Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Saunders, Dunsany, and Ellison

In Which I Review George Saunders’s “Fox 8,” Lord Dunsany’s “The King of Elfland’s Daughter,” and Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog”

Hello! Below, I’ve briefly reviewed the three books I promised you I’d review. Two are perfect for all ages, while the last one absolutely isn’t.

Fox 8, by George Saunders, Illustrated by Chelsea Cardinal

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“Dear Reeder:
First may I say, sorry for any werds I spel rong. Because I am a fox! So don’t rite or spel perfect. But here is how I lerned to rite and spel as gud as I do!”

Fox 8 was a fun, short read. It’s good for all ages (probably), and is about a literate fox (named Fox 8) who’s enthralled with the world of humans. The only problem is that his fox friends are less enthusiastic. Will our hero be able to convince them to befriend the two-legs?

The book’s idea was cute and the illustrations were fun, but the story didn’t really say much of substance. If you’re looking to read something like this, Fox 8 is perfect for you!

If not, you might want to read something else…

The King of Elfland’s Daughter, by Lord Dunsany

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“And late in the night they all rose up together to go back to their homes, and all kept close together as they went, and sang grave old songs to affright the things that they feared; though little the light trolls care, or the will-o’-the-wisps, for the things that are grave to man. And when only one was left he ran to his house, and the will-o’-the-wisps chased him.”

In The King of Elfland’s Daughter, a king from the mortal realm must go to Elfland to get an elf bride so that the people of his kingdom could experience magic. So he goes and gets his bride (who’s the daughter of the King of Elfland). However, she doesn’t really like how he keeps trying to convert her to his religion…

I really enjoyed this story’s wit and descriptions, which is something I usually don’t enjoy the most in books. In this case, they were hilarious and made the book feel magical.

The story was also very thoughtful. You could do a whole literary analysis on what different aspects of it symbolize (less recommended), or you could just read it and enjoy it (highly recommended).

If you’ve never heard of this book before, think of it as the grandparent of Joanne Harris’s Runemarks. They feel similar and talk about a lot of similar ideas, except Dunsany’s is much shorter and doesn’t have Norse gods in it.

If you haven’t heard of either, just trust me and read Dunsany for yourself.

A Boy and His Dog, by Harlan Ellison

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[About the dog having taught the protagonist to read]: “(the reading’s a pretty good thing. It comes in handy when you can find some canned goods someplace, like in a bombed-out supermarket; makes it easier to pick out stuff you like when the pictures are gone off the labels. Couple of times the reading stopped me from taking canned beets. Shit, I hate beets!)”

You probably wouldn’t like this book if you don’t like obscenities, violence, or otherwise unsettling content.

That being said, A Boy and His Dog is about what it says it’s about, except that it takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the dog’s telepathic, and he helps the boy find girls to have sex with. When the boy starts falling in love with one of the girls, an interspecies love-triangle ensues…

Basically, read this book for its ending. That’s what makes the story good (and thought-provoking). It feels kind of rushed, but it’s still effective, and I’m not spoiling any of it here.

If you get the version of this book with Ellison’s essay about his own dog, that just makes the experience even richer.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Hosseini

In Which I Review “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini

Hello! I’ve read four books for this week but because of time-constraints I’m going to keep you in suspense and only review one of them. You may have heard of it…

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

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[About a story the protagonist wrote about a man whose tears became pearls:] “‘Well,’ he said, ‘if I may ask, why did the man kill his wife? In fact, why did he ever have to feel sad to shed tears? Why couldn’t he have just smelled an onion?’ I was stunned. That particular point, so obvious it was utterly stupid, hadn’t even occurred to me. I moved my lips soundlessly. It appeared that on the same night I had learned about one of writing’s objectives, irony, I would also be introduced to one of its pitfalls: the Plot Hole.”

The Kite Runner is about a boy named Amir whose best friend is named Hassan. Amir and Hassan grow up together in Afghanistan, but after an un-namable plot-twist, Amir must redeem himself…

I’m wary of bestsellers, but The Kite Runner was actually a good book, probably because the author put a lot of time and effort into it.

He took the time to get to know his characters, for instance. So he learned their fears and secrets and was able to depict them with a lot of psychological depth. At the same time, he also didn’t reduce them to a single completely-understandable dynamic– “all you’ll ever need to know about Character A is that he’s insecure because his dad never pays attention to him.” Hosseini’s version of Character A would be that and a few other hopes and insecurities, and things that probably don’t show up on the page but that inform his actions anyway.

Hosseini was also very compassionate towards his protagonist, which was impressive considering what happens in the book. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this except to say that it’s obvious when an author holds his/her characters at a distance because it also creates distance between the character and the reader. In Hosseini’s case, there was none of this distance.

So, due to the great characters, the good plot, and the author’s ability to be interesting, the book wound up having an ending that was actually emotionally-satisfying.

However, the middle sagged. Hosseini didn’t include as much interiority as in the beginning. He also seemed to underuse some of the characters he focused on in this section. They were basically just stepping-stones for him to get to the next plot-point (which turned out to be a huge coincidence). Finally, the villain of the story felt more like a cartoon character than a fully fleshed-out human. Yes, he definitely did evil things, but considering the author’s gift for understanding his characters on a human level, it seemed like Hosseini missed another opportunity by not nuancing the villain as well.

Overall though, it was entertaining to read, and I would recommend it. If you’ve already read it, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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: Salih, Yakhina, and Cortázar

In Which I Review Books by Tayeb Salih, Guzel Yakhina, and Julio Cortázar

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you’re all healthy and safe and vaccinated (or soon-to-be-vaccinated!) I’ve read three more books for this week…

The Wedding of Zein And Other Stories, by Tayeb Salih,
translated by Denys Johnson-Davies,

illustrated by Ibrahim Salahi

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“Zein was first slain by love when he had still not attained manhood. He was thirteen or fourteen at the time and was as thin and emaciated as a dried-up stalk.”

Tayeb Salih is known as one of Sudan’s greatest writers. The Wedding of Zein helps to explain why.

Zein is a book about a guy named Zein who gets married in Sudan. It’s short, and the version I read has two stories that come with it (“The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid” and “A Handful of Dates.”)

I personally enjoyed the stories more than I enjoyed Zein, but that’s only because I thought the stories were great while I thought Zein was just very good.

In Zein, Salih was good at evoking characters with nuances and quirks. The story’s plot was also intriguing. For some reason though, I found the ending to be much more interesting than the book’s beginning or middle. It left me with a lot more to think about, maybe. Had the beginning and middle been more interesting (which is super-subjective anyway), I would have probably enjoyed Zein as much as the two stories that went along with it.

Even so, I would still recommend reading this book.

Zuleikha, by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden

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“The egg was almost transparent, with a touch of light iridescence. Through its shining walls, which reached to chin level, Leibe saw the square in front of the university gleaming with cleanliness under golden sunbeams, leisurely students smiling deferentially at him, and absolutely smooth columns glimmering with unsullied whitewash. There was no bloodstain.”

This PEN award-winning book is about a Tatar woman named Zuleikha whose husband is killed by Soviet Union officials. Then Zuleikha gets sent to Siberia where she encounters the man who killed her husband. She also encounters a bunch of other people…

The first two-thirds of this book felt to me like a better-written version of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Both authors are screenwriters, and their writing styles were similar– the books zipped along vividly and energetically. Even so, there was more interiority in Zuleikha than in the Tattooist, so I found myself sympathizing a lot more with Zuleikha’s protagonists.

Then there were some really good scenes where the protagonists had to survive the harsh winter climate of Siberia, which reminded me of scenes from another book (by Gary Paulsen) called Hatchet. Yes, Zuleikha was turning out to be a very good read…

Then came the last third of Zuleikha. Up till now, the characters had been fleshed-out people whose logical and grounded actions caused reactions which drove the plot forward.

Suddenly, they became victims of coincidences and actions that had no grounding in their previous characterization. What was really frustrating was that the author could have gotten to the same point without these coincidences. The book would have been stronger as a result.

Well, except for the anticlimactic end. The ending felt like the author was just going for the most convenient resolution rather than the one that best fit the characters’ arcs. As a result, characters wound up not really developing, and the book wound up seeming like it had lost its way.

So if you’re looking for a good book to read I probably wouldn’t recommend Zuleikha. I would recommend Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet instead, because the entirety of that book was well-written, unlike the entirety of this book (in my super-subjective opinion).

Literature Class, by Julio Cortázar,
translated by Katherine Silver

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“Having a message isn’t enough to create a novel or a short story, because that message, when it’s ideological or political, can be much better communicated in a pamphlet, an essay, or a news report. That’s not what literature is good for. Literature has other ways of conveying those messages, and can maybe even convey them with a lot more force than an article, but to do that, to have more force, it has to be great, it has to be elevated.”

This book by Julio Cortázar is a compilation of a bunch of lectures he gave at UC Berkeley in 1980. They were good, short, and not very substantial.

Compare them with Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist. Llosa had a lot more substance in terms of his discussion of fiction and craft. Cortázar just seemed to talk in generalities before reading from his short stories.

Even so, they were interesting to read for his perspective on writing and its purpose. That being said, his short stories might be a more worthwhile (and substantial) read…

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

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

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

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

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

The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Without Laughter, by Langston Hughes

Blue Electric Guitar

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

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

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

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

I would definitely recommend it.

The Cake Tree in the Ruins, by Akiyuki Nosaka

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

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

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

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

I would absolutely recommend it.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Woolf

In which I review Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.”

Hello! Happy June! If you’re in America, happy Memorial Day! I’ve read one book this week, and am reading several others as you read this…

A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf

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“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young– alas, she never wrote a word [….] Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.”

Virginia Woolf wrote this back in 1929, basically saying that to make a mark on the world, women writers need a steady income and a room of their own in which to work. It’s a hallmark of feminism and empowerment.

I found it to be much less empowering than I thought it would be.

Yes, she prophesied that the female Shakespeare would be able to emerge in 100 years’ time (and considering the fact that it’s now 2021, her coming is close upon us). Yes, the general ideas of the book were great.

However, parts of the book were overly-pessimistic. For instance, Woolf heavily implies that because men discouraged them, there were no great women composers back in her time.

This completely ignores the fact that female greats existed even before her time. Some examples: Dora Pejačević (the first Croatian woman to write a symphony and one of the most important 20th century female composers) and Louise Farrenc (read even more about her amazingness here).

Woolf didn’t have Google. She was stuck researching from books written by sexist men, so she probably wouldn’t have known much about female composers in other countries. Maybe she was also just focusing on composers in England. Even so, it’s worth reading A Room of One’s Own knowing in advance that in spite of the patriarchy, some women were able to accomplish more than Woolf seemed to imply.

Overall, this book was short, interesting, and well-written, so I would still say to read it if you have the time.

Also, if you’ve already read it, what did you think?

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Chopin, Le Guin, and Haig

In which I read Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “No Time to Spare,” and Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library.”

Hello! I’ve read three books. They’re all good for summer reading. One has stature, another has eggs, and the third has a lot in common with Tolstoy’s work…

The Awakening and Selected Stories, by Kate Chopin

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“During his oblivious attention he once quietly rested his head against Mrs. Pontellier’s arm. As gently she repulsed him. Once again he repeated the offense. She could not but believe it to be thoughtlessness on his part; yet that was no reason she should submit to it. She did not remonstrate, except again to repulse him quietly but firmly. He offered no apology. The picture completed bore no resemblance to Madame Ratignolle. She was greatly disappointed to find that it did not look like her. But it was a fair enough piece of work, and in many respects satisfying. Mrs. Pontellier evidently did not think so. After surveying the sketch critically she drew a broad smudge of paint across its surface, and crumpled the paper between her hands.”

Kate Chopin’s book is about a woman named Edna Pontellier who seeks independence and selfhood in a male-dominated society.

I’ve never read about a female character with so much stature. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this. I guess it’s just an attitude that the author had towards her which came across in the depiction of her. Her life doesn’t revolve around a guy or other people, and she did have a sense of self.

She also wasn’t made more than she was or judged to be less than she was because of that (such as by fitting her into an archetype of “love interest” or “seductress”). This was a character who could reject her husband’s hand on her arm and also reject her own attempts at drawing without being turned into a joke or a way to illustrate something about another character.

She also didn’t feel like she was just there to make a point about feminism, and this might be what ultimately gives her stature. If you’re writing some story about someone to convey a message, the character becomes less than a fully-actualized being because his or her personhood is subordinated to the message you’re trying to convey.

For instance, in this scene, Edna could’ve drawn a bad picture with her husband’s hand on her arm and then shoved his hand off and drawn a great picture, which could have subordinated her character to the message of “women don’t need men” and reduced her complexity and sense of stature.

Contrast this with the idea of a female character existing in a work that may touch upon themes but which don’t reduce the character’s complexity for their sake. In the scene as it’s written, Edna’s just pushing the guy’s hand off, but even so she’s dissatisfied with the picture for its own sake. That’s fascinating.

Basically, this stature was very refreshing to experience, and the book itself was very good as well. It’s a shame that Chopin’s future works were rejected after this novel was published, but we can help make up for that by reading this book nowadays.

One final note: The short stories weren’t as good, so I would recommend them less. They were much more sketched-out than fully-developed.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters,
by Ursula K. Le Guin

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“So you put your freshly boiled egg into the egg cup–but which end up? Eggs are not perfect ovoids, they have a smaller end and a bigger end. People have opinions about which end should be up, i.e., which end you’re going to actually eat the egg out of. This difference of opinion can become so passionate that a war may be fought about it, as we know from Jonathan Swift. It makes just as much sense as most wars and most differences of opinion.”

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote several essays and published them in this book in 2017. She died a year later. As a result, there was a lot of unintentional irony in this book, like when she wrote about how people never get to experience true solitude anymore.

If only she knew….

Anyway, the essays were entertaining. They weren’t the most entertaining essays ever but they were fun to read, with one exception. She wrote an essay about eating eggs. I never thought I’d laugh so much about someone chopping an egg apart.

Overall, this was an entertaining and quick read.

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

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“Maybe there was no perfect life for her, but somewhere, surely, there was a life worth living.”

The Midnight Library is about a woman who dies and then gets to live all the different lives she could have lived by reading various books from the “Midnight Library.” The woman’s name is Nora Seed (get it?)

This book was a good read. I appreciate anyone who likes to write about how great life is. It felt like a cross between The Magic Treehouse and Mitch Albom’s books. It also reminded me a lot of Tolstoy’s books for various reasons (some good, others less good).

Firstly, it had a very important quality: conviction. There’s something great about someone who can write about something he actually cares about without seeming to worry what others might think.

In other words, there are a lot of carefully-written “safely sophisticated” books out there that condescend to tell you about the boringness of suburbia while clearly trying to come off as profound. Now, here’s a book about the “riskier” topic of life’s meaning which also cheerfully pays homage to a lot of different authors. Even so, the author didn’t come off as condescending or like a pretentious literary try-hard. He was having so much fun that he wanted you to join him!

When an author doesn’t try to take himself too seriously while also enjoying what he writes, he can get away with writing about anything. The book will contain his warmth and enthusiasm, and that sincerity will draw readers in. You see this quality in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and in Anna Karenina, and you also see it in Haig’s book.

Even so, Haig’s characters felt kind of contrived, like they were being shepherded along by the author to have realizations at opportune moments. Also, there wasn’t much subtext, since the author basically spelled everything out about the characters’ psychologies. This is also similar to Tolstoy. There’s a character in Resurrection who’s shepherded about and psychoanalyzed in a very similar way.

In both instances, the characters in question lose out on depth and realism. Their sole function isn’t to live but to serve the message of the story.

Finally, the symbolism and metaphors felt over-emphasized. Sometimes it helps to let readers make some subconscious connections instead of telling them things along the lines of, “Nora Seed’s life is a seed that can grow in different directions!” That also happened in Tolstoy’s Resurrection—“Look! The protagonist always overhears sermons about Jesus and the book’s even titled Resurrection! That means he’s a Jesus parallel!”

In any case, this kind of approach makes the meaning of the story very, very clear to readers, but it takes some of the fun out of the experience for readers who might want to figure some things out for themselves.

So overall, I would say that this book was a good read, but that Haig might eventually write books that are even better (in one reader’s super-subjective opinion).

Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them? I’d love to hear your comments!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Saunders, Lahiri, and Tolstoy

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

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

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

George Saunders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whereabouts, by Jhumpa Lahiri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s left? Nothing much.

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

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

Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn

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Hello! I hope you had a happy Mother’s Day. I’ve finished with my final exams at last which is very exciting.

I’ve also just got two super-new books in the mail, one called Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri and the other called A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, and…

…and you’ll have to wait until next week for my reviews of them.

In the meantime, I’ve read two less-new books. Both are about prison for some reason. Hopefully they’ll tide you over until next week.

The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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“In our convict establishment there were men whom I was familiar with for several years, and whom I looked upon as wild beasts and abhorred as such; well, all of a sudden, when I least expected it, these very men would exhibit such an abundance of feeling of the best kind, so keen a comprehension of the sufferings of others, seen in the light of the consciousness of their own, that one might almost fancy scales had fallen from their eyes. So sudden was it as to cause stupefaction; one could scarcely believe one’s eyes or ears. Sometimes it was just the other way: educated men, well brought up, would occasionally display a savage, cynical brutality which nearly turned one’s stomach, conduct of a kind impossible to excuse or justify, however much you might be charitably inclined to do so.”

The House of the Dead was a very interesting book. Dostoyevsky wrote it based on his experiences in Siberian prison, and it felt more like a memoir than a piece of fiction. It was especially interesting because Dostoyevsky described a few people who sounded an awful lot like characters in his future works, like The Brothers Karamazov.

For some reason the protagonist came off like a scientist. He was always like, “Something interesting about the prisoners was XYZ” or, “Many people might expect prisoners to be like ABC, but in reality, they weren’t,” or, “As my time in prison went on, I came to more fully understand the psychology of LMNOP.” Because the protagonist felt so much like an outsider, it also sometimes felt like he wasn’t really in the prison with everyone else.

Contrast that with Solzhenitsyn’s huge nonfictional book, The Gulag Archipelago (review coming whenever I finish reading it) where he takes a similar kind of systematic approach to examining the USSR’s gulags. However, in his case, every single page (so far) is brimming with his anguish about being a prisoner in the gulags.

One great thing about Dostoyevsky’s book was that he was very good at seeing the good in the bad (like in the quote above). I felt like I got to understand the prisoners very well. It reminded me a lot of James Berry’s My Experiences as an Executioner for this reason, except that Dostoyevsky’s book felt much less grim (thankfully). This humanity alone makes The House of the Dead worth reading.

Even so, there was a lot of repetition. Dostoyevsky literally wrote things like, “Prisoner X was a cobbler who got into prison because of ABC and now he worked in prison smuggling vodka,” and then went on in a later chapter to retell this prisoner’s story with exactly the same details as if the reader had never heard of him before. Or he’d write about how Prisoner Y stole the protagonist’s Bible once and then told him about it not out of guilt but out of pity for the fact that he’d spent so long searching for it. Several chapters later, Dostoyevsky would retell this story as if he were introducing Prisoner Y for the very first time.

I was listening to this on audiobook, so I felt like I was being told the same story over and over again by someone who kept forgetting what he’d just told me.

The House was also surprisingly unfocused. Dostoyevsky would start a scene with a character entering the prison kitchen, then ramble on for a long time about everything but the character who’d entered the kitchen. Finally, he’d meander back to the character who’d entered the kitchen, but by then I’d forgotten all about him and why he was relevant. Then Dostoyevsky would say something very brief about the character getting called out of the kitchen, and that would be the last we’d see of the character for the whole book. Or he’d go on about the prison’s vodka-smuggling business but then start talking about the bath-houses in the prison and then the first time he’d done hard labor, and his last days in prison, and so on, without any real sense of why he was telling these things other than the fact that he felt like it.

So overall, I’d say this book was very good in terms of its psychological and human insights. I also got the sense that Dostoyevsky was transformed by his experience in prison. That makes this book interesting to read, but it absolutely does not make it his best.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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“He began eating [….] This was it. This was good. This was the brief moment for which a prisoner lives. For a little while, Shukov forgot all his grievances, forgot that his sentence was long, that the day was long, that once again there would be no Sunday. For the moment he had only one thought: We shall survive. We shall survive it all. God willing, we’ll see the end of it.”

This is another book about prisons, written by another Russian ex-prisoner named Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His book was literally published 100 years after Dostoyevsky’s account of prison-life (Dostoyevsky’s in 1862 and Solzhenitsyn’s in 1962).

It was interesting to see what changed and what stayed the same. For instance, prisoners could rely on going to the hospital to get reprieve in Dostoyevsky’s time, but this was no longer the case in Solzhenitsyn’s time. However, prisoners still stole each other’s belongings in both accounts, even if prisoners in Solzhenitsyn’s book seemed to show slightly more camaraderie than the ones in Dostoyevsky’s account.

On its own terms, One Day chronicled a day in the life of a fictional prisoner named Ivan Denisovich Shukov. It was told very mundanely: He woke up, pretended to be sick, failed to get admitted to the infirmary, went to get a meal, knew the best way to hide his food in his jacket, and so on. It was very casual in that way. I kept expecting something dramatic to happen but it never did.

In the meantime, I was continually surprised by how much meaning people could find in small things, like a spoon or a piece of bread or a cigar-stub.

Understatement also made the book’s ending more powerful. I won’t spoil it, but it really put life into perspective.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Rayfield and Tolstoy

Hi! Happy almost-finals period! I’ll be brief. One book I’ve reviewed is super long, and the other is super-short, and you’ll never guess which is which by the title of this post…

Anton Chekhov, A Life, by Donald Rayfield,
Read by Fred Williams

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“There were few diversions. The pianist Samuelson came and played Chopin’s C Major Nocturne for Anton. Gorky, after illegally stopping in Moscow for an ovation at the Moscow Arts Theater, kept Anton company. When he visited, a gendarme patrolled outside. A wild crane broke off its flight south to join the surviving tame crane in Anton’s garden […] Visitors filled Anton’s study with smoke and made him miss meals. Masha did not come until 18 December, followed by Bunin.”

This book was huge but it was very fun. I mean it was an audiobook, but still. It was a biography of Chekhov, and from it I learned that he wasn’t the mild-mannered gloomy person I thought he was, but a womanizer.

He was also super-dysfunctional. In fact, another title for this book could have been, “Chekhov and His Dysfunctional Family.” Seriously. I felt like I was listening to an audiobook version of a reality TV show set in the 1800s. That was a very small part of what made it fun.

What made it more fun was the narrator, Fred Williams. He was terrific. He read in a completely straight voice, but somehow, the way he read things was very entertaining (especially when describing the shenanigans of Chekhov’s pet mongoose, or narrating that time when Chekhov “descended upon his old garden to salvage any remaining plants to bring back to his new garden”). So in other words the narrator and the narration were perfectly-matched.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable book. I would recommend it, and I would especially recommend the Fred Williams reading of it.

Short Stories by Leo Tolstoy, by Leo Tolstoy,
Read by Bart Wolffe

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“During the night, Delesov was aroused by the noise of a falling table in the anteroom and the sound of voices and stamping feet. ‘Just wait a little, I will tell Dmitri Ivanovitch!’ said Zakhar’s voice. Albert’s voice replied passionately and incoherently. Delesov leapt up and went with a candle into the anteroom. Zakhar in his night dress was standing against the door. Albert in cap and alma viva was trying to pull him away and was screaming at him in a pathetic voice, ‘You have no right to detain me! I have a passport! I’ve not stolen anything from you! You must let me go! I will go to the police!’ ‘I beg of you Dmitri Ivanovitch,’ said Zakhar, turning to his barin and continuing to stand guard at the door, ‘he got up in the night, found the key in my overcoat pocket, and has drunk up the whole decanter of sweet vodka. Was that good? And now he wants to go. You didn’t give me orders and so I could not let him out.’”


A short book written by Tolstoy? Unheard of!

Well, this is a short story collection so it’s not necessarily a book in and of itself (unlike his Childhood). Even so, it is unexpectedly short, with five stories within.

The first story was undoubtedly the best. It was called “The Three Hermits.” I won’t spoil it but it was basically magical realism at its finest.

The second story, “Three Deaths” was the second-best. Tolstoy’s narration was like a camera, and the story itself was very sad. Just look at that title!

The fourth story, called “God Sees the Truth but Waits,” was also interesting for its deep humanity in the face of inhumanity.

The other two stories, “Albert” and “Ermak” were interesting, but not as good. Well, actually, “Albert” was interesting. It was about a genius violinist who was also homeless.

“Ermak” absolutely wasn’t interesting. It was basically about a bunch of Cossacks killing a bunch of Tatars, and it read more like a history textbook than a story by Tolstoy.

In other words, read “The Three Hermits,” and then if you have time, read “Three Deaths” and “God Sees the Truth but Waits,” and then if you REALLY have time, read the other two.

Then, if you’re feeling daring, go read some of his longer works.