Lit in the Time of War: Hillenbrand, Maupassant, and Gladwell

Hello. I hope you are well. I’ve read three books this week. Here they are, along with a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help people in Ukraine.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, Read by Edward Hermann

“For these men [POWs] the central struggle of post-war life was to restore their dignity and find a way to see the world as something other than menacing blackness. There was no one right way to peace. Every man had to find his own path, according to his own history. Some succeeded. For others, the war would never really end.”

This is a nonfiction account of a man named Louis Zamperini, who was a troublemaker in his childhood, an Olympic track-star in his youth, a WWII pilot-turned-prisoner of war in his manhood, and a PTSD-battling survivor in his older age. You may have seen the Angelina Jolie movie about him. This is the book it was based on.

The book was very good. It had a great blend of wisdom, humanity, warmth, tragedy, suffering, and (tasteful) comic relief. What stood out most was this blend, along with the author’s keen insights into the sources of resilience (of the prisoners) and malice (of their captors).

I would definitely recommend.

The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant: Ten Volumes in One, Volume One, by Guy de Maupassant

“Then he went on a few steps, and stopped again to look about him, and the utter misery of his existence seemed to be brought out into full relief by the intense light which inundated the country. He saw his twenty years of café-life, dull, monotonous, heart-breaking. He might have traveled like others did, have gone among foreigners, to unknown countries beyond the sea, have interested himself somewhat in everything which other men are passionately devoted to, in arts and sciences, he might have enjoyed life in a thousand forms, that mysterious life which is either charming or painful, constantly changing, always inexplicable and strange. Now, however, it was too late.”

It’s so gooood. Unlike Chekhov, Maupassant was able to write female characters without being so sexist about it (so far, anyway). This made for a terrifically refreshing read.

Along with that, he was able to get at the humanity of everyone in his stories, even as they commit foul deeds (deceiving their spouse, etc.) I would say that there was one story that I felt that could have had a greater contrast to strengthen its effect.

Even so, if you’re looking for a short story writer who’s BETTER than Chekhov, I would recommend Maupassant without hesitation.

Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon,
by Malcom Gladwell, Read by Malcom Gladwell

“[Paul Simon:] In order for a problem to be something that you want to solve, it means it has to be interesting, which means you don’t know the answer to the problem. That’s why you’re interested, and you wonder, What’s the answer to that? What does that mean? How do you get there? How do you make yourself feel that chemical high that you feel when you make something that you like? [….] It’s the mystery of why that happens, but when that [chemical high] does occur to you the reward is so great you want that for your whole life.

This is a series of interviews with Paul Simon (of Simon & Garfunkel), interlaced with insights from other musicians about Paul Simon’s music, and excerpts from the music itself. It was very interesting to listen to.

What made it more interesting, in my subjective opinion, was to see the contrast between Paul Simon and Malcom Gladwell (whose comments framed everything Simon said). Paul Simon is a musician who doesn’t think too much about what’s going on in his music in terms of the source of his genius. Malcom Gladwell is a man who seems keen to create theories about everything. He seems to want the formula for genius, and he seems like he wants to dissect Paul Simon to get at that formula. As a result, the interview could sometimes read like Paul Simon talking about whatever he wants and Malcom Gladwell trying to shove him into a box labeled “Malcom Gladwell’s Theory of Musical Genius.”

In other words, it felt like Malcom Gladwell was less interested in Paul Simon as a person, and more interested in him as a specimen of genius. This made the book less enjoyable than it could have been, but it also gave interesting, semi-enjoyable insights (due to the contrast between Gladwell and Simon’s approaches to life and music and genius).

This book also had good music (obviously, it’s Paul Simon), it had good insights into his music by other musicians, and it even had good insights into him by Malcom Gladwell (though sometimes Gladwell would just go off on random theories that had no real basis in the reality that Paul Simon was trying to tell him).

So overall, I’d recommend, but I’d keep in mind the interesting dynamics underpinning this book.

As promised, here’s a list of places to donate in order to help Ukrainians in need:

Corus World Health: Gives needed medicines to Ukrainians, and supports the work of health care workers in Ukraine. Donate here: https://donate.corusworldhealth.org/

Voices of Children: Gives emergency psychological support to children in need, along with evacuation assistance. Donate here: https://voices.org.ua/en/

Humanity and Inclusion: Gives support to disabled people in Ukraine, including at-home rehabilitation, mine risk education, and emergency health services. Donate here: https://www.hi-us.org/ukraine

International Medical Corps: Expands access to medical and mental health services in Ukraine, and helps refugees. Donate here: https://give.internationalmedicalcorps.org/page/99837/donate/

Lit in the Time of War: Dragomán, Mussorgsky, and Half of Pasternak

Hello! I hope you are all well. I’ve read three-ish books this week (one I’ve only read half of thanks to final exams). I’ll be back to reading three books next week. At the end of this post, I’ve also given a list of places you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need. Please do.

The White King, by György Dragomán,
Translated by Paul Olchváry

“By then we’ve been without Father for more than half a year, though he was supposed to have gone away for only a week, to a research station by the sea, on some urgent business, and when he said goodbye to me he said how sorry he was that he couldn’t take me with him, because at that time of year, in late autumn, the sea is a truly unforgettable sight, a lot fiercer than in summer, stirring up huge yellow waves and white foam as far as the eye can see; but no matter, he said, and he promised that once he got home he’d take me, too, so I could have a look for myself. He just couldn’t understand how it could be that I was already past ten years old and still had never seen the sea, but that’s OK, he said, we’d make up for that along with everything else we’d make up for, no sense rushing things, there would be plenty of time and more for everything, because we had a whole life ahead of us. This was one of Father’s favorite sayings, and although I never did quite get it, when he didn’t come home, after all, I thought about it a lot, and that farewell came to my mind a lot, too, how it was when I saw Father for the last time, when his colleagues came to get him with a grey van.”

This book is about Djata, an eleven-year-old boy who’s waiting for his disappeared father to return home. The problem is that his father has been arrested by the totalitarian state. Meanwhile Djata deals with the regime, his grief, and other kids.

This book takes the form of a bunch of loosely-connected short stories, but unlike some books of loosely-connected short stories, this one works very well. There’s a main through-line (Djata’s father) that ties it all together. It’s actually so unified that it sometimes feels more like a novel than a bunch of short stories.

The book itself is very good and very moving (it may make you cry a lot). The good news is that while it can be very sad, it also has hilarious parts, which makes for a good balance, and its ending is very satisfying (from a craft-based point of view).

The book’s style is interesting (but I didn’t realize until late into it). The author uses a lot of run-on sentences, and he doesn’t include quotation marks around dialogue. The good news is that this stylistic stuff doesn’t get in the way of the story’s substance. It actually augments the narrative, since it makes Djata out to be a super-talkative kid (who may even be trying to cover up his grief by being super-talkative).

So if you want to be emotionally devastated by a book, I recommend The White King.

Boris Godunov, by Modest Mussorgsky,
Based on the Play by Alexander Pushkin

“GRIGORI: Boris, Boris—you make the country tremble,
and no one ever dares remember
the fate you meted out to the Tsarevich.
Yet in this quiet cell
a monk recorded all that he knew
of this most heinous murder.
You will be called before your earthly judges,
nor can you flee
the judgment of the Lord.”

This is an opera libretto based on a historical play by Alexander Pushkin. In it, the Macbeth-like Boris Godunov murders his way to tsardom and then guilts about it while other people try to stir up rebellion against him. I’d previously seen Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera, and so was curious to read Mussorgsky’s libretto.

Interestingly, there are different versions of the opera—Mussorgsky originally wrote a version about Boris, with a few scenes focusing on some other character called Dmitri the Pretender. Later, Mussorgsky was told that the opera couldn’t be performed unless he included a more prominent female character in the opera. So he created a second version (which I read for today) which included a love-interest for Dmitri.

The version I saw at the Met didn’t include this love-interest. In that version, the plot flowed better. In the version that I read, the love-interest seemed to be there for no real reason other than to be there (she didn’t even really contribute to the plot). However, the version that I read had a good scene in it that was cut from the Met. You just can’t win.

Overall, I wouldn’t really recommend this libretto. It’s not that good (though there are some good parts), but it has made me very interested in reading the actual play by Pushkin.

An Essay in Autobiography, by Boris Pasternak,
Translated by Manya Harari

“It was only later, when an attempt was made to establish a resemblance between Mayakovsky and myself, that I was credited with a gift for tonal and rhetorical effects. This is quite untrue—I have no more of this gift than anyone who uses words. On the contrary, my concern has always been for meaning, and my dream [is] that every poem should have content in itself—a new thought or a new image.”

This book contains both Pasternak’s autobiographical essay and his poems. I’ve only read his essay so far. The poems are written in both Russian and English, and I’ve been spending more time than I should comparing the Russian to the English, which has taken up more time than allows for in my week. So I’ll probably review the poems next week. For now, I’ll review the essay.

This essay is basically about Pasternak’s youth and the people he met who inspired the approach he developed towards writing. Among others, he talks about Marina Tsvetaeva, Rainer Marie Rilke, Alexander Scriabin, and Paolo Yashvili.

If you’re looking for a definitive autobiography of Pasternak (something like Gorky’s 3-volume autobiography), it doesn’t exist. There’s only this essay and another essay he wrote earlier on. He thinks this essay is better and less pretentious than his earlier one. I haven’t read the other essay, so I can’t say for sure, but I agree that this essay is not pretentious. Pasternak has a lot of sensible ideas about art, and is very grounded in what he says (he cares for meaning over rhetorical flourishes, for instance).

Also, a fun fact about Pasternak: he wanted to be a composer when he was a boy because Alexander Scriabin was his neighbor and Pasternak once walked through the woods between their houses, heard Scriabin play, and got obsessed. Pasternak even became a good composer, but stopped, because though he was able to compose sophisticated and rich music, “I played wretchedly and I read music like a child learning to spell” and, “The discrepancy between my musical themes, new and difficult in themselves, and my lack of practical skill turned the natural gift which should have been a joy to me into a torment, and in the end I found it unendurable.”

What was also interesting was that as a youth, Pasternak didn’t see the need for hard work. He thought genius would just flow out of him like carbon dioxide flows out of someone’s nostrils. He obviously got wiser afterwards (see the rest of his autobiographical essay), but it’s interesting to get a sense of what he used to believe (art is the result of effortless genius) and what he went on to realize (art is the result of a lot of hard work).

Overall, if you’re looking for very insightful portrait of someone’s artistic development, I would definitely recommend this essay. It’s wise without being condescending, and thought-provoking without being pretentious.

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

Save The Children: Gives emergency aid to children in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.savethechildren.org/us/where-we-work/ukraine

Urgent Action Fund Ukraine: Supports evacuation efforts, provides disaster survival training, provides access to alternate communication methods for Ukrainians and more. Donate here: https://urgentactionfund.org/

Global Empowerment Mission: Gives plane tickets to Ukrainian refugees so they can reach friends and family they have in Europe. Donate here: https://www.globalempowermentmission.org/

World Health Organization: Helps treat injured Ukrainians and provides life-saving medicines. Donate here: https://www.ukraine.who.foundation/

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Dorfman, Al Aswany, and Wiesel

In Which I Review “Death and the Maiden” by Ariel Dorfman, “Friendly Fire” by Alaa Al Aswany, and “Dawn” by Elie Wisel

Hello! Happy almost New Year. I hope you are having a healthy and safe holiday season so far. I’ve reviewed three books. They’re definitely not cheerful, but they do make you think.

“Death and the Maiden,” by Ariel Dorfman

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They let me sit in on sessions where my role was to determine whether the prisoners could take that much torture [….] At first I told myself that it was a way of saving people’s lives, and I did because many times I told them without it being true simply to help the person who was being tortured. I ordered them to stop or the prisoner would die. But afterwards I began to… bit by bit, the virtue I was feeling turned into excitement.

This is a play about a husband and a wife who are living in the aftermath of a dictatorship. They have both suffered trauma, especially the woman, who was blindfolded and tortured by a man who liked to pay Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. One day, a man arrives, having helped her husband fix his tire. The woman recognizes the man’s voice, learns he has a tape of Death and the Maiden in his car, and comes to believe that he was her torturer. So she ties him up and puts him on trial.

This was a fascinating play. Is the man really guilty, or is it all just an unlucky coincidence? What will happen during the trial? What will be its result? Will the woman come to terms with her past?

This isn’t a spoiler but it’s something to keep in mind: if you don’t like ambiguous endings, you probably won’t like this play. Even so, I would still recommend it, because it contains a lot of important truths about the lengths people will go to prove things to themselves, and to others.

Friendly Fire, by Alaa Al Aswany, Translated by Humphrey Davies

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From my first day in the department, I had determined to despise and look down on [my coworkers]. Without saying anything, I knew how to let them feel their insignificance. It happened at this period that I needed glasses and I picked out round frames made of thin plastic. I felt that these gave my face a superior cast that was somehow provocative.”

Disclaimer: I took a class with Al Aswany and read some of the stories in this book, so I have to hope that my review isn’t biased.

This is a book of short stories about Egypt. One of them is a novella.

The stories had a kind of humor about them, even though it wasn’t comedic. It seemed more like the author was looking at his characters with an understanding grin. So, even somewhat-unsympathetic characters in the book didn’t feel very unsympathetic because I understood where they were coming from.

Also, the use of details was good. Sometimes I had to re-read a story to get at its subtleties (there was a lot that was subtextual). The insights gained made it worthwhile, though.

Overall,  I really enjoyed this book, especially “The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers,” “The Kitchen Boy,” “Dearest Sister Makarim,” “The Sorrows of Hagg Ahmad,” “Waiting for the Leader,” and “Boxer Puppies, All Colors.” My favorite story was “Izzat Amin Iskandar.” I can’t say why, exactly, but if you could only read one story from this collection, that one should be it.

Dawn, by Elie Wiesel, Translated by Frances Frenaye

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“‘I have a son your age,’ [the British prisoner] began, ‘but he’s not at all like you. He’s fair-haired, strong, and healthy. He likes to eat, drink, go to the pictures, laugh sing, and go out with the girls. He has none of your anxiety, your unhappiness.’ And he went on to tell me more about this son, who was studying at Cambridge. Every sentence was a tongue of flame which burned my body [….] I mustn’t listen to him, I told myself. He’s my enemy, and the enemy has no story.”

This book is set in British-controlled Palestine, and is about Elisha, a young Israeli freedom fighter who previously survived a Nazi concentration camp. Now, he’s been assigned to execute an Englishman, in retaliation for the British executing an Israeli prisoner, only he doesn’t want to kill the man. This book is about him waiting for dawn, when he has to carry out the act.

Previously, I had only read Night, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Dawn. It turned out to be very good.

I appreciated how well it portrayed Elisha’s moral conflict. His guilt was really well-examined, and it was interesting to see Wiesel go into both rationalizations for and condemnations of the act Elisha was going to have to take. Also, Wiesel didn’t judge the protagonist, but just showed him like he was, which somehow made the book’s ultimate condemnation of murder much stronger.

Some of the other characters in the book were the people who ordered the protagonist to carry out the execution. They were well-characterized too, which I appreciated. Wiesel could have easily shown them as heartless and cruel, but that wouldn’t have given any insight into anything, and would have weakened the book. Instead, Wiesel showed that they were just as confused as Elisha, only that they were better at hiding it.

Overall, this book was very good because the author portrayed the characters as humans instead of as heroes and villains. It’s an intense read, but one that I would definitely recommend (especially on audiobook).

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Prilepin, Adamovich, and Voinovich

Hello! Happy post-Hanukkah! I’ve been keeping two books a secret for the past week and now I want to reveal them to you, along with another book that I’ve never mentioned yet…

Sin, by Zakhar Prilepin,
Translated by Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas

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“The person squirmed about on the floor. Something trickled under my shoes. I tore the plywood board from the window, and saw that the window was partially smashed, and so this was evidently why it had been covered over. In the window, between the partitions, there was a half-liter bottle containing a solitary limp pickle covered in a white beard of mold that Father Christmas could have envied.”

This book contains a bunch of short stories about a guy named Zakharka (which sounds suspiciously like the name of the author of the book). In any case, he’s a gravedigger, a bouncer, and a sergeant, but he’s also a kid and a lover (at different parts in the short story collection).

Something interesting about this book is that it says that he maintains a positive attitude while remaining human. However, there are several parts in the book where it’s like, “I loved life! I spat in this annoying guy’s face and cursed at him!” which clearly shows an un-positive attitude to life. So either he’s lying or he’s suppressing his angst by pretending to love life.

In any case, the stories were interesting but I didn’t find them particularly amazing. There don’t seem to be any real flashes of insight in them the way there might be in a good Isaac Babel story, say. Even so, I haven’t read much contemporary literature, so it was interesting to read this book for that.

This book also had some poems in it. If you want to read some poems, read this book.

Khatyn, by Ales Adamovich,
Translated by Glenys Kozlov, Franes Longman,
and Sharon McKee

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“I suddenly thought and apparently understood that this person, Rubezh was miserably afraid, he was almost sick with fear. It would have come out in a different way in someone else, but in Rubezh it took the form of constant chatter, either earnest or jocular, with which he stifled his fear. He was not teasing death at all as Skorokhod thought, but quite the contrary. It was terror in the face of his own fear, that fear that depressed him and drained him of his strength; it was this very terror that tormented him and made him be like he was; all the time he was preparing himself, making himself ready to reach a pale that he could always see and that he could not manage to forget as others did.”

This book is about a boy named Flyora, who serves in the Soviet partisans in Belarus against the Nazis, then witnesses a massacre in a village called Khatyn. This massacre actually happened–the author Ales Adamovich interviewed survivors of it and even incorporated official testimonies into his book. He also went on to create the great war-movie, Come and See (which is where the GIF is from).

Both works are extremely harrowing to experience, but important. If you can stand to read a book like this, it is very worthwhile. That’s all I can really say about this work.

In summary, read this book. It will devastate you, but it’s better to be devastated by this book than not.

The Fur Hat, by Vladimir Voinovich,
Translated by Susan Brownsberger

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“After typing a title of the novel Operation!, Yefim stopped to ponder. He pictured the word displayed vertically. The fact that his more recent novels all had titles consisting of only one word was no accident. Yefim had noticed that the popularization of literary works was greatly facilitated if the titles could be used in crossword puzzles. The puzzles were a form of free advertisement that have been scorned by those authors who gave their works such long and many-worded titles as War and Peace or Crime and Punishment. But some authors had been more far-sighted, using titles like Poltava, Oblomov, or Childhood.”

In the USSR, the Writers Union is giving out hats–reindeer fawn for the most prominent authors, marmot for the second-most prominent authors, and so on. Yefim, a writer who writes about “decent and fearless people” (like doctors who do operations on themselves in the middle of the wilderness) wants a hat too. Well, he gets a hat, but instead of reindeer fawn or marmot, he’s stuck with domestic fluffy tomcat.

I found this book somewhat funnier than Ivan Chonkin, probably because it had to do more with with writing, which I can relate to more. The author did a great job of satirizing a writer’s life (author’s own big ego? Check! Super-subjective reception of one’s work? Check! Figuring out creative ways to market a work via crossword puzzle clues? Check!)

This book also was interesting because it satirized the Soviet prisons. There was a character who had been arrested and then who had been released, but who somehow remained loyal to the party anyway, and Voinovich had a field-day with him.

So, read this book. It’s shorter than Ivan Chonkin, but just as funny, if not a little more.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Borges and Nagibin

In Which I Read “Ficciones” by Jorge Luis Borges and “Arise and Walk” by Yuri Nagibin

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Happy Hanukkah! I have been reading four books, but I’ve only managed to finish two so far. The other two will be kept a secret until next week. Meanwhile, I’ve reviewed the two books that I have read…

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges

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“When it was proclaimed that the Library comprised all books, the first impression was one of extravagant joy. All men felt themselves lords of a secret, intact treasure. There was no personal or universal problem whose eloquent solution did not exist — in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly expanded to the limitless dimensions of hope.”

That was basically me when I discovered the library for the first time in my life.

Seriously though, Borges’s book was a very interesting read from an intellectual standpoint. He’s one of those authors who asks cool questions like, “What if we construct a fake society that actually starts feeling more real than the society we’re in?” and then rolls with it. All of his stories are basically like that, and you wind up thinking about them long after you’ve read them, which makes them entertaining to read as a result.

Ficciones also has the benefit of containing a lot of his great stories. You have the “Library of Babel,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Circular Ruins,” and “Death and the Compass.” What more could you want?

So if you’ve never read Borges before, and if you love intellectual speculation, Ficciones is a perfect place to start.

Arise and Walk, by Yuri Nagibin,
Translated by Catherine Porter

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“[About a prisoner calling his wife from Siberia] The operator wound the handle of the receiver, and wound it again. The receiver filled with rustling, crackling sounds, like wind stirring along an autumn forest path […] The voice of space is plaintive and troubled, and fills the heart with fear. Then suddenly, from far, far away, at the other end of the world, he clearly heard the voice of his former wife: ‘Yes?’ The tiny line had finally reached out to him, and tiny though it was, he suddenly felt terribly close to this long-lost family from which he was probably excluded now for ever. ‘Hello there Katya!’ he yelled. ‘How are you all?’ ‘All right.’ The voice was stiff and cold–but maybe it was just the distance that made it sound so.”

While Borges’s book was filled with intellectualism, Nagibin’s book is filled with emotion, which made them good to read in the same week.

Arise and Walk is about a boy whose father gets sent to prison in Siberia. As he grows up, the boy preserves a relationship with him, visiting him and sending him packages. At the same time, the Stalinist state penalizes people whose relatives are prisoners, so we see how the protagonist has to hide his father’s existence from his friends, co-workers, and acquaintances.

This book was very good. It had something of Chingiz Aitmatov in it, so I can’t say exactly what. Maybe in the way they both felt sincere and were thus able to elicit emotions in the reader (at their best, anyway).

Even though this book was good, something felt like it was missing. We learned a lot about the father (who was a very good character), but less about the son (other than that he had conflicting feelings about his father). He never went through an arc of his own, even though he was the protagonist. Contrast this with Chingiz Aitmatov’s Jamila, where the protagonist tells a story about other people, but is changed by it himself. Maybe that’s what was missing from Arise and Walk.

After reading the book, I was surprised by two things. First of all, that Nagibin’s own father had been arrested. Maybe this would explain the sincerity of his story. Second of all (and less relevantly), that he wrote an Oscar-winning screenplay for a Kurosawa film. Yes. You can read more here.

Until next week! Have a happy Hanukkah (if you celebrate), and read books, because they justify the universe and expand it to the limitless dimensions of hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abracadabra! by Nathaniel Schiffman

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unknown Masterpiece,” by Honré de Balzac

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

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

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

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

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Tolstoy, Aitmatov, Babel

In Which I Review “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy, Stories by Chingiz Aitmatov, and “Red Cavalry” by Isaac Babel.

Hello! I’ve read three shorter books this week. One’s a novella and the other two are short story collections. So if you need something easy to get through, I have you covered!

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy,
Translated by Lynn Solotaroff

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“‘Does he think I’m so weak I can’t stretch my hand out?’ Ivan Ilyich thought, and forgetting what he was doing, he overtrumped his partner, missing the grand slam by three tricks. And worst of all, he saw how upset Mikhail Mikhailovich was while he himself did not care. And it was dreadful to think why he did not care.”

Ivan Ilyich was a very good read. It’s about a man named Ivan Ilyich who lives a shallow life until he realizes he’s dying. Then he reflects on life and dies anyway (spoiler alert!)

A few of its scenes were definitely moving, and it made me think a lot. It was interesting how Tolstoy used contrasts to evoke emotion. Ivan liked a kid who lifted his legs and this feeling was made stronger because he was shown to dislike nearly everyone else, for instance.

What also struck me was how similar parts of Ivan were to other books by Tolstoy. For instance, in Resurrection, the protagonist also sinks into sin and then has an enlightenment. It made me wonder how autobiographical Tolstoy’s writings were, and how he was (or in other cases, wasn’t) able to get inside the heads of people unlike himself.

Overall, I would recommend this book. It’s short, thought-provoking, and moving.

Other Stories, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“On the map Ceylon looked like a drop under the udder of the continent. But when you listened to to the teacher–why, it had all sorts of things, monkeys, and elephants, and bananas (some kind of fruit), and the best tea in the world, and no end of other fantastic fruits and plants. But the most wonderful thing of all–it was hot; so hot you could live there the whole year round and never know what it was to shiver.”

Aitmatov wrote a book called “Piebald Dog Running Along The Shore And Other Stories.” I’ve already reviewed “Piebald Dog” and “To Have And To Lose”, which leaves the three “Other Stories” in this collection.

The first story, “Duishen,” is about a girl whose aunt and uncle don’t want her to attend school. However, her teacher helps her go to school anyway and becomes a kind of guardian-figure to her. The story was interesting, somewhat unrealistic at one point, but still very good.

The next story was called “Mother-Earth.” It’s about a mother whose husband and children go to war. She has to stay behind and work on the collective farm. In the process she experiences both happiness and grief. This story was also interesting, more realistic than “Duishen,” but also somewhat melodramatic (the characters never stopped crying it seemed).

The final story, called “The Cranes Fly Early,” was the best story. The protagonist is a kid whose father is at war. The kid has to leave school to help work on a farm. He misses his father, falls in love with a schoolmate, and has to contend with adult responsibilities. Even so, he was very relatable, and there was less melodrama in this story since he wasn’t crying all the time.

Now, even though I said that the stories were kind of melodramatic, this didn’t mean that they were unenjoyable. Aitmatov’s characters felt very alive, which made them extremely sympathetic and compelling. It’s hard to explain without having read him yourself, which I’d definitely recommend that you do in any case.

Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel, Translated by Boris Dralyuk

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” I had dreams-dreamt of women-and only my heart, crimson with murder, creaked and bled.”

This collection of short stories was based on Babel’s experiences in the Russian Civil War. It tells about soldiers and commanders and towns and geese.

Babel’s language was great, but the substance of his stories varied. Some of the stories, like “My First Goose” and “Afonka Bida” were absolutely terrific (read them, whatever else you do in life). They had profound meanings that were communicated powerfully.

Meanwhile, other stories, like “The Italian Sun” seemed to have much less substance. Why was that? Maybe because Babel seemed to be too keen on showing off what exactly he wanted to say instead of letting the reader figure it out for him/herself. Still other stories felt less like they had something to say and more like they were just vignettes. Maybe Babel was saying something in those stories, but maybe he wasn’t.

There’s obviously a difference between having something to say, not having anything to say, and being too insistent on getting across a message. If you read “My First Goose,” you’ll see an example of the first instance. If you read “The Italian Sun,” you’ll see an example of the third instance. And I’ll leave it to you to determine the examples of the second instance (since art is ultimately subjective).

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

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!