up. (Sniffs something.)

IVAN (Bitterly.) I see you’ve got your trusty bag, Mother.

MRS. KARAMAZOV. I need it to carry my needles, Ivan.

IVAN. Have you then resumed your… ‘knitting?’

Mrs. Karamazov laughs jovially.

MRS. KARAMAZOV. James, it’s Edmund you ought to scold for not eating enough. He hardly touched anything except coffee. (Mrs. Karamazov goes rifling through her carpet bag, finds a hypodermic, and shoots up.)

IVAN. (To Grushenka.) It’s Alyosha that did this to mother. She nearly died giving birth to him, and cheap quack doctors got her on the stuff.

in this play, the translator Constance Garnett and her trusty servant Ernest (who likes to go into the African wilderness and hunt elephants and write very terse stories) translate The Brothers Karamazov into English without knowing what they’re doing. What ensues is an interesting mash-up of The Brothers Karamazov, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Anaïs Nin’s diaries, World War II, and the Russian Revolution. People get cut in half, brothers turn into Venus flytraps, and a lot “gets lost in translation.”

Basically, “The Idiots Karamazov” is a very funny play (but only if you get the references–otherwise you’ll be confused like I was during all the Anaïs Nin parts, for instance).

So, if you know about “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Anaïs Nin, World War II, the Russian Revolution, The Brothers Karamazov, Constance Garnett, and Ernest Hemingway, I would recommend you read this play. If you don’t know all of these, learn about them first and then come back. Or just skip this play (it’s funny but it won’t change your life).

Butterfly Skin, by Sergey Kuznetsov,
Translated by Andrew Bromfield

Butterfly Gif by karishma Thakur | Contra

“[As she tries to get two rival businessmen to settle their differences and keep investing in her company instead of bailing on her] And then Olga introduces a new piece into the game, a piece for which there is no term in traditional chess. An Outsider, a king from a different board. ‘I have a buyer,’ she says. ‘And what’s his price?’ asks Kostya. ‘Does he want to buy our shares or the entire company?’ asks Grisha. ‘He only wants to buy one of your shares,’ says Olga. ‘and my share to go with it.’ [….] The two kings say nothing.”

This thriller is about a woman named Ksenia who is editor of an online Moscow newspaper. There’s a murderer who’s committing gristly crimes. She’s fascinated by him, and secretly fascinated by her own dark desires. Meanwhile, the murderer becomes fascinated by her. Terror ensues..

This book is very dark, and it talks about a lot of controversial/explicit/possibly-triggering subjects (abortion, sex, drugs, murder, etc.) It’s also extremely well-written from a technical standpoint.

But for all its well-writtenness, it didn’t really have an emotional impact. I don’t know why. It’s as if the author thought that the dark things he wrote about would be enough to make the reader feel emotional about his characters. That wasn’t the case, though.

In any case, I would recommend this book if you really like really dark thrillers (darker than The Silence of the Lambs) that are technically well-written and have some psychological depth.

The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, Translated by Barbara Bray

L'amant | Still love her, Jane march, Lovers

“One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said, ‘I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.’”

So begins Duras’ The Lover.

This book is about a racist French family that goes to Indochina, and the girl who falls in love with a man from China, uses him for his money, and lets herself be turned against him by her family’s racist thoughts about him.

This is also the story of how dysfunctional her family is. Her mother’s described as crazy, her older brother is very violent and selfish, and her younger brother’s angry but at least somewhat nice. That was interesting to read about.

I found that Duras did a good job humanizing the family in the book, but did not do as good of a job humanizing the lover. He was just there to fall in love with the protagonist and be rich and to let her make comments on society and her own family. He wasn’t treated as a human being in and of himself (for instance, after the female protag leaves him, he’s depicted as spending all his time pining away for his “white lover,” which is a very problematic depiction).

So overall, this book seems pretty racist. It’s the first Duras I’ve read, and I wouldn’t recommend it. it’s very well written from a technical standpoint but from a racial standpoint it’s not good. Maybe her other books are better (but then again, maybe not.)

If you’re looking for a great book that’s very good at humanizing the Asian experience, try Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. THAT’S a book I’d recommend.

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Comment below!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Moore

Hello! I hope you are well. As for me, I’ve somehow read a huge book this week without noticing:

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal
By Christopher Moore, Read by Fisher Stevens*

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Funniest Excerpts:

‘Poison,’ Joy said [….] ‘Ah,’ I said, and I tasted the tea. [….] ‘Can you guess what your lesson is today?’ Joy asked. ‘I thought you would tell me what’s in that House of Doom room.’ ‘No that is not the lesson today [….] Guess again!’ My fingers and toes had begun to tingle [….] ‘You’re going to teach me how to make the fire powder that Balthazar used the day we arrived?’ ‘No, silly.’ [….] She pushed me lightly on the chest, and I fell over backward, unable to move. ‘Today’s lesson is… are you ready? [….] Today’s lesson is, if someone puts poison in your tea, don’t drink it!’”

“[As Biff and Jesus AKA Joshua prepare a sermon] ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the whiners, the meek, the—’ ‘Wait, what are we giving the meek?’ ‘Let’s see…uh… here! Blessed are the meek, for to them we shall say…”attaboy!”’ ‘A little weak.’ ‘Yeah. Let’s let the meek… inherit the earth.’ ‘Can’t you give the earth to the whiners?’ ‘Well then, cut the whiners and give the earth to the meek.’”

“Meanwhile, the chief priest droned on. ‘A man dies and leaves no sons, but his wife marries his brother, who has three sons by his first wife.’ And on. ‘The three of them leave Jericho and head south, going 3.3 furlongs per hour, but they are leading two donkeys, which can carry two…’ And on. ‘So the Sabbath ends, and they are able to resume, adding on the thousand steps allowed under law. And the wind is blowing southwest at two furlongs per hour.’ And on. ‘How much water will be required for the journey? Give your answer in firkins.’ ‘Five,’ Joshua said as soon as they stopped speaking [….] ‘You didn’t show your work! You didn’t show your work!’ chanted the youngest of the priests.”

This hilarious book is about Jesus and Levi, only for some reason Jesus is called Joshua and Levi is called Biff. Apparently, Biff was Joshua’s childhood friend. Cut to present-day: an angel resurrects Biff to write about his life with Joshua.

According to Biff, the Bible left out a lot. What about the trips he and Joshua made to Asia for Joshua to learn how to become the messiah, for instance? Lamb covers their childhood, their journey along the Silk Road, and everything else that was in the original Bible.

No wonder Lamb was was more than 400 pages.

However, I had no idea about that until I finished the audiobook and checked. That’s a good sign in terms of pacing. Looking back on it, while I knew this book was supposed to be funny, I’m impressed that it was able to stay consistently funny for 400+ pages. I mean, it’s ridiculously hard just to write 400+ pages of well-written story.

Also, I had previously thought of comedic writing as being just about making the reader laugh (Three Men in a Boat, for instance). I haven’t really seen an instance where someone set out to write a mainly-comedic story while also being able to suddenly become dramatic and still keep the reader engaged.

In the case of Lamb, the story was mainly comedic, but somehow the ending became very dramatic, and unlike some comedic works where the end loses power because it tries to take itself too seriously (see Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat), Lamb‘s ending actually gained strength.

So why was Tortilla Flat not able to pull this off while Lamb was? Maybe it’s because Lamb had more space to develop the characters (what with all those pages). However, I also think the change worked because the book included some serious moments throughout. So instead of becoming dramatic out of nowhere (like Steinbeck), there was some seriousness in Lamb all along, which prepared the reader to take the book seriously at its end.

The one huge drawback of Lamb was that every female character in was basically there just to be a love-interest to the male characters (such as “Maggy,” AKA Mary of Magdala). If you’re looking for a comedy with well-developed female characters, this would not be your book (but if you do want that book, try Karolina Pavlova).

Otherwise, if you’re looking for a hilarious and unexpectedly fast read, this is your book.

*If you’ve watched Succession, you may recognize that Fisher Stevens plays Hugh Baker—he makes for a great audiobook narrator, too.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Prilepin, Adamovich, and Voinovich

Hello! Happy post-Hanukkah! I’ve been keeping two books a secret for the past week and now I want to reveal them to you, along with another book that I’ve never mentioned yet…

Sin, by Zakhar Prilepin,
Translated by Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas

Moscow GIF | Gfycat

“The person squirmed about on the floor. Something trickled under my shoes. I tore the plywood board from the window, and saw that the window was partially smashed, and so this was evidently why it had been covered over. In the window, between the partitions, there was a half-liter bottle containing a solitary limp pickle covered in a white beard of mold that Father Christmas could have envied.”

This book contains a bunch of short stories about a guy named Zakharka (which sounds suspiciously like the name of the author of the book). In any case, he’s a gravedigger, a bouncer, and a sergeant, but he’s also a kid and a lover (at different parts in the short story collection).

Something interesting about this book is that it says that he maintains a positive attitude while remaining human. However, there are several parts in the book where it’s like, “I loved life! I spat in this annoying guy’s face and cursed at him!” which clearly shows an un-positive attitude to life. So either he’s lying or he’s suppressing his angst by pretending to love life.

In any case, the stories were interesting but I didn’t find them particularly amazing. There don’t seem to be any real flashes of insight in them the way there might be in a good Isaac Babel story, say. Even so, I haven’t read much contemporary literature, so it was interesting to read this book for that.

This book also had some poems in it. If you want to read some poems, read this book.

Khatyn, by Ales Adamovich,
Translated by Glenys Kozlov, Franes Longman,
and Sharon McKee

come and see gifs | WiffleGif

“I suddenly thought and apparently understood that this person, Rubezh was miserably afraid, he was almost sick with fear. It would have come out in a different way in someone else, but in Rubezh it took the form of constant chatter, either earnest or jocular, with which he stifled his fear. He was not teasing death at all as Skorokhod thought, but quite the contrary. It was terror in the face of his own fear, that fear that depressed him and drained him of his strength; it was this very terror that tormented him and made him be like he was; all the time he was preparing himself, making himself ready to reach a pale that he could always see and that he could not manage to forget as others did.”

This book is about a boy named Flyora, who serves in the Soviet partisans in Belarus against the Nazis, then witnesses a massacre in a village called Khatyn. This massacre actually happened–the author Ales Adamovich interviewed survivors of it and even incorporated official testimonies into his book. He also went on to create the great war-movie, Come and See (which is where the GIF is from).

Both works are extremely harrowing to experience, but important. If you can stand to read a book like this, it is very worthwhile. That’s all I can really say about this work.

In summary, read this book. It will devastate you, but it’s better to be devastated by this book than not.

The Fur Hat, by Vladimir Voinovich,
Translated by Susan Brownsberger

Russian cat hat - GIF on Imgur

“After typing a title of the novel Operation!, Yefim stopped to ponder. He pictured the word displayed vertically. The fact that his more recent novels all had titles consisting of only one word was no accident. Yefim had noticed that the popularization of literary works was greatly facilitated if the titles could be used in crossword puzzles. The puzzles were a form of free advertisement that have been scorned by those authors who gave their works such long and many-worded titles as War and Peace or Crime and Punishment. But some authors had been more far-sighted, using titles like Poltava, Oblomov, or Childhood.”

In the USSR, the Writers Union is giving out hats–reindeer fawn for the most prominent authors, marmot for the second-most prominent authors, and so on. Yefim, a writer who writes about “decent and fearless people” (like doctors who do operations on themselves in the middle of the wilderness) wants a hat too. Well, he gets a hat, but instead of reindeer fawn or marmot, he’s stuck with domestic fluffy tomcat.

I found this book somewhat funnier than Ivan Chonkin, probably because it had to do more with with writing, which I can relate to more. The author did a great job of satirizing a writer’s life (author’s own big ego? Check! Super-subjective reception of one’s work? Check! Figuring out creative ways to market a work via crossword puzzle clues? Check!)

This book also was interesting because it satirized the Soviet prisons. There was a character who had been arrested and then who had been released, but who somehow remained loyal to the party anyway, and Voinovich had a field-day with him.

So, read this book. It’s shorter than Ivan Chonkin, but just as funny, if not a little more.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Voinovich

In Which I Review “The Life & Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin,” by Vladimir Voinovich.

Hello! I’ve only had time to review one book this week due to my weekend being taken up with a very interesting playwrighting workshop. However, the book I’ve reviewed is very funny, and I’m surprised it’s not better-known.

The Life & Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, By Vladimir Voinovich, Translated by Richard Lourie

Airplane GIFs | Tenor

“Balashkov opened up a standard cardboard-covered notebook and began to read in a loud, expressive voice without using a single word of his own. While Balashkov read, the soldiers found ways to pass the time. One hid behind another’s back and was carried away by Madame Bovary, two others played a game of Sea Battle, whereas Chonkin abandoned himself to thought. From his close observation of life and his fathoming of life’s laws, Chonkin had understood that it is usually warm in the summer and cold in the winter.”

This book is about a soldier named Ivan Chonkin who has been sent to guard a plane that has crashed in the middle of a village. Meanwhile, World War II has broken out. Ivan is oblivious. He’s also forgotten, until one day the Soviet army learns of a strange soldier in one of their villages. Well, maybe it’s an enemy! If that’s so, then they have to arrest him! So they go to arrest Ivan Chonkin. Only he puts up a resistance…

One can clearly see the influence of Gogol in this book. It had Gogol’s kind of slapstick humor to it. At the same time, it had its own sense of self. For instance, there was a part where two characters, pretending to be German soldiers, were trying and failing to speak German to each other but tried to keep it up anyway. That scene was even funnier than Gogol.

Ivan Chonkin was also a very good critique of un-individualistic thinking. It mentioned labor camps and satirized Stalin, and I was surprised that it managed to be published in the Soviet Union. Well, actually, it got its author expelled from the USSR in the 1970s. It figures.

In any case, the person who recommended this book to me said it was the funniest book he’d ever read. While it wasn’t the funniest book I had ever read, it was definitely in my top five (along with The Overcoat, A Double Life, Tortilla Flat, and Three Men in a Boat).

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Goldenveizer, Schiffman, and Balzac

Hello! What do quotations from Tolstoy, books on magic, and Balzac all have in common? They’re all included in this week’s post!

Talks With Tolstoy, by A.B. Goldenveizer,
Translated by S.S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf

The Last Station (2009) – I Had A dream Last Night | christopherplummer

“[Tolstoy said] ‘I think that every great artist necessarily creates his own form also. If the content of works of art can be infinitely varied, so also can their form. Once Turgenev and I came back from the theatre in Paris and discussed this. We recalled all that is best in Russian literature and it seemed that in these works the form was perfectly original. Omitting Pushkin, let us take Gogol’s Dead Souls. What is it? Neither a novel nor a story. It is a something perfectly original.'”

Yes, someone really did have such conversations with Tolstoy, and he really did write them down to be read by us lucky people in the future.

Reading this book, I got a better sense of how Tolstoy thought, what he seemed ignorant/naive about, and how the way he thought could have played into what he wrote.

For instance he talked about something that likely inspired his story, “The Three Hermits.” he mentioned how he constantly rewrote, even after he reached a point where other people praised his works-in-progress. On the other hand, he was also very sexist, and he seemed to think that at one point in the past, colonialism wasn’t done out of self-interest, but out of the goodness of the colonists’ hearts.

In other words, it was insightful, inspiring, and disillusioning all at once. If you want to learn how Tolstoy thought in the years leading up to his death, and try to guess at how his thoughts informed his work, read this book.

Abracadabra! by Nathaniel Schiffman

Best Easy Magic Kids Magic Tricks GIFs | Gfycat

“I’ve started performing a casual trick for a friend, then realized that because I didn’t plan it out or think about it beforehand, I suddenly find myself not knowing how the trick should proceed. The idea of magic is that it is impromptu, whimsical, snap-of-the-finger. These ideas are mutually exclusive to the reality that careful natural planning must go into creating the illusion. The same idea has been expressed for many arts besides magic. Renowned Hollywood director Billy Wilder said of the movies, ‘Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.'”

This entertaining book is about magic–how to do magic tricks, how to make them convincing through misdirection, how magic was used throughout history, and how aspects of it pop up everywhere in daily life.

To be actually good at magic (instead of just buying some rigged prop to show off once and then forget about), you apparently have to do a LOT of work.

It’s not enough to know the trick, you have to know how to pull the trick off well. You have to know how to hide what you’re doing and how to direct your audience’s attention so that they look at what’s most exciting about the trick. So you have to learn a lot of psychology. You also have to practice a lot. Only then can you get up on some stage and “casually” pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Basically, this book made me realize just how much work goes into pulling that rabbit out of the hat.

So if you’re interested in learning how magic really works (and how aspects of it are very relevant to your non-magical life), read this book.

The Unknown Masterpiece,” by Honré de Balzac

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The old man continued, saying as he did so, ‘That is how to lay it on, young man. Little touches. Come and bring a glow into those icy-cold tones for me. Just so. Pom! Pom pom!’ And those parts of the picture that he had pointed out as cold and lifeless flushed with warmer hues. A few bold strokes of color brought all the tones of the picture into the required harmony with the glowing tints of the Egyptian, and the differences in temperament vanished.”

This is a story about a painter who is painting a masterpiece. He won’t let anyone see it at first, and in the meantime he shows off his talent on others’ paintings. Finally, two people do see it, and I won’t spoil what happens next.

“The Unknown Masterpiece” was an interesting story. It made me think a lot about art and revision. Sometimes, if a piece of art feels almost-finished and you don’t know how to proceed, the work doesn’t need to be completely re-thought. Instead, you just might need to add a few small details.

Basically, if you’re interested in art, read this story. It’s very worthwhile.

Until next week!

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

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

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

File:Descriptive Zoopraxography Horse Jumping Animated 14.gif - Wikimedia  Commons

First Excerpt (The Prose):

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

Second Excerpt (The Poetry):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Black And White Ships GIFs | Gfycat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week!