Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Roth, Hughes, and Nosaka

In Which I Review Joseph Roth’s “The Radetzky March,” Langston Hughes’ “Not Without Laughter” and Akiyuki Nosaka’s “The Cake Tree in the Ruins”

Hello! I hope you had a good weekend and a great start to June.

I’ve read three books. One of them was recommended to me, the other two weren’t. I would definitely recommend all three…

The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth

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“‘Do you plan to stay in the military?” [asked the Kaiser]. Hartenstein the barber had a wife and child and a prosperous shop in Olomouc and had already tried feigning rheumatism several times in order to get out fairly soon. But he couldn’t say no to the Kaiser. ‘Yes, Your Majesty,’ he said, knowing he had just messed up his entire life. ‘Fine. Now you’re a sergeant. But don’t be so nervous!’ So. The Kaiser had made someone happy. He was glad. He was glad. He had done something wonderful for that Hartenstein. Now the day could begin.”

The Radetzky March is a classic of 20th century European literature.

It starts out with a man whose last name is Trotta who fights at the Battle of Solferino for the Austro-Hungarian empire. He doesn’t do anything really, but somehow everyone winds up believing he saved the Kaiser’s life, so he’s awarded an estate and becomes known as the Hero of Solferino. The rest of the book follows Trotta’s son and grandson as they struggle to live up to his legacy. That made it a very funny read.

In terms of prose, the book was also very well written. Roth was great at avoiding clichés. Even so, he didn’t twist his language into knots in search of the freshest imagery ever. This meant that the writing was poetic without getting into the reader’s face and distracting from the story. The imagery actually contributed to the story. I was very impressed by that.

On the other hand, some parts of the plot felt boring. There were many funny character sketches, and the scenes between the father and the son were the strongest scenes in the book, but there were also a bunch of love affairs that began to feel monotonous. Maybe if Roth had included less love affairs the book would have felt more varied and entertaining.

He also included a lot of musings on how the Austro-Hungarian empire was becoming decrepit. There’s nothing wrong with this, and Roth generally handled it well. Even so, I thought he established the idea too clearly near the beginning which gave him no real room to take it anywhere new by the book’s end. In other words, since he stated that idea up front, the ending’s restatement of it felt redundant.

Another weird effect of this was that the ending felt like it was being contrived to fit the idea instead of the idea fitting into the story and complementing it. Basically, Roth shepherded characters into the path of thematically-convenient coincidences. It felt like he had some sort of thematic checklist– “Character X is a symbol for this idea, and I think this idea winds up like that, so I’ll make it just so happen that Character X will wind up in a similar situation! Check!” The ending’s coincidences basically took away the characters’ agency and made the book seem less powerful as a result.

For all my griping, it’s subjective griping, and I still thought that The Radetzky March was still a very good book. It read like a shorter version of War and Peace–it only focused on two or three characters unlike War and Peace, and its philosophical musings were much better-paced. It also had a freshness and a joy to it that made it a good read. I would recommend it.

Not Without Laughter, by Langston Hughes

Blue Electric Guitar

“But the sled! Home-made by some rough carpenter, with strips of rusty tin nailed along the wooden runners, and a piece of clothes-line to pull it with! ‘It’s fine,’ Sandy lied, as he tried to lift it and place it on the floor as you would in coasting; but it was very heavy, and too wide for a boy to run with in his hands. You could never get a swift start. And a board was warped in the middle. ‘It’s a nice sled, grandma,’ he lied. ‘I like it, mama.’ ‘Mr. Logan made it for you,’ his mother answered proudly, happy that he was pleased. ‘I knew you wanted a sled all the time.’”

This is a book about an African-American boy named Sandy who grows up in Kansas. His father’s always away, his aunt is trying to become a jazz-singer, and his grandmother wants him to make something of himself.

Hughes was a poet, so it was interesting to see how he approached a novel. At first, it felt more like a description of several events without much interiority, but then the story gained momentum and Hughes turned out to be great at showing nuanced characters.

Usually, I’d find myself analyzing books as I read them, but I was enjoying this book so much I actually found myself not analyzing it. I can talk a bit about its emotional effect, though. Not Without Laughter made me feel very happy, then very sad, then very happy again. It also felt empowering.

I would definitely recommend it.

The Cake Tree in the Ruins, by Akiyuki Nosaka

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“‘Enemy attack! Prepare the counter depth charges!’ [….] Convinced that it was under attack, the submarine began to submerge. Taken aback, the whale worried that he was being rejected yet again, and hurriedly began explaining for all he was worth: ‘Please don’t run away! I didn’t mean to wake you up. I don’t want to hurt you, I just want to talk. I think you’re gorgeous!’ and dived down alongside the object of his affections, trying to snuggle up to her.”

The Cake Tree in the Ruins is a collection of short stories about Japan during World War II. They’re autobiographical (Nosaka watched his parents get killed in the Allied firebombing as a boy and then had a sister who died from starvation).

There were some great stories in this collection and then there were some less-great stories. Three great stories from it are, “The Whale That Fell in Love With a Submarine,” “The Parrot and The Boy,” and “My Home Bunker.” If you only have time to read a few stories in the collection, read these three.

Overall, the stories were like a mix between Salinger, Márquez, Kafka, and Aitmatov. They were somewhat surrealistic but also very simply-told. Also, even though many of the stories were about sad subjects, they somehow managed to be both hilarious and tragic at the same time.

I would absolutely recommend it.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Robbins, Tan, and Hauptmann

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I’ve read three more books this week, all of which I recommend. Some of them are more inspiring than others, though…

Awaken the Giant Within, by Anthony Robbins

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“Beliefs have the awesome potential to create or to destroy. Your beliefs can give you the power to create massive, immediate, empowering changes in your life, or they can smother any hope you have for a better future.”

I heard about this book (and the motivational speaker Anthony Robbins) from someone I knew. It sounded intriguing so I took out the audiobook version. It was a very good decision.

Robbins himself narrated the audiobook, but it wasn’t as much of a narration as it was a motivational speech in and of itself. Now, there are motivational speeches that can get you excited in that moment, but it seems to me that the more powerful motivational speeches are ones that leave a lasting impression on you. This book was in the second category. It combined examples (Robbins’s own story, the amazing story of Honda’s founder, etc.) with actionable advice. It was also short enough to get through in a day or less. So, if you’re looking for some inspiration, I’d definitely recommend this book.

The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan

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“I learned about opening moves and why it’s important to control the center early on; the shortest distance between two points is straight down the middle. I learned about the middle game and why tactics between two adversaries are like clashing ideas; the one who plays better has the clearest plans for both attacking and getting out of traps. I learned why it is essential in the endgame to have foresight, a mathematical understanding of all possible moves, and patience; all weaknesses and advantages become evident to a strong adversary and are obscured to a tiring opponent.”

The Joy Luck Club is about a woman named Jing-Mei Woo whose mother has died. Her mother was part of a mah-jongg group called “The Joy Luck Club” and now Jing-Mei Woo has to fill in her mother’s place. In the process, she learns her mother’s secrets, hears the stories of the other women in the club, and gains more insight into her identity as a Chinese-American.

I thought the book would be a novel, but it felt more like a collection of short stories told by each woman in the Joy Luck Club (and by their daughters). Interestingly, I own an “Intro to English Lit” anthology which actually included one of this book’s chapters in its short story unit.

Each short story/chapter was well-written (some were better than others). What made the book good was that the chapters were connected to each other. You’d hear the story of one character’s chess career in one chapter and then another chapter would reference it in passing.

Also, because there were so many characters, the book contained a variety of experiences (instead of just telling one story). One character had an unhappy marriage, but not all characters did, for instance. That felt refreshing.

So in the end, even though The Joy Luck Club felt like a bunch of short stories, the book itself felt unified and very satisfying to read.

“The Weavers,” by Gerhart Hauptmann

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“HORNIG. We know all about that. A man from the government arrives, knows better than all of us, acts as though he’d seen it all himself, walks a bit round the village where the stream runs and the nicest houses are—doesn’t want to get dirt on his nice, shiny shoes—and so he thinks it’s as nice everywhere, climbs into his carriage and drives home again. And so he writes to Berlin, ‘There is no poverty here.’ If he’d had a little patience and climbed up to the villages near the source of the stream and across the stream on the far end or even off the road where the little, single huts are, and the dirty old hovels on the mountain-side, some of which are so black and ruined it wouldn’t be worth putting a match to them and setting them alight, maybe then he’d have written differently to Berlin.”

Gerhart Hauptmann was a German playwright from the turn of the 17th century. He was apparently a great playwright, admired by people like Chekhov and O’Neill, so I had to see what the hype was about. I started with his most famous play, “The Weavers,” which is about a group of weavers who riot because they are not getting paid enough to survive.

The play itself had no main protagonist. It was a little like The Joy Luck Club in that sense. It also had the same kind of variety of experience but in this play the variety was unified around the event of the weavers’ revolt.

Now, while Hauptmann could have villainized the person who was in charge of the weavers’ pay, he didn’t. He humanized everyone, which made the play less about “workers have to overthrow their managers!” and more about “everyone’s well-intentioned but there’s something that gets between peoples’ understanding of each other and causes futile and senseless chaos.” Basically, in humanizing everyone, Hauptmann showed that the conflict wasn’t as cut and dry as it may have seemed from one or the other side. Nobody really knew what they were doing, and this powerlessness was fascinating to read about.

Overall, what seemed to make this play so good was the fact that Hauptmann didn’t stop with showing a conventional “good vs. evil” struggle. By humanizing all his characters he was able to get at something more realistic and more insightful than he could have done had he just taken one side or the other. I would definitely recommend.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Bidpai/Ramsay Wood

Hello. I hope you’re all healthy and safe and hopeful and reading. Today, I’m reviewing a long-lost classic. It’s a bit like “Aesop’s Fables” but it’s better.

Kalila and Dimna, by Bidpai, Retold by Ramsay Wood

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“I was alone; myself at last, as I really am—just an ordinary rat, competent at some things, hopeless at others. Super Rat was dead. I had a type of pity for him, as one does for anything that wastes potential. I saw his pride, his arrogant falsity which gave him grandiose desires—his greed, in short, for that was his supreme disease—greed for more and more of what he did not need. Such ignorance was the price of pain, and he had spent and spent and spent. Now the burden of hankering care soared free; I lay defeated yet content, a winner of my own war on want.”

Kalila and Dimna was a very good read. It’s from ancient Arabic literature (from a genre called adab), and was supposed to act as a manual for rulers about how to rule well. It’s much more entertaining than a manual like Machiavelli’s The Prince, though. This manual teaches its lessons in the form of animal stories (with stories within stories), kind of like “Aesop’s Fables” but better.

The main story is about two jackal brothers named Kalila and Dimna. Dimna wants to gain as much influence as he can over the lion king of their animal kingdom. Kalila wants him not to. Along the way, they tell each other stories, and Dimna comes up with dastardly plots against their king’s most trusted advisor, a bull named Schanzabeh. There’s also another story called “Zirac and Friends” about a mouse named Zirac who befriends a bird, a turtle, and a gazelle. The plot of that story can best be summed up as a lot of fun adventures.

Both stories are very entertaining, especially thanks to the work of the “reteller,” Ramsay Wood. There are also morals in these stories that are applicable to life, but because they’re told so entertainingly, they don’t feel like morals. In fact, it’s hard to even remember that there are morals (unlike Aesop’s “The moral of the story is…”). Apparently the original goal of Kalila and Dimna was to be entertaining enough that anyone could enjoy it for its story alone. Then, if readers wanted to search for more meaning, they could re-read it and find new lessons upon each re-read. So while you may have read “Aesop’s Fables” once in elementary school and then forgot about it, you can read Kalila and Dimna at any age, and then re-read it years later and gain completely new insights from it. In my view, that makes it better than Aesop.

There’s one drawback to Ramsay Wood’s version of this story. There are many more stories that were part of the original K&D that didn’t make it into this book. That’s disappointing. It’s like a cliffhanger. The good news is that the other stories are available in other English-language translations of Kalila and Dimna.

So if there are more complete translations out there, why should you read this one? In my extremely limited experience of reading only two versions of Kalila and Dimna, this version’s funnier. It’s also the only version that my entire library system had available. For those of you who have no experience with Kalila and Dimna, you can think of this version as a “free trial” that may be more readily available to you at your library than other versions you’d have to pay for.

Basically, no matter who you are, you’ll probably get something out of reading (or rereading) Kalila and Dimna, and if you’re looking for a version that’s more likely to be available than not, I’d definitely recommend this version.

If any of you have read other versions of K&D before, I’d love to hear your thoughts about how this version seems to measure up. Is it really the funniest and most-accessible version out there?

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Omar Khayyam

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe. Due to something urgent that came up, I wasn’t able to read a book this week, but I did read an amazing poem that’s practically as good as a great book, so I hope that makes up for it:

The “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam

The “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam is soooooo good. It affirms life, love, and happiness, and it’s only like a fifteen-minute read.

I learned about this ancient Persian poem from Eugene O’Neill’s play, “Ah, Wilderness!” (Whose title’s actually a direct quote from it). Obviously this left no choice but for me to check it out myself.

Reading the “Rubaiyat” makes me feel like the writer who wrote it actually felt what he was writing, in a slightly good-humored sort of way. I honestly have no idea why. It’s just something about the way it’s written/translated.

It has a lot of fascinating metaphors about wine, wizardry, pottery, checkers, and so on. But it’s much better than this other famous poem (George Sterling’s “Of Wine and Wizardry“). In my opinion, the Rubaiyat is much more…alive.

Finally, something interesting in a lot of medieval Arabic/Persian literature is the fact that wine is seen as something that’s not wonderful to drink in this life now, but that you can have as much of it as you want in the afterlife, so you might as well abstain now and then drink it later on. Meanwhile this poem argues the exact opposite: live now because you only have a short time to do so. Can it be subtly trying to disprove the afterlife? Who knows?

Finally, it has a lot of references to The Shahnameh (by Ferdowski) and the Bible.

If you’ve ever read the poem (or re-read it), I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Best Line(s):

“Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,

Before we too into the Dust descend;

Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie

Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and–sans End!”

Stay healthy, stay safe, and stay in love with life.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kesey

Hello! I hope you’re all as healthy and safe as possible, and that you get something valuable by contemplating the below review.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey

Randal McMurphy & George Hanson – The Rōbert [Cholo] Report (pron: Rō'bear  Re'por)

“I think McMurphy knew better than we did that our tough looks were all show, because he still wasn’t able to get a real laugh out of anybody. Maybe he couldn’t understand why we weren’t able to laugh yet, but he knew you can’t really be strong until you can see a funny side to things. In fact, he worked so hard at pointing out the funny side of things that I was wondering a little if maybe he was blind to the other side, if maybe he wasn’t able to see what it was that parched laughter deep inside your stomach.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was one of the better books I read in high school. I recently reread it, and since I never reviewed it on my blog to begin with, I thought I would do so now. What ensued was massive inner conflict.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story of Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s about a group of patients in a mental hospital in the 1960s. They spend their time fearing and obeying the dictatorial Nurse Ratched. Then a man named Randle Patrick McMurphy enters the ward. He refuses to obey her, and he gets the other patients to overcome their own fears of her, too. Hilarious chaos results.

The story’s told by one of the patients in the ward, a Native American named Chief Bromden. He pretends to be deaf and dumb, so he’s more of an observer than an actor, but he does have previous experience of how authorities oppress people. So, because Bromden narrates, the story of a few men becomes a metaphor for society as a whole. This means it can make a lot of different points about government, society, and rebellion.

When I had first read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I had sympathized completely with the patients. Maybe this was because I’d watched the Jack Nicholson movie right before reading the book, or maybe it was because Kesey’s actual book had seemed to portray the patients to be immensely sympathetic. You could even argue that Kesey drew parallels between people in the Bible and the patients so readers would relate to them more. In any case, I had sympathized with the patients, and I’d only focused on the great points Kesey made about society and government, and ignored whatever hadn’t seemed to relate to those points. I’d thought that individuality and sincerity were at the core of this book, and I had believed it to be amazing.

Now, when I reread the book, I was surprised by how much sexism and racism there was in it. Kesey indirectly chalked all of the world’s woes up to wives, mothers, female government agents, and nurses. The patients were racist towards the black ward orderlies. Meanwhile, there was Kesey, making his biblical comparisons and glossing over all of those questionable parts by framing them as ways that the patients resisted oppression. That was grounds for thinking of the book as awful.

But I still thought there might be something to be gained from reading this book. It made good points about society (the importance of laughter, the importance of self-empowerment, the importance of individuality, the importance of voting, etc.). It was also very well-written from a technical standpoint, and it had one of the best streams-of-consciousness I ever read.

I thought maybe we could learn constructively from the book’s sexism and racism—if we were critical of it and tried to see the dynamics behind it, we could figure out how to prevent it.

Then I asked myself, was this book actually worth reading? I was conflicted until I tried to figure out what the book was really about. Then, I realized that the saintly ideals of individuality and sincerity weren’t at this book’s core. Sexism and racism were. The ideals were just ways for Kesey to distract readers from the fact he was using those ideals to indirectly rationalize that core. For instance, in Kesey’s view, women were at the heart of the “establishment” that suppressed individuality and sincerity. Since the establishment was portrayed as bad, women were bad, and attacking women in the name of individuality and sincerity was portrayed as good. It’s hard to explain without writing an essay, but I hope you get what I’m saying–the book’s end wasn’t individuality and sincerity, but justifying ill will towards women.

Anyway, Cuckoo’s Nest exposed the mess of humanity and inhumanity and how they could coexist in the same book or person or world and be glossed over. Everything could be rationalized and covered up by something else that looked saintly. Things could seem both amazing and awful at the same time.

But couldn’t things, including books, just be amazing?

So in the end, I have decided that this book isn’t worth reading. Enjoy something completely amazing instead.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Welty, O’Neill, and O’Neill Possessed by Wagner’s Ghost

Hello everyone! I hope you’re surviving quarantine okay. Since reading is amazing for passing the time, here are three books/plays that I have reviewed.

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One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty

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“My mother always sang to her children. Her voice came out just a little bit in the minor key. ‘Wee Willie Winkie’s’ song was wonderfully sad when she sang the lullabies. ‘Oh, but now there’s a record. She could have her own record to listen to,’ my father would have said. For there came a Victrola record of ‘Bobby Shafftoe’ and ‘Rock-a-Bye Baby’, all of Mother’s lullabies, which could be played to take her place. Soon I was able to play her my own lullabies all day long.”

This is a thin memoir about Welty’s writing life. It’s not that interesting. The best part of this book is the insight it gives into the inspiration behind some of her stories, and the glimpse it gives into old rural Mississippi. The rest of the time, she tells about various events that happened to her without really reflecting much on her thoughts and feelings. This creates a sense of distance between her and the reader. For me, this meant that I couldn’t relate to her experiences.

If you’re looking for a good memoir written by a writer, don’t look to Welty. Look to Saint-Exupéry or Gorky. For memoirs on non-writers, Douglass and Shayakhmetov are good. Only read Welty if, near the end of the quarantine, you find that no other books remain but hers.

Even in that case, there are plenty of e-books that you could read first.

 

“A Touch of the Poet,” Eugene O’Neill

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“DEBORAH: Why, that the Hartfords never part with their dreams even when they deny them. They cannot. That is the family curse. For example, this book Simon plans to write to denounce the evil of greed and possessive ambition, and uphold the virtue of freeing oneself from the lust for power and saving our souls by being content with little. I cannot imagine you taking that seriously.”

Eugene O’Neill intended to write an 11-play cycle about the experiences of two families over the course of American history. These plays were supposed to examine materialism and dreams and greed. They were supposed to be his greatest accomplishment. However, for all of the tragedies he created, this turned out to be the worst of them all—he left us with an eternal cliff-hanger, because he only managed to draft two of the plays before he died.

“A Touch of the Poet” is the first play. It takes place in the late 1820s, and is about the two families—the Melody family and the Hartford family. The plot itself seems very simple on the surface. Sara Melody is in love with Simon Hartford, a boy who is recovering from sickness in the upstairs room of her father’s tavern. However, while Sara’s parents are okay with nursing Simon back to health, they’re not okay with her marrying him. The two families are apparently rivals.

Sara also has a father named Cornelius. Cornelius is in love with the past—he dresses in his old regiment uniform and reminisces about when he fought in the British army against the French in the Battle of Talavera and was commended by the Duke of Wellington. Cornelius also mistreats his wife. Sara despises him for that. She despises him even more because he doesn’t want her to marry Simon. The majority of the play is Sara fighting him for the right to marry Simon, and Sara fighting Simon’s mom, Deborah, for the same reason.

Somehow, even in draft-form, O’Neill manages to make this play more than a cheesy “star-crossed lovers” story. The interest comes from the ideas that O’Neill examines throughout the play—dreams vs. reality, past vs. present. Cornelius represents dreams and the past, and Sara represents reality and the present. These ideas mean that the conflict between them takes on greater importance than one in a typical “star-crossed lovers” story. In a way, this play reminded me a lot of Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung” cycle, because similar themes are explored (greed, family, etc.).

NOTE: “A Touch of the Poet” sets up events that happen in the next play, so scrolling down and reading that will expose you to minor spoilers.

 

“More Stately Mansions,” Eugene O’Neill (collaborating with Wagner’s Ghost)

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“SIMON […] It is a long time since I have thought of the soul. Out there in the gutters called streets beyond the wall it appears to be a weak sentimental supposition, a superstitious superfluity—but here in this garden—He checks himself as he meets [Deborah’s] eyes staring at him with a tender gloating fixity. He reads again. ‘And, but once kindled, quenchless evermore.’ He pauses, giving the pause a tense significance—thoughtfully. ‘Evermore.’ Yes, it is, I think, the most cowardly and convenient of all man’s evasions, that he forgets the present is merely the last moment of the past, and the delusion of his hope he calls the future is but the past returning to demand payment of its debt.”

This play is even more like Wagner’s Ring cycle. In addition to its high-falutin monologuery, “More Stately Mansions” takes place over 10 years, a time scale of Wagnerian proportions. Fortunately for us, while the performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle is 17 hours long, O’Neill’s play only lasts for 400 pages. Even so, it made me wonder if Wagner’s ghost perhaps possessed O’Neill while he was writing this play…

Simon and Sara have started a family. In the past, Simon used to want to write poetry, but with Sara’s urging, he took charge of a textile mill, then bought out his partner. In this play, he ditches his dreams, succumbs to greed, and goes on to buy out even more companies. Meanwhile, Sara puts aside her differences with Simon’s mother, Deborah. The two women become best friends for all of two acts, then spend the remaining 255 pages battling for dominance over Simon’s attention.

As in the previous play, O’Neill is able to make this play much more than a mere “rivalry” story. He does this by further developing the conflict between dreams and reality—Sara represents reality, and Deborah represents dreams. Both of them give long, clumsily-worded asides about these ideas. Simon also gives long, clumsily-worded asides, where he laments about how he’s caught between these two forces. In the end, the main conflict is resolved, but the ideological one is not. This makes for a massive cliff-hanger.

Unfortunately, O’Neill’s death means that this cliffhanger will be eternal. However, there’s an interesting book that some scholar wrote about the play cycle as a whole. I haven’t yet read it, but it’s supposed to give an overview of the cycle’s entire plot and thematic development. It’s scant consolation, but at least it’s not a cliff-hanger, and at least it’s not Eudora Welty’s memoir.

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I would love to hear your thoughts about these books, or about any other books you’ve been reading so far. In the meantime, I wish you the best.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Rilke, Beckett, and Flaubert

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and happy and social distancing (and reading). Here are three new books I’ve reviewed:

Letters on Cézanne, by Rainer Maria Rilke“When I made this remark, that there is nothing actually gray in these pictures (in the landscapes, the presence of ocher and of unburnt and burnt earth colors is too palpable for gray to develop), Miss Vollmoeller pointed out to me how, standing among them, one feels a soft and mild gray emanating from them as an atmosphere, and we agreed that the inner equilibrium of Cézanne’s colors, which never stand out or obtrude, evokes this calm, almost velvetlike air which is surely not easily introduced into the hollow inhospitality of the Grand Palais.”

With his many thoughts on poetry, Rilke inspired the “Letters to a Young…” series which included Llosa’s book from last week, for instance.

With his many thoughts about Cézanne, which he also wrote about in letter-form, Rilke inspired the title of this book.

In Letters on Cézanne, Rilke talks about Cézanne in a way that reveals some of the painter’s artistic genius–he describes what Cézanne did, and then goes into the effect this produces (like using enough of a color to achieve the “exact equivalent” of an object). There is much to learn here, both about poetry and painting. And, unlike in a typical art textbook, Rilke doesn’t write about Cézanne in a spirit of detached analysis. Instead, he writes wholly out of admiration, which makes his letters all the more enjoyable to read.

The Lost Ones, by Samuel Beckett

“Press and gloom make recognition difficult. Man and wife are strangers two paces apart to mention only this most intimate of all bonds. Let them move on till they are close enough to touch and then without pausing on their way exchange a look. If they recognize each other it does not appear. Whatever it is they are searching for it is not that.”

For some reason, this short book reminds me both of Abbott Abbott’s Flatland and Zamyatin’s We. Maybe due to its concept-driven nature and detached narrative style. However, this book, while interesting, only really grabs you at the very end, whereas those other aforementioned books grab you sooner.

So what is Beckett’s book about, anyway? It’s a literary experiment. What would happen if a bunch of people were stuck in a cylinder for eternity? Also, how much writing can be gotten out of this topic?

Read this book to find out.

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert“And then one night they came to a fishing village with brown nets drying in the wind all along the huts and under the cliff. Here they would stay, in a little low house with a flat roof and a palm-tree shading it, at the head of a gulf by the sea. They would swing in a hammock or drift in a gondola. Life would be large and easy as their silken garments, all warm and starry as the soft nights they would gaze out upon… And yet, in the vast spaces of that imagined future, no particular phenomenon appeared. The days, all magnificent, were all alike as waves.”

I’m going to sound very harsh in this review, because I expected more from this book.

It has a plot similar to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (a woman has an affair), but its story is inferior. It has a boring beginning, decent middle, and an awful end. The romance becomes contrived, and the entire story becomes predictable after the end of Part 2.

Those are my main gripes with the book. However much it may seem like I hate this book, I don’t. There are many good parts to Flaubert’s novel that deserve mentioning.

Its cast of characters is entertaining, for instance. Each has a subplot which somewhat feeds into the main plot. It reminds me of Charles Dickens in that respect.

Also, Flaubert is great at writing similes. Maybe his style is the reason this book is a classic.

In spite of this novel’s massive stylistic merit, I don’t see how a book could succeed on its language alone. That may be why I’m not as enthusiastic about Madame Bovary as I had previously expected to be.

Hopefully, you might think differently, and gain more enjoyment from it than I did.

In the meantime, keep healthy, keep hopeful, and keep reading!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Llosa, Bernhard, and Saint-Exupéry


Hello. I hope you are all well.

As promised, I will review three books today to promote our collective sanity during this time of collective insanity. Ready?

Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa

“I venture to suggest that you expect not quite so much and that you not count too much on success. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be successful, of course, but if you persevere in writing and publishing, you’ll soon discover that prizes, public acclaim, book sales, the social standing of a writer all have a sui generis appeal; they are extraoardinarily arbitrary, sometimes stubbornly evading those who most deserve them while beseiging and overwhelming those who merit them the least.”

So, there’s a series of books called “The Art of Mentoring” whose titles always begin with “Letters to a Young…” It’s inspired by a bunch of letters written by the Austrian poet, Rainer Marie Rilke (who also wrote Letters on Cézanne), to another person. That book was published as Letters to a Young Poet.

Letters to a Young Novelist is by the Nobel Prize-winning writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, and consists of a bunch of letters written “to” a friend (AKA to the reader). Addressing all of his letters as “Dear Friend” would sound false and contrived were Llosa a politician, but as a writer you get the sense that he means it. It also gives the sense that he’s in solidarity with you, even if the same letters are being read by millions of “friends” worldwide. I guess that makes us all in solidarity together!

Anyway, the letters themselves have some great ideas. However, some of them are more focused on specific craft techniques than on the actual philosophy of writing. One of them analyzes a scene in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, for instance. Even though specific techniques are not as universal as some of his ideas about writing, they’re still interesting to read about.

One observation: I read his notebooks in the Princeton University archives. This was a great privilege. From this, I saw that the majority of the contents of his Letters had their source in an 8 × 12 olive-green notebook he used to teach one of his university classes with. In this notebook, there are no “friends”, only “students.” Also, there’s material in the notebook that didn’t make it into the letters, which is a shame because there’s so much richness in the notebook. However, there’s also stuff in the Letters that are not in the notebook, so it all balances out.

In the end, Letters to a Young Novelist are worth reading. Just know that it’s not as fully detailed in some areas as the notebook itself.

Gargoyles, by Thomas Bernhard

“The essential elements of a person come to light only when we must regard him as lost to us, when everything he has done seems to have been a taking leave of us. Suddenly the true nature of everything about him that was merely preparation for his ultimate death becomes truly visible.”

This book reminded me a lot of O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” in how Bernhard was able to get into his characters’ psyches. It also reminded me a lot of “Hamlet.”

Guess why.

Okay, I’ll give you a hint: the majority of Gargoyles features a potentially-mad prince giving a monologue. Sound familiar?

Bernhard doesn’t describe things in great detail, and his sparse prose suits his subject well, because it’s not the outward events that matter, but the inner ideas. However, due to its lack of an outward plot (other than a doctor’s son following his father around as he visits patients), it may ultimately be less interesting than “Hamlet.”

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to feel shame at the sight of what seems to be unmerited misery. It is to take pride in a victory won by one’s comrades. It is to feel, when setting one’s stone, that one is contributing to the building of the world.”

You may have heard of Saint-Exupéry if you read The Little Prince. Well, he also wrote this memoir about his time flying commercial airmail planes for Aéropostale.

This book is great, even though it has some purple prose. What makes it great is the varied insights about life within. They come from Saint-Exupéry’s experiences flying planes, hearing the stories of his fellow pilots, almost starving to death in the Sahara desert, buying a slave and releasing him, and visiting war-torn Spain. None of the insights come off as second-hand, because all of them come from someone who loved life and who thought deeply about it rather than just letting it happen and accepting what others had to say about it. That makes this book admirable.

In addition to making you think, this book makes you laugh and cry. It is worth reading.

It also inspired The Little Prince, so now you have absolutely no choice but to read it.



I hope you enjoyed my reviews. As always, let me know if you’ve read any of the books. If so, how did you like them?

Stay happy, stay hopeful, and stay healthy!

I Read, Something Young, Something Big, Something Puny, and Something Ancient

Hi everyone. I have read four new books. Well, some of them are young. Others are big, others are puny, and others are from before I existed.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

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“Together they studied the soap ad. ‘”With new radiant action,”‘ repeated Charlotte, slowly. ‘Wilbur!’ she called.  Wilbur, who was asleep in the straw, jumped up. ‘Run around!’ commanded Charlotte. ‘I want to see you in action, to see if you are radiant.’ Wilbur raced to the end of his yard. ‘Now back again, faster! ‘ said Charlotte. Wilbur galloped back. His skin shone. His tail had a fine, tight curl in it. ‘Jump into the air!’ cried Charlotte. Wilbur jumped as high as he could. ‘Keep your knees straight and touch the ground with your ears!’ called Charlotte. Wilbur obeyed. ‘Do a back flip with a half twist in it!’ cried Charlotte. Wilbur went over backwards, writhing and twisting as he went. ‘O.K., Wilbur,’ said Charlotte. ‘You can go back to sleep. O.K., Templeton, the soap ad will do, I guess. I’m not sure Wilbur’s action is exactly radiant, but it’s interesting.'”

My dad read this classic children’s book to me when I was very young. I saw the movie, I saw the movie sequel, and I saw the movie sequel’s sequel. I guess you could call me a big fan.

This book was a joy to revisit. In case you haven’t heard, it’s about a pig named Wilbur who lives on a farm and befriends a spider named Charlotte. The farmer wants to kill Wilbur to sell him for pork. Wilbur is understandably terrified. Charlotte helps Wilbur survive by weaving webs with words in them (such as “terrific” and “radiant”).

Here are a few things that I noticed on the re-read that I didn’t notice on my initial romp through. First, humans are so gullible in that they always refer to Wilbur with the exact words Charlotte wove into her web. It’s like she can brainwash them. She weaves the word “Terrific” and they say, “What a terrific pig!” She weaves the word “Radiant” and they say, “That Wilbur sure is looking radiant today!” and so on. It’s pretty amusing.

I was also struck by some of the book’s musings on mortality. E.B. White weaves (pun intended) this into the book so subtly you barely notice it’s there (at least, I barely noticed it when I read it as a kid). It’s only on the re-read that you truly come to appreciate this part of the book.

 

The Collected Letters of Jack London By Jack London

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“From the hunger of my childhood, cold eyes have looked upon me, or questioned, or snickered and sneered. What hurt above all was that some were my friends– not professed but real friends. I have calloused my exterior and receive the strokes as though they were not; as to how they hurt, no one knows but my own soul and me. So be it. The end is not yet. If I die I shall die hard, fighting to the last, and hell shall receive no fitter inmate than myself. But for good or ill it shall be as it has been– alone [….] I don’t care if the whole present, all I possess, were swept away from me– I will build a new present. If I am left naked and hungry to-morrow– before I give in I will go on naked and hungry; if I were a woman I would prostitute myself to all men but that I would succeed– in short, I will.”

Well, I finished this goliath, as promised in my last post. It had so many letters from Jack London within. They range from when he was just starting out (1898 ish) to when he died in 1916. As a result, they convey a lot about London as he develops into the writer we all know and read.

Some interesting points from the letters: he contradicts himself a lot, yet declares steadfastly that he is committed to telling the truth. Also, at one point he seems to call it quits with his daughter Joan (saying that he no longer takes any interest in her upbringing), only to later on confess that he is interested in seeing her and learning how she is doing. Such contradictions seem to be the essence of humanity. They’re fascinating to read about in other people when you’re so unconscious of them in yourself.

With Borges By Alberto Manguel

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“Absent from the apartment’s bookshelves were his own books. He would proudly tell visitors who asked to see an early edition of his works that he didn’t possess a single volume that carried his ’eminently forgettable’ name. Once, when I was visiting, the postman brought a large parcel containing a deluxe edition of his story ‘The Congress,’ published in Italy by Franco Maria Ricci. It was a huge book, bound and cased in black silk with gold-leaf lettering and printed on handmade blue Fabriano paper, each illustration (the story had been illustrated with Tantric paintings) hand-tipped and each copy numbered. Borges asked me to describe it. He listened carefully and then exclaimed: ‘But that’s not a book, that’s a box of chocolates!’ and proceeded to make a gift of it to the embarrassed post-man.”

This book is much smaller than a box of chocolates. It’s only 100 pages long. I measured it just for kicks. It’s 4 by 7 inches big. You can’t get much punier than that.

Onto the book itself. Apparently when he was older, the famous Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges went blind, and invited strangers to read to him. The author of this memoir was one of those people. He read to Borges when he was a teenager. This book gives fantastic insight into Borges’ personality and writing. You really feel like you knew the writer once you finished it. It’s a pretty quick read, too. It took me less than an hour. It was worth it, though, and now I want to read Borges.

*Bonus: translation of Borges’ quote in the Gif: “I am unfortunately sentimental. I am a very sensitive man. When I write I try to have a certain modesty. And as I write through symbols I never make direct confessions. People think that that symbolism corresponds to a coldness, but it is not so. It is completely the opposite. That symbolism is a form of modesty, and of emotion, of course.” and here’s a link to the video it’s taken from.

Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics by Hegel

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“But even if we abstract from an objective principle of art, and if beauty is to be based on subjective and individual taste, we shall still soon find on the side of art itself that the imitation of nature, which certainly appeared to be a universal principle and one guaranteed by high authority, is at any rate, not to be accepted for this universal and merely abstract form. For if we look at the different arts it will at once be admitted that even if painting and sculpture represent objects which appear like those of nature, or the type of which is essentially borrowed from nature, yet works of architecture […] and the productions of poetry, in as far as they do not confine themselves to mere description, are by no means to be called imitations of nature [….] The end of art must, therefore, lie in something different from the purely formal imitation of what we find given, which in any case can bring to the birth only tricks and not works of art.”

That’s all you basically need to know from this book. While it’s mildly-interesting to read through once, I would hate to take a class where I had to read and re-read this book for study. Two other points of note: Content and form are of equal importance to the production of great art, and irony, while interesting, does not give a subject its full dimensions of meaning.

Other points of less note: Hegel is roundabout and obscure, but his ideas are worth considering in an age where it seems that style is praised over substance in the majority of book reviews out there in this day and age. Okay, maybe you’re better off reading the Sparknotes version. Or Borges. Or Jack London’s letters. Or Charlotte’s Web.

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I hope you enjoyed my reviews. I’d love to hear if you have read any of the books on my list, and what you thought of them if you did.

I Read, and Review my Homework on Rosh Hashana

Hello world! And happy Rosh Hashana! It’s been pretty hectic moving into college, but I’m back with another batch of books. They are all from my homework.

I promise next week will be more interesting, as I’m almost done with a few books I’ve started on for fun. However, because of my huge workload, I’ll probably alternate between writing advice and book reviews every week after next.

Anyway, let’s get down to business:

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

Favorite Quote: “‘When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,’ said Piglet at last, ‘what’s the first thing you say to yourself?’ ‘What’s for breakfast?’ said Pooh. ‘What do you say, Piglet?’ ‘I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ said Piglet. Pooh nodded thoughtfully. ‘It’s the same thing,’ he said.”

I had to read this for a class on the meaning of life. What can a Pooh-bear have to say about the meaning of life? Lots, if he’s named Winnie. Although this book doesn’t feature Tigger, it does feature lessons on life. It’s always better to have friends. Sometimes, we arrive at where we want to go through serendipity rather than through effort. Our minds can create our own fears. I would recommend this book purely for the delightful way it conveys all these meaningful ideas. Also, even though it was my homework, you don’t need to analyze it too deeply to be satisfied.

The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age by Richard Louv

Favorite Quote: “He spoke often and wrote about the transcendant childhood experience that served as a touchstone for his future life and work. ‘It was an early afternoon in May when I first looked down over the scene and saw the meadow,’ he wrote. ‘A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something, I know not what, that seems to explain my life at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember.'”

Do you like nature? Do you like it more than your phone? Richard Louv argues that you should. His book describes the joys to be had in nature, how it improves us as people, and how it can be used in our lives. I didn’t find the book to be the most interesting one out there, but it certainly got me thinking about nature. Also, it was a quick read, and I actually liked it more than my phone.

Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

Favorite Quote: “For example, there used to be a point for an urban child, an important moment when there was a first time to navigate the city alone. It was a rite of passage that communicated to children that they were on their own and responsible. If they were frightened, they had to experience those feelings. The cell phone buffers this moment.”

This was another book that I read for class. It was much more interesting than Louv’s book. It read like a Nova science documentary in book form. Also, whereas Louv’s writing is somewhat redundant (he cites the same statistic three or so times as if it were new each time), this author’s concision enables her to not only discuss harmful effects of technology, but also the potential for robots to replace humans as companions. Turkle even makes an important observation that parents may spend more time with their phones than with their children. The child thus grows up to become narcissistic, to overcompensate for the neglect they faced as a youth.

I hope you have enjoyed my reviews. I prefer fiction to nonfiction, but in the interest of my grades, most of what I have read has been nonfiction. However, I expect to be reviewing some fiction sometime in the future. Stay tuned!