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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of War: Sepetys, Miri, Grossman

STOP THE WAR.

Hello. I hope you are as well as can be hoped for. As the war in Ukraine continues, I’ve read three more books (one of them being the third and final part of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate). I’ve reviewed them here, as well as providing a list of ways you can support Ukraine at the end of this post.

Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys

She curled her finger toward me, beckoning me closer. ‘Want to know a big secret?’ she asked. ‘What’s that?’ She leaned over and whispered in my ear. ‘Mama says the NKVD [Stalinist secret police] are going to Hell.’ She leaned back. ‘But you can’t tell anyone. It’s a secret, okay?’”

This book is about a Lithuanian girl named Lina who gets deported with her family to Siberia. It reminded me of Zuleikha, which I reviewed in the past, only this book was better.

Unlike that book, this book didn’t have contrived characters. Also, “Gray’s” characters were more compassionately portrayed. The author did a very good job of humanizing everyone, which added a lot of power to this book.

One thing I will say is that its beginning is a bit slow. Not in terms of action—the action gets started right away, but in terms of development (though this is likely just a subjective comment—it was still a wonderful book).

I’d recommend.

Tokyo Ueno Station, by Yu Miri, Translated by Morgan Giles

“If I can’t exist I can’t disappear either.”

This book is about a dead, grief-stricken man in Japan who reflects on the tragedies in his life, and how societal inequity caused him to become a ghost.

History and the present-day coexist in this book, from the American firebombing of Tokyo during WWII to the Fukushima nuclear disaster to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

I found this book important to read—it talks about a lot of significant events and displaced populations—but I didn’t find it to be that interesting. The protagonist just meandered around the whole time. Also, it reminded me a lot of Chingiz Aitmatov’s much-better The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, and I found myself wanting to re-read Aitmatov’s book instead of reading this one.

That’s not to say Yu Miri isn’t a good writer—she definitely is, and I think I’m going to wind up recommending her other books (I’m currently reading her Gold Rush and am enjoying it a lot!) It’s just that Tokyo Ueno Station didn’t do it for me personally.

Doesn’t mean the same will be true for you.

Life and Fate, Part Three, by Vasily Grossman,
Translated by Raymond Chandler

“Somehow you could sense spring more vividly in this cool forest than on the sunlit plain. And there was a deeper sadness in this silence than in the silence of autumn. In it you could hear both a lament for the dead and the furious joy of life itself. It was still cold and dark, but soon the doors and shutters would be flung open. Soon the house would be filled with the tears and laughter of children, with the hurried steps of a loved woman and the measured gait of the master of the house. They stood there, holding their bags, in silence.”

(Part One, Part Two)

Here we are. The final part of Grossman’s epic 900-pager.

It was very good.

A physicist struggles to maintain his integrity in the face of Soviet terror, the battle of Stalingrad draws to a close, and some other guy randomly gets arrested for no reason he knows of.

Another name for this section of the book could have been “All the World’s a Prison,” because in it, we see that even those who are free are technically prisoners of the Stalinist state.

Something else: we previously saw Grossman going from being super-sexist to being more feminist. Now, we see him return to a middle position. One female character who had previously seemed to be very developed turns out just to have been developed that way for the sake of becoming a last-minute love-interest. Oh yeah, and did I mention the love-triangles? Yes, love-triangles. There are two of them in this section, which resolve rather boringly.

Two of the more interesting scenes in this section focused on Stalin and Hitler. They didn’t seem that realistic, though. Grossman apparently thought these dictators were, in their moments of weakness, capable of longing for their mothers (Hitler) and feeling overwhelming bouts of love for their daughters (Stalin).

Even so, Grossman was great at getting at his (other) characters’ psychologies. Rationalizations abound. So do subverted expectations and betrayals. Through it all, though, Grossman never loses compassion for the people he portrays, which is impressive.

Overall, this behemoth of a book was worth it. It made me think a lot about prisons, love-triangles, and the human condition.

As promised, here are some Ukrainian aid organizations you can donate to. Please do, especially in light of the news of the horrible massacre in Bucha:

Mercy Corps: Provides humanitarian aid and emergency cash assistance to refugees in Ukraine, Poland, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.mercycorps.org/

Direct Relief: Works with Ukraine’s Ministry of Health to provide medical aid like emergency response packs and critical care medicine. Donate here: https://www.directrelief.org/place/ukraine/

International Relief Teams: Works to provide food, water, and shelter to refugees in Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, and Poland. Donate here: https://www.irteams.org/

Human Rights Watch: Works to defend human rights in Ukraine. Donate here: https://donate.hrw.org/page/100202/donate/1

Lit in the Time of War: Radnóti, Aramaki, Grossman

War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

Hello! I hope you are as well as can be expected. I’ve reviewed three more books, and have provided a list of more charities you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need.

Camp Notebook, by Miklós Radnóti,
Translated by Francis Jones

“I tumbled beside him, his body twisted and then,

like a snapped string, up it sprang again.

Neck shot. ‘This is how you’ll be going too,’

I whispered to myself, ‘just lie easy now.’

Patience is blossoming into death.

‘Der springt noch auf,’ rang out above me. Mud

Dried on my ear, mingled with blood.”

This book is really good. It contains poems written by Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti as he went about life in a Nazi death camp. The poem quoted above was the last one he ever wrote before being shot.

This is some of the best poetry I’ve read in a while.

I don’t know what else to say about this book. Basically that it’s very short, very profound, and that you should definitely read it.

The Sacred Era, by Yoshio Aramaki,
Translated by Baryon Tensor Posadas

“Finally, K understands everything. Human consciousness is akin to the surface of a mirror. The surface does not in itself exist. All the mirror can do, all that defines a mirror, is its capacity to reflect back the object before it [….] Is this what we call God? Is God this cosmic consciousness this totality, this pure consciousness of all the cosmos? If God is the surface of a cosmic mirror, then insofar as God is pure, there can be no awareness of himself as God.”

This book is interesting. It’s about a guy named K (no, not the same K from Kafka’s The Trial). He takes a test called the Sacred Examination, passes it, and is assigned to work on secret research on the planet Bosch (yes, named after Hieronymus).

Interdimensional hijinks ensue. There’s a renegade named Darko Dachilko who’s supposedly been executed hundreds of years ago, but whose ghost (and dismembered limbs) still lurk around, ready to kill unsuspecting people. There’s also intergalactic travel. There’s basically everything.

The only thing that weakens this book is its underdeveloped female characters. Considering that the book basically revolves around the male characters reuniting with female characters, it’s a wasted opportunity for character development when female characters are given no substance other than the fact that they’re there to make out with the male characters.

In any case I would recommend this book.

Life and Fate, Part 2, by Vasily Grossman,
Translated by Robert Chandler

“His train of thought was quite simple, though not so easy for an outsider to follow. Several things had come together: memories of his past; the fate of Tolya and Anna Semyonovna; the war; the fact that, however rich and famous a man may be, he will still grow old, die, and yield his place to the young; that perhaps nothing matters except to live one’s life honestly.”

(See Part 1 Here).

In Part 2 of Life and Fate, Viktor Pavlovich has made a huge scientific breakthrough that makes him eligible for the Stalin Prize, but his rivals don’t like him and they want to win the Stalin Prize themselves, so they start a smear campaign against him. Will he stand up for himself? Or will he give way to lies to preserve his reputation? Read this section to find out.

A lot of other things happen in this section, including better-developed female characters. Granted they still all revolve around men, but at least now they also get to have some philosophical insights, which is more realistic.

One thing that Grossman is really good at is making these surprising, but honest and logical observations about people. He’s like Tolstoy in that way (Character A feels happy to survive XYZ but then feels guilty about feeling happy, or feels angry at himself for being happy, etc.)

Considering the fact that if you read 300 pages of this book a week (a section per week), you can get through it in about three weeks (it’s 900 pages). Considering what you get for your troubles (and considering the increasingly-well developed female characters), I would recommend.

As promised, here’s a list of charities supporting Ukrainians. Please donate if you can.

World Food Program: Gives cash and food to 3 million+ Ukrainians. Donate here: https://www.wfp.org/emergencies/ukraine-emergency

Lifesong for Orphans: Works with Ukrainian orphanages to empower children, encourages adoption efforts. Donate here: https://lifesong.org/ukraine-relief/

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee: Gives food packages, online support to Ukrainians sheltering in place, and transport/accommodation assistance to refugees. Donate here: https://www.jdc.org/

Heart to Heart International: Distributes medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://www.hearttoheart.org/

Americares: Gives medical and food aid to Ukrainian families in Poland and Romania. Donate here: https://www.americares.org/

Lit in the Time of War: An Entire Book By Chi, Part 1 of Grossman, and 14 Chapters of Solzhenitsyn

Stop the War!

Hello! I hope you are all as well as can be expected giving the ongoing war in Ukraine. This week, I’ve reviewed three-ish books, and have provided another list of organizations you can donate to that provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

The Membranes, by Chi Ta-Wei,
Translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich

“Safe under the purple sky of a waterproof and earthquake-proof membrane, deep beneath the ocean, people lived out their days like flowers in the greenhouse [….] Although they were physically removed from the realities of war, they were suspended in a state of virtual escape. And it felt real to them.”

This book is crazy (in a good way). It’s known as a classic of queer speculative fiction. In it, a woman named Momo is a dermal care technician in an underwater city called T City. Why’s it underwater? Because the ozone layer was breached and as a result people all suffered from radiation and had to move underwater. Anyway, Momo begins to wonder about her identity, learns about the connections between androids and humans, uses special technology called M-Skin to download the memories of the people she works for…and I can’t give anything away other than that.

The beginning of the book is a little repetitive, but once you get past it, the story becomes very interesting and very recommended. Chi has a lot to say and this book is very good at saying it.

So, if you like mind-blowing literature, I would definitely recommend this book. It’s very short, it’s very well-written, and it’s very worth reading.

Life and Fate, Part One, By Vasily Grossman,
Translated by Robert Chandler

“I realize now that hope almost never goes together with reason. It’s something quite irrational and instinctive. People carry on as though their whole life lies ahead of them. It’s impossible to say whether that’s wise or foolish—it’s just the way people are […..] Our turn will come in a week or two, according to plan. But just imagine—I still go on seeing patients and saying, ‘Now bathe your eye regularly with the lotion and it will be better in two or three weeks’ [….] Meanwhile the Germans burst into people’s houses and steal; sentries amuse themselves by shooting children from behind the barbed wire; and more and more people confirm that any day now our fate will be decided.”

After three years, I’ve finally started it–Life and Fate.

This epic novel is set during the Battle of Stalingrad and revolves around the Shaposhnikov family. It’s been compared to War and Peace, and I can see why in the sense of it being an epic novel during a war that also involves peace. It’s also very good—Grossman, like Tolstoy, makes a lot of great observations about people.

The main downside to this book is its sexism—the female characters are all there to fall in love with the male characters (or to be objectified by them!), which detracts from this book’s power because it makes them less realistic than the male characters. First, I’d read a very good chapter about a male character. Then I’d read another chapter from the perspective of a female character and find myself laughing at how bad it is (“She loved him! She couldn’t live without him! She embraced the coat-hanger upon which his coat had been hung! Waaaah!”)

So far however, I’d still recommend it.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, In the First Circle,
(Chapters 1-14 Where I Gave Up), Translated by Harry T. Willetts

“Simochka’s girlhood had held nothing but unhappiness so far. She was not pretty: Her looks were spoiled by a nose much too long and hair that had refused to grow out, gathered now into a skimpy bun at the back. She was not just small, she was extremely small, and her figure was that of a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl rather than a grown woman. She was, moreover, straitlaced, averse to jokes and frivolity, which made her still less attractive to young men. So it was that in her twenty-third year no one had ever courted her, hugged her, or kissed her.”

I usually don’t review books I don’t like or don’t finish, but I’ll make an exception for Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle. It was very disappointing, I didn’t see anyone else on Goodreads with similar views, and so I wanted to fill this gaping hole in the review-literature.

More seriously, this book is billed as being about gulag prisoners who work on scientific projects in more-privileged conditions than regular gulag prisoners. These prisoners have to decide whether to give a man away for giving nuclear secrets away to the US or not (they’ve been asked to identify his voice from a recording). Circle is supposed to be brilliant and philosophical. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was very good. And, I mean, the author even won a Nobel Prize in Literature!

However, as can be seen from the passage above, Circle is an extremely sexist book. By comparison, Solzhenitsyn somehow makes Grossman seem like a die-hard feminist. Somehow, for instance, Simochka’s been unable to feel any happiness whatsoever because she was too ugly to be attractive to men. Since when could a woman only feel happy if she gets a guy? Whatever happened to Simochka’s friends? Her parents? Was she just shoved into a cardboard box her whole life by Solzhenitsyn so she couldn’t have any happiness? (Okay, that was facetious, but seriously).

The worst thing is that this sexism isn’t just relegated to appearances of female characters—it’s also deeply engrained in Solzhenitsyn’s brilliant philosophical musings (Character A bases his whole philosophical worldview on the fact that, in spite of suffering, men live in the hope that one day they’ll find pretty women who will “give [themselves] to him.”) So even if you come to this book for the philosophy, the book’s sexism even weakens its philosophical power.

So in conclusion, though this book may have a lot of great ideas in it, it also suffers from a near-terminal case of unrealistic female characters (and philosophical contemplation based on axioms which themselves are based on flawed conceptions of women’s place in society). So it’s no wonder that I had to quit this book at Chapter 14. Yes, it may have been a life-changer for some readers, but it definitely wasn’t for me.

In the end, of course, my comments are subjective. Feel free to enjoy the book anyway. But, I hope that if other readers have had similar experiences with this book’s sexism, they’ll find that they’re not alone. And, if the book does happen to get better (AKA less sexist and actually more philosophically-sound/engaging) later on, I’d love to hear about it. Maybe I could even be persuaded to pick it up again.

Now, as promised, here are more places to donate to in order to help Ukraine:

Fight for Right: Works to evacuate Ukrainians with disabilities. Donate here: https://eng.ffr.org.ua/support-in-crisis/eng

Black Women for Black Lives: As you may have read, Black people have been facing discrimination at the Ukrainian border. This group works to help them leave Ukraine. Donate here: https://blackwomenforblacklives.org/

The Association for Legal Intervention: Gives pro-bono legal aid to Ukrainian civilians who have fled to Poland. Donate here: https://interwencjaprawna.pl/en/get-involved/donate/

OutRight International: Helps LGBTQ refugees flee Ukraine. Donate here: https://outrightinternational.org/ukraine

CARE: Works to get food, water, and other urgent supplies to Ukrainian civilians. Donate here: https://www.care.org/

UN Women: Works in Moldova to help female Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://donate.unwomen.org/en/ukraine

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Moore

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

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

Jesus Two GIF - Jesus Two Fish - Discover & Share GIFs

Funniest Excerpts:

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder Lamb was was more than 400 pages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: King, Süskind, and London

Hello! Happy 2022! I hope that you are all enjoying your holiday season with many books and much good health. If there’s snow near you, I also hope that you are staying warm and safe.

Last time, I reviewed several not-so-uplifting books. This time, I’ll kick 2022 off with one book that’s slightly more inspiring…

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King

Best Shawshank Sewer GIFs | Gfycat

“I asked him once what the posters meant to him, and he gave me a peculiar, surprised sort of look. ‘Why, they mean the same thing to me as they do to most cons, I guess,’ he said. ‘Freedom. You look at those pretty women and you feel like you could almost …not quite but almost …step right through and be beside them. Be free.”

This was the first Stephen King book I ever read, and it was good. It wasn’t as amazing as I thought it would be, though, considering all the hype. Maybe it’s because I already saw the movie and knew the ending.

For the first time in my life, I’d actually say that the movie was somewhat better than the book, because it emphasized some important through-lines more and made better choices than the book about certain side-characters. Also, the book was less of an experience and more of a mystery—once you knew its solution, there wasn’t much left to experience in the book.

Meanwhile, the movie was more of an experience (since film is basically about experiencing things by watching them on-screen). So even knowing the solution to the mystery didn’t take away from the glory of reliving that experience.

In any case, I enjoyed this book. It was definitely well-written, and I hope that there are other Stephen King books out there that I can read in the future that are just as good, if not better. Do you have any recommendations?

Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, Translated by John E. Woods

Putting On Perfume GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

[A long quote but worth it!] “And [Father Terrier] rocked the basket gently on his knees, stroking the infant’s head with his finger and repeating ‘poohpeedooh’ from time to time, an expression he thought had a gentle, soothing effect on small children [….] Terrier wrenched himself to his feet and set the basket on the table. He wanted to get rid of the thing, as quickly as possible, right away if possible, immediately if possible. And then it began to wail. It squinted up its eyes, gaped its gullet wide, and gave a screech so repulsively shrill that the blood in Terrier’s veins congealed. He shook the basket with an outstretched hand and shouted ‘Poohpeedooh’ to silence the child, but it only bellowed more loudly and turned completely blue in the face and looked as if it would burst from bellowing.”

This book is about a kid who has a wonderful sense of smell but doesn’t smell of anything himself. Oh yeah, and he’s a murderer.

Given that I first heard of this book on an International Baccalaureate reading list, I thought it would be kind of stuffy and literary. To my great surprise and delight, it was actually very funny (while also being literary).

The author clearly enjoyed writing this book, in the way Tolstoy clearly enjoyed writing War and Peace. When the writer really likes what he or she is writing about, it comes across to the reader and makes the reading experience so much fun. These kinds of books are so much better than books where the author’s clearly just trying to come across as witty or sophisticated without deeply caring about what he or she is writing about.

Anyway, the unexpected humor, great plotting, strong characterization, and amazing twist (the book feels almost like speculative fiction at certain points) makes Perfume a super-recommendable book.

Martin Eden, by Jack London

merrittrps gif packs

“It was the finest thing yet that [Martin Eden] had seen in this small glimpse of that [upper-class] world. He was moved deeply by appreciation of it, and his heart was melting with sympathetic tenderness. He had starved for love all his life. His nature craved love. It was an organic demand of his being. Yet he had gone without, and hardened himself in the process. He had not known that he needed love. Nor did he know it now. He merely saw it in operation, and thrilled to it, and thought it fine, and high, and splendid.”

If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, you may remember that I listed London’s autobiographical novel Martin Eden as an “honorable mention” in my Top Ten Books I Read in High School post. I reread it recently for a paper I had to write. It was so good.

Martin Eden is about a sailor named Russ Brissenden Martin Eden (!) who meets a high-society girl named Ruth, and falls in love with her. But he needs to have a steady career in order to get her parents to agree for them to get married. So, like all practical men seeking a steady career, Martin decides that he will become a famous writer. Poverty ensues, but love endures (or does it?)

Cheesy summary aside, I didn’t realize how good this book was until I actually analyzed it. See, Jack London seemed to think that his protagonist was driven by consistent selfish individualism, and that’s easy enough to accept when you read the book once and don’t think too hard (or at all) about it.

However, when reading the book closely, it became obvious that Martin was just driven by his need for love (I could go on and on about this, but basically his need for love was a much more consistent and clear motive for Martin’s actions than any kind of individualism). If Martin’s need for love was such a clear motive (in contrast to all those times Martin explicitly told himself he was a poor excuse for an individualist), why did London still insist that his book was about Martin’s individualism?

Keeping in mind that I could also be wrong, we could go on to speculate that deep down, London knew the book’s dominant through-line wasn’t individualism, but that he insisted otherwise to cover up insecurities or other things he didn’t want to admit (imagine a tough guy like London saying his latest book was about craving love).

Anyway. For a guy who might have been lying to himself, London still had the guts to make this a consistent thread throughout his story, even if in the end he underemphasized that thread and tried to hide it beneath unconvincing thematic stuff about individualism. And even in spite of all the stuff about individualism, London’s book still possessed remarkable insight due to that partially-smothered thread. That’s what made the book so good, in my view.

So if you’re a writer, it might be a good idea to really know why you write, and if you’re a reader, it might be an interesting idea to reread some old favorites.

If you just want to know if I would recommend this book, I definitely would, and I’d be curious to hear any thoughts you might have about it.

 Also, if you want to listen to a great Bill Hughes song about Martin Eden…

Happy New Year!

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

Milkweed Seeds GIF | Gfycat

“’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

Battle of Stalingrad on Make a GIF

“[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

Letter Writing GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

“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

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

First Excerpt (The Prose):

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

Second Excerpt (The Poetry):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool Dice Animated Gifs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Black And White Ships GIFs | Gfycat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week!

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

Falling Snow Gif's

[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

True grit GIF - Find on GIFER

“‘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

Feather GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

“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

Best Writing GIFs | Gfycat

“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!