Lit in the Time of War: Ming-Yi, Tokarczuk, and Slezkine

Stop the war!

Hello! I’ve read three books this week. One’s puny, one’s medium-sized, and one’s probably the biggest book I’ve ever read…

Also, since the war is STILL happening, I’ve compiled yet another list of places you can donate to in order to support Ukraine. Please do so if you are able.

The Man With the Compound Eyes, by Wu Ming-Yi,
Translated by Darryl Sterk

“Leaving the animal hospital, she saw a follow up on the earthquake on the TV news. As Dahu had said, seismologists suspected this was not simply an energy release. The next report was news to Alice, though: a huge Trash Vortex in the Pacific Ocean was breaking up, and a big chunk of it was headed for the coast right near where she lived. Watching aerial footage of the vortex, Alice could not believe her eyes. She could not believe her ears, either, when the report, drawing on an international news media source, adopted a tragicomic tone, declaring that, in the vortex, almost everyone would be able to find almost everything he’d ever thrown away in his entire life.”

This is a very cool book. the main plot is basically that a tsunami sends a huge trash vortex into Taiwan’s coast, and as a result a boy from a mythical island and a woman who is grieving her dead husband and son come together and form a friendship.

The book is much more than that though. Other peoples’ stories are told in it as well. Most of the stories involve loss, but some of them also involve regaining joy in life. All of them involve the changing climate, and at the center of it is a mysterious man with compound eyes…

What makes the book so good is that people are at its center (in terms of exploring the human condition) instead of having less-developed characters and revolving around the premise of “Oh no! A giant trash-vortex is coming for us! What do we do!”

In other words, I’d recommend.

The Lost Soul, by Olga Tokarczuk, Illustrated by Joanna Concejo,
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

“Finally, during one of his many journeys, the man awoke in the middle of the night in his hotel room and felt as if he couldn’t breathe. He looked out the window, but he wasn’t sure what city he was in—all cities look the same through hotel windows. Nor was he sure how he came to be there or why. And unfortunately he had forgotten his own name too. It was a strange feeling—he had no idea how he was going to find himself again.”

Come for Tokarczuk’s words, stay for Concejo’s great illustrations.

This book is very short and is basically a bunch of illustrations with some text in between (kind of like Hugo Cabret). It’s about a man who loses his soul and has to find it again. How does he do it? Does he even do it? Read the book to find out!

The illustrations are terrific, like I already said. The book also has a lot of wisdom in it, even though it’s very short (in contrast to her much longer book, The Books of Jacob which is humongous and may or may not have as much wisdom as this book has in it).

In any case, I’d recommend.

The House of Government, Part 1, by Yuri Slezkine,
Read by Stefan Rudnicki

“[About the Bolsheviks:] But the radical abandonment of most conventional [family] attachments, the continual sacrifice of the present for the sake of the future, and the violent casting-out of money-changers came, as all heroic commitments do, at the cost of recurring doubt. What if the discarded attachments were the true ones? What if the future came too late for there ever to have been a present? What if the philistines were only human? What if all the years in prison and exile were in vain? What is my strength that I should wait, and what is my end that I should endure?”

This is a huge book (45 hours long, or over a thousand pages in book-form). Given that, I expected it to be kind of a slog to get through. Imagine my delight when, instead of being a slog, the book turned out to be surprisingly entertaining.

The author’s very good at getting across dense ideas in a very engaging way (mainly through humor/wit/wordplay). So while the first several pages are devoted to a description of Moscow (which, in lesser hands, would be absolutely boring), Slezkine makes it absolutely fun.

He also makes some interesting comparisons between the rise of religion and the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia, though I felt that it wasn’t fully developed (yet!)

All that to say, read this book.

As promised, a list of organizations to donate to in order to help Ukraine:

Stand Up For Ukraine—Provides food, shelter, education, and healthcare to those displaced by the crisis in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.globalgiving.org/global-citizen-ukraine/

Islamic Relief USA—Works with NGOs on the ground in Ukraine to provide support to those in need. Donate here: https://irusa.org/europe/

World Food Program—Provides food to people in Ukraine. Donate here: https://donatenow.wfp.org/ukraine-appeal/~my-donation

World Health Organization—Helps support those in Ukraine affected by health problems during the war. Donate here: https://www.ukraine.who.foundation/?form=FUNNSJTYKVD

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Żeromski, Korelitz, and London

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe.

I’ve read four books, but will only be reviewing three of them. Two of them could be seen as escapism, while the third probably can’t…

The Faithful River, by Stefan Żeromski,
Translated by Bill Johnston

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“[As one character tries to convince a woman named Ryfka to give her a sleigh to go to a doctor]: ‘Do you have a sleigh?’ ‘There’s one here but it’s just a little one that belongs to some of the tenants.’ ‘Let it be the tenants’. Come on! Fetch the keys and climb out of the hole here.’ Ryfka gave a quiet, desperate sob. She stood on the other side of the window, crying. ‘You won’t do it?’ ‘They’ll murder me. They’ll knock my block off!’ ‘You’ll live.’ This argument she somehow found convincing.

This book is set during a conflict between Polish rebels and Russian soldiers, and is about a wounded Polish rebel who is being sheltered by a woman in a manor-house. Obviously, bad things will happen if the rebel is discovered by the Russians, and so the woman has to use all her wits to conceal him. In the meantime, they fall in love.

For a book that was originally published in 1912, it was surprisingly great. The dialogue was surprisingly snappy, the plot was surprisingly compelling, and the characters were surprisingly deep.

Something I also didn’t expect was that the romance was delayed until later on. This made sense (the rebel was too wounded to fall in love at first). This also made the romance more convincing– by the time the characters fell in love, they knew each other well enough to have something to be attracted to. They became two developed characters that I found myself wanting to get together, instead of two cardboard cutouts falling in love over nothing.

So, this book has a lot of action, it’s well-paced, and it’s well-written. I would recommend.

The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

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“These particular students, these ardent apprentices, would be utterly indistinguishable from their earlier Ripley counterparts: mid-career professionals convinced they could churn out Clive Cussler adventures, or moms who blogged about their kids and didn’t see why that shouldn’t entitle them to a regular gig on Good Morning America, or newly retired people ‘returning to fiction’ (secure in the knowledge that fiction had been waiting for them?)”

This book is about a writer named Jake who wrote one best-seller and then wrote a second not best-seller, and went on to sink into obscurity. We find him teaching creative writing at a college program called Ripley. There, he encounters a student who tells him about a plot for a novel, a plot so good it’ll obviously become a best-seller… Later, the student dies, and Jake sees his chance to rip off the other guy’s story and reclaim his fame in the process. Jake does become famous, but then starts getting threats in the mail about someone who knows that he stole his student’s story…

This book was entertaining to read because it was about someone who went into writing for all the wrong reasons– for the fame, for the ego-boost, and for the admiration, rather than because he actually loved to write.

It was also fun to see all the twists in the book (which I’m not giving away). Basically, if you like mystery stories (and novels-within-novels), you would probably like this book.

I did feel that the protagonist wasn’t really characterized much beyond the fact that he was a writer (and all his backstory relating to being a “failed” writer). I also felt that parts of the book could have been shortened (there was a huge buildup to something that didn’t need to be that big). And finally, the protagonist was narcissistic to the point of being a little annoying.

In spite of that, I’d still recommend the book. It’s fun to read, and everything does come together satisfyingly in the end.

The Scarlet Plague, by Jack London

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“The old man shook his head sadly, and said: ‘The gunpowder will come. Nothing can stop it—the same old story over and over. Man will increase, and men will fight. The gunpowder will enable men to kill millions of men, and in this way only, by fire and blood, will a new civilization, in some remote day, be evolved. And of what profit will it be? Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. It may take fifty thousand years to build, but it will pass. All things pass.'”

This sci-fi book is about a global pandemic, only this one is called the Scarlet Plague, it breaks out in 2012 instead of in 2020, and the world of 2012 has wireless communications while also somehow still having telegraphs.

No wonder. The book was written in 1915.

In any case, the Scarlet Plague is super-deadly, to the point where it kills its victims within hours. It acts so fast that it instantly wipes out all the government infrastructure and leaves only a few survivors who go on to form “tribes.” Oh, and the whole story is basically an old man telling his grand-kids about the plague while they sit around in the ruins of California.

It’s interesting to compare London’s imaginings of a pandemic with the reality of one, which basically hammers home the fact that only so much can be imagined, and that some things in reality are much more complicated than in the imagining of them.

On a somewhat unrelated note, parts of this book reminded me of Anna Kavan’s Ice— there’s a guy who wants a girl, but the girl is being held captive by an brutal tribe-leader called the Chauffeur. Replace the Scarlet Plague with the ice-ification of the planet, call the Chauffer the Warden, and you basically have the general gist of Ice.

In any case, I would recommend this book, but only if you feel like reading about another pandemic. If you don’t feel like it, I would recommend the other two books instead.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Strindberg, Gombrowicz, and Ibsen

In Which I Review Two Mortal Enemies (Ibsen and Strindberg) and One Writer Who Laughs at It All (Gombrowicz).

Hello! Happy October! Here are three more books I’ve read. One is too short, but the other two are just right.

Inferno, by August Strindberg, Translated by Mary Sandbach

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“A strange thing happened yesterday evening at supper. My little daughter cannot help herself to her food; so, wanting to assist her, I touched her hand, quite gently and with the kindest intentions. The child gave a shriek, snatched away her hand, and darted at me a look that was full of horror. When her grandmother asked her what was the matter she replied: ‘He hurt me.’ I sat there quite taken aback and unable to utter a word. I had done much harm intentionally; could I now have come to do it without wishing it? That night I dreamt that an eagle was pecking my hand to punish me for some crime. I knew not what.”

After reading this book I’ve come to the inevitable conclusion that I need more Strindberg in my life.

This was such an interesting psychological portrait of a man who was kind of mad and kind of not mad at the same time. It also had a strange plotline about metaphorically going into hell and coming back out. Parts of it also reminded me of Notes From the Underground, and interestingly, these two books were published in the same time-period.

In any case, even though you may never have heard of Strindberg’s Inferno, you have heard of it now, and you would be doing yourself a great service by reading it.

Ferdydurke, by Witold Gombrowicz,
Translated by Danuta Borchardt

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“Therefore, after a moment’s profound reflection, I managed to translate the substance of the following stanza that into comprehensive language:
THE POEM
Horizons burst like flasks
a green blotch swells high in the clouds
I move back to the shadow of the pine–
and there:
with greedy gulps I drink
my diurnal springtime

MY TRANSLATION
Calves of legs, calves, calves
Calves of legs, calves, calves, calves
Calves of legs, calves, calves, calves, calves–
The calf of my leg:
the calf of my leg, calf, calf,
calves, calves, calves.”

This funny book was entertaining to read, but at the same time, it was insightful.

It’s about a 30-year-old who is mistaken for a younger kid and is forced to attend elementary school. No matter how much he wants to protest, he can’t, and no matter how obvious it might be that he’s a 30-year-old, nobody acknowledges this fact. Thus begins this satire of education, infantilization, and class relations.

The book had a lot of great things to say about how, just because everybody else seems to like a boring piece of literature doesn’t mean that that piece of literature is actually any good. The people may be liking it just to come off as sophisticated. In fact, that’s probably the only reason they pretend to like it to begin with. Also, creators who make art just to look good or to imitate other artists without adding anything new are not creating true art because they’re not expressing themselves and their true values.

Obviously art is subjective and anyone’s free to disagree with these statements, but for me they resonated strongly. They (and the book’s humor) made Ferdydurke a very worthwhile read.

“When We Dead Awaken,” by Henrik Ibsen,
Adapted by Robert Brustein

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“Although absolutely nothing happened,
I knew that we had crossed the border,
That we were really home again,

Because it stopped at every little station.
No one got off and no one got on,
But the train stood there silently,
For what seemed like hours.
At every station I heard two railmen
Walking along the platform – –
And they mumbled quietly to each other
In the night, without expression or meaning.
There are always two men talking
About nothing at all.”

Apparently this quote wasn’t even included in in Brustein’s version of “When We Dead Awaken,” and somehow it was the best part of this adaptation of the play. That tells you everything you may need to know about it.

In other words, this book shows the dangers of cutting too much away from a story. Yes the play’s bones were intact, but its substance and emotional impact were not. This adaptation of the play felt flimsy, like it was being starved to death.

Basically, I would not recommend this version of Ibsen’s classic play. I would recommend another version that wasn’t cut. In fact, I may even try to read a longer version at some point in the future. Maybe then I’ll be able to write a review that does the actual play (and the plot I haven’t summarized here) justice.

To sum up: Whatever you do, don’t read this version of the play.

Until next week!

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

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

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

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Español:

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

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

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

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

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

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

English:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Otra vez, reseña en Español Aquí)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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