Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: King, Süskind, and London

Hello! Happy 2022! I hope that you are all enjoying your holiday season with many books and much good health. If there’s snow near you, I also hope that you are staying warm and safe.

Last time, I reviewed several not-so-uplifting books. This time, I’ll kick 2022 off with one book that’s slightly more inspiring…

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King

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“I asked him once what the posters meant to him, and he gave me a peculiar, surprised sort of look. ‘Why, they mean the same thing to me as they do to most cons, I guess,’ he said. ‘Freedom. You look at those pretty women and you feel like you could almost …not quite but almost …step right through and be beside them. Be free.”

This was the first Stephen King book I ever read, and it was good. It wasn’t as amazing as I thought it would be, though, considering all the hype. Maybe it’s because I already saw the movie and knew the ending.

For the first time in my life, I’d actually say that the movie was somewhat better than the book, because it emphasized some important through-lines more and made better choices than the book about certain side-characters. Also, the book was less of an experience and more of a mystery—once you knew its solution, there wasn’t much left to experience in the book.

Meanwhile, the movie was more of an experience (since film is basically about experiencing things by watching them on-screen). So even knowing the solution to the mystery didn’t take away from the glory of reliving that experience.

In any case, I enjoyed this book. It was definitely well-written, and I hope that there are other Stephen King books out there that I can read in the future that are just as good, if not better. Do you have any recommendations?

Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, Translated by John E. Woods

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[A long quote but worth it!] “And [Father Terrier] rocked the basket gently on his knees, stroking the infant’s head with his finger and repeating ‘poohpeedooh’ from time to time, an expression he thought had a gentle, soothing effect on small children [….] Terrier wrenched himself to his feet and set the basket on the table. He wanted to get rid of the thing, as quickly as possible, right away if possible, immediately if possible. And then it began to wail. It squinted up its eyes, gaped its gullet wide, and gave a screech so repulsively shrill that the blood in Terrier’s veins congealed. He shook the basket with an outstretched hand and shouted ‘Poohpeedooh’ to silence the child, but it only bellowed more loudly and turned completely blue in the face and looked as if it would burst from bellowing.”

This book is about a kid who has a wonderful sense of smell but doesn’t smell of anything himself. Oh yeah, and he’s a murderer.

Given that I first heard of this book on an International Baccalaureate reading list, I thought it would be kind of stuffy and literary. To my great surprise and delight, it was actually very funny (while also being literary).

The author clearly enjoyed writing this book, in the way Tolstoy clearly enjoyed writing War and Peace. When the writer really likes what he or she is writing about, it comes across to the reader and makes the reading experience so much fun. These kinds of books are so much better than books where the author’s clearly just trying to come across as witty or sophisticated without deeply caring about what he or she is writing about.

Anyway, the unexpected humor, great plotting, strong characterization, and amazing twist (the book feels almost like speculative fiction at certain points) makes Perfume a super-recommendable book.

Martin Eden, by Jack London

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“It was the finest thing yet that [Martin Eden] had seen in this small glimpse of that [upper-class] world. He was moved deeply by appreciation of it, and his heart was melting with sympathetic tenderness. He had starved for love all his life. His nature craved love. It was an organic demand of his being. Yet he had gone without, and hardened himself in the process. He had not known that he needed love. Nor did he know it now. He merely saw it in operation, and thrilled to it, and thought it fine, and high, and splendid.”

If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, you may remember that I listed London’s autobiographical novel Martin Eden as an “honorable mention” in my Top Ten Books I Read in High School post. I reread it recently for a paper I had to write. It was so good.

Martin Eden is about a sailor named Russ Brissenden Martin Eden (!) who meets a high-society girl named Ruth, and falls in love with her. But he needs to have a steady career in order to get her parents to agree for them to get married. So, like all practical men seeking a steady career, Martin decides that he will become a famous writer. Poverty ensues, but love endures (or does it?)

Cheesy summary aside, I didn’t realize how good this book was until I actually analyzed it. See, Jack London seemed to think that his protagonist was driven by consistent selfish individualism, and that’s easy enough to accept when you read the book once and don’t think too hard (or at all) about it.

However, when reading the book closely, it became obvious that Martin was just driven by his need for love (I could go on and on about this, but basically his need for love was a much more consistent and clear motive for Martin’s actions than any kind of individualism). If Martin’s need for love was such a clear motive (in contrast to all those times Martin explicitly told himself he was a poor excuse for an individualist), why did London still insist that his book was about Martin’s individualism?

Keeping in mind that I could also be wrong, we could go on to speculate that deep down, London knew the book’s dominant through-line wasn’t individualism, but that he insisted otherwise to cover up insecurities or other things he didn’t want to admit (imagine a tough guy like London saying his latest book was about craving love).

Anyway. For a guy who might have been lying to himself, London still had the guts to make this a consistent thread throughout his story, even if in the end he underemphasized that thread and tried to hide it beneath unconvincing thematic stuff about individualism. And even in spite of all the stuff about individualism, London’s book still possessed remarkable insight due to that partially-smothered thread. That’s what made the book so good, in my view.

So if you’re a writer, it might be a good idea to really know why you write, and if you’re a reader, it might be an interesting idea to reread some old favorites.

If you just want to know if I would recommend this book, I definitely would, and I’d be curious to hear any thoughts you might have about it.

 Also, if you want to listen to a great Bill Hughes song about Martin Eden…

Happy New Year!

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: Żeromski, Korelitz, and London

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scarlet Plague, by Jack London

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

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

No wonder. The book was written in 1915.

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: 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: Voinovich

In Which I Review “The Life & Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin,” by Vladimir Voinovich.

Hello! I’ve only had time to review one book this week due to my weekend being taken up with a very interesting playwrighting workshop. However, the book I’ve reviewed is very funny, and I’m surprised it’s not better-known.

The Life & Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, By Vladimir Voinovich, Translated by Richard Lourie

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“Balashkov opened up a standard cardboard-covered notebook and began to read in a loud, expressive voice without using a single word of his own. While Balashkov read, the soldiers found ways to pass the time. One hid behind another’s back and was carried away by Madame Bovary, two others played a game of Sea Battle, whereas Chonkin abandoned himself to thought. From his close observation of life and his fathoming of life’s laws, Chonkin had understood that it is usually warm in the summer and cold in the winter.”

This book is about a soldier named Ivan Chonkin who has been sent to guard a plane that has crashed in the middle of a village. Meanwhile, World War II has broken out. Ivan is oblivious. He’s also forgotten, until one day the Soviet army learns of a strange soldier in one of their villages. Well, maybe it’s an enemy! If that’s so, then they have to arrest him! So they go to arrest Ivan Chonkin. Only he puts up a resistance…

One can clearly see the influence of Gogol in this book. It had Gogol’s kind of slapstick humor to it. At the same time, it had its own sense of self. For instance, there was a part where two characters, pretending to be German soldiers, were trying and failing to speak German to each other but tried to keep it up anyway. That scene was even funnier than Gogol.

Ivan Chonkin was also a very good critique of un-individualistic thinking. It mentioned labor camps and satirized Stalin, and I was surprised that it managed to be published in the Soviet Union. Well, actually, it got its author expelled from the USSR in the 1970s. It figures.

In any case, the person who recommended this book to me said it was the funniest book he’d ever read. While it wasn’t the funniest book I had ever read, it was definitely in my top five (along with The Overcoat, A Double Life, Tortilla Flat, and Three Men in a Boat).

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Pavlova, Schiller, and Aitmatov

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I’ve read three more books this week. One’s hilarious, one’s serious, and one literally made me cry.

A Double Life, by Karolina Pavlova,
Translated by Barbara Heldt

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First Excerpt (The Prose):

“It was the same simple story once again, old and forever new! It was true that Dmitry was captivated by Cecily. The magnetism of other people’s opinions always had an astonishing effect on him. Seeing her that evening, so dazzling and so surrounded, he could not fail to be satisfied with her and far more satisfied with himself. He was one of those weak creatures who grow drunk on success. At that moment, he was no longer merely calculating: he saw himself placed higher than all the rest by Cecily, higher even than Prince Victor, the arrogant object of his secret envy; and his head began to turn.”

Second Excerpt (The Poetry):

“Because for the universe this is/An inexhaustible blessing,/For holy gifts are everywhere/Where there is someone to understand them./For every creature of the world/Must, fulfilling its existence,/Contribute its own fragrance,/Shine with its own light through the darkness.”

This book was written by Karolina Pavlova, and it was so good it made all the men of 1800s-era Russia jealous of her. For good reason. Who among them (aside from people like Gogol and Lermontov) could ever hope to write a book so good? None of them.

Anyway, this book is about a woman named Cecily who has a double life. During the daytime (which is told in prose), she is everything a 1800s-era Russian woman should be–pretty, demure, submissive to others’ whims, and mindlessly conforming.

At night, she has dreams that are expressed in poetry. These dreams express her true essence, and are anything but mindlessly conforming.

The prose sections are hilarious. They’re as funny as Gogol (only without the absurdism). The poetry sections are also very good. They’re beautiful and moving and full of substance, and their sincerity makes a nice counterbalance for the humorous prose sections.

Overall, this is a severely-underrated book that should be recognized as a classic. Her contemporaries weren’t up for the challenge of admitting a brilliant woman into their ranks. Hopefully now we can read her book ourselves and see it for the great piece of literature it is.

“Wallenstein’s Camp,” by Friedrich von Schiller,
Translated by Charles E. Passage

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“For Art, which binds and limits everything,/Brings all extremes back to the sphere of Nature./It sees this man [Wallenstein] amid the press of life/And shows the greater half of his wrong-doing/To be the guilt of inauspicious stars.”

This play is a historical dramatization of the story of a General named Wallenstein who fought during the Thirty Years’ War and was murdered.

Was Wallenstein’s guilt really the result of inauspicious stars? I don’t know yet because I only read the first part of the play which doesn’t even include him. Instead, “Wallenstein’s Camp” focuses on what its title suggests.

It’s interesting because there are soldiers who are sick of being soldiers and just want to have fun via gambling and debauchery. Meanwhile, there’s a priest who comes and tries to chastise them for this behavior, only to be chased away. In other words, Schiller was great at showing the overall dynamics at play within a large group of soldiers in an unexpectedly-interesting way.

Something else interesting about the play is that at the beginning of it, a peasant named Piccolomini plays with a loaded die and gets chased out of the game by his enraged fellow-players. Yet at the end of this section, the soldiers magically forget their anger and enthusiastically decide to let him be the bearer of some important news.

How much of this was a result of inauspicious stars and how much of it was just human forgetfulness? What does it have to do with Wallenstein? We may never know, but hopefully the second part of the play (promisingly called “The Piccolominis”) will reveal some answers to this mystery.

The White Ship, by Chingiz Aitmatov,
Translated by Mirra Ginsburg

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“At the bank [his uncle] squatted down, dipped his hands into the water and splashed it on his face. ‘I guess he’s got a headache from the heat,’ the boy decided when he saw what Orozkul was doing. He did not know that Orozkul was crying and could not stop. That he was crying because it was not his son who came running to meet him and because he had not found within himself the [?] needed that was needed to say at least a human word or two to this boy with his school bag.”

This book was so sad. I literally cried after reading it.

It’s about a boy who was abandoned by his parents at a young age. He lives with his grandparents. If he climbs a certain hill he can see the distant sea. Every now and then, a white ship appears. The boy believes that his father is on the ship, and he wants to become a fish to swim after the ship. In the meantime, he has to contend with his abusive uncle and find solace in the legends told by his kind grandfather.

This is one of Aitmatov’s better books because unlike some of them, it isn’t melodramatic. This ties into something that helped make it sad: its amazing telling details.

We learn that the boy feels lonely not because Aitmatov writes, “Oh! He felt so lonely!” Instead, Aitmatov describes how the boy plays alone and talks to his schoolbag as if it’s a real person, because he has nobody else to confide in.

There were also mythological elements that paralleled the main story. They eventually played a role in the story. I won’t spoil how, but it was very impactful and reminded me of another masterpiece by Aitmatov called The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years.

Overall, The White Ship had a lot of heart and insight into the nature of kindness and indifference. If you’re okay with crying, definitely read this. It’s short and devastating, but totally worth it.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Nurpeisov, Nurpeisov, and Nurpeisov

In Which I Review An Underrated Epic…

Hello! I’ve read a 700-page book this past week (somehow). It was very fun to read, and it felt very close to being a great book.

I’ll start with my review and end with some favorite quotes.

Blood & Sweat, by Abdi-Jamil Nurpeisov,
Translated by Catherine Fitzpatrick

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Blood & Sweat is an epic novel set in Kazakhstan before and during the Russian Civil War. It’s about several characters, but mostly, it’s about a Kazakh named Elaman who lives in an aul (nomadic settlement) near the Aral Sea. He falls in and out of love with various women, struggles to find his place as Russian influence increases, and eventually finds himself fighting for his life during the Civil War.

This book (which consists of three smaller Books) read a lot like a Kazakh version of Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. Yes, Blood & Sweat was less consistent in quality, and it had a LOT of typos. Even so, the typos should be ignored, since parts of Blood & Sweat actually felt broader and richer than Roth’s book. Nurpeisov was especially good at bringing several characters together and having them unexpectedly impact each other. Character A might seem unimportant until he stumbles upon the major Character B and kills him, for instance.

The characters quarreled a lot, though. Especially in Book 2, some of the quarrels felt melodramatic and repetitive. Also, Blood & Sweat seemed to underuse its female characters. For instance, one of Elaman’s love-interests only thought of him, and how excited she was to make his dinner every night and care for his kids. Meanwhile, the men thought about their wives, but they also thought about things like the meaning of life and how they would adapt to the changing aul. Given that the men had this range of thoughts, it would have been realistic for at least a few of the women to also have complex thoughts. So, the repetitive bouts of melodramatic arguing and underused female characters meant that parts of this book felt less well-written than they could have been.

Book 3 was the best in my opinion. Whereas the earlier books didn’t usually have the characters being compassionate towards each other, this last book did! It was surprising to me how much of a difference it made to see characters caring about each other. In fact, some of the best moments in the book came out of this dynamic, since they helped the characters become less cardboard-y and feel much more human.

Also, the characters tended to gain more depth as the book went on. Character A would seem like an absolute jerk, but then two hundred pages later Nurpeisov would describe his backstory and the character would become much more sympathetic/relatable. So the book’s psychological texture (especially nearer the end) was excellent.

To me, the author’s sympathy for his characters, as well as the characters’ eventual sympathy for each other was what made the epic cast of characters so effective.

Overall, Blood & Sweat was really good. It was uneven in quality (with some truly great scenes intermixed with some less-great scenes). Even so, while it was consistently uneven, it was also consistently engaging and entertaining to read. So if you can read it, definitely read it.

Now, as promised, here are some favorite scenes/excerpts:

“The broken boards of the boat crushed Andrei’s legs, and [he] fell out onto the ice, and shouted, ‘Jalmurat!’ Jalmurat did not answer. Then Andrei, his fingernails ripping off, grabbed his frozen coat, dragged him on the ice, and began breathing into his mouth. ‘Hey!’ he called Jalmurat, shaking him. ‘Can you hear me? Can you hear…’ And only now did he notice that Jalmurat’s arms and legs had turned to stone. Jalmurat was dead. Andrei was so frightened that he was about to drag Jalmurat’s body away, when he caught himself, and dropped him. Then in a delirium, he meandered along somewhere with the wind […] In the darkness, he didn’t notice a crack in the ice beneath him. He tripped over the crack, plunged forward, and fell flat on the ice, breaking his face. He lay for a while, and then tried to get up. The storm wind blew all the powder off the ice, and the ice was smooth and strong as glass.” (From Book 1)

“[Kalen said…] ‘I will not die before my death.'” (From Book 1)

The steppe slowly awakened. Thawed by the spring sun, it dosed and breathed steam. Near the auls, in the depths of a ravine overgrown with meadowsweet, where the sun didn’t reach, yellowish snow still gleamed on the ground, like a souvenir dropped by the stern guest who had only recently stormed through the steppe.” (From Book 2)

After finally finding a bit to eat, and having a drink of hot tea, Dyakov felt his eyelids were growing heavy again. He wanted nothing more than to fall asleep, even right here at the table.  […] he hadn’t noticed how Selivanov had moved his chair closer and sat down next to him. He hadn’t sensed the pitying gaze of his host, either. His thin body was bent on the [chair]. He sat obliviously, with his head on his chest, although at the edge of awareness he realized that it was time for him to return to the regiment. ‘Pyotr Yalovlevich, lie down in the bed,’ said Selivanov, touching his shoulder. ‘No, no,’ Dyakov said, rousing himself. ‘Thank you. I’ll leave now.’ […] ‘Pyotr Yakovlevich…’ ‘Yes?’ ‘You have probably had a hard time in life, eh?’ ‘Hmm… Do you have anything to smoke?’ ‘But you’re not allowed?’ ‘Although…yes, of course. What time is it?’ ‘It’s after 1:00 AM.’ ‘I’ll go.’ […] Recalling Selivanov’s question, whether he had had a hard life, he suddenly laughed and said, in a singsong voice, ‘You know, “…fate gave him a brief age, a glorious name, consumption and Siberia…” That’s how it is, brother. Well, goodbye!’ And after shaking Selivanov’s warm, soft hand, Dyakov went out into the night’s gloom.” (From Book 3)

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kavan, Wooding, and Ibsen

In Which I Review Anna Kavan’s “Ice,” Chris Wooding’s “Storm Thief,” and Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe (and hopefully getting vaccinated). I’ve reviewed three books for you this week.

Ice, by Anna Kavan

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“I was more interested in closer details. Piles of stones, coils of wire, concrete blocks and other materials for dealing with the coming emergency. Hoping to see something that would provide a clue to the nature of the expected crisis, I went nearer the edge, looked down at the unprotected drop at my feet. ‘Take care!’ he warned, laughing. ‘You could easily slip here, or lose your balance. The perfect spot for a murder, I always think.’ His laugh sounded so peculiar that I turned to look at him. He came up to me saying, ‘Suppose I give you a little push, like this.'”

Will the protagonist survive? Won’t he? Read the book to find out.

The book itself is about a guy who’s going around the world in search of a girl. The Girl is being confined by an abusive dictator-like figure called the Warden (yes they names are capitalized). Meanwhile, the world is slowly becoming covered by ice (like it does whenever Earth becomes a snowball). Also, during this whole book, the protagonist is on medications that make him hallucinate entire scenes. But it gets better. Even though the protagonist is trying to save the Girl from the Warden, the protagonist might turn out to be just as cruel as the Warden…

This is a very underrated book. Basically, Kavan’s a genius.

What makes her a genius is that in spite of the sometimes-confusing hallucinations, she was still able to develop the book’s intellectual ideas very clearly. Also, unlike some other great writers like Joseph Roth, Anna Kavan was actually able to pace her narrative and her ideas in a way that allowed them to develop throughout the book instead of shoving a thesis at us right away and using the rest of the book to repeat that same point without developing it further. So for instance, it’s clear that lemurs are a symbol for salvation, but it’s not explicitly clear what that salvation entails until the protagonist encounters lemurs later on and has to make a decision about them.

This lack of thematic dogmatism also meant that instead of the protagonist being shoehorned into thematically-convenient coincidences (as in Roth), Kavan let him figure things out for himself, which made for a more human (and actually a more thematically-powerful) ending.

So considering that aspects of Kavan’s book are arguably better-written than Roth’s classic (since it achieves something even he couldn’t do), shouldn’t Kavan’s book also be considered a classic?

It should be. It has intellectual depth, it’s told with compassion, and it’s written extremely well. Obviously this is just my subjective take on Kavan’s book, and Roth may not be the best comparison to make, but hopefully it gives a general sense of how good Kavan was, and why you should read her book for yourself.

(More on Kavan, and Ice).

Storm Thief, by Chris Wooding

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“The golem gazed at her for a time. ‘I think I was made to be a killer,’ he said. Moa put her hand on the back of his. It was cold. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘I saw you. It’s okay.’ Vago was shocked, not only at her reaction, but at the fact that she was voluntarily touching him. ‘Aren’t you scared?’ he asked. ‘Of you?’ she said, and laughed softly. ‘I’m not scared of you, Vago. We’re both outcasts, you and I. We should stick together.'”

This book was one of the best books I read in middle school and it still holds up pretty well now. It’s about a boy named Rail and a girl named Moa who live in the island city of Orokos, stealing in exchange for protection from their boss. Upon filching a mysterious artifact, they realize its powers could help them finally leave criminal life behind, so they betray their boss and run away. With the help of a golem, they have to escape probability storms (storms which could rearrange whole streets, turn people into glass, etc.), a totalitarian government, and (least importantly) their boss’s wrath.

Anyway, so this book was pretty good. Yes, some minor plot-twists were just rip-offs of popular tropes, but most of the story felt original enough for that to not matter as much. Also, some of the non-tropey twists were actually still surprising.

Yes, some characters weren’t developed as much as they could have been (Rail’s whole mission in life was to protect Moa, but surely people are more complicated than that). Even so, the characters felt developed enough for parts of the book to have emotional impact.

And yes, sometimes the dialogue was too on-the-nose about themes (along the lines of “the power of friendship never works!”). The good news is that Wooding was very good at integrating setting and all the other aspects of his book into substantiating the themes he was expressing. Details about the world weren’t just scattered in to make the setting seem exotic– they’d go on to be developed to have some thematic resonance. Also, since the setting informed the themes, the story’s ideas went deeper than “two kids discover XYZ” to “society itself is this way partly because of XYZ.”

So in spite of its flaws, I’d still recommend this book because it has something to say and it says it in an entertaining and powerful way.

“A Doll’s House,” by Henrik Ibsen,
Translated by R. Farquharson Sharp

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“HELMER: I’d gladly work night and day for you, Nora, and endure sorrow and poverty for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honor for the one he loves.
NORA: Hundreds of thousands of women have done it.”

This play is about a man named Torvald and his wife Nora. They’re happily married, except for the fact that Torvald bases his sense of self on the idea that his wife is a helpless little “songbird” who he has to always take care of. Meanwhile, Nora has gone into debt for the sake of secretly paying for Torvald’s tuberculosis treatment. Now she has to figure out how to secretly get herself out of debt without ruining Torvald’s sense of self.

I read this play back in high school and I liked it. Rereading it was more interesting. I was better able to appreciate just how much strength Nora had and how much Torvald underestimated her.

I also thought that the side-characters were well-drawn. Krogstad (the man Nora was in debt to) could’ve just been portrayed as the antagonist. However, since Torvald was the one really causing all the problems in the play, Ibsen’s decision to portray Krogstad sympathetically helped show how much of a jerk Torvald was by contrast.

Chekhov said the characters in Ibsen don’t talk like real people. I agree. But what made Ibsen’s dialogue good anyway was the fact that the characters all kept secrets from each other. A lot of the play was just Nora trying hard to keep her husband from learning she was in debt. With other characters either trying to help her keep the secret or reveal it to her husband, the dialogue basically had no choice but to be good as a result.

Also, the dialogue helped a lot to keep the plot moving. If the main problem seemed like it was at risk of being sidelined by irrelevant conversation, another character would burst in and say something like, “Nora! Now that you’ve refused to pay me, I wrote a letter about your debt!” to bring it back into focus.

This was probably what Ibsen was best at. He kept the tension up and moved the plot along through character dialogue, and that dialogue flowed wonderfully because it was a consequence of previous choices made by the characters.

Finally, considering the fact that Ibsen was a man writing this in 1879, he wrote a pretty good piece of feminism, too.

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Teffi, Asemkulov, and Pushkin

Hello! I hope you’re enjoying your summer. I’ve read three books this week. They’re all short, so my reviews of them will be short, too. Enjoy!

Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi, by Teffi,
Edited by Robert Chandler and Anne Marie Jackson

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“Also, Liza’s family had four golden grand pianos at home, but they were hidden in the hayloft, so that nobody could see them. Also, nobody ever ate dinner at Liza’s house. Instead, there was a big cupboard in the hall that was always full of roast chickens. If anyone was hungry, all he had to do was to poke his head into the cupboard, eat a chicken, and go on his way. Also, Liza had fourteen velvet dresses, but she only wore them at night so that nobody would see them. In the daytime she hid them in the kitchen under the big pot they used for making pastry.”

This is a book that I was interested in ever since I read this article about her in The Paris Review. A writer as great as Chekhov? Yes!

This book contains various stories and reminiscences by Teffi. Given the praise in the above article, I foolishly thought that every story in the book would be as good as or better than Chekhov’s “The Lady With The Dog.” Well, they weren’t, except for “Staging Posts,” which I thought was the best story in the collection, and “The Merezhkovskys” which was a very well-done sketch of two writers that Teffi met.

The other stories were pretty good, though, and the book as a whole was entertaining and recommendable.

A Life at Noon, by Talasbek Asemkulov,
Translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega

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“He crossed the river of life with his thoughts, and also with the troubles, the pain, the joys of other people. He accepted every sunrise as a gift from Tengri. To be a man, you must survive many things. Being a man is a first requirement for any form of art. His father was a man who knew his own worth. Someone who knows his worth and can lift up another person, lift up all the people.”

This book was so good. I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

It’s about a boy named Azhigerei who grows up in Soviet-era Kazakhstan and learns to play the dombra from his father. It’s also the first post-Soviet novel from Kazakhstan that was translated into English.

I thought it was very good because it had a lot of interesting ideas, engaging situations, super-vivid characters, and a huge emotional impact. Also, the execution was great. For instance, someone like Dostoyevsky could ramble on forever about intellectual ideas and bore certain readers, but someone like Asemkulov could do the same and make readers care.

So I’d highly recommend this book.

Tales, by Alexander Pushkin, Illustrated by Oleg Zotov

I read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin but I never really appreciated how good he was at rhyming until I read this book.

The stories were entertaining, too (especially “Tsar Dadon”), and the illustrations were fun to look at.

So if you’re looking for a super-short read that’s great for all ages, I’d definitely recommend Pushkin’s Tales.

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Yezierska and Jerome

Hello! Happy almost-Purim. I’ve read two books this week, one Purim-related, one boat-related. You can probably guess which is which.

Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska

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“I pressed my face against the earth. All that was left of me reached out in prayer, ‘God, I’ve gone so far. Help me to go on [….] Help me not to want their little happiness. I have wanted their love more than my life. Help me be bigger than this hunger in me. Give me the love that can live without love.’ Darkness and stillness washed over me. Slowly I stumbled to my feet and looked up at the sky. The stars in their infinite peace seemed to pour their healing light into me. I thought of captives in prison, the sick and the suffering from the beginning of time who had looked to these stars for strength. What was my little sorrow to the centuries of pain which those stars had watched? So near they seemed. So compassionate. My bitter hurt seemed to grow small and drop away. If I must go on alone, I should still have silence and the high stars to walk with me.”

Bread Givers was written in the 1920s and is also set in the 1920s. It’s about a girl named Sara who grows up in a Jewish-American family in New York City. Her super-religious and self-centered father forces her three older sisters to marry wealthy-seeming men who make them miserable. Sara decides she doesn’t want to be married off and pursues a college degree instead.

I was very inspired by Sara’s strong sense of self. She was tempted to sacrifice herself and her ideals to marry a wealthy handsome man. She didn’t, since she knew herself well enough to realize she wouldn’t ever be happy in such an arrangement. Considering the fact that the book was written in the 1920s, this aspect of her character was especially striking.

There were two other things that stood out to me about the book. First, even though there were some very unsympathetic characters, such as Sara’s father, there would always be a part in the book that portrayed them in a sympathetic way. I still didn’t like Sara’s father, but these flashes of sympathy helped me understand why he was who he was. This sense of nuance enriched the story and made it better.

The other thing that stood out to me was the ending. Obviously I won’t spoil it. I will say that sometimes you read a book’s ending and it works very well. It may not have been expected but you could tell that the author put a lot of thought into it and realized that such an ending could be the only possible ending. These endings are very rare. I felt that the ending of Bread Givers was one of them.

One warning: The book was sort of sentimental at points. Some characters wept and wailed and banged their heads against the wall. This felt melodramatic because there are too many characters in the world who’ve done exactly the same thing. This melodrama was rare, though. I still recommend the book wholeheartedly.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome

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“I always determine […] that I’ll get up early every morning, and go and have a dip before breakfast [….] But when I get to the sea I don’t feel somehow that I want that early morning bathe nearly so much as I did when I was in town [….] Once or twice virtue has triumphed, and I have got out at six and half-dressed myself, and have taken my drawers and towel, and stumbled dismally off [….] And when I do get to the sea, it is rough and quite insulting. One huge wave catches me up and chucks me in a sitting posture, as hard as ever it can, down on to a rock which has been put there for me. And, before I’ve said ‘Oh! Ugh!’ and found out what has gone, the wave comes back and carries me out to mid-ocean. I begin to strike out frantically for the shore, and wonder if I shall ever see home and friends again, and wish I’d been kinder to my little sister when a boy (when I was a boy, I mean). Just when I have given up all hope, a wave retires and leaves me sprawling like a star-fish on the sand, and I get up and look back and find that I’ve been swimming for my life in two feet of water. I hop back and dress, and crawl home, where I have to pretend I liked it.”

This book is about three friends, “J”, George, and Harris, who go on a boat ride down the river Thames to cure themselves of “overwork.” They also take their dog with them.

Three Men in a Boat was great. The characters got into all sorts of mishaps which reminded them of previous mishaps and even future mishaps. 99% of the mishaps were hilarious. Three Men in a Boat also had some sober parts in it. Sometimes they felt cheesy but other times they were beautiful. Overall they helped vary the tone and made the funny parts funnier.

Anyway, I was laughing my way through this book, thinking that Jerome K. Jerome really knew how funny life was these days. Then about halfway through, I got to this line: “There is no more thrilling sensation I know of than sailing. It comes as near to flying as man has got to yet—except in dreams.” I also started seeing all these references to “nowadays in the 19th century.” This made me realize that this extraordinarily fresh-seeming book had been written in the 1800s, before airplanes had even been invented. So much for stuffy old writers!

Read it and weep (with laughter).