Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Lonergan

Hello! I hope you’re all well. It’s the season of final exams and allergies, so I wanted to read something funny…

“Lobby Hero,” by Kenneth Lonergan

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“WILLIAM. OK, good. I’m glad to hear it. But that’s why I try to get you to improve your mind a little bit and apply yourself to something. Aim a little higher. But I can see it’s a hopeless cause. You’re probably intended to be just one of those guys who drifts through life doing one job or another, no plan, no specific intentions of any kind. And one day you’re gonna wake up in a lobby just like this one, except everybody’s gonna be calling you ‘Pops.’ And then you’re gonna look back and remember, ‘I should have listened to that guy William. He’s the only one that ever took the time to try to encourage me to cultivate my potential. My whole family was content to see me fritter my life away, but that William, man, he really tried to get me to focus my energies a little bit. And doddering useless old unemployed Pops doorman that I am, I have to admit he could have been a positive influence on me if I hadn’t been such a callous, careless kind of joke-telling, sit-on-my-ass-my-whole-life type of person when I was younger.’ But I guess that’s all right, because you’re not really trying to climb any higher anyway. You see what I mean?”

“Lobby Hero” probably could have been called, “The Play in Which Everyone Tries to Figure Stuff Out.” It’s about a man named Jeff who works in a lobby. He’s trying to figure out his life. Meanwhile, his boss William has a brother who’s in trouble with the police. William has to figure out how to help his brother, and one of the police officers, named Dawn, has to figure out her relationship with one of her superiors.

Parts of this play reminded me a lot of Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” in terms of their levity and humor. That was very surprising, considering that the playwright of “Lobby Hero” was the same man who wrote the script for that super-sad movie from a few years back. You know, the one called Manchester by the Sea.

In any case, “Lobby Hero” felt a bit like a sketch instead of a fully fleshed-out experience. Maybe it was because the entire play took place in a lobby and 90% of the play’s important action happened off-stage. That meant the majority of the play consisted of characters talking about all the interesting things that happened in other places. Imagine the entirety of “Hamlet” being told from the perspective of one of the pirates who capture Hamlet during his voyage to England—“Oh, yes, I knew Prince Hamlet, he was a bloke I captured. He had to avenge the death of his father, who was killed by his uncle. Did Hamlet succeed? Oh, yes, his friend Horatio just sent me a postcard telling me he did. Well, that’s all there is to that story. Now I have to figure out my life.”

In other words, all of the interesting action felt like it was just being summarized instead of being enacted on the stage, which took away from its power.

This type of approach could work in certain cases (like Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” or O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), but the character’s inner-life has to be interesting enough to compensate for the plot’s lack of immediacy. In Chekhov and O’Neill, the characters had a lot of cool layers, subtext, and secrets that the audience didn’t learn about right away.

Meanwhile, considering the fact that Jeff’s only real depth was that he couldn’t figure his life out and that the audience basically came to understand that upfront, his inner-life didn’t feel interesting enough to make the play feel fleshed out. The same felt true for the other characters, too.

So basically, read “Lobby Hero” if you want to see the writer of Manchester by the Sea being funny. That alone is pretty enjoyable.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Auburn, James, and Vonnegut

Hello! Happy spring. For those who celebrate, I hope you enjoyed your Easter. I’ve been writing a lot of papers for school, but I still managed to read three books. For your enjoyment, here they are:

“Proof”, by David Auburn

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“CATHERINE. I haven’t been lazy, I’ve been taking care of you. ROBERT. Kid, I’ve seen you. You sleep till noon, you eat junk, you don’t work, the dishes pile up in the sink. If you go out it’s to buy magazines. You come back with a stack of magazines this high—I don’t know how you read that crap. And those are the good days. Some days you don’t get up, you don’t get out of bed. CATHERINE. Those are the good days. ROBERT. Bullshit. Those days are lost. You threw them away. And you’ll never know what else you threw away with them—the work you lost, the ideas you didn’t have, discoveries you never made because you were moping in your bed at four in the afternoon.”


This is a play about a woman named Catherine who took care of Robert, her mathematical genius of a father who was suffering from delusions. Robert has just died, and now a mysterious proof has been found among his belongings which might revolutionize the field of mathematics…a proof that may have been written by Catherine.

This play was interesting but not very good in my opinion. Mind you, it won a Pulitzer Prize, but I’ll give my thoughts anyway:

First, the play’s structure hinged on a mystery that somehow seemed irrelevant to the story’s overall arc. Maybe this was because the characters never really grew as a result of the mystery. In other words, it was like the mystery was happening to the characters instead of the characters actually growing and making meaningful choices that solved the mystery. That disconnect seemed to weaken the story.

Second, the characters felt more like “types” than actual nuanced people. For instance, there are plenty of angry-but-secretly-vulnerable women out there in the literary world, and the protagonist of this play was one of them. I was excited to see if something would happen to give her more depth and nuance, but nothing did.

Third, some of the dialogue wasn’t believable. At one part, I got the sense that the playwright was just writing what he thought a genius would sound like without thinking about how such a genius could possibly exist in reality.

Finally, there were loads of backstory dumps that felt like they were just in the play for the sake of informing the audience instead of something the characters had an organic need to say. When you have lines similar to, “Your father was a genius, Catherine, surely you know how he revolutionized the math world”, you tend to stop and wonder why the other character is telling Catherine something she obviously already knew.

So overall, the play had some good parts but it wasn’t that good in my opinion. Maybe read John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” instead (which also won a Pulitzer Prize). Or maybe read “Proof” anyway. You might enjoy it more than I did.

The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

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“The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house that had gathered us for the occasion—an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shocked him [….] ‘I quite agree—in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have been concerned with a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?’ ‘We say of course,’ somebody exclaimed, ‘that two children give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them.’”

The Turn of the Screw is about a woman who becomes governess to not one, but two children. The woman sees ghosts in the house and tries to keep the children from also seeing them. I won’t spoil any more.

I heard so much about how subversive and mind-blowing this book was going to be that I got very engrossed in trying to figure out the plot twist in advance. I completely overthought the whole situation to the point that when I got to the twist, I was very underwhelmed. The moral: don’t do what I did.

Anyway, about the actual book. A better title for it could have probably been “The Perils of Babysitting,” because the two children basically give the protagonist a lot of trouble. The build-up in figuring out what exactly was happening with the ghosts was the most interesting part of the book.

There were some parts where it felt like James was just trying to fill space without really knowing where he was going. Or maybe because he was writing this as a serial, he had to write a certain number of installments to get paid. Either way, those parts kind of took away from how interesting the book was.

In the end, though, it was a good read. Just don’t over-hype it, and don’t read it while babysitting someone’s kids.

Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

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“‘But,’ he said, ‘but how the hell innocent is a man who helps make a thing like an atomic bomb? And how can you say a man had a good mind when he couldn’t even bother to do anything when the best-hearted, most beautiful woman in the world, his own wife, was dying for lack of love and understanding…’ He shuddered, ‘Sometimes I wonder if he wasn’t born dead. I never met a man who was less interested in the living. Sometimes I think that’s the trouble with the world: too many people in high places who are stone-cold dead.’”

This book left me wondering why Vonnegut never won a Pulitzer. Let me explain.

Cat’s Cradle was so cool. It’s about a man who tries to find out about a scientist who helped build the atomic bomb. In the process, the protagonist learns about a dangerous substance called Ice-Nine and becomes king of an island.

As usual with a Vonnegut book, Cat’s Cradle was very funny. There’s just something about Vonnegut’s ability to understate things.

Also, he had some profound ideas and was able to get across their profundity very well. This was probably because Vonnegut didn’t seem to take himself too seriously. He didn’t present them to the reader as if the reader had to agree with him, and he didn’t try coming off like the absolute authority on life’s meaning. So even though he was making all these statements about nihilism, religion, science, and how people kill each other out of stupidity, the statements weren’t the only reason for the book to exist. The statements felt like they were just part of the book’s story.

Basically, read it. Then wonder with me about why he didn’t win the Pulitzer. Finally, watch the Vonnegut cameo from the movie “Back to School”:

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Yezierska and Jerome

Hello! Happy almost-Purim. I’ve read two books this week, one Purim-related, one boat-related. You can probably guess which is which.

Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska

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“I pressed my face against the earth. All that was left of me reached out in prayer, ‘God, I’ve gone so far. Help me to go on [….] Help me not to want their little happiness. I have wanted their love more than my life. Help me be bigger than this hunger in me. Give me the love that can live without love.’ Darkness and stillness washed over me. Slowly I stumbled to my feet and looked up at the sky. The stars in their infinite peace seemed to pour their healing light into me. I thought of captives in prison, the sick and the suffering from the beginning of time who had looked to these stars for strength. What was my little sorrow to the centuries of pain which those stars had watched? So near they seemed. So compassionate. My bitter hurt seemed to grow small and drop away. If I must go on alone, I should still have silence and the high stars to walk with me.”

Bread Givers was written in the 1920s and is also set in the 1920s. It’s about a girl named Sara who grows up in a Jewish-American family in New York City. Her super-religious and self-centered father forces her three older sisters to marry wealthy-seeming men who make them miserable. Sara decides she doesn’t want to be married off and pursues a college degree instead.

I was very inspired by Sara’s strong sense of self. She was tempted to sacrifice herself and her ideals to marry a wealthy handsome man. She didn’t, since she knew herself well enough to realize she wouldn’t ever be happy in such an arrangement. Considering the fact that the book was written in the 1920s, this aspect of her character was especially striking.

There were two other things that stood out to me about the book. First, even though there were some very unsympathetic characters, such as Sara’s father, there would always be a part in the book that portrayed them in a sympathetic way. I still didn’t like Sara’s father, but these flashes of sympathy helped me understand why he was who he was. This sense of nuance enriched the story and made it better.

The other thing that stood out to me was the ending. Obviously I won’t spoil it. I will say that sometimes you read a book’s ending and it works very well. It may not have been expected but you could tell that the author put a lot of thought into it and realized that such an ending could be the only possible ending. These endings are very rare. I felt that the ending of Bread Givers was one of them.

One warning: The book was sort of sentimental at points. Some characters wept and wailed and banged their heads against the wall. This felt melodramatic because there are too many characters in the world who’ve done exactly the same thing. This melodrama was rare, though. I still recommend the book wholeheartedly.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome

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“I always determine […] that I’ll get up early every morning, and go and have a dip before breakfast [….] But when I get to the sea I don’t feel somehow that I want that early morning bathe nearly so much as I did when I was in town [….] Once or twice virtue has triumphed, and I have got out at six and half-dressed myself, and have taken my drawers and towel, and stumbled dismally off [….] And when I do get to the sea, it is rough and quite insulting. One huge wave catches me up and chucks me in a sitting posture, as hard as ever it can, down on to a rock which has been put there for me. And, before I’ve said ‘Oh! Ugh!’ and found out what has gone, the wave comes back and carries me out to mid-ocean. I begin to strike out frantically for the shore, and wonder if I shall ever see home and friends again, and wish I’d been kinder to my little sister when a boy (when I was a boy, I mean). Just when I have given up all hope, a wave retires and leaves me sprawling like a star-fish on the sand, and I get up and look back and find that I’ve been swimming for my life in two feet of water. I hop back and dress, and crawl home, where I have to pretend I liked it.”

This book is about three friends, “J”, George, and Harris, who go on a boat ride down the river Thames to cure themselves of “overwork.” They also take their dog with them.

Three Men in a Boat was great. The characters got into all sorts of mishaps which reminded them of previous mishaps and even future mishaps. 99% of the mishaps were hilarious. Three Men in a Boat also had some sober parts in it. Sometimes they felt cheesy but other times they were beautiful. Overall they helped vary the tone and made the funny parts funnier.

Anyway, I was laughing my way through this book, thinking that Jerome K. Jerome really knew how funny life was these days. Then about halfway through, I got to this line: “There is no more thrilling sensation I know of than sailing. It comes as near to flying as man has got to yet—except in dreams.” I also started seeing all these references to “nowadays in the 19th century.” This made me realize that this extraordinarily fresh-seeming book had been written in the 1800s, before airplanes had even been invented. So much for stuffy old writers!

Read it and weep (with laughter).

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Salinger

Hello! I hope you’re all well and are enjoying the Year of the Ox. Due to schoolwork and story-writing, I’ve read only one book this week. The good news is that it was very rewarding, funny, and recommendable.

Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger

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“Offhand, I can remember seeing just three girls in my life who struck me as having unclassifiably great beauty at first sight. One was a thin girl in a black bathing suit who was having a lot of trouble putting up an orange umbrella at Jones Beach, circa 1936. The second was a girl aboard a Caribbean cruise ship in 1939, who threw her cigarette lighter at a porpoise. And the third was the Chief’s girl, Mary Hudson.”

Nine Stories contains nine short stories by J.D. Salinger. I was left wondering why he was remembered for The Catcher in the Rye when these stories were so much better.

Some of my favorites were “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “The Laughing Man,” “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” and “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes.”

I’ll make some guesses about why these stories were so good. First off, Salinger was very subtle. In some subtle stories (not written by Salinger), there’s nothing left to the story once you figure out the subtext. In Salinger’s case, you could figure out the subtext halfway through and the story’s ending would still be impactful. That made the stories rewarding.

Also, Salinger’s stories were very funny in different ways. Aside from the pieces with a Holden Caulfield kind of sarcasm, there were goofy pieces (one character told stories to little kids about someone who traversed “the Paris-China border”) and ironic pieces (a character pretended to have been friends with Pablo Picasso to score an art teaching job). This variety of humor made the stories fresh.

Something else that added humor was that Salinger had his characters talk about random stuff. There were a lot of interjections like, “Could you stop picking your nose?” These could have felt contrived and corny but they usually didn’t, and somehow they also felt relevant to the story being told.

Needless to say, I would recommend these stories. More importantly, I would recommend them over The Catcher in the Rye.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov, Gogol, and Aitmatov Again

Hello! I hope you’re well, and if there’s a blizzard raging around outside, I hope you’re also warm. I’ve reviewed three more books. If you’re warm enough to read at least one of them, I would highly encourage reading the last book.

On Craftsmanship, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“Man should think about everything, even about the end of the world…What is the power of the human spirit, how does man overcome the cruel obstacles which confront him, what gives man the right to be human and say, in reviewing his life: ‘I lived and knew life’? These questions are unavoidable for an artistic understanding of reality, no matter what the subject.”

On Craftsmanship is a collection of essays written by the greatest underrated writer ever, Chingiz Aitmatov. The essays express his views on various topics from writing to space-travel to world peace. Aitmatov also gives a brief autobiography which was one of the more interesting parts of the book.

Aside from his autobiography, other rewarding parts of the book were about how he approached his works and his ideas about art’s role in society. Other parts read more like propaganda (apparently Aitmatov wrote the book while Kyrgyzstan was still part of the USSR).

He also had a whole essay about the unprecedented technological advances of the 1970s, and another essay about how humanity was slowly but surely starting to threaten nature. Given the technological advances of the 2000s and the unprecedented level of global warming we’ve been experiencing, these essays felt a bit outdated.

In the end, On Craftsmanship gave me a better sense of how Aitmatov thought, but it didn’t change my life.

Dead Souls, Part 2, by Nikolai Gogol

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“‘You will do well to harken unto Him who is merciful,’ he said, ‘but remember also that in the eyes of the All Merciful, honest toil is of equal merit with a prayer. Therefore take unto yourself whatsoever task you may and do it as though you were doing it not unto man but unto God. Even though to your lot there should fall but the cleaning of a floor, clean that floor as though it were being cleaned for Him alone.’”

Dead Souls originally had two parts to it, but Gogol tried to burn away the second part. In my review of the first part, I foolishly thought that since the second part still existed, Gogol had utterly failed. Actually reading the infinitely-disappointing second part made me realize how wrong I was.

The second part begins with Gogol giving the life-story of a new character. The character meets Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, the protagonist of Dead Souls Part 1. Things seem to be going along swimmingly. Then there’s what my version termed “a long hiatus in the original” (also known as a missing part) and we never hear from that character again. Chichikov gets into all kinds of trouble, and we encounter more long hiatuses in the original, after which we find Chichikov magically wanting to change his ways. Irrelevant characters come and go, convenient coincidences and deus ex machinas abound, and whole reams of previously-undisclosed backstory unfurl themselves before the reader’s bewildered gaze. We wonder: Will Chichikov change his ways? Won’t he? The suspense nearly kills us.

I’m not giving anything away: the original ends with an infinite hiatus.

So my suggestion to you is to read the first part and then take a hiatus from the book before you reach the second part. Better yet, make that hiatus an infinite one.

Piebald Dog Running Along The Shore, by Chingiz Aitmatov, Translated by Alex Miller

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“‘Drink,’ said Organ. Kirisk hesitated. Although dying of thirst and eager to empty those few swallows of water down his own throat, he knew he must not. ‘No,’ he said, struggling with the consuming desire inside him. ‘No, Grandad, drink it yourself.’ And he felt giddy. Organ’s hand trembled at these words and he sighed heavily. His gaze softened and he looked affectionately at the boy. ‘I’ve drunk, oh, so much water in my time. But you have a long time to live yet before…’ He did not finish. ‘You understand me, Kirisk? Drink, it’s necessary, you must drink up, but don’t worry about me. Here!’ And again, as he swallowed the water, only for a moment did the boy feel the fire within him dampened and subdued, and again, after the relief, he promptly wanted another drink.”

Guess what? This story isn’t about a dog. It’s about a kid named Kirisk who’s going seal-hunting for the first time in his life with his grandfather, his father, and his uncle. Kirisk is very excited about this rite of passage, but little does he know how life-changing the expedition is going to be…

This story reminded me a lot of Jack London in the way Aitmatov depicted the harsh wilderness. However this story was richer than most of Jack London’s stories because Aitmatov also got across so much about his characters’ inner lives.

What makes the story work seems to be that Aitmatov alternates between showing characters’ thoughts and flashbacks and having them act. The thoughts increase the stakes of their situation which gives their actions more meaning. Then the actions produce unforeseen consequences which go on to reverberate through the next series of thoughts, which further heighten the stakes and so on. Basically, Aitmatov uses both internal and external events to build up suspense, tension, and investment, and since it all culminates in one epic final moment, the whole story is filled with a sense of direction and momentum. Who knew that reading about people drifting around in a canoe could be so engrossing? I didn’t.

You can read it for free here.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Walker, Aitmatov, and Gogol

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

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead Souls, Part One, by Nikolai Gogol

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

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

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

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

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Feynman, McCormack, and Saki

Hello and happy holidays! I hope you all enjoyed the Great Conjunction last night and are excited for the New Year. If you’re thinking of what you could read in 2021, (or sooner) here are three books I would recommend:

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character, by Richard Feynman

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“Then I had another thought: physics disgusts me now but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing. It didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with [….] So I got this new attitude: now that I am burned out, and I’ll never accomplish anything, [….] I’m going to play with physics whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever. Within a week, I was in the cafeteria and some guy fooling around throws a plate in the air [….] I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate [….] I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, ‘Hey Hans, I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is…” and I showed him the accelerations. He says, ‘Feynman, that’s pretty interesting but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?’ ‘Ha!’ I say. ‘There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.’ His reaction didn’t discourage me. I had made up my mind. I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked. I went on to work out equations of wobbles [….] Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it. There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.”

Richard Feynman is known for winning a Nobel Prize in Physics and for helping to invent the hexaflexagon, but his super-accessible and funny memoir is less about his scientific work and more about his life. Yes, he does tell about how he started out in science, how he worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, and how he came to win the Nobel Prize. However, he also tells about his adventures dancing samba in Brazil, his stints as an artist and drummer, and his time in Japan.

Reading (or in my case, listening to) this book was like having a really interesting and wise friend sit across from you and tell about all of his hijinks. Some of them were questionable, others weren’t, but all of them were entertaining, and it was great to hear about Feynman’s unique take on life. Yes, sometimes Feynman repeated himself (saying stuff similar to “I went to Japan and it was very interesting. Japan was really a very exciting place”) but that didn’t matter much. Also, in the audiobook version, the narrator occasionally read sentences twice in a row, but that happened so rarely that it didn’t matter much, either.

In the end, Feynman’s memoir was definitely worth the read. It was humorous, (usually) wise, entertaining, and insightful.

The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist, Second Edition, by Thomas McCormack

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“Still another genus is the craving for a certain meaningful modulation right here in the narrative. For an example, consider Hemingway’s feeling a need for the fishing scene in The Sun Also Rises; Tolstoy’s urge to send Levin out for a whole chapter just to reap wheat; Melville to ask, ‘How can I hope to explain myself here?’ and yet to know that ‘in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught,’ and then indite his fearsome, magniloquent passage on ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’; or Shakespeare to trouble forth his witches in Macbeth—all episodes that, by any artlessly mechanical measure such as ‘everything must advance the story’, would be deleted, at immense aesthetic loss.”

I heard about McCormack’s book from another book I read, and since McCormack edited The Silence of the Lambs, I figured he’d have some interesting things to say about writing.

He did have some interesting things to say about writing, but his book also felt thin. I read it over the course of an hour or so.

In terms of interestingness, McCormack talked a lot about how editors couldn’t just rely on fixing the more easily seen surface-level problems with books (“this scene is irrelevant to the story, the ending doesn’t work, etc.”) but also have to keep searching for subtler, “internal” problems—there may be nothing wrong with a story in and of itself, but there may be aspects missing from it that make it not as satisfying as it could be. Without knowing what the story lacks, the editor wouldn’t be able to fix such problems.

So then McCormack says that we all need an editors’ textbook, and spends the rest of the book trying to explain some things about editing. Maybe some stories don’t work because their characters aren’t as strongly affected by each other as they should be. Maybe other stories don’t work because the writer shoves in a lot of backstory near the beginning that doesn’t really contribute to the forward momentum of the story.

Maybe other stories do work because the writer included something extra that wouldn’t be seen as traditionally relevant but wound up actually enhancing the story, like in that excerpt above where he wrote about Tolstoy and Hemingway and Melville. Imagining the stories without those insertions, who would have thought that anything was missing? Nobody but the writers themselves.

That was the most interesting part of the book, in my opinion, but I’m sure that there’s much more that’s interesting in the book, too. It’s definitely given me some things to think about, and it feels like the kind of book you can return to multiple times and get new things out of each time. So, if you’re a writer or editor or even just a reader wanting to learn more about how books work or don’t work, McCormack’s book is a good read.

Reginald in Russia, and Other Sketches, by Saki

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“The silence continued. As a rule Lady Anne’s displeasure became articulate and markedly voluble after four minutes of introductory muteness. Egbert seized the milkjug and poured some of its contents into [the dog] Don Tarquinio’s saucer; as the saucer was already full to the brim an unsightly overflow was the result. Don Tarquinio looked on with a surprised interest that evanesced into elaborate unconsciousness when he was appealed to by Egbert to come and drink up some of the spilt matter. Don Tarquinio was prepared to play many roles in life, but a vacuum carpet-cleaner was not one of them.”

I stumbled upon Saki very recently and have been reading him since. Reginald in Russia was where I first stumbled upon him. This is a collection of short stories and one little play. One of the short stories is obviously about a guy named Reginald and his adventures in Russia, but the others are about different characters in different places.

Even though Saki was around in the stodgy old 1800s, he’s one of the funniest writers I’ve read (up there with Gogol). There’s something about the way he sets something up to happen, then has the reader spend the whole story waiting for it to happen, then making it happen near the end while revealing something that completely changes the meaning of what just happened. He’s probably so funny because he’s so good at causing this surprise.

I don’t really know what to compare it to. It’s sort of like spending all day anticipating a dinner where you’ll eat a chocolate fudge cake that someone made for you, only to find when you actually do bite into its frosty surface that it was secretly made of ice cream the whole time.

Something interesting about the twists though: They only seem to work when they create an emotional reaction in the reader that makes the twist worthwhile. In Saki’s case, this happens when the twist makes the story funnier than it was previously. Fortunately for us, this usually happened when reading Reginald in Russia.

A few of the stories I enjoyed the most were “The Reticence of Lady Anne,” “The Bag,” “A Young Turkish Catastrophe,” and “The Soul of Laploshka.” If you’re only going to read one Saki story from this entire book, I would recommend either “The Reticence of Lady Anne” or “The Bag.” Of course, reading only one story from this collection is much less enjoyable than reading the whole book, so you might as well do yourself a favor and read the whole book. The stories are hilarious and they’re great for the holidays.