Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Spinelli, Hellbeck, and Rilke

In Which I Review Spinelli’s “Milkweed,” Hellbeck’s “Stalingrad,” and Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.”

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you had a happy Halloween. I’m back with three more book reviews. One’s historical fiction, one’s historical fact, and one’s of letters written during a historical period…

Milkweed, by Jerry Spinelli

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“’Tata, what is happy?’ […] ‘Were you ever cold, then warm?’ I thought of sleeping with the boys under the braided rug: cold, then warm. ‘Yes!’ I blurted. ‘Was that happy?’ [….] ‘No,’ he said. He tapped my chest. ‘Happy is here.’ He tapped his own chest. ‘Here.’ I looked down past my chin. ‘Inside?’ ‘Inside.’ it was getting crowded in there. First angel. Now happy. It seemed there was more to me than cabbage and turnips.”

This book was interesting it was about this kid named Misha who lives on the streets of Nazi-era Warsaw and steals food for his orphan family. But he also belongs to another family of Jews, which has been sent to the ghetto. He steals for them, too, even as doing so brings greater and greater risk…

The book was good, but Misha felt under-characterized. I kept expecting to care more about him and the other characters than I did. Maybe it was because Misha never really seemed to care much about them other than what they did for him. Maybe it was because I never saw other characters really caring about each other aside from hugging each other.

In either case, the book was still good. It had interesting ideas and main character. However, it was only kind of emotionally-impactful at the end, and I feel it could have been much more so.

Stalingrad: The City That Defeated the Third Reich,
by Jochen Hellbeck,
Translated by Christopher Tauchen and Dominic Bonfiglio

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“[After the battle when the Russians were rounding up German prisoners:] There was a motorcyclist, someone from army intelligence, and he was there next to a German driver who was wearing a Red Army jacket. I said to the company commander: ‘Why’d you give him a jacket?’ ‘He was cold.’ ‘And when exactly did you die so he could pull it off your corpse?’

This book was fascinating. It contains Russian eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Stalingrad obtained by a historical commission during the battle and immediately after it ended. These eyewitness accounts had been suppressed by the Soviets and only recently declassified (in 2010-ish).

This context alone made the book interesting because it gave a candid perspective on what the soldiers thought and believed during the war, instead of afterwards when they’d already won and could revise whatever they’d been thinking and feeling at that time. For instance, one soldier confessed in an interview that he’d been scared at one point, but in the memoirs he published later on he said he’d always marched bravely forward.

The book itself contained interviews with Red Army members, but it also contained excerpts from interrogations with Germans, and German diaries. These perspectives shed a lot of light on how propaganda worked to preserve cohesivity (or destroy it, in the case of the Germans).

It also gave a lot of insight into the human condition. For instance, in the excerpt–the German prisoners were likely sent to gulags where they froze to death, but before that point a Red Army soldier gave one of them his jacket to keep him from being cold. That blew my mind.

Basically, read this book. It’ll blow your mind, too.

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke,
Translated by M.D. Herter Norton

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“And let me here promptly make a request: read as little as possible of aesthetic criticism– such things are either partisan views, petrified and grown senseless in their lifeless induration, or they are clever quibblings in which today one view wins and tomorrow the opposite. Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as of criticism.”

Letters to a Young Poet contained letters written to who you might expect. Strangely enough, at the end, the translator decided to just start excerpting random letters rather than giving their contents in full. That made this book’s ending very anticlimactic.

In the meantime the letters that were quoted were interesting. For instance, Rilke thought you had to work all on your own and never socialize, because life corrupted you. But later on in life, he seemed to think he needed to learn more about life to work well as an artist.

Which is true? I don’t know. Besides, I can only provide you with clever quibblings. The best thing for you to do is to read Rilke’s book yourself.

Have you read any of these books before? Do you want to read any of them? Let me know in the comments!

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: Portis, Miller, and Palahniuk

In Which I Review Charles Portis’s “True Grit,” Arthur Miller’s “Incident at Vichy,” and Chuck Palahniuk’s “Consider This”

Hello! Happy August. I hope you’re vaccinated or are getting vaccinated, and that you’ve been able to read and enjoy the summer some.

If you’re looking for reading material, I’ve reviewed three more books that might give you some ideas…

True Grit, by Charles Portis

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“‘I will inform them myself,’ said I. ‘Who is the best marshal they have?’ The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, ‘I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them [….] The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into this thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.’ I said, ‘Where can I find this Rooster?'”

This book, which inspired the movies, is about a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie who wants to avenge her father’s murder in the Wild West. So she enlists the help of Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed marshal with dubious morals.

What made the book good was the dialogue. All the characters were very witty and could hold their own, and entertain the reader at the same time. Meanwhile, Portis was usually able to get away with this without coming off like he was forcing his characters to be witty for the sake of showing off to the reader. That made the dialogue work, in my opinion.

The plot was interesting, too, but an important part of it felt illogical and sexist (I won’t spoil it, though–you’ll have to see for yourself whether you agree). This didn’t ruin the book, but it did make the story less impactful than it could have been.

Basically, if this book didn’t have any dialogue, it would not be worth reading. Fortunately for us, it does.

“Incident at Vichy,” by Arthur Miller

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“Many times I used to ask my friends– if you love your country why is it necessary to hate other countries? To be a good German why must you despise everything that is not German? Until I realized the answer. They do these things not because they are German but because they are nothing. It is the hallmark of the age– the less you exist the more important it is to make a clear impression.”

This play by Arthur Miller is about a group of people in Vichy France in 1942. They’re prisoners of the Nazi collaborators and they don’t know why. This set-up lets Arthur Miller examine ideas like collective guilt, the psychology of groups and individuals, idealism and nihilism, and so on.

The play was thought-provoking. It reminded me of Sartre’s “The Condemned of Altona,” except Miller’s play was much shorter and asked more questions than it answered. It also seemed to have more psychological depth when examining the nature of guilt.

In contrast to another play (Miller’s tragic “Death of a Salesman”), “Vichy” felt fresher. “Salesman’s” characters had to adhere to Miller’s pre-ordained tragic plot-formula. “Vichy’s” characters didn’t adhere to a formula, which meant that Miller didn’t have to contrive everyone’s actions to fit into it. “Vichy’s” characters were being explored, which gave them more room to act like real humans, whereas if Miller had let “Salesman’s” characters act too human, they wouldn’t have fit well into the play’s tragic formula.

So even though “Salesman” is more lauded than “Vichy” (Pulitzer Prize, etc.), and more emotionally-engaging (personal opinion), I would still argue that “Vichy’s” characters are more realistic than “Salesman’s.”

Anyway, I would recommend it.

Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, by Chuck Palahniuk

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“This is another reason to bother collecting stories. Because our existence is a constant flow of the impossible, the implausible, the coincidental. And what we see on television and in films must always be diluted to make it ‘believable.’ We’re trained to live in constant denial of the miraculous. And it’s only by telling our stories that we get any sense of how extraordinary human existence actually can be.”

This is a book of writing advice. It read a lot like, “remember to use verbs instead of adjectives! And remember to do XYZ!”, and a lot of it felt obvious or were things I already did in my writing. Even so, they were good reminders. Also, it was interesting to read them because Palahniuk brought a new perspective to why these different things were important to do.

Palahniuk also included memoir-like sections about his crazy fans, how he learned to write, and how his experiences shaped his views on the craft. These sections were filled with anecdotes like, “I did XYZ and it worked for me so much in writing Story ABC.” Even if people give you writing techniques, it helps for them to also give you real anecdotes that explain how such techniques worked for them.

Overall, everything wasn’t different after I finished reading this book, but it enriched things a little bit. In terms of substance, Consider This felt more useful than Cortázar’s book on writing, less useful than Stephen King’s book, and equally useful as Vargas Llosa’s.

So I would recommend it.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Hosseini

In Which I Review “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini

Hello! I’ve read four books for this week but because of time-constraints I’m going to keep you in suspense and only review one of them. You may have heard of it…

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

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[About a story the protagonist wrote about a man whose tears became pearls:] “‘Well,’ he said, ‘if I may ask, why did the man kill his wife? In fact, why did he ever have to feel sad to shed tears? Why couldn’t he have just smelled an onion?’ I was stunned. That particular point, so obvious it was utterly stupid, hadn’t even occurred to me. I moved my lips soundlessly. It appeared that on the same night I had learned about one of writing’s objectives, irony, I would also be introduced to one of its pitfalls: the Plot Hole.”

The Kite Runner is about a boy named Amir whose best friend is named Hassan. Amir and Hassan grow up together in Afghanistan, but after an un-namable plot-twist, Amir must redeem himself…

I’m wary of bestsellers, but The Kite Runner was actually a good book, probably because the author put a lot of time and effort into it.

He took the time to get to know his characters, for instance. So he learned their fears and secrets and was able to depict them with a lot of psychological depth. At the same time, he also didn’t reduce them to a single completely-understandable dynamic– “all you’ll ever need to know about Character A is that he’s insecure because his dad never pays attention to him.” Hosseini’s version of Character A would be that and a few other hopes and insecurities, and things that probably don’t show up on the page but that inform his actions anyway.

Hosseini was also very compassionate towards his protagonist, which was impressive considering what happens in the book. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this except to say that it’s obvious when an author holds his/her characters at a distance because it also creates distance between the character and the reader. In Hosseini’s case, there was none of this distance.

So, due to the great characters, the good plot, and the author’s ability to be interesting, the book wound up having an ending that was actually emotionally-satisfying.

However, the middle sagged. Hosseini didn’t include as much interiority as in the beginning. He also seemed to underuse some of the characters he focused on in this section. They were basically just stepping-stones for him to get to the next plot-point (which turned out to be a huge coincidence). Finally, the villain of the story felt more like a cartoon character than a fully fleshed-out human. Yes, he definitely did evil things, but considering the author’s gift for understanding his characters on a human level, it seemed like Hosseini missed another opportunity by not nuancing the villain as well.

Overall though, it was entertaining to read, and I would recommend it. If you’ve already read it, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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: 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!

I Read, Without Sleep

During a break from work, I took out a book from the library yesterday, and finished reading it today. The only problem is I went to bed late and wound up waking up early. As a result, I only got 5 hours of sleep, about the same amount as the book’s writer got while he was serving his literary apprenticeship…

No Mentor But Myself by Jack London

“And without the strong central thread of a working philosophy, how can you make order out of chaos? How can your foresight and insight be clear? How can you have a quantitative and qualitative perception of the relative importance of every scrap of knowledge you possess? And without all this how can you possibly be yourself? How can you have something fresh for the jaded ear of the world? The only way of gaining this philosophy is by seeking it, by drawing the materials which go to compose it from the knowledge and culture of the world.”

This book is very short (192 pages). Well, I guess it isn’t that short, but it felt short. It’s a collection of essays and correspondences written by Jack London about writing (from his start in 1899 onwards). It’s interesting to read, but if you’ve ever read Martin Eden most of it is similar.

Even if you have read Martin Eden, there’s another point of interest about No Mentor But Myself. You see London’s style develop. He goes from spewing out so many adjectives that the reader can’t possibly take him seriously (“Not only has he gone down into the soil, into the womb of the passionate earth, yearning for motherhood, for sustenance of nations; but he has gone down into the heart of its people, simple, elemental, prone to the ruder amenities of existence”) to refining his style so it loses some adjectives and gains its power (“Then the book [Sinclair’s The Jungle] was published, and here it is, a story of human destruction, of poor broken cogs in the remorseless grind of the industrial machine”).

I used to think that great writers came fully-fledged into the world, like Athena bursting forth from the forehead of Zeus. This book has proven otherwise. At its beginning, London is a horrendous writer. At its end, he’s amazing.

The secret? Hard work: “I worked many a long month nineteen hours a day, without sleep.” (He died young though, partially because of the burnout, so don’t try this at home).

Overall, No Mentor But Myself is a great introduction to London as a writer (in terms of his thoughts on writing). This book inspired me to start on his collection of correspondences. Maybe it will inspire you to greatness (but not to burnout).

Hopefully, I’ll be back with more book reviews and thoughts soon. If not, know that it’s because I’m working–hopefully less than nineteen hours a day.

Comedy in Tragedy and Yellows in Blues

Happy almost New Year! I hope you’re all enjoying the last few days of 2019!

I recently read this essay online (the Lehigh University link) about comedy in Eugene O’Neill’s tragic play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”

The paper’s writer says that a lot of people focus on the pathos of the play–which I won’t spoil because you should read it for yourself–but don’t consider the role of comedy.

In “Long Day’s Journey”, the paper’s writer asserts that comedy serves to humanize the characters. This makes them, and their reactions to their tragic situation, more convincing and compelling.

This idea reminded me of how painters, in painting a picture, use a lot of colors. That sounds obvious. But they use them in such a way as to promote contrast. For instance, there’s a yellowish layer in Winslow Homer’s 1880 painting, “Boys in a Dory.”

It seems counterintuitive to use yellow in painting a nautical scene. However, when combined with the painting’s blue hues, the yellow serves as a contrast that gives the painting a new dimension and makes it more convincing and compelling.

Similarly, comedy serves to contrast with the tragedy in O’Neill’s play. This contrast gives the characters more nuance and makes them more realistic, which increases the compelling nature of their tragic situation.

In writing, comedy doesn’t just have to be comic relief–it can also play a key role in giving extra dimension to a work and deepening its power.

I hope I gave some insight into this technique. It sounds fascinating, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.