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: Anderson, Leskov, and Roth

In Which I Review Books By M.T. Anderson, Nikolai Leskov, and Joseph Roth

Hello! Happy Tuesday, and happy Rosh Hashanah. I’m back on campus at last, so I’ve been able to read a lot of new books (celebrating this). Below are three of them:

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, by M.T. Anderson

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“A lot of young Shostakovich’s pleasure came from a warm and happy home. His mother doted on him. His father cracked jokes. His older sister, Maria, played piano duets with him. His younger sister, Zoya, was growing into an angular, eccentric girl with a huge amount of energy and verve. She insisted on hanging all the pictures in the house at a slant.”


The best part of this book is its title, but the rest of it is pretty good, too. It’s about Dmitri Shostakovich, a Soviet composer who was kind of anti-Soviet at the same time. He wrote a symphony during the siege of Leningrad, and the Soviets decided to play it to boost morale. So it’s Shostakovich’s story and also the story of World War II.

To me, it read like a cross between a biography and a history book, with the best features of both: interesting anecdotes about the composer and other historical figures, and vivid accounts from people experiencing the siege.

Anderson made it very readable, and managed to balance out the grimmer parts of the book with some humorous parts. This made it more palatable than the haunting Enemy at the Gates (an amazing book about the Battle of Stalingrad).

What also made it more palatable was that Anderson included some profound insights into the human condition. For instance, the Nazis had calculated that they could starve Leningraders to death since it was physically impossible to survive on the amount of food within the besieged Leningrad. However, some Leningraders persevered anyway, and the ones who did reflected later on that “‘what saved us […] was hope and love.'” It may sound schmaltzy out of context, but it didn’t sound that way in the book.

So I’d definitely recommend reading it.

The Enchanted Wanderer: Selected Tales, by Nikolai Leskov, Translated by David Magarshack

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“The old man had mushrooms with buckwheat porridge for supper and this gave him heartburn; suddenly he was seized with a cramp in the pit of his stomach, began vomiting, and died towards morning, just like the rats in his granaries.”

I had never read anything by Leskov before so this was an interesting experience. This book contained five stories by him (in fact, Shostakovich wrote an opera about one of them).

The stories read like fairytales in that they didn’t have much interiority or atmospheric description. That was fine. They were entertaining enough as they were.

One involves a woman who kills many people for the sake of her lover, another involves a wanderer who goes on various adventures (like Odysseus but without boats and magical creatures). The others involve microscopic metal fleas, guards, and ghosts.

I would recommend the first two stories (“Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” and “The Enchanted Wanderer”) and the fourth (“The Sentry”), but the other two were less interesting. Leskov constantly seemed to go on about how Russia was absolutely the best at everything to the point where it got distracting and annoying.

So if you want to read Leskov, those three stories I mentioned above would be a good place to start.

Perlefter: The Story of a Bourgeois, by Joseph Roth,
Translated by Richard Panchyk

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“Once Henriette had left the house the maids changed quickly, and Perlefter could tolerate no new faces or new names. He called all the girls Henriette– whether their names were Anna, Klementine, or Susanne. Usually their name was Anna.”

This was a not-so-interesting book. It basically describes a guy (Perlefter) and his family. Random characters appear and disappear, and nothing happens. All of this is expected, because this book was actually a fragment Roth left behind instead of a story he published.

Considering that, parts of it were still funny. Also, this was written right before Roth wrote books like The Radetzky March, which makes for interesting comparisons. For instance, that fragment I quoted up above was very similar to a part of The Radetzky March where one character’s servant dies and he goes on to name all his future servants after the original one.

This goes to show that nothing a writer does is wasted. Roth may have abandoned this story but he didn’t abandon The Radetzky March, and so his ideas lived on.

So basically, if you’re interested in seeing the evolution of writers’ ideas into great pieces of literature, I would recommend this book. If you just want to read great pieces of literature, I would recommend The Radetzky March instead.

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Steinbeck, Pasternak, and Steinbeck

In Which I Review Books By John Steinbeck and Poems by Boris Pasternak.

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you are all well, and if you’ve experienced Henri, that you are safe. I survived, thankfully, and so I’m bringing you three more reviews. Two of them are about early Steinbeck novels, and one of them is a review of an online poetry collection…

The Red Pony, by John Steinbeck

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“As the gray and silent army marched past, led by Jody, the animals stopped their feeding and watched it go by. Suddenly Jody stopped. The gray army halted, bewildered and nervous. Jody went down on his knees. The army stood in long uneasy ranks for a moment, and then, with a soft sigh of sorrow, rose up in a faint gray mist and disappeared.”

This is a book of one longish story and a few shorter stories. They focus on a boy named Jody who lives on a farm in California. The first one’s about him getting a red pony to train and keep as his own. The other stories are about him doing other things on the farm. Somehow it’s supposed to be a collection about coming-of-age, but I didn’t see much coming-of-age in the stories themselves.

Anyway, the first story was good, but the others weren’t as good. My reasoning was ridiculously subjective: I was expecting more horses in this collection than there were, so I was distracted a lot of the time wondering when they would show up. When they finally did show up, they felt anticlimactic. So learn from me: there weren’t that many horses in these stories.

However, if you love occasional horses and want to read some early Steinbeck, this book would be an enjoyable read.

Online Poems of Boris Pasternak

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“Is it only dirt you notice?
Does the thaw not catch your glance?
As a dapple-grey fine stallion
Does it not through ditches dance?”

Recently, I came across this really cool website of poetry, and started reading all the poems on Boris Pasternak’s page. So, this isn’t really a review of a Pasternak poetry book. Instead it’s a review of the poems I read on the website.

Pasternak was interesting to read. Sometimes, he never really said anything about a specific object but referred to it indirectly through a mood or certain word-choices. Thus, a poem would seem to be about a bunch of curtains but in reality it was about an affair.

Some of the poems were unsatisfying since they were so confusing. Others were great. I could figure out what they were about, but it took some work to do so.

Other poems were entertaining because they were very evocative of seasons (springtime) and moods (sadness). Reading Pasternak also gave me an appreciation for how many ways someone could write about the same subject (springtime) or about the same mood (sadness). In fact, another name for Pasternak could be, “The Sad Poet of Springtime.”

Overall, I would recommend checking out at least some of the poems on the website. I’ve actually been inspired to check out more books by Pasternak in the future, so stay tuned…

Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck

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“The sergeant lined [the men] up in front of his desk. They passed everything but the sobriety test and then the sergeant began his questions with Pilon. ‘What branch do you want to go in?’ ‘ I don’ give a god-dam,’ said Pilon jauntily. ‘I guess we need men like you in the infantry.’ And Pilon was written so. He turned then to Big Joe, and the Portagee was getting sober. ‘Where do you want to go?’ ‘I want to go home,’ Big Joe said miserably. The sergeant put him in the infantry too. Finally he confronted Danny, who was sleeping on his feet. ‘Where do you want to go?’ ‘Huh?’ ‘I say, what branch?’ ‘What do you mean, “branch?”‘ ‘What can you do?’ ‘Me? I can do anything.'”

I don’t understand why this book wasn’t advertised as funny on its jacket because it is. It’s about a Californian man named Danny and his friends who live in a house called Tortilla Flat and go to ridiculous ends to get more wine to drink. It’s based on the legend of King Arthur somehow. Aside from some vague similarities, I didn’t really see any real parallels.

As I said before, the book was hilarious, and funnier than a lot of other “funny” things I read. Steinbeck seemed to be enjoying himself when he wrote this. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been as enjoyable as it was.

However, the end wasn’t as good. Steinbeck seemed to stop enjoying himself somewhere near the end of Chapter XII. The rest of the book felt phoned-in somehow. It was still funny, but then it became less and less funny, and then it turned into what felt like Steinbeck trying hard to get readers to feel emotions that he himself didn’t feel as a writer. To me, this forced emotionality marred the ending of what was otherwise a hilarious book.

So overall, the book was funny, and I’d definitely recommend it. Just don’t expect a greatly-written ending…

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Ibsen, Markandaya, and De Lint

In Which I Review Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck,” Kamala Markandaya’s “Nectar in a Sieve,” and Charles De Lint’s “The Onion Girl.”

Hello! Happy Tuesday. There are so many books and so little time (until the end of the summer!) Hopefully I can get in a few more to review before that point. Here’s three, at any rate…

“The Wild Duck,” by Henrik Ibsen,
Translated by Una Ellis-Fermor

Courtesy of The Duck Song

“RELLING: Well, I’ll tell you Mrs. Ekdal. He’s suffering from acute inflammation of the conscience.”

“The Wild Duck” is not about a duck. It’s about a happily-married family…or so it seems. There’s a huge secret at the heart of the marriage, and the husband’s friend is trying to expose it. Frankness will make everything better, right? Ibsen thinks otherwise…

The first few acts felt very confusing. It wasn’t clear to me what was going on until the last few acts. With that being said, the rest of the play was good. Ibsen was great at dramatically revealing characters’ secrets and ulterior motives.

However, he wasn’t so great at making sure the play’s theme was actually supported by the story’s events. Ibsen seemed to want to say that idealism was destructive. But in the play, things seemed to be destroyed not because of idealism, but because of unyielding self-delusion. Or at least, idealism wasn’t the only culprit. That disconnect between the stated theme and the illustrated theme made for a very interesting reading-experience.

Also, parts of this play reminded me a lot of plays written later. A lampshade symbolized concealment in “The Wild Duck,” and a paper lantern symbolized concealment in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Aside from that, the two plays were very different, but it was cool to see how influential Ibsen was.

Anyway, I’d definitely recommend this play.

Nectar in a Sieve, by Kamala Markandaya

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“Then as happens even in the brightest moment, I remembered Janaki. Last year she had come with us, she and her children. This year who knew– or cared? The black thought momentarily doused the glow within me; then, angered and indignant, I thrust the Intruder away, chasing it, banishing it… tired of gloom, reaching desperately for perfection of delight, which can surely never be.”

This is a story about Rukmani, a child-bride in a changing India. She and her husband live in a village, cultivate the land, endure hardship, and experience joy.

Reading this book made me realize how rare it was to read about a sympathetic husband in literature. It felt very refreshing.

Also, the story itself was very engaging. The author clearly cared a lot about her characters, and the story’s ending was beautiful. When rereading its beginning, the story’s ending became even better.

What’s also impressive is that Markandaya wrote this book based on research rather than on any experience of poverty (she came from a wealthy family), but it still felt very realistic. It read a little like Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, only better, since Markandaya’s characters were more engaging.

So this book has great characters and a great story. It’s also very short. Definitely read it.

The Onion Girl, by Charles De Lint

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“‘I suppose the other thing too many forget is that we were all stories once, each and every one of us. And we remain stories. But too often we allow those stories to grow banal, or cruel, or unconnected to each other. We allow the stories to continue, but they no longer have a heart. They no longer sustain us.”

This is a book about Jilly Coppercorn, a woman in her thirties who likes to paint magical beings. She gets into a car-accident, figures out how to enter a magical land called the Dreamworld, and has to confront the trauma of her past to heal from the trauma in her present.

The story was very psychological, which was cool to read about, especially in a fantasy book. A warning: it does contain very dark themes. Even so, the dark themes were handled well, and the book felt more hopeful than nihilistic.

The world-building was also very interesting. The Dreamworld felt fresh and immersive. It didn’t outweigh the characters, though, which made the story even more enjoyable.

Even so, parts of The Onion Girl‘s plot felt formulaic and predictable, which took away a little from its overall impact. Same with some of the descriptions of places and characters. I’d find myself guessing how sentences would end (“The room looked dark… but cozy anyway?”) and then read something very close to that guess. This is probably subjective, though.

The book also could have been much shorter than its actual length of 600ish pages. A lot of the sentences in the book just repeated what previous sentences said, which reminded me of a similar thing that once happened to Dostoyevsky. Finally, entire chapters of The Onion Girl were devoted to explaining the moral of the story. This was entertaining up to a point. Then it felt a little preachy.

Overall, this book had very interesting psychology and world-building, but it was also formulaic and repetitive. If you’re looking for the greatest speculative fiction ever, you might want to consider reading other books (like Anna Kavan’s Ice or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast), but if you’re looking for something that’s still pretty good, you might enjoy this.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Chekhov, Nye, and Kawabata

In Which I Review Stories by Anton Chekhov, Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, and a Novel by Yasunari Kawabata

Hello! Happy August. I hope you’re well. I’ve read three books (again). One’s of short stories, one’s of poems, and one’s a novel…

Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, by Anton Chekov,
Translated by Constance Garnett

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“The town was a little one, worse than a village, and it was inhabited by scarcely any but old people who died with an infrequency that was really annoying.”

So here we are with more Chekhov. This book had a lot of stories I already read, and a few new ones.

In reading the new stories (including “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” “The Grasshopper,” “Easter Eve,” “The Dependents”, and “In the Ravine”), it was interesting to see their varying quality. “Easter Eve” felt like a better story than “The Grasshopper,” for instance, even though “The Grasshopper” was written much later.

The (super-subjective) reason: in some of his stories Chekhov came to rely too much on theme for an effect at the expense of his characters. “Easter Eve” was just a story about a man grieving his friend’s death. “The Grasshopper” was trying to get across a moral about women who have affairs. That made the characters less realistic, which somehow made the story less enjoyable.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to contrast “Ward No. 6” with “The Lady With The Dog.” In “Ward,” Chekhov prioritized his theme. “Lady” had more of a focus on characters. While both stories were obviously very good, “Ward” felt to me like a less well-written version of “Lady.” There was the sense that “Ward’s” characters were thinking and acting like they did because Chekhov needed for them to act that way to illustrate his theme, and not because that was how they actually would have reacted given their circumstances. Meanwhile “Lady” had a theme, but the characters didn’t act contrivedly–when they thought about the theme, they were doing so in reaction to something that could have logically made them react that way.

In any case, Chekhov’s still a great writer. Anything I say about him is going to be subjective, and I’d still definitely recommend this book.

Voices in the Wind: Poems for Listeners, by Naomi Shihab Nye

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“If this is the best you can do, citizens of the world,
I resolve to become summer shadow,
turtle adrift in a pool.”

This is a book of poems written in 2018. They were interesting to read, especially after having read a lot of books from the 1800s and 1900s. It also showed how even references to 2018-era events could become dated or unintentionally ironic in the face of 2021-era events.

The poems themselves were good, though. I have a feeling they’d be even better on audiobook. They were humorous and sometimes poignant. I liked how Nye told stories in some of her poems. They felt like anecdotes in poem-form, which meant they usually left me with something to think about.

Even so, sometimes it would feel like one of the poems was gearing up to leave the reader with a very interesting idea to contemplate, only to end with a line about how the poem was talking about something in a museum. I haven’t read as much poetry as I have read prose, but this seemed to me like it limited the poem’s scope.

In any case, I still enjoyed this collection, and if you’re looking for something to think about, you might enjoy it as well.

Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata,
Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

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“As he caught his footing, his head fell back, and the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.”

The book is about an affair between a man named Shimamura and a geisha named Komako. Also, out of the two best sentences I’ve ever read, this book has one of them (included above for your enjoyment. If you’re curious about the second sentence, see here).

Anyway. Snow Country‘s plot was nonexistent, and early on I almost gave up reading it because it felt boring. Thankfully, the second half of the book was much more interesting (even if it didn’t really have a plot, either).

I’ll explain by contrasting this book with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts. Both were plotless, but while the clichés and shallow-seeming characters in Lahiri’s book didn’t make up for that (in my subjective opinion), Snow Country had a lot of interesting language (see that great sentence) and characterization.

Here’s what I mean about characterization: early on, I wasn’t sure exactly why Character X kept acting a certain way. As the book went on, Kawabata was able to gradually convey the reason. Not only did this make the character very interesting, it also made the book feel more engaging, since the character’s behavior gave new significance to the overall story.

So, if you’re someone who likes poetic language, interesting characterization, and a book where nothing happens (but is actually not boring to read), this is for you.

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Portis, Miller, and Palahniuk

In Which I Review Charles Portis’s “True Grit,” Arthur Miller’s “Incident at Vichy,” and Chuck Palahniuk’s “Consider This”

Hello! Happy August. I hope you’re vaccinated or are getting vaccinated, and that you’ve been able to read and enjoy the summer some.

If you’re looking for reading material, I’ve reviewed three more books that might give you some ideas…

True Grit, by Charles Portis

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“‘I will inform them myself,’ said I. ‘Who is the best marshal they have?’ The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, ‘I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them [….] The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into this thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.’ I said, ‘Where can I find this Rooster?'”

This book, which inspired the movies, is about a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie who wants to avenge her father’s murder in the Wild West. So she enlists the help of Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed marshal with dubious morals.

What made the book good was the dialogue. All the characters were very witty and could hold their own, and entertain the reader at the same time. Meanwhile, Portis was usually able to get away with this without coming off like he was forcing his characters to be witty for the sake of showing off to the reader. That made the dialogue work, in my opinion.

The plot was interesting, too, but an important part of it felt illogical and sexist (I won’t spoil it, though–you’ll have to see for yourself whether you agree). This didn’t ruin the book, but it did make the story less impactful than it could have been.

Basically, if this book didn’t have any dialogue, it would not be worth reading. Fortunately for us, it does.

“Incident at Vichy,” by Arthur Miller

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“Many times I used to ask my friends– if you love your country why is it necessary to hate other countries? To be a good German why must you despise everything that is not German? Until I realized the answer. They do these things not because they are German but because they are nothing. It is the hallmark of the age– the less you exist the more important it is to make a clear impression.”

This play by Arthur Miller is about a group of people in Vichy France in 1942. They’re prisoners of the Nazi collaborators and they don’t know why. This set-up lets Arthur Miller examine ideas like collective guilt, the psychology of groups and individuals, idealism and nihilism, and so on.

The play was thought-provoking. It reminded me of Sartre’s “The Condemned of Altona,” except Miller’s play was much shorter and asked more questions than it answered. It also seemed to have more psychological depth when examining the nature of guilt.

In contrast to another play (Miller’s tragic “Death of a Salesman”), “Vichy” felt fresher. “Salesman’s” characters had to adhere to Miller’s pre-ordained tragic plot-formula. “Vichy’s” characters didn’t adhere to a formula, which meant that Miller didn’t have to contrive everyone’s actions to fit into it. “Vichy’s” characters were being explored, which gave them more room to act like real humans, whereas if Miller had let “Salesman’s” characters act too human, they wouldn’t have fit well into the play’s tragic formula.

So even though “Salesman” is more lauded than “Vichy” (Pulitzer Prize, etc.), and more emotionally-engaging (personal opinion), I would still argue that “Vichy’s” characters are more realistic than “Salesman’s.”

Anyway, I would recommend it.

Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, by Chuck Palahniuk

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“This is another reason to bother collecting stories. Because our existence is a constant flow of the impossible, the implausible, the coincidental. And what we see on television and in films must always be diluted to make it ‘believable.’ We’re trained to live in constant denial of the miraculous. And it’s only by telling our stories that we get any sense of how extraordinary human existence actually can be.”

This is a book of writing advice. It read a lot like, “remember to use verbs instead of adjectives! And remember to do XYZ!”, and a lot of it felt obvious or were things I already did in my writing. Even so, they were good reminders. Also, it was interesting to read them because Palahniuk brought a new perspective to why these different things were important to do.

Palahniuk also included memoir-like sections about his crazy fans, how he learned to write, and how his experiences shaped his views on the craft. These sections were filled with anecdotes like, “I did XYZ and it worked for me so much in writing Story ABC.” Even if people give you writing techniques, it helps for them to also give you real anecdotes that explain how such techniques worked for them.

Overall, everything wasn’t different after I finished reading this book, but it enriched things a little bit. In terms of substance, Consider This felt more useful than Cortázar’s book on writing, less useful than Stephen King’s book, and equally useful as Vargas Llosa’s.

So I would recommend it.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Jacques, Ibsen, and Wright

In Which I Review “Outcast of Redwall” by Brian Jacques, “The Pillars of the Community” by Henrik Ibsen, and “The Man Who Lived Underground” by Richard Wright.

Hello! I just turned twenty yesterday (which is exciting and scary). As promised, I’ve reviewed three books for you this week.

Outcast of Redwall, by Brian Jacques

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“Bryony got down from the arm of the chair. ‘No, Bella, I don’t know anybeast who is evil. A little naughty maybe, but not bad or evil. I think that others can drive a creature to naughtiness, always accusing and blaming them. After a while it must make the creature unhappy and drive him–or her–to be naughty because nobody expects them to be good. That’s what I think.'”

This is supposed to be a book about the kid of a evil ferret warlord who is abandoned and is taken in by the good beasts of Redwall, and has to choose between redemption and betrayal. Except the whole book is basically about a badger instead, who is the evil ferret warlord’s sworn enemy.

The ferret kid didn’t even get any real development as a character, whereas the badger’s story turned out to be much more interesting (and better-written). This is sad because the story could have been stronger had Jacques elaborated more on the ferret kid’s interiority. Also, the badger and the ferret kid had similar life-situations (being separated/estranged from their parents), which would’ve made such character-development even more interesting.

Since the ferret kid didn’t get any interiority, the ending didn’t make any logical sense. Also, characters suddenly went from being die-hard believers in XYZ to suddenly thinking ABC even though events would logically have caused them to exclaim “Aha! I knew XYZ was correct all this time!”

I won’t spoil what happens, but it made the good abbey of Redwall feel more like a dystopia than the utopia Brian Jacques seemed keen for it to be.

Overall, I would not recommend this book. I’d recommend Jacques’s Taggerung instead– it has a similar plot about the kid of an evil warlord, but it’s much better-focused, much better-told, and much more logical.

“The Pillars of the Community,” by Henrik Ibsen

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“MISS HESSEL: And you call yourselves the pillars of the community.
BERNICK: The community has nothing better to support it.
MISS HESSEL: Then what does it matter whether such a community is supported or not? what is it that counts here? The sham and the lie, nothing else. Here are you, the first man in the town, living in splendour and happiness, in power and honor– you, who have branded an innocent man a criminal.”

This Ibsen play is about a man who runs a shipbuilding business. He has dark secrets from his past that he tries to keep, even if it might mean betraying the people he loves.

It was very entertaining due to its character-portrayals– Character A saw himself as upright, even as Ibsen showed why that character was not really so upright within the very dialogue that the character was saying to prove his uprightness.

The story was also unexpectedly suspenseful. Ibsen was great at raising stakes. He wasn’t afraid to let crazy things happen to his characters, which surprised me after reading the relatively-tame “A Doll’s House.”

However, the ending felt a little anticlimactic. Even so, I’d recommend reading it.

The Man Who Lived Underground, by Richard Wright

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“Outside of time and space, he looked down upon the earth and saw that each fleeting day was a day of dying, that men died slowly with each passing moment as much as they did in war, that human grief and sorrow were utterly insufficient to this vast, dreary spectacle.”

This is a book about a Black man who gets accused for a crime he didn’t commit. He hides in the sewers where he discovers he could chip away at brick walls to secretly enter bank-vaults and other such places. He’s able to rob people without any consequences, but then he winds up seeing others being accused of the crimes he committed…

Wright’s a genius. His book reminded me of Kavan’s Ice in its near-allegorical nature. Even so, Underground had much more meaning than an allegory– objects could be symbols of ABC, but they could just as easily be symbols of XYZ, and the ability to interpret the story in many different ways gave it a lot of power.

The protagonist’s psychology was also fascinating. It’s easy to compare him to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, but Wright’s protagonist was somehow more interesting. I can’t explain why. Maybe because Dostoyevsky was portraying a stagnant protagonist– he was a mean man with a liver problem, and the whole story was just to explain that he was a mean man with a liver problem. In contrast, Wright’s character developed, and the whole story portrayed that development.

Anyway, definitely read this book. Then reread it. Then rereread it. Then read some more Wright. Then reread…

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Szabó

In Which I Review Magda Szabó’s “Abigail.”

Hello! I hope you’re well. I’ve read four books this week but I’m only reviewing one today for time-reasons. I’ll review two of the others next week, along with a surprise book.

Abigail, By Magda Szabó, Translated by Len Rix

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[…] through one of the opened windows a tune could be heard, a tune coming from somewhere down in Matula Street, at the front of the building. It was a repeated triple blast on a motor horn, a motor horn on which, in a far-off world, a happier world across the oceans, a world beyond the Seven Seas, a father was sending a message to his daughter. Gina my child, Gina my child, the motor horn called out merrily each time he pressed it. Gina my child, ran the cheerful refrain, again and again, ever more insistently, until it seemed not in the least happy or merry but appallingly, overwhelmingly sad.”

In Abigail, 11-year-old Gina is sent to a boarding school by her widower father. She is sad because she misses him and doesn’t understand why he has to send her away. In actuality, he is sending her away because it’s World War II, he is an underground fighter trying to get the German army out of Hungary, and he doesn’t want his enemies to use Gina against him if he gets captured. So begins the story of Gina fighting her classmates and trying to run away, until she learns about her father’s secret and has to grow up. And maybe if she prays to that mysterious statue called Abigail, things will get better.

This book was good. I felt very invested in the characters, especially Gina. Even though she could have easily been portrayed as an unsympathetic brat, Szabó was somehow able to avoid this trap. Apparently, understanding a bratty-seeming character’s motives enough results in her not being so bratty. That was great.

The story itself was well-written. The book-jacket described it as a cross between Harry Potter and Jane Austen’s Emma. The book was compelling like Harry Potter was. However, there was very, very obvious foreshadowing about the story’s central mystery.

As I was reading, I was wondering about this foreshadowing– did the author really expect readers not to figure out the mystery? Would the entire book just be a build-up to revealing the mystery’s solution, even though it was made obvious early on? Yes.

That made the book feel anticlimactic, and the explicit giving away of the ending earlier on also meant there were no other mysteries to wonder about.

Maybe I’m just getting jaded from reading so much and becoming good at guessing plot-points early, so don’t take my review as the absolute truth about how obvious the foreshadowing was. The story itself was still very entertaining (there’s a reason this is a very popular book in Hungary), so I’d still recommend it.

Have you read this book? Ever have an interesting experience with authorial foreshadowing? Comment below!

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: 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.