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: Chekhov, Nye, and Kawabata

In Which I Review Stories by Anton Chekhov, Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, and a Novel by Yasunari Kawabata

Hello! Happy August. I hope you’re well. I’ve read three books (again). One’s of short stories, one’s of poems, and one’s a novel…

Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, by Anton Chekov,
Translated by Constance Garnett

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“The town was a little one, worse than a village, and it was inhabited by scarcely any but old people who died with an infrequency that was really annoying.”

So here we are with more Chekhov. This book had a lot of stories I already read, and a few new ones.

In reading the new stories (including “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” “The Grasshopper,” “Easter Eve,” “The Dependents”, and “In the Ravine”), it was interesting to see their varying quality. “Easter Eve” felt like a better story than “The Grasshopper,” for instance, even though “The Grasshopper” was written much later.

The (super-subjective) reason: in some of his stories Chekhov came to rely too much on theme for an effect at the expense of his characters. “Easter Eve” was just a story about a man grieving his friend’s death. “The Grasshopper” was trying to get across a moral about women who have affairs. That made the characters less realistic, which somehow made the story less enjoyable.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to contrast “Ward No. 6” with “The Lady With The Dog.” In “Ward,” Chekhov prioritized his theme. “Lady” had more of a focus on characters. While both stories were obviously very good, “Ward” felt to me like a less well-written version of “Lady.” There was the sense that “Ward’s” characters were thinking and acting like they did because Chekhov needed for them to act that way to illustrate his theme, and not because that was how they actually would have reacted given their circumstances. Meanwhile “Lady” had a theme, but the characters didn’t act contrivedly–when they thought about the theme, they were doing so in reaction to something that could have logically made them react that way.

In any case, Chekhov’s still a great writer. Anything I say about him is going to be subjective, and I’d still definitely recommend this book.

Voices in the Wind: Poems for Listeners, by Naomi Shihab Nye

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“If this is the best you can do, citizens of the world,
I resolve to become summer shadow,
turtle adrift in a pool.”

This is a book of poems written in 2018. They were interesting to read, especially after having read a lot of books from the 1800s and 1900s. It also showed how even references to 2018-era events could become dated or unintentionally ironic in the face of 2021-era events.

The poems themselves were good, though. I have a feeling they’d be even better on audiobook. They were humorous and sometimes poignant. I liked how Nye told stories in some of her poems. They felt like anecdotes in poem-form, which meant they usually left me with something to think about.

Even so, sometimes it would feel like one of the poems was gearing up to leave the reader with a very interesting idea to contemplate, only to end with a line about how the poem was talking about something in a museum. I haven’t read as much poetry as I have read prose, but this seemed to me like it limited the poem’s scope.

In any case, I still enjoyed this collection, and if you’re looking for something to think about, you might enjoy it as well.

Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata,
Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

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“As he caught his footing, his head fell back, and the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.”

The book is about an affair between a man named Shimamura and a geisha named Komako. Also, out of the two best sentences I’ve ever read, this book has one of them (included above for your enjoyment. If you’re curious about the second sentence, see here).

Anyway. Snow Country‘s plot was nonexistent, and early on I almost gave up reading it because it felt boring. Thankfully, the second half of the book was much more interesting (even if it didn’t really have a plot, either).

I’ll explain by contrasting this book with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts. Both were plotless, but while the clichés and shallow-seeming characters in Lahiri’s book didn’t make up for that (in my subjective opinion), Snow Country had a lot of interesting language (see that great sentence) and characterization.

Here’s what I mean about characterization: early on, I wasn’t sure exactly why Character X kept acting a certain way. As the book went on, Kawabata was able to gradually convey the reason. Not only did this make the character very interesting, it also made the book feel more engaging, since the character’s behavior gave new significance to the overall story.

So, if you’re someone who likes poetic language, interesting characterization, and a book where nothing happens (but is actually not boring to read), this is for you.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Comment below!

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: Saunders, Lahiri, and Tolstoy

In which I review George Saunders’s “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Whereabouts,” and a surprise book by Leo Tolstoy.

Hello! After keeping you in suspense all week, I’ve read and reviewed the two books I promised you last week, as well as a surprise masterwork…

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders

George Saunders

“It’s also made me feel this: these Russians did what they did so beautifully, there’s no need for me, or anyone, to keep doing it. Which is another way of saying that part of my job (part of your job) is to find new paths for the story form to go down; to make stories that are as powerful as these Russian stories but that, in their voice and form and concerns, are new, meaning that they response to the things history has given us to know about life on earth in the years since these Russians were here.”

This book was interesting to read. It contained several Russian short stories and Saunders’s analysis of them from a craft perspective. Some of the analysis was very insightful, like in the case of Chekhov’s “In The Cart” and Tolstoy’s “Alyosha the Pot.” I also loved hearing about Saunders’s own journey as a writer in the “Afterthoughts.”

Some of the analysis could have been more insightful, such as in Tolstoy’s “Master and Man.” There is some good analysis here, but later on there’s also this: Saunders mentions that part of what makes this story great is that it’s highly organized. He then raises the question of how to achieve this in a story, and then says, “some of us can hit a curveball and some of us can’t. The difference between a great writer and a good one […] is the quality of the instantaneous decisions she makes as she works,” and leaves us with that.

Surely that’s not all. Consider everything Poe has to say about writing organizedly in his great essay about art, even what Tolstoy himself says about writing in his own book, What is Art?, and it becomes clear that there’s much more to it than just “some of us can and some of us can’t.”

Also, once upon a time, Tolstoy wrote not-so-good stories. Metaphorically speaking, even he wasn’t born being able to hit wicked curveballs.

So there were questions that didn’t feel as thoroughly-answered as they probably could have been, which disappointed me.

Another thing I will say is that the interpretation of Chekhov’s “The Darling” misinterpreted an important aspect of the Russian original (courtesy of this reviewer). This didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story or its interpretation, but it did make me wonder how stories can actually gain new depth and meaning from being translated into other languages, which is interesting in and of itself.

For all that grumbling, I really did enjoy this book and would definitely recommend it. You can probably learn 80% of what he’s written about from the Writer’s Digest website, but that extra 20% was very enlightening. Even so, if you’re seeking out all the answers ever about how to write great stories, this probably shouldn’t be the only book you consult. It is a good starting-place, though.

Whereabouts, by Jhumpa Lahiri

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“I mourned those wasted tickets, and that trip never taken, more than I mourned for you.”

(Disclaimer: I got this book from an author event.)

Whereabouts is about a woman who meanders around Italy and thinks and broods and breathes. What’s impressive is that Lahiri wrote it and translated it herself.

Other than that, I’ve heard that there was a split reaction to this book. Some people loved it but other people didn’t. I was 100% in the second category.

First, the protagonist didn’t seem to have anything interesting to do. While this plotless approach could work in some stories, it didn’t work in Lahiri’s story because there wasn’t a redeeming element.

The protagonist’s psychology wasn’t that interesting. She felt defined by one dynamic which felt too narrow and limited to sustain a whole book.

Well, maybe this book had sparklingly insightful ideas and language. Nope. The ideas weren’t original and the language was filled with clichés (literal example: “He’s a bit cheeky, some might even call him a pain in the ass, but he doesn’t get on my nerves.”)

What’s left? Nothing much.

Yes, there were two sections that felt more interesting than the others, but that was all, so I felt let down. I’m hopeful that her next book will be much better, since I really enjoyed her short stories. Even so, maybe read this anyway, since you might enjoy it more than I did.

I’m also curious: have any of you read Whereabouts and loved it? If so, what did you enjoy about it? Let me know.

Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy

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“Then he had looked on his spirit as the I; now it was his healthy strong animal I that he looked upon as himself. And all this terrible change had come about because he had ceased to believe himself and had taken to believing others. This he had done because it was too difficult to live believing one’s self; believing one’s self, one had to decide every question not in favour of one’s own animal life, which is always seeking for easy gratifications, but almost in every case against it. Believing others there was nothing to decide; everything had been decided already, and decided always in favour of the animal I and against the spiritual.”

Resurrection by Tolstoy is about a guy called Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov. As a boy, he seduced a young woman and caused her downfall. Now he encounters her as she’s being tried for murder, and experiences a resurrection.

This book was interesting, especially in its first half. Tolstoy began with the trial, but unlike some writers he didn’t include entire speeches, which made it much more enjoyable.

However, after the trial ended, the story became something like a manifesto. It felt like Tolstoy was saying, “everything is absolutely like XYZ, no exceptions, and ABC is the only way for things to improve.”

It also felt like some of the descriptions of the prisoners were unrealistic. After having read a couple of books on the subject, Tolstoy’s prisoners felt too kind-hearted and idealistic to actually exist anywhere outside a Victor Hugo novel.

Finally, the ending felt anti-climactic. While I admire Tolstoy for not taking a contrived approach to the protagonist’s situation, his ultimate epiphany felt forced and unconvincing.

In other words, sometimes you come up with a super-intense question about the meaning of it all, and you try too hard to answer it absolutely, which is impossible for anyone to do. Yet here’s Tolstoy, trying to get away with giving a cut-and-dry solution to all the problems in the world. To me, that felt like it limited the scope of his book’s power.

Overall, Resurrection raised a lot of terrific ideas and had a lot of great scenes and descriptions. On the other hand, a lot of it felt too intellectualized for it to be as expansive and effective as his other books. It’s still worth reading, though, just for the experience.

So, have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

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: Chekhov and Kawabata

Hi! I hope you’re all healthy and safe, and are getting vaccinated if you are able. I’ve been writing papers and studying for finals, so I haven’t had much time to read, but I did have time for one entertaining story and one beautiful one:

“Kashtanka,” by Anton Chekhov

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“When it got quite dark, Kashtanka was overcome by despair and horror. She huddled up in an entrance and began whining piteously. The long day’s journeying with Luka Alexandritch had exhausted her, her ears and her paws were freezing, and, what was more, she was terribly hungry. Only twice in the whole day had she tasted a morsel: she had eaten a little paste at the bookbinder’s, and in one of the taverns she had found a sausage skin on the floor, near the counter — that was all. If she had been a human being she would have certainly thought: ‘No, it is impossible to live like this! I must shoot myself!’ [….] But she thought of nothing, she simply whined.”

This story is about a dog named Kashtanka who gets separated from her master and wanders around the streets. She eventually gets taken in by a mysterious stranger who turns out to be a circus-master. Thus begins her career in the circus.

The story was fun to read. It has around 10 chapters, but each chapter was rather short. Their titles were funny, too.

It was also interesting to see Chekhov think that dogs could see in color (even though they’re color-blind), so I kept being put off by that small detail. The end (not spoiling anything here) also felt a bit too convenient, like there wasn’t enough of a struggle to deserve it.

Even so, if you’re sort of stressed from writing papers and studying for final exams, this would be a terrific story to read on your break!

“The Pomegranate,” by Kawabata Yasunari

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“‘Kimiko, Kimiko!’ her mother called. ‘Keikichi is here.’ Kimiko had let her needle come unthreaded. She pushed it back into the pincushion. ‘Kimiko had been saying how she wanted to see you again before you leave.’ Keikichi was going to war. ‘But we could hardly go and see you without an invitation, and you didn’t come. It was good of you to come today.’ She asked him to stay for lunch, but he was in a hurry. ‘Well, do at least have a pomegranate. We grew it ourselves.’ She called up to Kimiko again. He greeted her with his eyes, as if it were more than he could do to wait for her to come down. She stopped on the stairs. Something warm seemed to come into his eyes, and the pomegranate fell from his hand.”

“The Pomegranate” is about a girl named Kimiko who picks a pomegranate. There’s a lot more to the story than that (as you can kind of see from the excerpt) but telling you any more will spoil things.

Just read it instead. It literally takes less than a minute and will be super-worth it. Kawabata also won the Nobel Prize, if that helps convince you.

Moral of the story: Just go and read it already 🙂

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Chekhov and French Tales

Hello! I hope you’re all well. It’s Midterms Week here at school, so I’ve only been able to read two books. They were worth it, though…

The Tales of Chekhov Volume 1, Translated by Constance Garnett

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“‘And why did you leave us so early on Thursday, Nikolay Timofeitch?’ ‘Hm! It’s queer you noticed it,’ says the shopman, with a smirk. ‘You were so taken up with that fine student that . . . it’s queer you noticed it!’ Polinka flushes crimson and remains mute. With a nervous quiver in his fingers the shopman closes the boxes, and for no sort of object piles them one on the top of another. A moment of silence follows. ‘I want some bead lace, too,’ says Polinka, lifting her eyes guiltily to the shopman. ‘What sort? Black or coloured? Bead lace on tulle is the most fashionable trimming.’ ‘And how much is it?’ ‘The black’s from eighty kopecks and the coloured from two and a half roubles. I shall never come and see you again,’ Nikolay Timofeitch adds in an undertone.”
(From “Polinka”)

This was an interesting collection of six Chekhov stories. They were of varying lengths. What struck me the most about them was that Chekhov can write about people in a way that reminds you of people you know in real life. I experienced this when reading his “The Darling.”

Also, I used to think of Chekhov as someone who did character sketches but now I think of his stories more as relationship sketches. Yes, Chekhov gets you to know his characters, but he does that so he can then get you to understand their relationships with other people. For instance, in one of his stories, you could figure out pretty easily that Character A secretly likes Character B, but you don’t really understand the full meaning of that dynamic until Chekhov develops it in the rest of the story.

Sometimes, it felt that he went on too much about a relationship dynamic. There was one story where Character C kept crawling back to his beloved Character D after supposedly leaving her for good. After he crawled back to her for the fourth time, I found myself wondering what the point was.

Overall though, it was an entertaining collection that I would recommend. If you’re just out to read one or two stories from it, I’d recommend “Polinka” and “Anyuta.”

French Tales, Translated by Helen Constantine

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“Hugues Barros can no longer see anything on this earth. A slight foam rises through the corners of his mouth, frequent spasms shake his limbs. With one last effort he raises himself little by little into a sitting position. And he dies sitting up, his eyes vague, like a creature that is just awakening.” (From “The Bull From Jouvet”)

This is a collection of 22 French short stories by writers including Annie Saumont, Guy de Maupassant, and Émile Zola. Each story is set in one of France’s 22 regions.

Most of the stories were enjoyable. They also introduced me to some new French authors (like Alphonse Daudet) and made me sad about the fact that more of their work hadn’t been translated into English (like Annie Saumont). In fact, you can’t find English versions of some of the stories anywhere outside of this collection. Believe me. I tried. That alone makes it worth reading.

Some things made the collection less enjoyable than it might have been. Some of the stories felt like they had the exact same ending, to the point I found myself correctly guessing the resolution in advance. Also, a few of the stories were less interesting than others, but that might just be personal taste.

The good news is that there were so many interesting stories. Some of my favorite stories included Annie Saumont’s “You Should Have Changed at Dol”, Stéphane Émond’s “House in the Woods”, Daniel Boulanger’s “The Cattle Man”, Colette’s “Where Are the Children?”, Guy de Maupassant’s “A Mother’s Tale”, Paul Hervieu’s “The Bull from Jouvet”, and Alphonse Daudet’s “The Pope’s Mule.”

So even though the collection wasn’t perfect, I’d still recommend that you take a chance on it.

Until next week!

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Salinger

Hello! I hope you’re all well and are enjoying the Year of the Ox. Due to schoolwork and story-writing, I’ve read only one book this week. The good news is that it was very rewarding, funny, and recommendable.

Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger

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“Offhand, I can remember seeing just three girls in my life who struck me as having unclassifiably great beauty at first sight. One was a thin girl in a black bathing suit who was having a lot of trouble putting up an orange umbrella at Jones Beach, circa 1936. The second was a girl aboard a Caribbean cruise ship in 1939, who threw her cigarette lighter at a porpoise. And the third was the Chief’s girl, Mary Hudson.”

Nine Stories contains nine short stories by J.D. Salinger. I was left wondering why he was remembered for The Catcher in the Rye when these stories were so much better.

Some of my favorites were “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “The Laughing Man,” “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” and “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes.”

I’ll make some guesses about why these stories were so good. First off, Salinger was very subtle. In some subtle stories (not written by Salinger), there’s nothing left to the story once you figure out the subtext. In Salinger’s case, you could figure out the subtext halfway through and the story’s ending would still be impactful. That made the stories rewarding.

Also, Salinger’s stories were very funny in different ways. Aside from the pieces with a Holden Caulfield kind of sarcasm, there were goofy pieces (one character told stories to little kids about someone who traversed “the Paris-China border”) and ironic pieces (a character pretended to have been friends with Pablo Picasso to score an art teaching job). This variety of humor made the stories fresh.

Something else that added humor was that Salinger had his characters talk about random stuff. There were a lot of interjections like, “Could you stop picking your nose?” These could have felt contrived and corny but they usually didn’t, and somehow they also felt relevant to the story being told.

Needless to say, I would recommend these stories. More importantly, I would recommend them over The Catcher in the Rye.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reginald in Russia, and Other Sketches, by Saki

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

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

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

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

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

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