Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn

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

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

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

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

The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Hernández and Tokarczuk (Bilingual Edition!)

Hello/Hola! I read two books for this week, in the middle of finals period. One is Spanish, the other is translated into English. I’ve reviewed the Spanish one in Spanish and English. I’ve reviewed the English one in English (pero puedes encontrar una otra reseña del libro de Tokarczuk en español aquí).

El Dolor de los Demás (The Pain of Others),
by Miguel Ángel Hernández

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Español:

“Mientras mi prima hablaba, tuve la sensación de que Rosi [la hermana muerta del asesino muerte Nicolás] resucitaba, de que volvía a vivir. Pero no de ese modo macabro en que ella o Nicolás habitaban mis sueños o mis recuerdos, sino de un modo más auténtico, más real. Lo tuve claro; en esa conversación había más vida que en todo lo que yo había escrito. A pesar de la tristeza y de la evocación del dolor. Rosi había vuelto a la vida durante un momento. Y yo, por primera vez, había sentido compasión sincera. Ella había sido una historia, un cuerpo lleno de emociones, una vida. Y él, mi amigo, Nicolás, la sombra que lo había arrebatado todo.”

Este libro es una mezcla entre ficción y nonficción—el cuento de un chico cuyo amigo mejor mató a su hermana propia y entonces mató si mismo actualmente occurrió al autor. Los partes del libro que son “ficción” son los narrativos del segundo-person que son intercalados a través la historía que recrean el evento en el tenso presente.

Digo que son “ficción” porque están basado en los recuerdos del autor como niño en vez de recuerdos más recientes. Este puede darles una calidad de más subjectividad que los otros partes del libro, que están narrados como una memoria sobre el autor y sus esfuerzos para escribir el propio libro que ya estamos leyendo.

El libro fue bien escrito, y el uso de elementos experimentales fueron interesantes y exitosos en mi opinión, porque no les distraían de los eventos del texto.

A veces, parecía como el autor pensaba que sus reacciones a la tragedía fueron los partes más importantes del cuento (en contraste a las reacciones de todas las otras personas, como la familia de los hermanos muertos), pero el autor eventualmente subvirtió esta expectación. Quizás pudiera hacerla más antes.

En cualquier caso, este libro fue entretenido leer, y aunque está solamente disponible en el español ahora (excepto para este excerpto), tal vez sea traducido al inglés eventualmente.

English:

“While my cousin talked, I had the sensation that Rosi [the dead sister of the dead assassin Nicolás] was resurrected, that she returned to live. But not in that macabre way in which she or Nicolás inhabited my dreams or my memories, but in a way more authentic, more real. It was clear; in that conversation there had been more life than in all that I had written. In spite of the sadness and the evocation of pain. Rosi had come to life for a moment. And I, for the first time, had felt sincere compassion. She had been a story, a body filled with emotions, a life. And him, my friend Nicolás, the shadow that had taken away everything.”

This book is a mix between fiction and nonfiction—the story of a boy whose best friend murdered his own sister and then killed himself actually happened to the author. The “fiction” part of the story comes through the second-person narratives that are interspersed through the story which recreate the event in present-tense.

I call them “fiction” because they’re based on the author’s childhood memories rather than on more recent ones. This may give them more subjectivity than the other parts of the book, which are narrated like a memoir about the author as he tries to write the very book we’re now reading.

The book itself was well-written, and the experimental approach was interesting and successful in my opinion because they didn´t distract from the events in the story.

Sometimes it felt like the author thought that his own reactions to the tragedy were the most important parts of the story (as opposed to the reactions of everyone else, like the dead childrens’ family) but the author eventually went on to subvert this expectation. Maybe he could have done it sooner, though.

In any case, the book was entertaining to read, and even though it’s only available in Spanish as of now (save for this excerpt), it may or may not be translated into English eventually.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,
by Olga Tokarczuk

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“After the rain Sirius had appeared, and the handle of the Big Dipper had risen…I wondered whether the stars can see us. And if they can, what might they think of us? Do they really know our future? Do they feel sorry for us? For being stuck in the present time, with no chance to move? But it also crossed my mind that in spite of all, in spite of our fragility and ignorance, we have an incredible advantage over the stars—it is for us that time works, giving us a major opportunity to transform the suffering, aching world into a happy and peaceful one.”

(Otra vez, reseña en Español Aquí)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was next to Tolstoy in my local library. I saw it when I took out the first draft of War and Peace and I saw it when I replaced the first draft War and Peace. So I decided to take a stab at it.

The book’s a murder mystery set in Poland. The book jacket calls it a “thriller cum fairy tale” for some reason, even though not much is fairy tale-ish about it except for a section where the protagonist goes to a dance dressed as the Big Bad Wolf and someone else dresses as Little Red Riding Hood.

Anyway, the murder mystery. A bunch of people are mysteriously killed and nobody knows why. The protagonist, an old woman named Janina, thinks it’s animals come to take their revenge on humans for hunting them all these millennia. Others are skeptical. In any case, the murderer is on the loose, and that makes for a good plot-summary cliffhanger.

Considering this book was shelved next to the first draft of the best book ever written, I had a bunch of stupid preconceptions in my head when I started reading it. While it wasn’t Tolstoy, the book was still surprisingly well-written and funny. Tokarczuk was able to feel compassion for her characters, which was very refreshing. She was also able to go on these philosophical tangents without coming off as stuffy or self-important, which was also very refreshing. She had these Stylistic Choices (like Capitalizing Random Letters) that could have been Obnoxious but Weren’t, which was refreshing, too. Finally, she was able to avoid a bunch of clichés, which was…

Anyway. There was a twist ending, but I felt it got foreshadowed a bit too soon for it to feel impactful at the moment when the author clearly wanted it to be impactful. The rest of the ending was also kind of confusing, because characters did things and we didn’t understand why (or at least I didn’t).

So overall, this was a very refreshing book. Tokarczuk also went on to win the Nobel Prize, which is something I didn’t know from reading this book because it was published before she won it and the book-jacket only said that she won the Man Booker International Prize for another one of her books.

Moral of the story: Read the book, and never trust a book-jacket.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Osipovich, Bruder, and Berry

Hello! I’ve reviewed three books this week. I would definitely recommend the first one, and I would definitely not recommend the third one.

Stanislavski in Rehearsal: The Final Years, by Vasily Osipovich

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[Stanislavski was talking about an experience he had:] Smoke from the bonfires arose, the crowd murmured in a thousand voices. What was this? ‘These people are waiting for tickets for your production,’ I thought. ‘My God, what a responsibility we have to satisfy the spiritual needs of these people who have been standing here freezing all night; what great ideas and thoughts we must bring to them!’ So consider well, whether we have the right to settle accounts with them by merely telling them a funny anecdote. I could not fall asleep that night for a long time because of my feeling of responsibility [….] that night I felt that the people whom I had seen in the square deserved much more than we had prepared for them.”

This book was mind-blowing. The Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski is inherently mind-blowing, but he’s even more mind-blowing when he is in the final years of his life and striving to teach others his approach to acting so that they can develop it beyond what he had done so far.

Meanwhile our narrator and memoirist, Vasily Osipovich, has mastered the “old” way of acting which relied on playing clichés (an actor playing an evil character would twirl his moustache, for instance). Now, Osipovich wants to join Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theater to learn from him. The result: Osipovich gets his mind blown by Stanislavski and has to relearn everything he thought he knew about acting. So we see two journeys: Osipovich’s journey to improve as an actor, and Stanislavski’s to pass on his wisdom before he dies.

Stanislavski’s way of rehearsal seemed tyrannical—he’d stop the actors every few seconds and insist that they redo an entrance or a line. He’d keep having them redo it until they got it right, even if it took up all the hours in that day’s rehearsal.

On the other hand, it seemed like Stanislavski was committed to hard work for the sake of getting great results. Once, when Osipovich and the company got frustrated by Stanislavski’s insistence that they adopt a kind of “rhythm,” they asked him to do it himself, and he did so. When they asked him how he could do it so convincingly, he said he drilled himself extensively every day. After reading about how he drilled his own actors, I don’t doubt that he did the same to himself.

Stanislavski also said things that showed the power of this type of work. He started off with this: “Every exacting actor, however great, at certain intervals, say every four or five years, must go back and study anew.” Actors had to constantly examine themselves to get rid of clichés they were playing and other bad habits they’d fallen into. Apparently, each time Stanislavski himself started playing a new role, he relied on clichés. For every role he ever played, he then had to work hard to get rid of the clichés and replace them with truth.

Given all of this, Osipovich’s book about Stanislavski made me realize that talk of the “hard work” an artist has to do to learn his or her craft is a euphemism for insanely hard-core work.

I would definitely recommend reading this book.

A Practical Handbook for the Actor, by Melissa Bruder

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“Many actors have spent their careers trading on, and thus were limited by, their natural talents. Many of these actors had successful careers, it’s true, but few grew as artists, because they never took the time to develop a set of skills they could call their own, skills that could never be taken from them [….] How much greater is the self-respect of the man or woman who can call upon the technique he or she has developed over his or her years in the theatre to see him or her through even the most seemingly insurmountable acting problem.”

I can’t say much about this book because it basically just echoes some of the things Stanislavski said better ~200 years earlier. Because of that, I’d say that if you ever have to choose between a book by Stanislavski and a book by Bruder, I would choose Stanislavski.

My Experiences as an Executioner, by James Berry

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“Fortunately none of the people knew me, so that when the old gentleman asked them what was the matter, they could only tell them that Berry was traveling by that train, and that they wanted to have a look at him. The old gentleman seemed anxious to see such an awful man as the executioner, and asked me if I should know him if I saw him. I pointed out a low-looking character as being possibly the man, and my fellow traveler said, ‘Yes, very much like him’ [….] We got quite friendly, and when we reached Durham where I was getting out, he asked for my card. The reader can imagine his surprise when I handed it to him.”

James Berry was an English executioner in the 1800s, and he wrote this memoir about his experiences. It was one of the grimmest books I’ve read. To give you some perspective, it was much grimmer than Dostoyevsky’s books, and only slightly less grim than Enemy at the Gates.

Somehow, it managed to be this grim without any graphic descriptions. I think this was because of the book’s specificity. You don’t need to describe anything else if you give enough details about the exact number of inches an executioner wants to make the rope fall in a given execution and how he came to that calculation.

On the other hand, the book did give some valuable insights into humanity. Some of these included how awful an executioner feels about his job, how people react differently before they get executed, why people commit crimes, and the stigma that an executioner faces for having to execute people.

I don’t think any of that makes the book more readable, though.

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: Obama and the Promised Land

Hello! I hope you’re all staying warm. This is my last post before resuming school so I thought I would review something special.

A Promised Land, by Barack Obama

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“Except now I found myself asking whether those impulses—of violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others—were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain. For they seemed to lie in wait everywhere, ready to resurface whenever growth rates stalled or demographics changed or a charismatic leader chose to ride the wave of people’s fears and resentments. And as much as I might have wished otherwise, there was no Mahatma Gandhi around to tell me what I might do to hold such impulses back.”

A Promised Land is about Obama’s youth, his journey to the presidency, and his first few years in office (up to Bin Laden’s death in 2011).

The book itself is 700 pages long with 7 parts, which means you could finish the book in a week if you read one part a day (which was what I did). In terms of his presidency, Obama talks about how he handled the financial crisis of 2008, global politics, healthcare, climate, and terrorism.

A Promised Land felt like a cross between a history textbook, a human-interest story, and a memoir. Obama made it very clear up front that he wanted to give a lot of context for his decisions, which meant almost burying the reader in piles of details. This was probably what caused the book to feel somewhat like a textbook.

The good news was that Obama also wove in personal anecdotes from people he worked with and helped out. This made the book more accessible and interesting. Instead of just talking about how he got laws X Y and Z passed with the help of Mr. Such-and-Such, Obama made a point of first describing how a person he knew about had been suffering because such a law hadn’t been passed yet. This helped humanize the book a lot, especially when it came to intricate financial policies.

A Promised Land also gave some insight into what Obama was feeling and thinking during his presidency. This was probably the most interesting part of the book since it helped to demystify the presidency. Yes, it had its benefits, but it also had unexpected drawbacks. For instance, Obama talked about how he couldn’t go on spontaneous road-trips with his daughters without getting the Secret Service involved, which meant that they missed out on some aspects of normal life that could otherwise have been taken for granted.

After reading the book, I came away with two main insights. First, I realized how hard it was to be president. You have to manage a large group of people to deal with massive problems and unexpected developments while also trying to ensure cooperation across the aisle and among countries. That summary may not sound so difficult but reading about it in-depth made me realize that yes, it was very difficult.

The second insight I had was this: Obama wrote that he went into national politics because he thought he could make a bigger difference in peoples’ lives than he could have made at a more local level. However, he came to realize that even though he was president, he couldn’t solve as many problems as he would have liked. One reason was that in certain cases, local-level politicians were in a position that made them better able to solve the problem than Obama. The fact that a local-level politician could sometimes have more power than a national-level politician in a certain area was very interesting. It also made me wonder. If Obama had known this beforehand, would it have changed anything he did as president?

In the end, I would definitely recommend A Promised Land. It’s long and sometimes very textbook-y, but its insights also make it a very rewarding read.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Afremow, Chekhov, Stanislavski

Hello! Happy New Year! I hope you all had a happy and safe New Year. I’ll be reviewing 3 books today– the last one I read in 2020, and the first two I read in 2021.

The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive, by Jim Afremow, PhD

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“Our desire to better ourselves and develop our natural gifts is what makes us all distinctly human.”

This was a very interesting and inspiring book. It’s written by a sports psychologist who trains professional athletes, so the book had a lot about developing the “champion’s” mindset, which is apparently essential for succeeding in elite athletics.

The book had tips from Afremow’s own experience, reflections written by Olympic athletes, Zen stories (my favorite part), and funny yet inspirational sayings– “cope, don’t mope,” and “when you’re anxious, make the butterflies in your stomach fly in formation.”

Needless to say, this book gave me a lot of insight into an athlete’s mindset. That sounds obvious, but let me explain. I like to play tennis for fun, but I always thought of tennis as hitting a ball around in a court, and I thought of professional tennis-players as people who were just really good at hitting a ball around in a court. It turns out that becoming a professional involves a whole way of life that requires commitment, character, resilience, and wisdom. And here I was thinking it was all about hitting a ball around in a court! Reading this book was fascinating just for that new perspective alone.

In the end, the book gave me much to think about, and has made me appreciate sports more than I used to. If you’re someone who’s looking to become athletic this New Year’s, this would be a good book to look at. If you’re someone who’s looking to self-actualize in any way, this would also be a good book to look at.

Forty Stories, by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Robert Payne

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“He went up to her and put his hands on her shoulders, intending to console her with some meaningless words and to fondle her; and then he saw himself in the mirror. His hair was turning gray. It struck him as strange that he should have aged so much in these last years, and lost his good looks. Her shoulders were warm and trembling at his touch. He felt pity for her, who was so warm and beautiful, though probably it would not be long before she would begin to fade and wither, as he had done.”

This book contains Chekhov’s first story, his last story, and thirty-eight stories in between. Reading them in chronological order like this gave me an appreciation of how Chekhov developed over time. In the beginning, he wrote somewhat melodramatic sketches, but as time went on he started writing more detailed and thought-out pieces.

Something cool about this book is that at the end of every story there’s the month and year in which the story was published. This sounds like a trivial detail but it made for some fascinating autobiographical insights. In the 1890s, Chekhov wrote a bunch of stories where the protagonist had an affair, which was possibly inspired by an affair he was having. Also in the late 1890s to early 1900s, he wrote a lot about people aging or dying. He was aging and dying during that time, too.

What makes this interesting isn’t just that we can match up Chekhov’s life with his fiction. We can also see how life inspired his fiction and how his fiction became a constant reworking of the thoughts he probably had in life. For instance, he wrote all those affair stories in the 1890s, culminating with his famous “Lady With the Little Dog.” Just reading “Lady With the Little Dog” makes it seem like he just came up with all these great ideas while writing this one story, but reading this collection made me realize that Chekhov wouldn’t have been able to write such a great story had he not been spending the past few years working out all these ideas in his previous affair stories. It felt like watching a bunch of rehearsals for a play.

Now that’s interesting.

My Life in Art, by Konstantin Stanislavski,
Translated by Jean Benedetti

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“[The actor Rossi] reflected a while. ‘God has given everything you need for the stage, for Othello, for the whole of Shakespeare.’ (My heart leapt at his words.) ‘Now the matter is in your hands. You must have artistry. It will come, of course…’ Having spoken the truth, he began to dress it up with compliments. ‘But where and how am I to learn it, and from whom?’ I enquired. ‘Mmmm… If you don’t have a great master to hand, who can guide you? I can only suggest one teacher to you,’ the great actor replied. ‘Who? But who?’ I asked. ‘You,’ he concluded, with his famous gesture from Kean.”

The Russian actor and producer Konstantin Stanislavski is a genius. He wrote many amazing books about acting that went on to inspire “Method” acting. My Life in Art is Stanislavski’s autobiography.

In this book, Stanislavski tells how he got his start in acting, how he tried to figure out his own approach to acting (which he eventually did), and how he met and befriended people like Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorky. Apparently, Stanislavski got Chekhov and Gorky to write a few masterpieces for his Moscow Art Theater. Without Stanislavski, we might not have had plays like The Cherry Orchard or The Lower Depths. Also, Chekhov apparently met his second wife while working with Stanislavski in the 1890s, so without Stanislavski we might not have had masterpieces like “Lady With the Little Dog.” This basically makes Stanislavski a triple genius.

In any case, his book is brimming with wisdom and humor, and since it’s only about Stanislavski’s art-life, it felt very focused and rich. Yes, the ending of the book seemed a little unpolished, but if you were to read the book’s intro you’d understand why–Stanislavski was rushed into finishing his book before he was ready.

Even with the rushed ending, the autobiography was still a terrific last read for 2020. It showed that genius doesn’t come from innate talent but from trying so much and messing up so many times that you somehow mess up less and less and eventually start succeeding a bit.

Basically, I’d recommend it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reginald in Russia, and Other Sketches, by Saki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Death in the Family, by James Agee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Welty, O’Neill, and O’Neill Possessed by Wagner’s Ghost

Hello everyone! I hope you’re surviving quarantine okay. Since reading is amazing for passing the time, here are three books/plays that I have reviewed.

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One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty

Welty

“My mother always sang to her children. Her voice came out just a little bit in the minor key. ‘Wee Willie Winkie’s’ song was wonderfully sad when she sang the lullabies. ‘Oh, but now there’s a record. She could have her own record to listen to,’ my father would have said. For there came a Victrola record of ‘Bobby Shafftoe’ and ‘Rock-a-Bye Baby’, all of Mother’s lullabies, which could be played to take her place. Soon I was able to play her my own lullabies all day long.”

This is a thin memoir about Welty’s writing life. It’s not that interesting. The best part of this book is the insight it gives into the inspiration behind some of her stories, and the glimpse it gives into old rural Mississippi. The rest of the time, she tells about various events that happened to her without really reflecting much on her thoughts and feelings. This creates a sense of distance between her and the reader. For me, this meant that I couldn’t relate to her experiences.

If you’re looking for a good memoir written by a writer, don’t look to Welty. Look to Saint-Exupéry or Gorky. For memoirs on non-writers, Douglass and Shayakhmetov are good. Only read Welty if, near the end of the quarantine, you find that no other books remain but hers.

Even in that case, there are plenty of e-books that you could read first.

 

“A Touch of the Poet,” Eugene O’Neill

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“DEBORAH: Why, that the Hartfords never part with their dreams even when they deny them. They cannot. That is the family curse. For example, this book Simon plans to write to denounce the evil of greed and possessive ambition, and uphold the virtue of freeing oneself from the lust for power and saving our souls by being content with little. I cannot imagine you taking that seriously.”

Eugene O’Neill intended to write an 11-play cycle about the experiences of two families over the course of American history. These plays were supposed to examine materialism and dreams and greed. They were supposed to be his greatest accomplishment. However, for all of the tragedies he created, this turned out to be the worst of them all—he left us with an eternal cliff-hanger, because he only managed to draft two of the plays before he died.

“A Touch of the Poet” is the first play. It takes place in the late 1820s, and is about the two families—the Melody family and the Hartford family. The plot itself seems very simple on the surface. Sara Melody is in love with Simon Hartford, a boy who is recovering from sickness in the upstairs room of her father’s tavern. However, while Sara’s parents are okay with nursing Simon back to health, they’re not okay with her marrying him. The two families are apparently rivals.

Sara also has a father named Cornelius. Cornelius is in love with the past—he dresses in his old regiment uniform and reminisces about when he fought in the British army against the French in the Battle of Talavera and was commended by the Duke of Wellington. Cornelius also mistreats his wife. Sara despises him for that. She despises him even more because he doesn’t want her to marry Simon. The majority of the play is Sara fighting him for the right to marry Simon, and Sara fighting Simon’s mom, Deborah, for the same reason.

Somehow, even in draft-form, O’Neill manages to make this play more than a cheesy “star-crossed lovers” story. The interest comes from the ideas that O’Neill examines throughout the play—dreams vs. reality, past vs. present. Cornelius represents dreams and the past, and Sara represents reality and the present. These ideas mean that the conflict between them takes on greater importance than one in a typical “star-crossed lovers” story. In a way, this play reminded me a lot of Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung” cycle, because similar themes are explored (greed, family, etc.).

NOTE: “A Touch of the Poet” sets up events that happen in the next play, so scrolling down and reading that will expose you to minor spoilers.

 

“More Stately Mansions,” Eugene O’Neill (collaborating with Wagner’s Ghost)

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“SIMON […] It is a long time since I have thought of the soul. Out there in the gutters called streets beyond the wall it appears to be a weak sentimental supposition, a superstitious superfluity—but here in this garden—He checks himself as he meets [Deborah’s] eyes staring at him with a tender gloating fixity. He reads again. ‘And, but once kindled, quenchless evermore.’ He pauses, giving the pause a tense significance—thoughtfully. ‘Evermore.’ Yes, it is, I think, the most cowardly and convenient of all man’s evasions, that he forgets the present is merely the last moment of the past, and the delusion of his hope he calls the future is but the past returning to demand payment of its debt.”

This play is even more like Wagner’s Ring cycle. In addition to its high-falutin monologuery, “More Stately Mansions” takes place over 10 years, a time scale of Wagnerian proportions. Fortunately for us, while the performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle is 17 hours long, O’Neill’s play only lasts for 400 pages. Even so, it made me wonder if Wagner’s ghost perhaps possessed O’Neill while he was writing this play…

Simon and Sara have started a family. In the past, Simon used to want to write poetry, but with Sara’s urging, he took charge of a textile mill, then bought out his partner. In this play, he ditches his dreams, succumbs to greed, and goes on to buy out even more companies. Meanwhile, Sara puts aside her differences with Simon’s mother, Deborah. The two women become best friends for all of two acts, then spend the remaining 255 pages battling for dominance over Simon’s attention.

As in the previous play, O’Neill is able to make this play much more than a mere “rivalry” story. He does this by further developing the conflict between dreams and reality—Sara represents reality, and Deborah represents dreams. Both of them give long, clumsily-worded asides about these ideas. Simon also gives long, clumsily-worded asides, where he laments about how he’s caught between these two forces. In the end, the main conflict is resolved, but the ideological one is not. This makes for a massive cliff-hanger.

Unfortunately, O’Neill’s death means that this cliffhanger will be eternal. However, there’s an interesting book that some scholar wrote about the play cycle as a whole. I haven’t yet read it, but it’s supposed to give an overview of the cycle’s entire plot and thematic development. It’s scant consolation, but at least it’s not a cliff-hanger, and at least it’s not Eudora Welty’s memoir.

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I would love to hear your thoughts about these books, or about any other books you’ve been reading so far. In the meantime, I wish you the best.