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

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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

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“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!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aksyonov, Aksyonov, and Aksyonov

In Which I Review Vassily Aksyonov’s “Generations of Winter.”

Hello! I have read one book today. It’s a long book. It’s considered a 20th century version of War and Peace. And nobody’s really heard about it…

Generations of Winter, by Vassily Aksyonov,
Translated by John Glad and Christopher Morris

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[About a couple who have both spent time in the gulag before being released to fight in WWII]: “Everything is finished, Nikita will never come back to me – – for that matter, he’ll never be himself again… It’s the end, the end… Everything is finished, thought her husband, who was only pretending to be asleep. Veronika didn’t come back, she no longer exists. Is it worth it, fighting the Germans for the ruins of my family?”

Generations of Winter is an epic novel about the Gradov family as they live through the Russian Civil War, Stalin’s terror, and World War II. There is Boris, who is a famous surgeon, his piano-playing wife Mary, his son Nikita who’s a Red Army officer, his other son Kirill who likes philosophy, and his daughter Nina who likes to write poetry.

People have compared this novel to War and Peace. I would say it’s more like War and Peace if all the characters got arrested. Also, there were a few important things that made Generations very unlike War and Peace.

First, the interesting things: There were experimental bits told from the perspectives of people reincarnated as animals, and there were fragments of newspapers included in the text. I’m still not sure exactly how these parts added to the story, but there’s a sense that the story would be missing something important without them.

Next, the not-so-exciting things: All the women were objectified, and there was less depth of character and thought.

The women were literally just there for the men to have their way with and were not really characterized beyond that point. Out of all the women in Russia, surely there would have been at least one or two who weren’t always just thinking of men. So not only were they objectified, they were also underused as characters.

There was also less depth of overall characterization. The author didn’t really go beyond what anyone would think in a given situation.

For instance, imagine you’re an Aksyonov character. Your friend was arrested? You’re obviously sad and angry and afraid, but that’s all you are! You’re not relieved that it’s not you, you’re not guilty about being relieved, and that arrest hasn’t changed you in any other way. You don’t reflect on what it could mean for the state of the country, or for existence, or anything like that. In fact, nine times out of ten you’re likely to just try making out with your friend’s bereaved wife! Nothing else really changes.

The book’s main idea seemed to be that people are imprisoned, released so they could be used in a war, and then oppressed yet again. This was an interesting idea, especially since the characters seemed to suppress whatever cognitive dissonance they felt. But that was it! Nothing else really changed.

Overall though, I don’t think a book’s ideas alone make it great. I think its characters do that (but this is obviously a subjective view).

Generations of Winter felt like Aksyonov was showing me a picture he’d drawn of people experiencing some event rather than introducing me to the actual people who had experienced that event.

He didn’t seem to take the time to fully imagine himself in his characters’ situations. Because he didn’t seem to know his characters as well as he could have, the book lacked a sense of insight, connection, and richness that would have existed had he known his characters better.

Basically, he seemed to care more about his literary style than his characters and their truths. When a writer emphasizes literary style more than character, it seems to me that the characters lose an important authenticity, and the book may suffer as a result.

So while Tolstoy seemed to really get to know his characters so he could depict them fully, Aksyonov seemed to understand his characters superficially. This gave them, and his book, less power than War And Peace.

Generations of Winter is still a good book, but it’s not as good as it could have been, or as great. Should you read it? Maybe start with some of Aksyonov’s shorter works first.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Tolstoy, Aitmatov, Babel

In Which I Review “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy, Stories by Chingiz Aitmatov, and “Red Cavalry” by Isaac Babel.

Hello! I’ve read three shorter books this week. One’s a novella and the other two are short story collections. So if you need something easy to get through, I have you covered!

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy,
Translated by Lynn Solotaroff

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“‘Does he think I’m so weak I can’t stretch my hand out?’ Ivan Ilyich thought, and forgetting what he was doing, he overtrumped his partner, missing the grand slam by three tricks. And worst of all, he saw how upset Mikhail Mikhailovich was while he himself did not care. And it was dreadful to think why he did not care.”

Ivan Ilyich was a very good read. It’s about a man named Ivan Ilyich who lives a shallow life until he realizes he’s dying. Then he reflects on life and dies anyway (spoiler alert!)

A few of its scenes were definitely moving, and it made me think a lot. It was interesting how Tolstoy used contrasts to evoke emotion. Ivan liked a kid who lifted his legs and this feeling was made stronger because he was shown to dislike nearly everyone else, for instance.

What also struck me was how similar parts of Ivan were to other books by Tolstoy. For instance, in Resurrection, the protagonist also sinks into sin and then has an enlightenment. It made me wonder how autobiographical Tolstoy’s writings were, and how he was (or in other cases, wasn’t) able to get inside the heads of people unlike himself.

Overall, I would recommend this book. It’s short, thought-provoking, and moving.

Other Stories, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“On the map Ceylon looked like a drop under the udder of the continent. But when you listened to to the teacher–why, it had all sorts of things, monkeys, and elephants, and bananas (some kind of fruit), and the best tea in the world, and no end of other fantastic fruits and plants. But the most wonderful thing of all–it was hot; so hot you could live there the whole year round and never know what it was to shiver.”

Aitmatov wrote a book called “Piebald Dog Running Along The Shore And Other Stories.” I’ve already reviewed “Piebald Dog” and “To Have And To Lose”, which leaves the three “Other Stories” in this collection.

The first story, “Duishen,” is about a girl whose aunt and uncle don’t want her to attend school. However, her teacher helps her go to school anyway and becomes a kind of guardian-figure to her. The story was interesting, somewhat unrealistic at one point, but still very good.

The next story was called “Mother-Earth.” It’s about a mother whose husband and children go to war. She has to stay behind and work on the collective farm. In the process she experiences both happiness and grief. This story was also interesting, more realistic than “Duishen,” but also somewhat melodramatic (the characters never stopped crying it seemed).

The final story, called “The Cranes Fly Early,” was the best story. The protagonist is a kid whose father is at war. The kid has to leave school to help work on a farm. He misses his father, falls in love with a schoolmate, and has to contend with adult responsibilities. Even so, he was very relatable, and there was less melodrama in this story since he wasn’t crying all the time.

Now, even though I said that the stories were kind of melodramatic, this didn’t mean that they were unenjoyable. Aitmatov’s characters felt very alive, which made them extremely sympathetic and compelling. It’s hard to explain without having read him yourself, which I’d definitely recommend that you do in any case.

Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel, Translated by Boris Dralyuk

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” I had dreams-dreamt of women-and only my heart, crimson with murder, creaked and bled.”

This collection of short stories was based on Babel’s experiences in the Russian Civil War. It tells about soldiers and commanders and towns and geese.

Babel’s language was great, but the substance of his stories varied. Some of the stories, like “My First Goose” and “Afonka Bida” were absolutely terrific (read them, whatever else you do in life). They had profound meanings that were communicated powerfully.

Meanwhile, other stories, like “The Italian Sun” seemed to have much less substance. Why was that? Maybe because Babel seemed to be too keen on showing off what exactly he wanted to say instead of letting the reader figure it out for him/herself. Still other stories felt less like they had something to say and more like they were just vignettes. Maybe Babel was saying something in those stories, but maybe he wasn’t.

There’s obviously a difference between having something to say, not having anything to say, and being too insistent on getting across a message. If you read “My First Goose,” you’ll see an example of the first instance. If you read “The Italian Sun,” you’ll see an example of the third instance. And I’ll leave it to you to determine the examples of the second instance (since art is ultimately subjective).

Have you read any of these books? What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

So I’d definitely recommend reading it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn

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Hello! I hope you had a happy Mother’s Day. I’ve finished with my final exams at last which is very exciting.

I’ve also just got two super-new books in the mail, one called Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri and the other called A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, and…

…and you’ll have to wait until next week for my reviews of them.

In the meantime, I’ve read two less-new books. Both are about prison for some reason. Hopefully they’ll tide you over until next week.

The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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“In our convict establishment there were men whom I was familiar with for several years, and whom I looked upon as wild beasts and abhorred as such; well, all of a sudden, when I least expected it, these very men would exhibit such an abundance of feeling of the best kind, so keen a comprehension of the sufferings of others, seen in the light of the consciousness of their own, that one might almost fancy scales had fallen from their eyes. So sudden was it as to cause stupefaction; one could scarcely believe one’s eyes or ears. Sometimes it was just the other way: educated men, well brought up, would occasionally display a savage, cynical brutality which nearly turned one’s stomach, conduct of a kind impossible to excuse or justify, however much you might be charitably inclined to do so.”

The House of the Dead was a very interesting book. Dostoyevsky wrote it based on his experiences in Siberian prison, and it felt more like a memoir than a piece of fiction. It was especially interesting because Dostoyevsky described a few people who sounded an awful lot like characters in his future works, like The Brothers Karamazov.

For some reason the protagonist came off like a scientist. He was always like, “Something interesting about the prisoners was XYZ” or, “Many people might expect prisoners to be like ABC, but in reality, they weren’t,” or, “As my time in prison went on, I came to more fully understand the psychology of LMNOP.” Because the protagonist felt so much like an outsider, it also sometimes felt like he wasn’t really in the prison with everyone else.

Contrast that with Solzhenitsyn’s huge nonfictional book, The Gulag Archipelago (review coming whenever I finish reading it) where he takes a similar kind of systematic approach to examining the USSR’s gulags. However, in his case, every single page (so far) is brimming with his anguish about being a prisoner in the gulags.

One great thing about Dostoyevsky’s book was that he was very good at seeing the good in the bad (like in the quote above). I felt like I got to understand the prisoners very well. It reminded me a lot of James Berry’s My Experiences as an Executioner for this reason, except that Dostoyevsky’s book felt much less grim (thankfully). This humanity alone makes The House of the Dead worth reading.

Even so, there was a lot of repetition. Dostoyevsky literally wrote things like, “Prisoner X was a cobbler who got into prison because of ABC and now he worked in prison smuggling vodka,” and then went on in a later chapter to retell this prisoner’s story with exactly the same details as if the reader had never heard of him before. Or he’d write about how Prisoner Y stole the protagonist’s Bible once and then told him about it not out of guilt but out of pity for the fact that he’d spent so long searching for it. Several chapters later, Dostoyevsky would retell this story as if he were introducing Prisoner Y for the very first time.

I was listening to this on audiobook, so I felt like I was being told the same story over and over again by someone who kept forgetting what he’d just told me.

The House was also surprisingly unfocused. Dostoyevsky would start a scene with a character entering the prison kitchen, then ramble on for a long time about everything but the character who’d entered the kitchen. Finally, he’d meander back to the character who’d entered the kitchen, but by then I’d forgotten all about him and why he was relevant. Then Dostoyevsky would say something very brief about the character getting called out of the kitchen, and that would be the last we’d see of the character for the whole book. Or he’d go on about the prison’s vodka-smuggling business but then start talking about the bath-houses in the prison and then the first time he’d done hard labor, and his last days in prison, and so on, without any real sense of why he was telling these things other than the fact that he felt like it.

So overall, I’d say this book was very good in terms of its psychological and human insights. I also got the sense that Dostoyevsky was transformed by his experience in prison. That makes this book interesting to read, but it absolutely does not make it his best.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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“He began eating [….] This was it. This was good. This was the brief moment for which a prisoner lives. For a little while, Shukov forgot all his grievances, forgot that his sentence was long, that the day was long, that once again there would be no Sunday. For the moment he had only one thought: We shall survive. We shall survive it all. God willing, we’ll see the end of it.”

This is another book about prisons, written by another Russian ex-prisoner named Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His book was literally published 100 years after Dostoyevsky’s account of prison-life (Dostoyevsky’s in 1862 and Solzhenitsyn’s in 1962).

It was interesting to see what changed and what stayed the same. For instance, prisoners could rely on going to the hospital to get reprieve in Dostoyevsky’s time, but this was no longer the case in Solzhenitsyn’s time. However, prisoners still stole each other’s belongings in both accounts, even if prisoners in Solzhenitsyn’s book seemed to show slightly more camaraderie than the ones in Dostoyevsky’s account.

On its own terms, One Day chronicled a day in the life of a fictional prisoner named Ivan Denisovich Shukov. It was told very mundanely: He woke up, pretended to be sick, failed to get admitted to the infirmary, went to get a meal, knew the best way to hide his food in his jacket, and so on. It was very casual in that way. I kept expecting something dramatic to happen but it never did.

In the meantime, I was continually surprised by how much meaning people could find in small things, like a spoon or a piece of bread or a cigar-stub.

Understatement also made the book’s ending more powerful. I won’t spoil it, but it really put life into perspective.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Sullivan

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe. I’ve read another book about…

Stalin’s Daughter, by Rosemary Sullivan

Exploring the Life of Svetlana Stalin, the Tyrant's Daughter

“The revelation of Stalin’s crimes was cataclysmic. The propaganda icon—‘the creator of happiness,’ ‘the savior of the Russian people,’ and a ‘genius among mortals’—had been a fraud all along, just another ruthless and cruel politician who had committed horrific crimes with impunity. Examining his own generation in retrospect, the writer Konstantin Simonov wrote: ‘If we are honest, it is not only Stalin we cannot forgive, we cannot forgive anyone, including ourselves…. We may have done nothing bad, at least at first glance, but what is bad is that we (became) accustomed to…what now seems incredible and monstrous, somehow gradually became some kind of norm, seemed almost customary. We lived amidst all this like deaf people, as if we did not hear the firing going on all round us all the time, people being shot, murdered, people vanishing.’ Simonov confessed that he had lived for a long time in a duality, knowing and refusing to know, ‘partly through cowardice, partly through stubborn efforts to reassure myself, partly through coercion of myself, and partly through a reluctance to touch on some things even in thought.’”

It may seem strange that I chose a quote about Russia to encapsulate a book about a person, but it’s not. This is a biography of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, but it’s also a biography of Russia from around 1930 to around 2011. The two are deeply intertwined.

Firstly, it’s about Svetlana. She grew up under Stalin, literally and metaphorically. At first, she saw him only as a doting father, but as time passed, she realized the truth about his depravity. Then Stalin died in 1953, and she left Russia for the United States. That’s basically the first part of the book, and it sets up how her father impacted her psychology growing up. It also paves the way for the rest of the book, which is about how she tried (and usually failed) to escape from his shadow.

For instance, whenever a family crisis happened in Stalin’s life, he would order a new dacha/mansion to be built for him to move into. Similarly, whenever a crisis happened in Svetlana’s life after she left the USSR, she would move into a new house. Sometimes, it wasn’t even a crisis that caused her to move, but just an unhappiness that she never could escape.

Her unhappiness also came from Stalin. Everyone in the world thought of her as “Stalin’s daughter,” and judged her more according to what her father had done than according to what she herself had done. People were always out to milk her for funds (such as the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation) or for political leverage (the US government and later the Soviet government). Even though she was much more humane and much less sadistic than her father, Svetlana was never seen as her own person, even up to her death in 2011. She never did really escape his shadow.

So in terms of Svetlana, it’s about the life of someone who was never given the chance to become a real person.

In terms of Russia, it’s about how the state tried and failed to escape from Stalin’s influence, from Khrushchev to Brezhnev to Putin. That continuity of Stalin’s legacy means the book has a lot of important insights for our times.

For instance, there’s a remarkable account of what happened during and after Khrushchev’s “Thaw.” Everyone was horrified by what Stalin had done and it seemed they now knew better and would never let something like that to happen again. Then Brezhnev came to power, and he reinstated a similar type of oppression, and all the outraged people from before forgot their outrage and bowed their heads and didn’t object to the new horror.

Basically, I never knew how much one person’s life could be defined by another person. I also never knew how much a country could be defined by a person.

So in a way, you could say that Svetlana’s story is the story of Russia because both were defined by Stalin. Svetlana tried to separate from her father’s image, but in the end the world still remembered her as Stalin’s daughter. Russia tried to thaw under Khrushchev, but even in 2011, it still was Stalin’s state. Obviously, that comparison isn’t perfect. Svetlana wasn’t Stalin, but Russia is still repressive like it had been under Stalin. Even so, the comparison does give you a sense of how closely intertwined Svetlana’s story and Russia’s story were.

As you can see, this book was fascinating and thought-provoking, both because of its psychological insights and its global insights. For that reason, I would definitely recommend it. It’s also a book to reflect about, so I would recommend you read it when you have a long stretch of unoccupied time, like a winter break.

I’ll stop rambling now. It’s actually almost my winter break, and I have many other books to read, so you’ll hear from me again next Tuesday. In the meantime, keep healthy, safe, and reading.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Weir

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe. Today I’m reviewing a book about the Wars of The Roses, a civil war that took place in England during the 1400s.

The Wars of the Roses, by Alison Weir

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“Pembroke, meanwhile, was hastening to join the King with his Welsh reinforcements, having joined up with Devon and his force. But on the evening of the 24th, when they came to Banbury, the two earls quarrelled over who should have the best lodgings at the inn. Pembroke, as the senior commander, insisted that he should occupy them, but Devon, who had arrived first, protested that they had earlier agreed to take lodgings on a first come, first served basis. Pembroke peremptorily ordered Devon out of the rooms, and Devon, put out because he had just seduced the innkeeper’s daughter, marched off in a rage with all his men.” (This quarrel takes place when they’re supposed to be making haste to march to fight against the army of the currently most influential man in England, the earl of Warwick).


This book by Alison Weir isn’t very interesting to read at first because you’re inundated with a bunch of names and dates and explanations of governmental systems. Then you realize that very few of those names are actually super-important for understanding what happened, and then you’re finally able to start making sense of it all. Even so, compared to other books I’ve read about this subject, Weir’s book is much less convoluted.

Another thing that’s worth mentioning: Weir starts her account super early on, with peoples’ parents and so forth, who don’t seem that relevant to the actual conflict’s outbreak. Sure, it can be relevant that Henry VI’s father was such a great king and that Henry VI wasn’t, but it doesn’t feel super-relevant to the point where it deserves multiple chapters of explanation.

Basically, I would say that the overabundance of irrelevant-seeming details is my biggest quibble with this otherwise well-written book. One of my greatest pieces of praise about this book is actually that the overabundance of details winds up adding a lot of flavor once the book gets into talking about the war itself.

So in the end, you have to be okay with what seems to be too much detail in the beginning before you can get to the point where the war starts and the details make the book entertaining.

(A final note: this book only discusses the first War of the Roses, so it has nothing about the Plantagenets.)

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Ishiguro, Oates, and Agee

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Hello! I hope you’re hanging in there. Here are three more books I’ve read and reviewed for your enjoyment.

My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs: The Nobel Lecture, by Kazuo Ishiguro

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“The next generation will come with all sorts of new, sometimes bewildering ways to tell important and wonderful stories. We must keep our minds open to them, especially regarding genre and form, so that we can nurture and celebrate the best of them. In a time of dangerously increasing division, we must listen. Good writing and good reading will break down barriers. We may even find a new idea, a great humane vision, around which to rally.”

In 2017, when Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he gave this speech.

It’s an interesting speech, telling of all sorts of writerly epiphanies he had in his life—from how he came to write about Japan while living in Britain to how he came to put more emphasis on developing the relationships between characters. In that way, My Twentieth Century Evening feels like a condensed memoir. Ishiguro’s speech is also a chronicle of chronicle of the changing times (from ~1960 to 2017). In that way, it also reads like a condensed history of society.

However you read this condensed book, it’ll probably make you curious to read some of Ishiguro’s other books. It certainly has done that for me.

The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (Second Edition),
Edited by Joyce Carol Oates

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“As Tolstoy said, talent is the capacity to direct concentrated attention upon the subject: ‘the gift of seeing what others have not seen.’ Though it is hardly necessary, I suggest that the reader read this volume as it is assembled, more or less chronologically. A tale will unfold, by way of numerous tales, that is uniquely and wonderfully American.”

Both this book and Ishiguro’s book chronicle time in their own way, but while Ishiguro’s book is short, Oxford is ridiculously long. When measured, its spine reaches almost two inches in thickness. When counted, its pages reach almost a thousand in number.

Is it worth reading the numerous tales within? Somewhat, because it’s interesting to see how American fiction grew and changed throughout history, and how different genres (fantasy and horror) also grew and changed.

The stories themselves vary in quality, though. Some are amazing, while others don’t seem to give a rewarding reading experience or add much new insight into life.

In case you want only the essentials, here are some of the stories I found to be the best:

“The Paradise of Bachelors & The Tartarus of Maids” by Herman Melville, “A Journey” by Edith Wharton, “The Little Regiment” by Stephen Crane, “A Death in the Desert” by Willa Cather, “The Man Who Was Almost A Man” by Richard Wright, “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, “Defender of the Faith” by Philip Roth, “Filthy with Things” by T.C. Boyle, and “Mercy” by Pinckney Benedict.

I thought they were good for several reasons, ranging from their engaging voices (like Stephen Crane and Herman Melville) to their impact (Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Pinckney Benedict). Others were just entertaining to read (Willa Cather, Philip Roth, and T.C. Boyle).

In the end though, I can’t tell anybody what makes writing great or not, since it’s all subjective. For instance, maybe you’ll think Melville’s story is awful while another writer’s story is amazing.

It might be worth reading Oxford to find out. Even if it’s not worth it, you’ll still learn a lot from the experience.

A Death in the Family, by James Agee

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“‘See here, Poll,’ he said. ‘It’s bad enough right now, but it’s going to take a while to sink in. When it really sinks in it’s going to be any amount worse [….] That’s when you’re going to need every ounce of common sense you’ve got,’ he said. ‘Just spunk won’t be enough; you’ve got to have gumption. You’ve got to bear it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice. You’ve got to keep your mind off pitying your own rotten luck and setting up any kind of a howl about it. You’ve got to remember that things as bad as this and a hell of a lot worse have happened to millions of people before and that they’ve come through it and that you will too. You’ll bear it because there isn’t any choice—except to go to pieces.’”

James Agee’s book is about a death in a family living in Tennessee in the early 1900s.

More specifically, Jay Follet is a father who believes his own father is dying, so he drives over to tend to him. His father turns out to be fine, so he drives back home to his family. The problem is, he dies on the way there, and everyone else is left to deal with their grief the best they can.

Half of the book is about life before Jay’s death, and half is about the immediate aftermath. For me, that was a surprising approach. That approach isn’t done for the sake of being surprising, though. It’s done to convey a surprising experience.

Since the book doesn’t talk much about life after the funeral, you don’t get a sense of the grief being resolved. Instead, since the book emphasizes Jay’s life and death, you get a sense of the “birth” of his family’s grief. You get a sense of the family’s denials, guilts, and regrets. You get to see some of them continue on with their normal life as if they hadn’t yet come to understand the full impact of Jay’s death. Then you get to see them feel guilt about it, and regret how they behaved in their denial.

In the stories I’ve read about people dying, I never saw these ideas explored, mainly because many stories about death focused on the long-term aftermath rather than just the immediate aftermath. Also, they didn’t really seem to examine the experience of grief as in-depth as this book did. In other books, I found characters would react to death by being very sad or angry, which is expected. Agee digs beneath this expected-ness to expose grief’s unexpected nuances. There’s tragedy, but also comedy. There’s sadness and anger, but also hope.

At the risk of sounding stuffy, I’ll just finish by saying that even though nothing really happens in the book itself, Agee is great at portraying the various nuances of human experience.

 

I hope you enjoyed my reviews. Let me know if you’ve read any of these books, or plan to. Next week I’ll be reviewing only one book, known to some as the greatest Finnish novel ever written.

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Lister, Douglass, and Lin

An American in Paris (1951). Lise Bouvier is played by Leslie Caron.

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe. As promised, I have reviewed three inspiring books to keep your spirits up during these troubled times:

Genghis Khan, R.P. Lister

GENGHIS

“There are a lot of dogs roaming loosely about a Mongol camp, and sometimes they knock small children over, out of curiosity and a sense of fun [….] ‘Dai Sechen, my kinsman,’ he [Genghis Khan’s father] said in an anxious, fatherly way, ‘my son Temujin [Genghis Khan] is afraid of dogs. Do not let him be frightened by the dogs.’ This is often how it is with parents, for whom time goes so quickly that they do not bear in mind that what is true when a boy is three, and no bigger than most dogs, is no longer true when he is nine. So they suddenly come out with the belief that one of their children dislikes mutton, because six years ago they used to have trouble with him about it; whereas in fact for the last five years the boy has eaten it eagerly.”

This is a history of Genghis Khan. It’s not just any history, though. It’s informed by a book called The Secret History of the Mongols, which was written in 1240, 13 years after Genghis’s death. The Secret History had access to people who knew Genghis, as well as to the lore about his life passed down through storytelling. The Secret History was lost for centuries, until it was found. However, when it was found, it was discovered that this book was written for Mongol princes, and wasn’t understandable to anybody but an expert.

R.P. Lister is that expert. He tells his own history of Genghis Khan, drawing heavily on The Secret History and interpreting it in terms that the rest of the world can understand.

His not-so-secret history is fascinating, and makes for an entertaining read. Even though it focuses mainly on Genghis’s rise to power, it does briefly sketch out how his family went on to conquer the rest of everything. There are a few names that are confusing to keep straight (Genghis had so many valued commanders), but that doesn’t detract much from the overall enjoyability of the book.

What stands out the most is the writer’s gentle humor. It manages to be insightful without being wry, and gives the book a spirit of benevolence. That probably sounds cheesy, but there’s no other way to describe it. You’ll have to read it yourself to see what I mean.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Frederick Douglass

DOUGLASS

“This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping me, must also succeed in killing me.”

Douglass’s memoir is amazing. It tells of how he learned to read, endured slavery, escaped, and became an abolitionist. It speaks so much to the ability of people to overcome their circumstances and find dignity. It also speaks so much to the power of the individual to change others’ lives. If you’re ever in a situation where you think nothing you can do would produce positive change, read Douglass’s memoir, and be inspired. Even if you’re not in such a situation, you probably will be one day, so read this book anyway.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Grace Lin

MTNMOONN

“‘Husband,’ she said, ‘I’ve said it was your fault that Minli ran away and I was wrong. I am to blame. Minli knew I was discontent with our fortune; if I had not been, she would not have left. I am sorry.’ Ba could not speak. The moon outside was so full it looked as if it would burst, and moistness dampened his eyes. He placed his hand tenderly on Ma’s head. ‘Ahh, good,’ the fish said. ‘If you make happy those that are near, those that are far will come.’ Ma’s head raised in a jerk. She looked over at the fish and then looked at Ba, her eyes wide. ‘Did the fish say something?’ she asked.”

This children’s book is set in ancient China, and is about a girl named Minli. Her family is poor, and she thinks she can find out how to improve their fortune by running away, traveling to a legendary place called Never-Ending Mountain, and seeking out an oracle called the Old Man of the Moon. Along the way, there are talking fish, dragons, and many adventures.

There are also a lot of Chinese folk tales. These stories may seem irrelevant at first, but they have a direct bearing on the events of the story. This is one of those books where everything comes together at the end, but while many such books may be confusing along the way, this one never is.

This book also has a lot of great wisdom that’s applicable not just to the lives of children, but also to adults. Especially nowadays.

Even better, there are illustrations. They are beautiful. They are done by the writer herself.

Finally, this book is the first in a series. There are two other books in it. Better start with the first one!

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I Read, and Reflect Upon the Horrors of War

 

Enemy

Before my new semester starts, I’m back with a book I bought four days ago and just finished now:

Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad* by William Craig

“On New Year’s Eve, discipline in the revitalized Sixty-second Army relaxed and, along the shore, high-ranking Soviet officers held a series of parties to honor actors, musicians, and ballerinas visiting Stalingrad to entertain the troops. One of the troupe members, violinist Mikhail Goldstein, stayed away and went instead into the trenches to perform another of his one-man concerts for the soldiers [….] The horrible battlefield shocked Goldstein and he played as he never played before, hour after hour for men who obviously loved his music. And while all German works had been banned by the Soviet government, Goldstein doubted that any commissar would protest on New Year’s Eve. The melodies he created drifted out through the loudspeakers to the German trenches and the shooting suddenly ceased. In the eerie quiet, the music flowed from Goldstein’s dipping bow. When he finished, a hushed silence hung over the Russian soldiers. From another loudspeaker, in German territory, a voice broke the spell. In halting Russian it pleaded: ‘Play some more Bach. We won’t shoot.’ Goldstein picked up his violin and started a lively Bach Gavotte.”

Enemy at the Gates is a historical account of the Battle of Stalingrad which was written by a man who spent five years researching his material, traveling across continents and interviewing hundreds of Stalingrad survivors from the German, Russian, and Italian sides of the war.

This book is horrible. Not horrible in the sense that it is horribly-written. Quite the opposite. Instead, the book gains its horror from the author’s meticulousness in documenting various experiences of the battle. In the introduction, you are told that Stalingrad resulted in a massive death-count, and the author cites easily-forgettable statistics. Then you read on. You learn how the fates of so many depended on the decisions of incompetent leaders and broken bureaucracies, you read in precise and unforgiving detail about the suffering of people on both sides of the conflict, and you can no longer forget.

The blurb on the book’s cover says it’s a “haunting reading experience,” which is absolutely true. In the beginning, you wind up feeling sorry for the Russians. In the middle, you wind up feeling sorry for the Germans. In the end, you wind up feeling sorry for both sides and wishing wars didn’t exist– the Battle of Stalingrad drove people to insanity, suicide, and cannibalism.

Needless to say, the book does not make for light reading. However, it does make for powerful and important reading. If you can bring yourself to confront the horrors within, you will come out the other side with a massively-enriched perspective on life.

*To some of you, this book’s title might sound familiar. If so, you might be thinking of the Jude Law movie, “Enemy at the Gates” which this book partially inspired. The movie has a fantastic soundtrack, but the inclusion of a love triangle seems to me to cheapen its impact. Better to read the book.

In the coming months, I may be unable to post with regularity due to a huge workload, but I will likely be able to post some. Keep an eye out for future reviews and thoughts. In the meantime, if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, I ‘d love to hear your thoughts.