Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Figes

Hello. The usual introductions won’t do this book much service, so I’ll just get straight to my review.

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes

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“In 1958, after his release from the labour camps, Igor was visited by an old acquaintance of the family, a woman called Zina, who had seen his mother [Julia] in the Karaganda camp, where she, too, was a prisoner. Zina told Igor that Julia had died in the camp hospital and that she was buried in a mass grave. In 1986 Igor received another visit from Zina, by this time a woman of 80. She told him that on the previous occasion she had lied about his mother because Julia, before she died, had made her promise to spare Igor the awful details of her death [….] Julia had not died in hospital […] No one wanted to tell [Zina] where [Julia] was, but then one woman pointed to a sheep-pen on the steppe and said that she could be found there.”

This book is the greatest epic that was never written about Russia and communism. It covers everything from the start of communism to ~2006, and contains an incredible range of humanity (and inhumanity). I never expected such an experience from this book. The only thing comparable is William Craig’s Enemy at the Gates.

I mean this book has everything. It starts at the very beginning of Communism, and describes how children were so indoctrinated and distanced from their families (who prioritized working for the Soviet Union over bonding with their own kids) that the Soviet Union became their surrogate parents.

It goes on to describe collectivization, the Holodomor, and the great Terror. What struck me about this section was that, in some cases, even though people knew their relatives were being arrested, they would still rationalize that their relatives were arrested for a good reason. Some of them would even become informers and get other people arrested prove their loyalty to the Soviet Union. Later on after Stalin’s death, some of these informers would seek out the people they had betrayed and somehow try to make amends.

From there, the book goes on to describe World War II, the massive amount of people sent to prison camps, and then the war’s aftermath, when those people were released, and sometimes still held fond memories of their time in prison (as a coping mechanism).

Overall, this book was great. Most of all, it was great at showing peoples’ kindness and cruelty, and how humanity and inhumanity could sometimes even live within the same person.

In other words, read this book.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Bartlett

In Which I Review Rosamund Bartlett’s “Tolstoy: A Russian Life.”

Hello! Happy November. I’ve read a big book this week. It’s a biography. Of Tolstoy.

Tolstoy: A Russian Life, by Rosamund Bartlett

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“Tolstoy was born in 1828, on the twenty-eighth day of the eighth month in the year, and twenty-eight became his lucky number. He had become so superstitious by the time he reached adulthood, in fact, that in 1863 he ordered his wife to hold on until after midnight so that their first child Sergey could be born in the early hours of 28 June.”

This was a good book. I never knew Tolstoy kept bees, or that someone could be both serious and impulsive at the same time (as he was, apparently). However, Bartlett’s book wasn’t the remarkable biography I expected it to be. I’ve read better biographies of people that really got at their inner lives (see here).

By contrast, this one felt more like, “Tolstoy did X and then he did Y and then he did Z.” So I got a sense of his life, but I didn’t really get a sense of him as a person.

In any case, if you’re looking for a good biography about Tolstoy, I don’t know if this would be the best one to read. However, I haven’t read any of the other Tolstoy biographies, so I could be wrong.

Have you read any of his other biographies? What did you think of them? Let me know in the comments below!

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

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

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

Milkweed, by Jerry Spinelli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Capote, Murray, and Benedict

In Which I Review “In Cold Blood” and “The Personal Librarian.”

Hello! Happy Tuesday! I hope you are all healthy and safe. I’ve read two books this week (midterms meant I had no time to do anything else). They’re completely different books. One’s about a murder, and one’s about the J.P. Morgan Library. They made for an interesting combo…

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

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“‘I wonder why I [killed the Clutter family].’ He scowled, as though the problem were new to him, a newly unearthed stone of surprising, unclassified color. ‘I don’t know why,’ he said as if holding it to the light and angling it now here, now there. ‘I was sore at Dick. The tough brass boy. But it wasn’t Dick. Or the fear of being identified. I was willing to take that gamble. And it wasn’t because of anything the Clutters did. They never hurt me. Like other people. Like people have all my life. Maybe it’s just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it.'”

This book is about a real-life murder in Kansas.

It was very boring at the beginning, and I almost gave up on it. Except I didn’t, and I’m somewhat glad I didn’t, because the middle and ending were better. But still, why would Capote begin an interesting story with a boring description of the landscape?

Anyway what made the story become interesting was that Capote treated the murderers as humans. He did not justify their actions in any way (or sentimentalize their causes), but he made them understandable.

That level of empathy alone is commendable. Add to it the ability to string the events into an intriguing narrative and you have a book worth reading. Especially for Halloween.

The Personal Librarian, by Victoria Christopher Murray
and Marie Benedict

The Library | History of the Morgan | The Morgan Library & Museum

[Talking in front of a traitorous arts-dealer, Mr. Smythson] “I look at Mr. Morgan. ‘You needn’t worry that you will be faced with such deceit again.’ ‘No Miss Greene? Why is that?’ he asks, as if we’d rehearsed this exchange. […] ‘Because the next time we do business with Mr. Smythson, I will be on hand to verify the authenticity of any antiquity that comes to the doors of the Pierpont Morgan Library. And should an item that doesn’t pass muster arrive–which could, course, be no fault of Mr. Smythson…’ I pause, wanting the dealer to see how I have provided him with an excuse for his past reprehensible behavior. ‘Then we will resolve the issue before it even reaches your desk, Mr. Morgan.’ ‘Excellent, Miss Greene.'”

This book is about Belle da Costa Greene, a Black lady who passes as white in the 1900s. The stakes are high for her– she has just become J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian. If her identity is discovered, her life could crumble.

This book was interesting because of its fascinating historical subject (AKA Belle Greene and the world of antique art collection). The authors were also great at writing entertaining dialogue. However, they sometimes seemed to alternate between witty dialogue and info-dumpy dialogue (as seen in the passage quoted).

In terms of overall character entertainment-value, J.P. Morgan was surprisingly the most entertaining. Maybe it was his great dialogue that did it.

Meanwhile, the protagonist’s internal monologues felt somewhat info-dumpy. At the same time, it was an entertaining info-dump, and it certainly helped the story along because it made it clear why certain plot-points were relevant/important. As a result, I was able to understand clearly why such-and-such a plot-point mattered. Belle’s been granted permission to take her first trip to London? Well, this is her chance to prove herself worthy by swooping a rare and valuable item out of her rival art-collectors’ hands. So these explanations worked because they helped keep the story focused.

However, while the story was cleanly structured, there were some moments where the protagonist was in a deep crisis and then “suddenly knew what to do.” I didn’t find this believable. Readers need at least some interiority to figure out why characters have such huge epiphanies.

Overall, the characters didn’t feel quite alive (save for J.P. Morgan, somehow). Even so, the story was good, the dialogue was snappy, and the historical details were very cool to learn about. Read this book if you want something informative and entertaining.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Goldenveizer, Schiffman, and Balzac

Hello! What do quotations from Tolstoy, books on magic, and Balzac all have in common? They’re all included in this week’s post!

Talks With Tolstoy, by A.B. Goldenveizer,
Translated by S.S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf

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“[Tolstoy said] ‘I think that every great artist necessarily creates his own form also. If the content of works of art can be infinitely varied, so also can their form. Once Turgenev and I came back from the theatre in Paris and discussed this. We recalled all that is best in Russian literature and it seemed that in these works the form was perfectly original. Omitting Pushkin, let us take Gogol’s Dead Souls. What is it? Neither a novel nor a story. It is a something perfectly original.'”

Yes, someone really did have such conversations with Tolstoy, and he really did write them down to be read by us lucky people in the future.

Reading this book, I got a better sense of how Tolstoy thought, what he seemed ignorant/naive about, and how the way he thought could have played into what he wrote.

For instance he talked about something that likely inspired his story, “The Three Hermits.” he mentioned how he constantly rewrote, even after he reached a point where other people praised his works-in-progress. On the other hand, he was also very sexist, and he seemed to think that at one point in the past, colonialism wasn’t done out of self-interest, but out of the goodness of the colonists’ hearts.

In other words, it was insightful, inspiring, and disillusioning all at once. If you want to learn how Tolstoy thought in the years leading up to his death, and try to guess at how his thoughts informed his work, read this book.

Abracadabra! by Nathaniel Schiffman

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“I’ve started performing a casual trick for a friend, then realized that because I didn’t plan it out or think about it beforehand, I suddenly find myself not knowing how the trick should proceed. The idea of magic is that it is impromptu, whimsical, snap-of-the-finger. These ideas are mutually exclusive to the reality that careful natural planning must go into creating the illusion. The same idea has been expressed for many arts besides magic. Renowned Hollywood director Billy Wilder said of the movies, ‘Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.'”

This entertaining book is about magic–how to do magic tricks, how to make them convincing through misdirection, how magic was used throughout history, and how aspects of it pop up everywhere in daily life.

To be actually good at magic (instead of just buying some rigged prop to show off once and then forget about), you apparently have to do a LOT of work.

It’s not enough to know the trick, you have to know how to pull the trick off well. You have to know how to hide what you’re doing and how to direct your audience’s attention so that they look at what’s most exciting about the trick. So you have to learn a lot of psychology. You also have to practice a lot. Only then can you get up on some stage and “casually” pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Basically, this book made me realize just how much work goes into pulling that rabbit out of the hat.

So if you’re interested in learning how magic really works (and how aspects of it are very relevant to your non-magical life), read this book.

The Unknown Masterpiece,” by Honré de Balzac

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The old man continued, saying as he did so, ‘That is how to lay it on, young man. Little touches. Come and bring a glow into those icy-cold tones for me. Just so. Pom! Pom pom!’ And those parts of the picture that he had pointed out as cold and lifeless flushed with warmer hues. A few bold strokes of color brought all the tones of the picture into the required harmony with the glowing tints of the Egyptian, and the differences in temperament vanished.”

This is a story about a painter who is painting a masterpiece. He won’t let anyone see it at first, and in the meantime he shows off his talent on others’ paintings. Finally, two people do see it, and I won’t spoil what happens next.

“The Unknown Masterpiece” was an interesting story. It made me think a lot about art and revision. Sometimes, if a piece of art feels almost-finished and you don’t know how to proceed, the work doesn’t need to be completely re-thought. Instead, you just might need to add a few small details.

Basically, if you’re interested in art, read this story. It’s very worthwhile.

Until next week!

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

So I’d definitely recommend reading it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Portis, Miller, and Palahniuk

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

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

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

True Grit, by Charles Portis

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

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

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

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

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

“Incident at Vichy,” by Arthur Miller

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, I would recommend it.

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

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

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

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

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

So I would recommend it.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Woolf

In which I review Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.”

Hello! Happy June! If you’re in America, happy Memorial Day! I’ve read one book this week, and am reading several others as you read this…

A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf

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“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young– alas, she never wrote a word [….] Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.”

Virginia Woolf wrote this back in 1929, basically saying that to make a mark on the world, women writers need a steady income and a room of their own in which to work. It’s a hallmark of feminism and empowerment.

I found it to be much less empowering than I thought it would be.

Yes, she prophesied that the female Shakespeare would be able to emerge in 100 years’ time (and considering the fact that it’s now 2021, her coming is close upon us). Yes, the general ideas of the book were great.

However, parts of the book were overly-pessimistic. For instance, Woolf heavily implies that because men discouraged them, there were no great women composers back in her time.

This completely ignores the fact that female greats existed even before her time. Some examples: Dora Pejačević (the first Croatian woman to write a symphony and one of the most important 20th century female composers) and Louise Farrenc (read even more about her amazingness here).

Woolf didn’t have Google. She was stuck researching from books written by sexist men, so she probably wouldn’t have known much about female composers in other countries. Maybe she was also just focusing on composers in England. Even so, it’s worth reading A Room of One’s Own knowing in advance that in spite of the patriarchy, some women were able to accomplish more than Woolf seemed to imply.

Overall, this book was short, interesting, and well-written, so I would still say to read it if you have the time.

Also, if you’ve already read it, what did you think?

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Chopin, Le Guin, and Haig

In which I read Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “No Time to Spare,” and Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library.”

Hello! I’ve read three books. They’re all good for summer reading. One has stature, another has eggs, and the third has a lot in common with Tolstoy’s work…

The Awakening and Selected Stories, by Kate Chopin

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“During his oblivious attention he once quietly rested his head against Mrs. Pontellier’s arm. As gently she repulsed him. Once again he repeated the offense. She could not but believe it to be thoughtlessness on his part; yet that was no reason she should submit to it. She did not remonstrate, except again to repulse him quietly but firmly. He offered no apology. The picture completed bore no resemblance to Madame Ratignolle. She was greatly disappointed to find that it did not look like her. But it was a fair enough piece of work, and in many respects satisfying. Mrs. Pontellier evidently did not think so. After surveying the sketch critically she drew a broad smudge of paint across its surface, and crumpled the paper between her hands.”

Kate Chopin’s book is about a woman named Edna Pontellier who seeks independence and selfhood in a male-dominated society.

I’ve never read about a female character with so much stature. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this. I guess it’s just an attitude that the author had towards her which came across in the depiction of her. Her life doesn’t revolve around a guy or other people, and she did have a sense of self.

She also wasn’t made more than she was or judged to be less than she was because of that (such as by fitting her into an archetype of “love interest” or “seductress”). This was a character who could reject her husband’s hand on her arm and also reject her own attempts at drawing without being turned into a joke or a way to illustrate something about another character.

She also didn’t feel like she was just there to make a point about feminism, and this might be what ultimately gives her stature. If you’re writing some story about someone to convey a message, the character becomes less than a fully-actualized being because his or her personhood is subordinated to the message you’re trying to convey.

For instance, in this scene, Edna could’ve drawn a bad picture with her husband’s hand on her arm and then shoved his hand off and drawn a great picture, which could have subordinated her character to the message of “women don’t need men” and reduced her complexity and sense of stature.

Contrast this with the idea of a female character existing in a work that may touch upon themes but which don’t reduce the character’s complexity for their sake. In the scene as it’s written, Edna’s just pushing the guy’s hand off, but even so she’s dissatisfied with the picture for its own sake. That’s fascinating.

Basically, this stature was very refreshing to experience, and the book itself was very good as well. It’s a shame that Chopin’s future works were rejected after this novel was published, but we can help make up for that by reading this book nowadays.

One final note: The short stories weren’t as good, so I would recommend them less. They were much more sketched-out than fully-developed.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters,
by Ursula K. Le Guin

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“So you put your freshly boiled egg into the egg cup–but which end up? Eggs are not perfect ovoids, they have a smaller end and a bigger end. People have opinions about which end should be up, i.e., which end you’re going to actually eat the egg out of. This difference of opinion can become so passionate that a war may be fought about it, as we know from Jonathan Swift. It makes just as much sense as most wars and most differences of opinion.”

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote several essays and published them in this book in 2017. She died a year later. As a result, there was a lot of unintentional irony in this book, like when she wrote about how people never get to experience true solitude anymore.

If only she knew….

Anyway, the essays were entertaining. They weren’t the most entertaining essays ever but they were fun to read, with one exception. She wrote an essay about eating eggs. I never thought I’d laugh so much about someone chopping an egg apart.

Overall, this was an entertaining and quick read.

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

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“Maybe there was no perfect life for her, but somewhere, surely, there was a life worth living.”

The Midnight Library is about a woman who dies and then gets to live all the different lives she could have lived by reading various books from the “Midnight Library.” The woman’s name is Nora Seed (get it?)

This book was a good read. I appreciate anyone who likes to write about how great life is. It felt like a cross between The Magic Treehouse and Mitch Albom’s books. It also reminded me a lot of Tolstoy’s books for various reasons (some good, others less good).

Firstly, it had a very important quality: conviction. There’s something great about someone who can write about something he actually cares about without seeming to worry what others might think.

In other words, there are a lot of carefully-written “safely sophisticated” books out there that condescend to tell you about the boringness of suburbia while clearly trying to come off as profound. Now, here’s a book about the “riskier” topic of life’s meaning which also cheerfully pays homage to a lot of different authors. Even so, the author didn’t come off as condescending or like a pretentious literary try-hard. He was having so much fun that he wanted you to join him!

When an author doesn’t try to take himself too seriously while also enjoying what he writes, he can get away with writing about anything. The book will contain his warmth and enthusiasm, and that sincerity will draw readers in. You see this quality in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and in Anna Karenina, and you also see it in Haig’s book.

Even so, Haig’s characters felt kind of contrived, like they were being shepherded along by the author to have realizations at opportune moments. Also, there wasn’t much subtext, since the author basically spelled everything out about the characters’ psychologies. This is also similar to Tolstoy. There’s a character in Resurrection who’s shepherded about and psychoanalyzed in a very similar way.

In both instances, the characters in question lose out on depth and realism. Their sole function isn’t to live but to serve the message of the story.

Finally, the symbolism and metaphors felt over-emphasized. Sometimes it helps to let readers make some subconscious connections instead of telling them things along the lines of, “Nora Seed’s life is a seed that can grow in different directions!” That also happened in Tolstoy’s Resurrection—“Look! The protagonist always overhears sermons about Jesus and the book’s even titled Resurrection! That means he’s a Jesus parallel!”

In any case, this kind of approach makes the meaning of the story very, very clear to readers, but it takes some of the fun out of the experience for readers who might want to figure some things out for themselves.

So overall, I would say that this book was a good read, but that Haig might eventually write books that are even better (in one reader’s super-subjective opinion).

Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them? I’d love to hear your comments!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Rayfield and Tolstoy

Hi! Happy almost-finals period! I’ll be brief. One book I’ve reviewed is super long, and the other is super-short, and you’ll never guess which is which by the title of this post…

Anton Chekhov, A Life, by Donald Rayfield,
Read by Fred Williams

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“There were few diversions. The pianist Samuelson came and played Chopin’s C Major Nocturne for Anton. Gorky, after illegally stopping in Moscow for an ovation at the Moscow Arts Theater, kept Anton company. When he visited, a gendarme patrolled outside. A wild crane broke off its flight south to join the surviving tame crane in Anton’s garden […] Visitors filled Anton’s study with smoke and made him miss meals. Masha did not come until 18 December, followed by Bunin.”

This book was huge but it was very fun. I mean it was an audiobook, but still. It was a biography of Chekhov, and from it I learned that he wasn’t the mild-mannered gloomy person I thought he was, but a womanizer.

He was also super-dysfunctional. In fact, another title for this book could have been, “Chekhov and His Dysfunctional Family.” Seriously. I felt like I was listening to an audiobook version of a reality TV show set in the 1800s. That was a very small part of what made it fun.

What made it more fun was the narrator, Fred Williams. He was terrific. He read in a completely straight voice, but somehow, the way he read things was very entertaining (especially when describing the shenanigans of Chekhov’s pet mongoose, or narrating that time when Chekhov “descended upon his old garden to salvage any remaining plants to bring back to his new garden”). So in other words the narrator and the narration were perfectly-matched.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable book. I would recommend it, and I would especially recommend the Fred Williams reading of it.

Short Stories by Leo Tolstoy, by Leo Tolstoy,
Read by Bart Wolffe

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“During the night, Delesov was aroused by the noise of a falling table in the anteroom and the sound of voices and stamping feet. ‘Just wait a little, I will tell Dmitri Ivanovitch!’ said Zakhar’s voice. Albert’s voice replied passionately and incoherently. Delesov leapt up and went with a candle into the anteroom. Zakhar in his night dress was standing against the door. Albert in cap and alma viva was trying to pull him away and was screaming at him in a pathetic voice, ‘You have no right to detain me! I have a passport! I’ve not stolen anything from you! You must let me go! I will go to the police!’ ‘I beg of you Dmitri Ivanovitch,’ said Zakhar, turning to his barin and continuing to stand guard at the door, ‘he got up in the night, found the key in my overcoat pocket, and has drunk up the whole decanter of sweet vodka. Was that good? And now he wants to go. You didn’t give me orders and so I could not let him out.’”


A short book written by Tolstoy? Unheard of!

Well, this is a short story collection so it’s not necessarily a book in and of itself (unlike his Childhood). Even so, it is unexpectedly short, with five stories within.

The first story was undoubtedly the best. It was called “The Three Hermits.” I won’t spoil it but it was basically magical realism at its finest.

The second story, “Three Deaths” was the second-best. Tolstoy’s narration was like a camera, and the story itself was very sad. Just look at that title!

The fourth story, called “God Sees the Truth but Waits,” was also interesting for its deep humanity in the face of inhumanity.

The other two stories, “Albert” and “Ermak” were interesting, but not as good. Well, actually, “Albert” was interesting. It was about a genius violinist who was also homeless.

“Ermak” absolutely wasn’t interesting. It was basically about a bunch of Cossacks killing a bunch of Tatars, and it read more like a history textbook than a story by Tolstoy.

In other words, read “The Three Hermits,” and then if you have time, read “Three Deaths” and “God Sees the Truth but Waits,” and then if you REALLY have time, read the other two.

Then, if you’re feeling daring, go read some of his longer works.