Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Borges and Nagibin

In Which I Read “Ficciones” by Jorge Luis Borges and “Arise and Walk” by Yuri Nagibin

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Happy Hanukkah! I have been reading four books, but I’ve only managed to finish two so far. The other two will be kept a secret until next week. Meanwhile, I’ve reviewed the two books that I have read…

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges

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“When it was proclaimed that the Library comprised all books, the first impression was one of extravagant joy. All men felt themselves lords of a secret, intact treasure. There was no personal or universal problem whose eloquent solution did not exist — in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly expanded to the limitless dimensions of hope.”

That was basically me when I discovered the library for the first time in my life.

Seriously though, Borges’s book was a very interesting read from an intellectual standpoint. He’s one of those authors who asks cool questions like, “What if we construct a fake society that actually starts feeling more real than the society we’re in?” and then rolls with it. All of his stories are basically like that, and you wind up thinking about them long after you’ve read them, which makes them entertaining to read as a result.

Ficciones also has the benefit of containing a lot of his great stories. You have the “Library of Babel,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Circular Ruins,” and “Death and the Compass.” What more could you want?

So if you’ve never read Borges before, and if you love intellectual speculation, Ficciones is a perfect place to start.

Arise and Walk, by Yuri Nagibin,
Translated by Catherine Porter

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“[About a prisoner calling his wife from Siberia] The operator wound the handle of the receiver, and wound it again. The receiver filled with rustling, crackling sounds, like wind stirring along an autumn forest path […] The voice of space is plaintive and troubled, and fills the heart with fear. Then suddenly, from far, far away, at the other end of the world, he clearly heard the voice of his former wife: ‘Yes?’ The tiny line had finally reached out to him, and tiny though it was, he suddenly felt terribly close to this long-lost family from which he was probably excluded now for ever. ‘Hello there Katya!’ he yelled. ‘How are you all?’ ‘All right.’ The voice was stiff and cold–but maybe it was just the distance that made it sound so.”

While Borges’s book was filled with intellectualism, Nagibin’s book is filled with emotion, which made them good to read in the same week.

Arise and Walk is about a boy whose father gets sent to prison in Siberia. As he grows up, the boy preserves a relationship with him, visiting him and sending him packages. At the same time, the Stalinist state penalizes people whose relatives are prisoners, so we see how the protagonist has to hide his father’s existence from his friends, co-workers, and acquaintances.

This book was very good. It had something of Chingiz Aitmatov in it, so I can’t say exactly what. Maybe in the way they both felt sincere and were thus able to elicit emotions in the reader (at their best, anyway).

Even though this book was good, something felt like it was missing. We learned a lot about the father (who was a very good character), but less about the son (other than that he had conflicting feelings about his father). He never went through an arc of his own, even though he was the protagonist. Contrast this with Chingiz Aitmatov’s Jamila, where the protagonist tells a story about other people, but is changed by it himself. Maybe that’s what was missing from Arise and Walk.

After reading the book, I was surprised by two things. First of all, that Nagibin’s own father had been arrested. Maybe this would explain the sincerity of his story. Second of all (and less relevantly), that he wrote an Oscar-winning screenplay for a Kurosawa film. Yes. You can read more here.

Until next week! Have a happy Hanukkah (if you celebrate), and read books, because they justify the universe and expand it to the limitless dimensions of hope.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Voinovich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Figes

Hello. The usual introductions won’t do this book much service, so I’ll just get straight to my review.

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes

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“In 1958, after his release from the labour camps, Igor was visited by an old acquaintance of the family, a woman called Zina, who had seen his mother [Julia] in the Karaganda camp, where she, too, was a prisoner. Zina told Igor that Julia had died in the camp hospital and that she was buried in a mass grave. In 1986 Igor received another visit from Zina, by this time a woman of 80. She told him that on the previous occasion she had lied about his mother because Julia, before she died, had made her promise to spare Igor the awful details of her death [….] Julia had not died in hospital […] No one wanted to tell [Zina] where [Julia] was, but then one woman pointed to a sheep-pen on the steppe and said that she could be found there.”

This book is the greatest epic that was never written about Russia and communism. It covers everything from the start of communism to ~2006, and contains an incredible range of humanity (and inhumanity). I never expected such an experience from this book. The only thing comparable is William Craig’s Enemy at the Gates.

I mean this book has everything. It starts at the very beginning of Communism, and describes how children were so indoctrinated and distanced from their families (who prioritized working for the Soviet Union over bonding with their own kids) that the Soviet Union became their surrogate parents.

It goes on to describe collectivization, the Holodomor, and the great Terror. What struck me about this section was that, in some cases, even though people knew their relatives were being arrested, they would still rationalize that their relatives were arrested for a good reason. Some of them would even become informers and get other people arrested prove their loyalty to the Soviet Union. Later on after Stalin’s death, some of these informers would seek out the people they had betrayed and somehow try to make amends.

From there, the book goes on to describe World War II, the massive amount of people sent to prison camps, and then the war’s aftermath, when those people were released, and sometimes still held fond memories of their time in prison (as a coping mechanism).

Overall, this book was great. Most of all, it was great at showing peoples’ kindness and cruelty, and how humanity and inhumanity could sometimes even live within the same person.

In other words, read this book.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Bartlett

In Which I Review Rosamund Bartlett’s “Tolstoy: A Russian Life.”

Hello! Happy November. I’ve read a big book this week. It’s a biography. Of Tolstoy.

Tolstoy: A Russian Life, by Rosamund Bartlett

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“Tolstoy was born in 1828, on the twenty-eighth day of the eighth month in the year, and twenty-eight became his lucky number. He had become so superstitious by the time he reached adulthood, in fact, that in 1863 he ordered his wife to hold on until after midnight so that their first child Sergey could be born in the early hours of 28 June.”

This was a good book. I never knew Tolstoy kept bees, or that someone could be both serious and impulsive at the same time (as he was, apparently). However, Bartlett’s book wasn’t the remarkable biography I expected it to be. I’ve read better biographies of people that really got at their inner lives (see here).

By contrast, this one felt more like, “Tolstoy did X and then he did Y and then he did Z.” So I got a sense of his life, but I didn’t really get a sense of him as a person.

In any case, if you’re looking for a good biography about Tolstoy, I don’t know if this would be the best one to read. However, I haven’t read any of the other Tolstoy biographies, so I could be wrong.

Have you read any of his other biographies? What did you think of them? Let me know in the comments below!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Spinelli, Hellbeck, and Rilke

In Which I Review Spinelli’s “Milkweed,” Hellbeck’s “Stalingrad,” and Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.”

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you had a happy Halloween. I’m back with three more book reviews. One’s historical fiction, one’s historical fact, and one’s of letters written during a historical period…

Milkweed, by Jerry Spinelli

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“’Tata, what is happy?’ […] ‘Were you ever cold, then warm?’ I thought of sleeping with the boys under the braided rug: cold, then warm. ‘Yes!’ I blurted. ‘Was that happy?’ [….] ‘No,’ he said. He tapped my chest. ‘Happy is here.’ He tapped his own chest. ‘Here.’ I looked down past my chin. ‘Inside?’ ‘Inside.’ it was getting crowded in there. First angel. Now happy. It seemed there was more to me than cabbage and turnips.”

This book was interesting it was about this kid named Misha who lives on the streets of Nazi-era Warsaw and steals food for his orphan family. But he also belongs to another family of Jews, which has been sent to the ghetto. He steals for them, too, even as doing so brings greater and greater risk…

The book was good, but Misha felt under-characterized. I kept expecting to care more about him and the other characters than I did. Maybe it was because Misha never really seemed to care much about them other than what they did for him. Maybe it was because I never saw other characters really caring about each other aside from hugging each other.

In either case, the book was still good. It had interesting ideas and main character. However, it was only kind of emotionally-impactful at the end, and I feel it could have been much more so.

Stalingrad: The City That Defeated the Third Reich,
by Jochen Hellbeck,
Translated by Christopher Tauchen and Dominic Bonfiglio

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“[After the battle when the Russians were rounding up German prisoners:] There was a motorcyclist, someone from army intelligence, and he was there next to a German driver who was wearing a Red Army jacket. I said to the company commander: ‘Why’d you give him a jacket?’ ‘He was cold.’ ‘And when exactly did you die so he could pull it off your corpse?’

This book was fascinating. It contains Russian eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Stalingrad obtained by a historical commission during the battle and immediately after it ended. These eyewitness accounts had been suppressed by the Soviets and only recently declassified (in 2010-ish).

This context alone made the book interesting because it gave a candid perspective on what the soldiers thought and believed during the war, instead of afterwards when they’d already won and could revise whatever they’d been thinking and feeling at that time. For instance, one soldier confessed in an interview that he’d been scared at one point, but in the memoirs he published later on he said he’d always marched bravely forward.

The book itself contained interviews with Red Army members, but it also contained excerpts from interrogations with Germans, and German diaries. These perspectives shed a lot of light on how propaganda worked to preserve cohesivity (or destroy it, in the case of the Germans).

It also gave a lot of insight into the human condition. For instance, in the excerpt–the German prisoners were likely sent to gulags where they froze to death, but before that point a Red Army soldier gave one of them his jacket to keep him from being cold. That blew my mind.

Basically, read this book. It’ll blow your mind, too.

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke,
Translated by M.D. Herter Norton

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“And let me here promptly make a request: read as little as possible of aesthetic criticism– such things are either partisan views, petrified and grown senseless in their lifeless induration, or they are clever quibblings in which today one view wins and tomorrow the opposite. Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as of criticism.”

Letters to a Young Poet contained letters written to who you might expect. Strangely enough, at the end, the translator decided to just start excerpting random letters rather than giving their contents in full. That made this book’s ending very anticlimactic.

In the meantime the letters that were quoted were interesting. For instance, Rilke thought you had to work all on your own and never socialize, because life corrupted you. But later on in life, he seemed to think he needed to learn more about life to work well as an artist.

Which is true? I don’t know. Besides, I can only provide you with clever quibblings. The best thing for you to do is to read Rilke’s book yourself.

Have you read any of these books before? Do you want to read any of them? Let me know in the comments!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Capote, Murray, and Benedict

In Which I Review “In Cold Blood” and “The Personal Librarian.”

Hello! Happy Tuesday! I hope you are all healthy and safe. I’ve read two books this week (midterms meant I had no time to do anything else). They’re completely different books. One’s about a murder, and one’s about the J.P. Morgan Library. They made for an interesting combo…

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

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“‘I wonder why I [killed the Clutter family].’ He scowled, as though the problem were new to him, a newly unearthed stone of surprising, unclassified color. ‘I don’t know why,’ he said as if holding it to the light and angling it now here, now there. ‘I was sore at Dick. The tough brass boy. But it wasn’t Dick. Or the fear of being identified. I was willing to take that gamble. And it wasn’t because of anything the Clutters did. They never hurt me. Like other people. Like people have all my life. Maybe it’s just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it.'”

This book is about a real-life murder in Kansas.

It was very boring at the beginning, and I almost gave up on it. Except I didn’t, and I’m somewhat glad I didn’t, because the middle and ending were better. But still, why would Capote begin an interesting story with a boring description of the landscape?

Anyway what made the story become interesting was that Capote treated the murderers as humans. He did not justify their actions in any way (or sentimentalize their causes), but he made them understandable.

That level of empathy alone is commendable. Add to it the ability to string the events into an intriguing narrative and you have a book worth reading. Especially for Halloween.

The Personal Librarian, by Victoria Christopher Murray
and Marie Benedict

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[Talking in front of a traitorous arts-dealer, Mr. Smythson] “I look at Mr. Morgan. ‘You needn’t worry that you will be faced with such deceit again.’ ‘No Miss Greene? Why is that?’ he asks, as if we’d rehearsed this exchange. […] ‘Because the next time we do business with Mr. Smythson, I will be on hand to verify the authenticity of any antiquity that comes to the doors of the Pierpont Morgan Library. And should an item that doesn’t pass muster arrive–which could, course, be no fault of Mr. Smythson…’ I pause, wanting the dealer to see how I have provided him with an excuse for his past reprehensible behavior. ‘Then we will resolve the issue before it even reaches your desk, Mr. Morgan.’ ‘Excellent, Miss Greene.'”

This book is about Belle da Costa Greene, a Black lady who passes as white in the 1900s. The stakes are high for her– she has just become J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian. If her identity is discovered, her life could crumble.

This book was interesting because of its fascinating historical subject (AKA Belle Greene and the world of antique art collection). The authors were also great at writing entertaining dialogue. However, they sometimes seemed to alternate between witty dialogue and info-dumpy dialogue (as seen in the passage quoted).

In terms of overall character entertainment-value, J.P. Morgan was surprisingly the most entertaining. Maybe it was his great dialogue that did it.

Meanwhile, the protagonist’s internal monologues felt somewhat info-dumpy. At the same time, it was an entertaining info-dump, and it certainly helped the story along because it made it clear why certain plot-points were relevant/important. As a result, I was able to understand clearly why such-and-such a plot-point mattered. Belle’s been granted permission to take her first trip to London? Well, this is her chance to prove herself worthy by swooping a rare and valuable item out of her rival art-collectors’ hands. So these explanations worked because they helped keep the story focused.

However, while the story was cleanly structured, there were some moments where the protagonist was in a deep crisis and then “suddenly knew what to do.” I didn’t find this believable. Readers need at least some interiority to figure out why characters have such huge epiphanies.

Overall, the characters didn’t feel quite alive (save for J.P. Morgan, somehow). Even so, the story was good, the dialogue was snappy, and the historical details were very cool to learn about. Read this book if you want something informative and entertaining.

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

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

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

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First Excerpt (The Prose):

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

Second Excerpt (The Poetry):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week!

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

In Which I Review Vassily Aksyonov’s “Generations of Winter.”

Hello! I have read one book today. It’s a long book. It’s considered a 20th century version of War and Peace. And nobody’s really heard about it…

Generations of Winter, by Vassily Aksyonov,
Translated by John Glad and Christopher Morris

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[About a couple who have both spent time in the gulag before being released to fight in WWII]: “Everything is finished, Nikita will never come back to me – – for that matter, he’ll never be himself again… It’s the end, the end… Everything is finished, thought her husband, who was only pretending to be asleep. Veronika didn’t come back, she no longer exists. Is it worth it, fighting the Germans for the ruins of my family?”

Generations of Winter is an epic novel about the Gradov family as they live through the Russian Civil War, Stalin’s terror, and World War II. There is Boris, who is a famous surgeon, his piano-playing wife Mary, his son Nikita who’s a Red Army officer, his other son Kirill who likes philosophy, and his daughter Nina who likes to write poetry.

People have compared this novel to War and Peace. I would say it’s more like War and Peace if all the characters got arrested. Also, there were a few important things that made Generations very unlike War and Peace.

First, the interesting things: There were experimental bits told from the perspectives of people reincarnated as animals, and there were fragments of newspapers included in the text. I’m still not sure exactly how these parts added to the story, but there’s a sense that the story would be missing something important without them.

Next, the not-so-exciting things: All the women were objectified, and there was less depth of character and thought.

The women were literally just there for the men to have their way with and were not really characterized beyond that point. Out of all the women in Russia, surely there would have been at least one or two who weren’t always just thinking of men. So not only were they objectified, they were also underused as characters.

There was also less depth of overall characterization. The author didn’t really go beyond what anyone would think in a given situation.

For instance, imagine you’re an Aksyonov character. Your friend was arrested? You’re obviously sad and angry and afraid, but that’s all you are! You’re not relieved that it’s not you, you’re not guilty about being relieved, and that arrest hasn’t changed you in any other way. You don’t reflect on what it could mean for the state of the country, or for existence, or anything like that. In fact, nine times out of ten you’re likely to just try making out with your friend’s bereaved wife! Nothing else really changes.

The book’s main idea seemed to be that people are imprisoned, released so they could be used in a war, and then oppressed yet again. This was an interesting idea, especially since the characters seemed to suppress whatever cognitive dissonance they felt. But that was it! Nothing else really changed.

Overall though, I don’t think a book’s ideas alone make it great. I think its characters do that (but this is obviously a subjective view).

Generations of Winter felt like Aksyonov was showing me a picture he’d drawn of people experiencing some event rather than introducing me to the actual people who had experienced that event.

He didn’t seem to take the time to fully imagine himself in his characters’ situations. Because he didn’t seem to know his characters as well as he could have, the book lacked a sense of insight, connection, and richness that would have existed had he known his characters better.

Basically, he seemed to care more about his literary style than his characters and their truths. When a writer emphasizes literary style more than character, it seems to me that the characters lose an important authenticity, and the book may suffer as a result.

So while Tolstoy seemed to really get to know his characters so he could depict them fully, Aksyonov seemed to understand his characters superficially. This gave them, and his book, less power than War And Peace.

Generations of Winter is still a good book, but it’s not as good as it could have been, or as great. Should you read it? Maybe start with some of Aksyonov’s shorter works first.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Tolstoy, Aitmatov, Babel

In Which I Review “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy, Stories by Chingiz Aitmatov, and “Red Cavalry” by Isaac Babel.

Hello! I’ve read three shorter books this week. One’s a novella and the other two are short story collections. So if you need something easy to get through, I have you covered!

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy,
Translated by Lynn Solotaroff

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“‘Does he think I’m so weak I can’t stretch my hand out?’ Ivan Ilyich thought, and forgetting what he was doing, he overtrumped his partner, missing the grand slam by three tricks. And worst of all, he saw how upset Mikhail Mikhailovich was while he himself did not care. And it was dreadful to think why he did not care.”

Ivan Ilyich was a very good read. It’s about a man named Ivan Ilyich who lives a shallow life until he realizes he’s dying. Then he reflects on life and dies anyway (spoiler alert!)

A few of its scenes were definitely moving, and it made me think a lot. It was interesting how Tolstoy used contrasts to evoke emotion. Ivan liked a kid who lifted his legs and this feeling was made stronger because he was shown to dislike nearly everyone else, for instance.

What also struck me was how similar parts of Ivan were to other books by Tolstoy. For instance, in Resurrection, the protagonist also sinks into sin and then has an enlightenment. It made me wonder how autobiographical Tolstoy’s writings were, and how he was (or in other cases, wasn’t) able to get inside the heads of people unlike himself.

Overall, I would recommend this book. It’s short, thought-provoking, and moving.

Other Stories, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“On the map Ceylon looked like a drop under the udder of the continent. But when you listened to to the teacher–why, it had all sorts of things, monkeys, and elephants, and bananas (some kind of fruit), and the best tea in the world, and no end of other fantastic fruits and plants. But the most wonderful thing of all–it was hot; so hot you could live there the whole year round and never know what it was to shiver.”

Aitmatov wrote a book called “Piebald Dog Running Along The Shore And Other Stories.” I’ve already reviewed “Piebald Dog” and “To Have And To Lose”, which leaves the three “Other Stories” in this collection.

The first story, “Duishen,” is about a girl whose aunt and uncle don’t want her to attend school. However, her teacher helps her go to school anyway and becomes a kind of guardian-figure to her. The story was interesting, somewhat unrealistic at one point, but still very good.

The next story was called “Mother-Earth.” It’s about a mother whose husband and children go to war. She has to stay behind and work on the collective farm. In the process she experiences both happiness and grief. This story was also interesting, more realistic than “Duishen,” but also somewhat melodramatic (the characters never stopped crying it seemed).

The final story, called “The Cranes Fly Early,” was the best story. The protagonist is a kid whose father is at war. The kid has to leave school to help work on a farm. He misses his father, falls in love with a schoolmate, and has to contend with adult responsibilities. Even so, he was very relatable, and there was less melodrama in this story since he wasn’t crying all the time.

Now, even though I said that the stories were kind of melodramatic, this didn’t mean that they were unenjoyable. Aitmatov’s characters felt very alive, which made them extremely sympathetic and compelling. It’s hard to explain without having read him yourself, which I’d definitely recommend that you do in any case.

Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel, Translated by Boris Dralyuk

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” I had dreams-dreamt of women-and only my heart, crimson with murder, creaked and bled.”

This collection of short stories was based on Babel’s experiences in the Russian Civil War. It tells about soldiers and commanders and towns and geese.

Babel’s language was great, but the substance of his stories varied. Some of the stories, like “My First Goose” and “Afonka Bida” were absolutely terrific (read them, whatever else you do in life). They had profound meanings that were communicated powerfully.

Meanwhile, other stories, like “The Italian Sun” seemed to have much less substance. Why was that? Maybe because Babel seemed to be too keen on showing off what exactly he wanted to say instead of letting the reader figure it out for him/herself. Still other stories felt less like they had something to say and more like they were just vignettes. Maybe Babel was saying something in those stories, but maybe he wasn’t.

There’s obviously a difference between having something to say, not having anything to say, and being too insistent on getting across a message. If you read “My First Goose,” you’ll see an example of the first instance. If you read “The Italian Sun,” you’ll see an example of the third instance. And I’ll leave it to you to determine the examples of the second instance (since art is ultimately subjective).

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

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!