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).

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov, Gogol, and Aitmatov Again

Hello! I hope you’re well, and if there’s a blizzard raging around outside, I hope you’re also warm. I’ve reviewed three more books. If you’re warm enough to read at least one of them, I would highly encourage reading the last book.

On Craftsmanship, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“Man should think about everything, even about the end of the world…What is the power of the human spirit, how does man overcome the cruel obstacles which confront him, what gives man the right to be human and say, in reviewing his life: ‘I lived and knew life’? These questions are unavoidable for an artistic understanding of reality, no matter what the subject.”

On Craftsmanship is a collection of essays written by the greatest underrated writer ever, Chingiz Aitmatov. The essays express his views on various topics from writing to space-travel to world peace. Aitmatov also gives a brief autobiography which was one of the more interesting parts of the book.

Aside from his autobiography, other rewarding parts of the book were about how he approached his works and his ideas about art’s role in society. Other parts read more like propaganda (apparently Aitmatov wrote the book while Kyrgyzstan was still part of the USSR).

He also had a whole essay about the unprecedented technological advances of the 1970s, and another essay about how humanity was slowly but surely starting to threaten nature. Given the technological advances of the 2000s and the unprecedented level of global warming we’ve been experiencing, these essays felt a bit outdated.

In the end, On Craftsmanship gave me a better sense of how Aitmatov thought, but it didn’t change my life.

Dead Souls, Part 2, by Nikolai Gogol

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“‘You will do well to harken unto Him who is merciful,’ he said, ‘but remember also that in the eyes of the All Merciful, honest toil is of equal merit with a prayer. Therefore take unto yourself whatsoever task you may and do it as though you were doing it not unto man but unto God. Even though to your lot there should fall but the cleaning of a floor, clean that floor as though it were being cleaned for Him alone.’”

Dead Souls originally had two parts to it, but Gogol tried to burn away the second part. In my review of the first part, I foolishly thought that since the second part still existed, Gogol had utterly failed. Actually reading the infinitely-disappointing second part made me realize how wrong I was.

The second part begins with Gogol giving the life-story of a new character. The character meets Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, the protagonist of Dead Souls Part 1. Things seem to be going along swimmingly. Then there’s what my version termed “a long hiatus in the original” (also known as a missing part) and we never hear from that character again. Chichikov gets into all kinds of trouble, and we encounter more long hiatuses in the original, after which we find Chichikov magically wanting to change his ways. Irrelevant characters come and go, convenient coincidences and deus ex machinas abound, and whole reams of previously-undisclosed backstory unfurl themselves before the reader’s bewildered gaze. We wonder: Will Chichikov change his ways? Won’t he? The suspense nearly kills us.

I’m not giving anything away: the original ends with an infinite hiatus.

So my suggestion to you is to read the first part and then take a hiatus from the book before you reach the second part. Better yet, make that hiatus an infinite one.

Piebald Dog Running Along The Shore, by Chingiz Aitmatov, Translated by Alex Miller

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“‘Drink,’ said Organ. Kirisk hesitated. Although dying of thirst and eager to empty those few swallows of water down his own throat, he knew he must not. ‘No,’ he said, struggling with the consuming desire inside him. ‘No, Grandad, drink it yourself.’ And he felt giddy. Organ’s hand trembled at these words and he sighed heavily. His gaze softened and he looked affectionately at the boy. ‘I’ve drunk, oh, so much water in my time. But you have a long time to live yet before…’ He did not finish. ‘You understand me, Kirisk? Drink, it’s necessary, you must drink up, but don’t worry about me. Here!’ And again, as he swallowed the water, only for a moment did the boy feel the fire within him dampened and subdued, and again, after the relief, he promptly wanted another drink.”

Guess what? This story isn’t about a dog. It’s about a kid named Kirisk who’s going seal-hunting for the first time in his life with his grandfather, his father, and his uncle. Kirisk is very excited about this rite of passage, but little does he know how life-changing the expedition is going to be…

This story reminded me a lot of Jack London in the way Aitmatov depicted the harsh wilderness. However this story was richer than most of Jack London’s stories because Aitmatov also got across so much about his characters’ inner lives.

What makes the story work seems to be that Aitmatov alternates between showing characters’ thoughts and flashbacks and having them act. The thoughts increase the stakes of their situation which gives their actions more meaning. Then the actions produce unforeseen consequences which go on to reverberate through the next series of thoughts, which further heighten the stakes and so on. Basically, Aitmatov uses both internal and external events to build up suspense, tension, and investment, and since it all culminates in one epic final moment, the whole story is filled with a sense of direction and momentum. Who knew that reading about people drifting around in a canoe could be so engrossing? I didn’t.

You can read it for free here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reginald in Russia, and Other Sketches, by Saki

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Faqiri

Hi everyone, I’m going to write very briefly today because of school. However, I did want to tell you some great news and to introduce you to a great writer.

First the great news: I wrote a novelette about a year ago that has just been accepted for publication. It’s the first time I’m being paid for my fiction. I’m very excited to share more details with you when the story comes out in September 2021.

Now, here’s the great writer:

“The Doleful Village”, by Amin Faqiri, Translated by Iraj Bashiri

“It was at dusk when Dadkhoda and his son entered my room. I was lighting the lantern. Dadkhoda sat down. His son, too, sprawled himself on the floor beside the father. I put more air in the lantern. It caused the kerosene to overflow and the lantern to be set aflame. Dadkhoda said, ‘You should have given the lantern more time to warm up.'”

I read this story about two days ago and still can’t stop thinking about it. The plot doesn’t matter as much as the way the events are arranged and juxtaposed to make an impact. To get that aspect across I’d need to spoil the story. I won’t do that.

I’ll tell you some things about it though. It’s about a man who tells another man about his family. The family has a bull that dies, and the village believes that the man’s wife put a jinx on the bull for it to die. In the present, the family’s young kid wants to go to school.

See? Nothing’s interesting about it, but there are connections between the events that make them all gain in meaning. At the end, it has a huge impact.

The best thing you can do is to read the story. It’s free. Here it is.

I tried to find more stories by this writer on Amazon but I can’t seem to find any, which is unfortunate. I’d love to hear if anybody knows where they might be available.

That’s all for now. Stay healthy and hopeful!

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: Aitmatov

Hello. I hope you are all healthy and safe, and doing your best to stay that way. I’m in the middle of midterms week at school, but I’ve managed to read a great book. I wanted to share it with you:

The Place of the Skull, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“If only I could write something, something that would get a reaction from thousands and thousands of people, people who would treat it as something of intimate concern to them personally, as a fire in their own house, a misfortune affecting their own children, only then could the Word, caught up by thousands of people, none of them indifferent, overcome the power of profit and triumph over vice!”

Basically, if you have a chance to read Chingiz Aitmatov, get your hands on everything you can by him. He’s criminally-underrated. (I’ve reviewed another one of his masterpieces here).

The Place of the Skull is another modern-ish classic. It’s a bunch of stories woven into one. It’s the story of a family of wolves living on the Kazakh steppe, an absurdly-idealistic Russian who’s expelled from a seminary, Jesus Christ, and a farmer. The wolves just trot along through the story and make you feel a bit like you’re reading Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. The idealistic Russian wants to infiltrate the drug trade to see what makes people sink to depravity (he also wants to reform some of the depraved people, which is fascinating to see). Jesus Christ gets crucified. The farmer (named Boston for some reason) has to deal with Soviet collectivization (where the USSR forced Kazakhs to work on a big farm instead of working on their own individual farms), and with the wolves that trot their way into his plotline. It’s all very exciting in actuality.

One thing I will mention. It… has… a… lot… of… ellipses. But once you get over that…

…the book’s a joy to read.

It’s fresh with ideas and heart. Its plot is well-done, too. You have a bunch of stories but they work well together, and the overall story wouldn’t have the same impact it does have if it weren’t to have all of those stories within it. Its grand scope also enables it to talk about environmentalism, the meaning of life, wolves, and morality.

Another thing I’ll mention. This book has all this philosophy in it, but for some reason it’s able to make it entertaining to read (unlike some Russian novels I’ve read–my opinion only).

The philosophy in Aitmatov’s novel asks questions that are actually interesting to contemplate: What makes people sink to immorality, how is the environment related to humanity, what gives people the power to be good, can humanity ever redeem itself, etc. So instead of having some boring guy droning on about a philosophical parable, Aitmatov’s book has characters who are actually struggling with topics that are super-relevant to their existence, and for some reason, you feel a sense of urgency when you read it. Maybe it’s because you get the sense that the author cares a lot about what he’s writing about, or he makes it so you understand why the characters care about it, and why you should care about it, too. At some points I thought he could’ve taken his ideas farther than he did, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment.

Basically, read it for yourself.