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.

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

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

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

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Español:

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

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

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

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

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

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

English:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Otra vez, reseña en Español Aquí)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stanislavski in Rehearsal: The Final Years, by Vasily Osipovich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would definitely recommend reading this book.

A Practical Handbook for the Actor, by Melissa Bruder

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

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

My Experiences as an Executioner, by James Berry

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov, Gogol, and Aitmatov Again

Hello! I hope you’re well, and if there’s a blizzard raging around outside, I hope you’re also warm. I’ve reviewed three more books. If you’re warm enough to read at least one of them, I would highly encourage reading the last book.

On Craftsmanship, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“Man should think about everything, even about the end of the world…What is the power of the human spirit, how does man overcome the cruel obstacles which confront him, what gives man the right to be human and say, in reviewing his life: ‘I lived and knew life’? These questions are unavoidable for an artistic understanding of reality, no matter what the subject.”

On Craftsmanship is a collection of essays written by the greatest underrated writer ever, Chingiz Aitmatov. The essays express his views on various topics from writing to space-travel to world peace. Aitmatov also gives a brief autobiography which was one of the more interesting parts of the book.

Aside from his autobiography, other rewarding parts of the book were about how he approached his works and his ideas about art’s role in society. Other parts read more like propaganda (apparently Aitmatov wrote the book while Kyrgyzstan was still part of the USSR).

He also had a whole essay about the unprecedented technological advances of the 1970s, and another essay about how humanity was slowly but surely starting to threaten nature. Given the technological advances of the 2000s and the unprecedented level of global warming we’ve been experiencing, these essays felt a bit outdated.

In the end, On Craftsmanship gave me a better sense of how Aitmatov thought, but it didn’t change my life.

Dead Souls, Part 2, by Nikolai Gogol

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“‘You will do well to harken unto Him who is merciful,’ he said, ‘but remember also that in the eyes of the All Merciful, honest toil is of equal merit with a prayer. Therefore take unto yourself whatsoever task you may and do it as though you were doing it not unto man but unto God. Even though to your lot there should fall but the cleaning of a floor, clean that floor as though it were being cleaned for Him alone.’”

Dead Souls originally had two parts to it, but Gogol tried to burn away the second part. In my review of the first part, I foolishly thought that since the second part still existed, Gogol had utterly failed. Actually reading the infinitely-disappointing second part made me realize how wrong I was.

The second part begins with Gogol giving the life-story of a new character. The character meets Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, the protagonist of Dead Souls Part 1. Things seem to be going along swimmingly. Then there’s what my version termed “a long hiatus in the original” (also known as a missing part) and we never hear from that character again. Chichikov gets into all kinds of trouble, and we encounter more long hiatuses in the original, after which we find Chichikov magically wanting to change his ways. Irrelevant characters come and go, convenient coincidences and deus ex machinas abound, and whole reams of previously-undisclosed backstory unfurl themselves before the reader’s bewildered gaze. We wonder: Will Chichikov change his ways? Won’t he? The suspense nearly kills us.

I’m not giving anything away: the original ends with an infinite hiatus.

So my suggestion to you is to read the first part and then take a hiatus from the book before you reach the second part. Better yet, make that hiatus an infinite one.

Piebald Dog Running Along The Shore, by Chingiz Aitmatov, Translated by Alex Miller

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“‘Drink,’ said Organ. Kirisk hesitated. Although dying of thirst and eager to empty those few swallows of water down his own throat, he knew he must not. ‘No,’ he said, struggling with the consuming desire inside him. ‘No, Grandad, drink it yourself.’ And he felt giddy. Organ’s hand trembled at these words and he sighed heavily. His gaze softened and he looked affectionately at the boy. ‘I’ve drunk, oh, so much water in my time. But you have a long time to live yet before…’ He did not finish. ‘You understand me, Kirisk? Drink, it’s necessary, you must drink up, but don’t worry about me. Here!’ And again, as he swallowed the water, only for a moment did the boy feel the fire within him dampened and subdued, and again, after the relief, he promptly wanted another drink.”

Guess what? This story isn’t about a dog. It’s about a kid named Kirisk who’s going seal-hunting for the first time in his life with his grandfather, his father, and his uncle. Kirisk is very excited about this rite of passage, but little does he know how life-changing the expedition is going to be…

This story reminded me a lot of Jack London in the way Aitmatov depicted the harsh wilderness. However this story was richer than most of Jack London’s stories because Aitmatov also got across so much about his characters’ inner lives.

What makes the story work seems to be that Aitmatov alternates between showing characters’ thoughts and flashbacks and having them act. The thoughts increase the stakes of their situation which gives their actions more meaning. Then the actions produce unforeseen consequences which go on to reverberate through the next series of thoughts, which further heighten the stakes and so on. Basically, Aitmatov uses both internal and external events to build up suspense, tension, and investment, and since it all culminates in one epic final moment, the whole story is filled with a sense of direction and momentum. Who knew that reading about people drifting around in a canoe could be so engrossing? I didn’t.

You can read it for free here.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Obama and the Promised Land

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

A Promised Land, by Barack Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forty Stories, by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Robert Payne

ORIGINS: Anton Chekhov

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

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

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

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

Now that’s interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basically, I’d recommend it.