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: Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky

In which I review books by Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky.

Hello! I hope you are well. Today at Princeton is officially Dean’s Date—when all essays are due. As a result, I’ll keep my reviews shorter than usual. Also, there’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need.

Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir, by Shahrnush Parsipur, Translated by Sara Khalili

“Although this madness [PTSD from prison] was my own, I wonder if society can be struck by a similar sort of collective insanity when pressure mounts beyond the peoples’ tolerance. Do they abandon all beliefs and begin to exist in an illusory world of their own creation? In that state, will they believe everything they are told?”

This book is about an Iranian writer who gets imprisoned. She experiences traumatic events in Evin Prison along with in other prisons. She gets released, then re-arrested, then released, then re-arrested again. Through it all, we see her remarkable character (she is very resilient and spirited), and learn about the horrors of incarceration.

I would recommend.

The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin,
Read by Eugene Yelchin

“‘‘Turn that thing [the radio] off, Yevgeny.’ ‘I can’t, Grandma,’ I said. ‘I’m in attitude.’ I was trying to balance on one leg in attitude, which Vaganova described as a pose on one leg with the other lifted at an angle of ninety degrees and carried back, bent at the knee. ‘You hurt your leg, Yevgeny?’ ‘No, Grandma. It’s…nothing.’ ‘He stands on one leg for nothing. You a stork?’ ‘I’m practicing ballet.’ ‘With a bad leg?’”

This book is a memoir about Yelchin’s experiences growing up during the Cold War. His mom’s obsessed with the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, his dad’s obsessed with poetry, and his brother’s obsessed with his newfound talent for ice-skating. Yelchin’s parents say he needs a talent, too—talent gets you a luxurious apartment and other such privileges. Yelchin’s brother is all set, but no matter what he does, Yelchin turns out to have no talent at anything. The only enjoyment he gets is from the drawings he makes at night under the table.

This book is funny, heartwarming, and extremely well-crafted. I would recommend.

Selected Poems, by Joseph Brodsky,
Translated by George L. Kline

“People and things crowd in.
Eyes can be bruised and hurt
by people as well as things.
Better to live in the dark.”

This is a book of poems by Brodsky translated into English and with a foreword by W.H. Auden, who says that Brodsky is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. This is also back when Brodsky was an unknown (1973, before his 1987 Nobel Prize).

In any case, I found the poems to be good but not as good as I’d hoped (I’d read some poems by Brodsky here and they were terrific).

Even so, there were some very good poems in this collection, and I’d recommend it. Also, while I never mention footnotes, I do have to say that Brodsky’s book has great footnotes about untranslatable nuances of the Russian original which were very helpful and insightful. I’d recommend.

As promised, a list of places to donate and help Ukrainians in need:

Direct Relief: Provides trauma kits, insulin, and other important medical supplies to Ukrainians. Donate here: https://www.directrelief.org/emergency/ukraine-crisis/

Nova Ukraine: Supports Ukrainians by evacuating refugees, serving meals, and providing aid packages. Also the first volunteer group to enter Bucha and provide food and reconstruction assistance there. Donate here: https://novaukraine.org/

WithUkraine: The official fundraising effort by the Embassy of Ukraine to the UK. Provides food and medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://www.withukraine.org/

Plan USA: Gives aid focusing on refugee children in Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/humanitarian-response-ukraine-plan-usa/

Lit in the Time of a War That Should End Right Now

Stop The War and Read Vasily Grossman and Michaela DePrince

Hello. As we enter the third week of the Ukrainian war (and the third week of Women’s History Month), I’ll be reviewing two books, both having to do with war. Also at the bottom of this post, you’ll find more organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukraine.

A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army,
1941-1945,
by Vasily Grossman, Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova

“It is infinitely hard even to read this. The reader must believe me, it is as hard to write it. Someone might ask, ‘Why write about this, why remember all that?’ It is the writer’s duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it. Everyone who would turn away, who would shut his eyes and walk past would insult the memory of the dead. Everyone who does not know the truth about this would never be able to understand with what sort of enemy, with what sort of monster, our Red Army started on its own mortal combat.”

Vasily Grossman was a Jewish-Ukrainian writer who witnessed World War II as fought in the Soviet Union. A Writer at War consists of entries from his journal, along with excerpts from articles he wrote, and excerpts from other peoples’ observations of him. It describes battles and events such as the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, and the discovery of the Nazi death-camp at Treblinka.

The book was interesting for its depiction of humans during wartime (they rise to great heights of magnanimity but they also sink to petty depths of selfishness).

The best part of the book was the part on Treblinka–you have to read it. The book’s considered one of the best volumes of war-reporting, and the part on Treblinka basically shows why that’s the case.

Grossman also used a lot of notes from this book in his epic novel, Life and Fate. I’m reading it now and some passages of it come directly from his journals.

Other striking parts of A Writer at War were about the immediate aftermath of the war, where people somehow went on with their lives (“A huge foyer, in which a young Kazakh […] is learning to ride a bicycle, falling off it now and then”/“On the bench, a wounded German soldier is hugging girl, a nurse. They see no one. When I pass them again an hour later, they’re still sitting in the same position. The world does not exist for them. They are happy”).

Overall, I recommend this book for its revealing depiction of war. It really gets across how awful war is and how much it should just end.

Taking Flight: From War-Orphan to Star Ballerina,
by Michaela and Elaine DePrince

I peered through the wrought-iron [orphanage] gate, hoping that someone would come to take me away. Just then, I was slapped in the face. ‘Trash!’ I exclaimed. But it wasn’t trash at all. I had been attacked by the pages of a magazine. The magazine was stuck in the gate, exactly where my face had been. I reached my hand through and grabbed it [….] I looked at the cover. A white lady was wearing a very short, glittering pink skirt that stuck out all around her. She also wore pink shoes that looked like the silk fabric I had once seen in the marketplace, and she was standing on the very tips of her toes. ‘Isn’t that a funny way to walk?’ Mabinty Suma asked. ‘I think that she might be…dancing.’”

This book is about Mabinty Bangura, a girl who was born in Sierra Leone during the civil war. She loses her parents and lives in an orphanage, where she finds a magazine with a picture of a ballerina on it. This inspires her to want to become a ballerina. However, the orphanage is then attacked by RUF members. Bangura lives in a refugee camp, and then gets adopted by an American family. From there, Bangura, now Michaela DePrince, becomes a professional ballerina.

DePrince is a remarkable person, showing a lot of resilience, compassion, and hope. That alone makes this book worth reading.

Her description of life in America was also interesting. DePrince encountered a lot of racism (classical ballet is a white-dominated field), but was determined to show that “Black girls can dance ballet too,” which she definitely did.

I also didn’t know a lot about the world of ballet (there’s apparently a super-fancy contest that takes place called the YAGP, for instance, and entire schools dedicated to teaching ballet). DePrince also was featured in a documentary called First Position, and this book provided some interesting insights into her experience during its filming.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book.

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

Ukrainian National Women’s League of America—Provides humanitarian support to civilians and military hospitals. Donate here: https://unwla.org/top-news/call-for-humanitarian-aid/

International Medical Corps—Increases access to medical, mental health, and protection services to civilians in Ukraine and works with refugees in surrounding areas. Donate here: https://internationalmedicalcorps.org/

International Rescue Committee—Provides food, medical care, and emergency support services to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://www.rescue.org/

World Central Kitchen—Feeds Ukrainian refugees as they cross into Poland. Donate here: https://wck.org/

Hillel International Emergency Relief Fund—Provides humanitarian support to Ukraine’s Jewish communities. Donate here: https://donate.hillel.org/EmergencyRelief

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Ende, King, and LeGuin

Hello! I hope you are healthy and safe. I’m back at school after a terrific break. This week, I’ve read three books about wishes, reality, fiction, and dreams.

The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende,
Read by Gerard Doyle, Translated by Ralph Manheim

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“‘When it comes to controlling human beings, there is no better instrument than lies, because you see, humans live by beliefs, and beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts.’”

This is a book about a kid named Bastian who reads a book called The Neverending Story. In the book, the queen of the realm is sick, and if she dies the realm will die too. A hero is needed to find a cure, and that hero is another kid named Atreyu. As Bastian reads about Atreyu’s quest, he realizes that he may have a part to play in saving the realm, too.

This was a very good book. I enjoyed the self-referential nature of the plot, and how Bastian became a character in the book. I also liked how he was given the power to grant wishes, but whenever he granted a wish, he lost some of his memories of his life in the real world.

Interestingly, the author experienced World War II in Germany, which also seemed to inform some of the things he wrote about in this book (like his thoughts about memory and self-knowledge).

You could be very literary in analyzing this book, but you could also just read it and have fun. It’s good for kids, and it’s even better for adults. I would recommend.

On Writing, by Stephen King

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“At times like that I’m sure all writers feel pretty much the same no matter what their skill and success level. ‘God, if only I were in the right writing environment with the right understanding people, I just know I could be penning my masterpiece!’ In truth, I found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress, and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.”

I read this book in high school and it was fun to reread it now (especially since I was listening to Stephen King himself read it on audio).

Its writerly advice still holds true, but I found I was able to appreciate some of his insights that I had glossed over before, and understand some of what he said better than I had in the past. For instance, his advice about reading and writing a lot, or his discussions about needing to understand his characters well in order to write about them truthfully, or putting his characters in situations and then seeing how they would react to them rather than relying on plot formulas.

One note: when reading the print version, I seem to remember a section where he wrote a passage about some guy called Mr. Ostermeyer, and then demonstrated how he would revise that. This version didn’t include that section.

Instead, it included a conversation between King and his son. In it, they read a scene from The Institute in which the main character tears off his own ear to remove a tracking device. This was interesting because Stephen King himself had experienced a lot of ear-pain in his life (as previously described in On Writing), so it demonstrated how drawing from life could sometimes be the best source for horror.

Anyway, I would recommend reading this book. I’d even recommend re-reading it later on, because your new writerly experiences will make it more insightful and enriching.

The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin

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“‘You can’t go on changing things, trying to run things.’ ‘You speak as if there were some kind of general moral imperative.’ He looked at [George] Orr with his genial reflective smile, stroking his beard. ‘But in fact, isn’t that man’s very purpose on earth? To do things, change things, run things, make a better world?’ ‘No.’ ‘What is his purpose then?’ ‘I don’t know. Things don’t have purposes as if the universe were a machine where every part has a useful function.’”

This book is about a guy named George Orr who does drugs. He does them to suppress his dreams, because his dreams sometimes change reality. For instance, if he dreams he has green eyes instead of blue eyes, he might wake up and have green eyes.

Anyway, he gets caught doing drugs and is sent to a psychiatrist named William Haber, who learns about Orr’s powers and tries to use them to build a better world.

In sum, this book could have been called “Be Careful What You Wish Someone Else to Dream,” or “Enough is Enough,” or “Let It Be.”

It was very thought-provoking from a philosophical point of view. Is it even possible to build a utopia? Obviously not, because you wish for world peace and you get galactic war.

Even so, the terms of your wish are somehow conveniently unspecific, even though you were previously characterized as a very smart and astute character who would likely have foreseen these loopholes. This made the situation feel a bit too easy, because it took the blame off people and put it on their unspecific language. If Character A had wished for peace in all the universe, then these complications wouldn’t have arisen (if we extend LeGuin’s interpretation).

Meanwhile in reality, we have very specifically-worded laws that are still circumvented/interpreted in a way that enables loopholes, and it has nothing to do with their language and everything to do with the people interpreting them.

In any case, this book makes you think, and it’s definitely worth reading for that.

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Grossman, Burger, and Gorchakov

Hello! Happy Tuesday, and I hope you had a good MLK day.

Here are three books I’ve read. All of them (for some reason) let you live vicariously…

An Armenian Sketchbook, by Vasily Grossman,
Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler

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“Here we have Hemingway’s world. And here—Gleb Uspenksy’s. It goes without saying that these worlds are different. Hemingway describes people who adore bullfights and hunting for big game; he writes Spanish dynamiters in the Civil War and fishermen off the coast of Cuba. Uspensky, on the other hand, describes drunken craftsmen in Tula, junior policemen, provincial bourgeoisie, and peasant women. But these two very different worlds are not created in the image of a Russian peasant woman or a handsome and dangerous toreador. These worlds are created in the image and likeness of Uspensky and Hemingway. And even if Hemingway were to populate his world with Russian policemen and drunken Tula locksmiths, it would still be the same world, Hemingway’s.”

This book was very interesting. It was written after Grossman’s masterpiece Life and Fate was “arrested” by the Soviet authorities. Now he’s traveling through Armenia so he can translate someone else’s book.

Funnily enough, my favorite part was when he described how badly he had to relieve himself without embarrassing himself. I hope that gives you the sense that this book isn’t all about the meaning of life (because it isn’t).

On a more serious note, the book was good and very thoughtful. It just felt as if Grossman was trying too hard to contrive everybody into fitting his super idealistic idea of humanity’s wonderfulness. It felt like he was shouting, “LIFE LIFE LIFE! LOOK AT HOW WONDERFUL IT IS!” and then shoving life into my face and insisting, “Look at how WONDERFUL it is! It absolutely is wonderful can’t you see that?” And because of how fervently he insisted on his wonderfulness, I found myself doubting it. if it really was that wonderful, why did he have to be so zealous about it?

Yes, there were parts that were wonderful, especially near the end, but not everything in the book was that wonderful. I guess it’s not enough to be able to look at the world through a hopeful lens—you also have to observe enough wonderfulness for it to really be convincing.

In any case, this was a good book. If you want to read about cool ideas, read this book. If you want to read about the literary giant Vasily Grossman needing to relieve himself, definitely read this book (it happens twice, very dramatically). But if you want to read about the wonderfulness of life, maybe don’t read this book, because he tried too hard to make it seem wonderful.

Witness: Lessons From Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, by Ariel Burger, Read by Jason Culp

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“As I sit in the sun by [Wiesel’s] grave, a sense of peace comes over me. I decide that it’s time to renounce heroics. I want to be a human being, tasked with the slow work of becoming a little bit better, a little more sensitive, a little more open each day.”

This wise book is by Ariel Burger, who became Elie Wiesel’s teaching assistant at Boston. It consists of a mix of memoir-sections and lecture-sections. You learn about Burger’s story of how he tries to bridge the different beliefs he got from his more secular father and his more religious mother. You also learn about Elie Wiesel’s classes and how Wiesel impacts his students. Finally, you see how Wiesel impacts Burger.

The memoir sections were interesting, even though they weren’t about Wiesel. Burger was very thoughtful, and his sections of the book kind of reminded me of Tolstoy’s Confessions, in how he was seeking for spiritual enlightenment and burnt himself out in the process.

These sections were also very well-written. In some nonfiction books I’ve read about an author reminiscing about another person’s life, the author only wants to use the other person’s story as an excuse to talk about the author. The other person never really gets his or her dues, and the book suffers from the author’s narcissism.

In Burger’s case, this story was clearly a Wiesel-centered story, and any parts of it that were about Burger were clearly there to emphasize the huge impact Wiesel made on his life. So in the end, even these parts were really about Wiesel.

In the Wiesel-focused lecture sections, I felt like I was taking a Zoom class with Wiesel and listening to him talk from my phone (I listened to it on audiobook). He was very wise and inspiring, and if this review doesn’t talk as much about Wiesel as it does about Burger, it’s only because you can’t really understand how impactful Wiesel is unless you read the book itself.

I’d highly recommend.

Stanislavsky Directs, by Nikolai Gorchakov,
Translated by Miriam Goldina

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“Never betray the theater as the most sacred conception in your life. Then you will not have the desire to dress it up in velvet and brocade.”

This book also felt like another class I was taking, only this time I was living vicariously in Stanislavsky’s acting studio. Later in his life, the Russian director wanted to assemble a group of younger actors and pass on his method to them so that they could go on and further the craft.

In any case, this book was very good. In particular, the ending was interesting. Stanislavski was producing one of Mikhail Bulgakov’s plays, but he wanted Bulgakov to change some things in it, and Bulgakov didn’t want to (even though he seemed to agree that the changes would make it a better play).

It’s up to Gorchakov, the writer of this book, to convince Bulgakov to make the changes. Did he do it? Did he not do it? Read the book and find out!

But seriously, read this book for its acting insights, and insights into life in general.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Shanbhag, Kadohata, and Kertész

Hello! Happy Tuesday. It’s the end of the semester here, so I have several papers I’m writing. Somehow, I’ve also read several books. Here they are:

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag,
Translated by Srinath Perur

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“In the middle room of the old house […] [the protagonist’s sister Malati] told me about her college, her classmate Vandana, whose step-mother served her leftovers, and who was in love with a boy they called Koli Ramesh. It was Malati who carried letters between them. In the new house, we were locked in the cells of individual rooms, and there was no opportunity to exchange casual confidences. Lying alone in my room, I sometimes wondered if Malati’s happiness would have been better served had Sona Masala not existed at all.”

This book is about a family in Bangalore who runs a mysterious business called Sona Masala. Before they started the business they were happy but poor. After they start the business they become miserable and greedy.

This book has been compared with Chekhov. I do not see it. Yes, it has good brevity, but Chekhov still gives a lot more meaning in one short story than this author does in his entire book.

There’s also another difference– Chekov actually has warmth, even when he’s describing unsympathetic characters and cynical situations. This book doesn’t, or if there is warmth, it’s not really that warm. For instance, the protagonist’s father is supposed to be the moral compass of the book. However he never really gets a chance to say anything other than paltry things along the lines of, “Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this,” or, “In the old days, people actually respected each other,” which rob him and his role of their weight. He’s never really given a chance to speak and be taken seriously, so he doesn’t really provide as convincing of a counterweight as he seems like he’s there to do.

Any moments of happiness are fleeting and not taken seriously, either. They’re treated like, “Oh, we were only happy then because that was before we moved into the new house, don’t mind that nonsense.” A book absolutely doesn’t have to be unicorns and butterflies, but the lack of real happiness in this book means that any contrasts made between the family’s old life and their new life don’t really work as well as they could have.

Going back to a point I made at the beginning, the book doesn’t really say as much as it could have. The protagonist is complicit in the family’s dysfunction, sure, but I found myself really wondering why he acted that way, and not receiving an answer. For me, it’s not enough just to say and show that characters act differently because they’re in a new house and have new wealth. There needs to be more of a sense of why (even if it’s a very subtle implication). There’s definitely room for this kind of implication, but it’s never really made. Instead, this book seems to treat the characters as if greed just sprang upon them and took them unawares, and as a result, it doesn’t really say as much as it could have.

Contrast this with Chekhov, where even in his less-hopeful stories, he includes a measure of warmth as an effective contrast (which actually winds up heightening the level of cynicism), he says all that he could say within the space (making the most of his characters and their conflicts), and really gets at why the characters are acting the way they do.

I may sound harsh, and I don’t mean to. This book was still good, and I would still recommend it to read. But I would definitely not say that it was Chekhov-level good.

Half a World Away, by Cynthia Kadohata

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“No, the future was not bright for Dimash if he didn’t learn to walk differently. Walking was important. Jaden knelt down in front of him […] Dimash gazed at him intently, his shoulder scrunched, his stance geeky. Jaden pulled the boy’s shoulder up until both sides were even. ‘Here, stand like this. Good! Now watch.’ Jaden walked evenly, with a little bit of swagger. ‘That’s how you walk. Come on, walk to me.’ Dimash pushed his shoulder down and walked to Jaden even geekier than usual. ‘No,’ Jaden said, patiently but firmly. ‘When you walk, you must be cool. Then maybe nobody will bother you.'”

This book is about a boy named Jaden who was adopted from Romania at the age of eight. Angry at having been given up by his birth-mother and unable to form emotional attachments, Jaden grew up stealing, lying, and setting fire to the toys given to him by his adoptive parents. When he’s eleven, his parents take him with them as they adopt someone from Kazakhstan. Jaden thinks they’re adopting again because he’s a bad son. However, once they reach Kazakhstan, he forms connections with a toddler at the orphanage (Dimash) and the man who drives them around (Sam), and eventually realizes he loves his adoptive parents.

This book is interesting because it involves two adoptions (instead of just one), and describes the mindset of someone who was adopted as an older child. It’s also an enjoyable read.

While Jaden’s psychology is well-conveyed, he seems too emotionally-aware considering his circumstances. He grew up in an environment where he never knew love and had to suppress his emotions, so he likely wouldn’t be able to understand his feelings as well as he seems to in this book (“he felt sad” “he felt happy” “he felt angry” etc.).

This discrepancy makes this book read less like the character is actually experiencing life, and more like the author is writing down her guesses about what it would be like to experience life through the character’s perspective.

In any case, this is a good book, and even though it’s for middle-grade readers, it’s still a good read for adults, too.

Dossier K., by Imre Kertész, Translated by Tim Wilkinson

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“[Interviewer:] What would be of more interest to me right now is the difference between fiction and autobiography, as critics and readers alike commonly refer to Fatelessness as an autobiographical novel.

[IK:] Incorrectly, I have to say, because no such genre exists. A book is either autobiography or a novel. If it’s autobiography you evoke the past, you try as scrupulously as possible to stick to your recollections [….] A good autobiography is like a document: A mirror of the age on which people can ‘depend.’ In a novel, by contrast, it’s not the facts that matter, but precisely what you add to the facts.

This book is the autobiography/memoir of Imre Kertész, who won a Nobel Prize. It’s written in an interview format, and talks about his life in Nazi-era Hungary, his experiences in Birkenau as a teenager, his return to Hungary after the war, and the discovery that Hungary has become a dictatorship too.

I have never read any of his books. After having learned about his experiences and his thoughts on life, I want to.

This memoir was also somewhat entertaining because Kertész was pretending to be two people. The “interviewer” would ask some question, and the “interviewee” would answer something along the lines of, “no, you don’t understand, it wasn’t like that at all,” or, “that’s a very interesting observation. I never thought of that myself.” This interplay made the story feel less like a cut-and-dry interview and more like a conversation between two real people. In the end, this didn’t detract from the book’s subject matter but somehow made it more powerful.

In any case I would recommend this book. Now I need to read more by him.

Until next week!

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.