Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kivirähk

Hello. I hope you’re all healthy and safe, and that you’re able to find ways to enjoy the last few warm days of the season. Here’s an amazing book that you will probably want to enjoy at some point, too.

I’d basically consider it a modern classic (it was published in 2008 but it was translated into English in 2015):

The Man Who Spoke Snakish, by Andrus Kivirähk

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“This knowledge drove me to despair. I wanted to live in the forest, I wanted to be with Magdaleena, I wanted other people around me, I wanted them not to be fools, I wanted them to know Snakish, I wanted some meaning in my life, I didn’t want to decay. But all these wishes were incompatible and in opposition, and I knew that most of them weren’t destined to be fulfilled.”

The Man Who Spoke Snakish starts out funnily enough. It’s set in medieval Estonia, and is about a boy named Leemet who learns from his uncle how to talk to snakes and other animals (“Snakish”). He’s part of a tribe of forest-dwelling people, and all of them can speak Snakish. It’s super-cool.

Then the Germans come and conquer them. More and more members of the tribe leave the forest and go to live in a village, where they become Christianized and forget how to speak Snakish. Meanwhile, Leemet grows up and seeks to make the most of forest-life in this changing world.

The story is hilarious throughout, but then you realize that it’s actually a very, very, very, very, very sad book.

There’s something about its end that is especially sad. It doesn’t answer questions but it leaves you wondering about things that are very sad to wonder about. Like how much of someone’s identity is tied to other people, and what is left when those people are all gone? What’s left when all that love and hope and sorrow and rage someone once felt is gone, too? Is that person moral? Does it even matter in the end? The answer that the author seems to give to all of this is that he doesn’t know.

So you’re left with his confusion on top of your own sober confusion, and it’s an awful lot of confusion about a very sad topic and a very sad question. But it feels like a necessary confusion.

I kept expecting the author to leave us with a certain kind of ending where the protagonist would miraculously figure it all out, but it turned out that by refusing to settle for that type of ending, the book became even more powerful. I got more out of being confronted by the void than I would have gotten had the author taken the easy route and tacked on a neat and cheesy ending. It made the story feel realer and deeper. It was as if, throughout the whole story, I was being led through some kind of tunnel and then the ending of the book was the tunnel opening up into a vista and showing me how things really stood, and that since I knew how things really stood, I fully understood why the author didn’t really know where to go from here. It was a very profound experience, actually.

This book reminded me a lot of Ali and Nino, in the way one culture was being impacted by another. This book felt more realistic though, even though it had really cool fantasy in it (giant talking fish, giant winged snakes, people who could capture wind in a bag, etc.). It wasn’t even any type of vivid description or character-depth that made this book more realistic. It was just very emotionally realistic.

If I had to say exactly why, I would say that this book’s emotional realism actually came from its plot and narration. The story’s events and the way they were described let you examine stuff that the characters felt and thought and did without forcing you to take sides. Meanwhile, the story still gave you room to question all of it and come up with interesting connections and insights, and those intellectual revelations led to you getting new insights into how the characters felt.

Also, it’s the type of book that leaves you thinking about it for a long time after it’s over.

So, if you like your modern classics hilarious and sad and profound, you’ll really like this one.


Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kesey

Hello! I hope you’re all as healthy and safe as possible, and that you get something valuable by contemplating the below review.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey

Randal McMurphy & George Hanson – The Rōbert [Cholo] Report (pron: Rō'bear  Re'por)

“I think McMurphy knew better than we did that our tough looks were all show, because he still wasn’t able to get a real laugh out of anybody. Maybe he couldn’t understand why we weren’t able to laugh yet, but he knew you can’t really be strong until you can see a funny side to things. In fact, he worked so hard at pointing out the funny side of things that I was wondering a little if maybe he was blind to the other side, if maybe he wasn’t able to see what it was that parched laughter deep inside your stomach.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was one of the better books I read in high school. I recently reread it, and since I never reviewed it on my blog to begin with, I thought I would do so now. What ensued was massive inner conflict.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story of Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s about a group of patients in a mental hospital in the 1960s. They spend their time fearing and obeying the dictatorial Nurse Ratched. Then a man named Randle Patrick McMurphy enters the ward. He refuses to obey her, and he gets the other patients to overcome their own fears of her, too. Hilarious chaos results.

The story’s told by one of the patients in the ward, a Native American named Chief Bromden. He pretends to be deaf and dumb, so he’s more of an observer than an actor, but he does have previous experience of how authorities oppress people. So, because Bromden narrates, the story of a few men becomes a metaphor for society as a whole. This means it can make a lot of different points about government, society, and rebellion.

When I had first read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I had sympathized completely with the patients. Maybe this was because I’d watched the Jack Nicholson movie right before reading the book, or maybe it was because Kesey’s actual book had seemed to portray the patients to be immensely sympathetic. You could even argue that Kesey drew parallels between people in the Bible and the patients so readers would relate to them more. In any case, I had sympathized with the patients, and I’d only focused on the great points Kesey made about society and government, and ignored whatever hadn’t seemed to relate to those points. I’d thought that individuality and sincerity were at the core of this book, and I had believed it to be amazing.

Now, when I reread the book, I was surprised by how much sexism and racism there was in it. Kesey indirectly chalked all of the world’s woes up to wives, mothers, female government agents, and nurses. The patients were racist towards the black ward orderlies. Meanwhile, there was Kesey, making his biblical comparisons and glossing over all of those questionable parts by framing them as ways that the patients resisted oppression. That was grounds for thinking of the book as awful.

But I still thought there might be something to be gained from reading this book. It made good points about society (the importance of laughter, the importance of self-empowerment, the importance of individuality, the importance of voting, etc.). It was also very well-written from a technical standpoint, and it had one of the best streams-of-consciousness I ever read.

I thought maybe we could learn constructively from the book’s sexism and racism—if we were critical of it and tried to see the dynamics behind it, we could figure out how to prevent it.

Then I asked myself, was this book actually worth reading? I was conflicted until I tried to figure out what the book was really about. Then, I realized that the saintly ideals of individuality and sincerity weren’t at this book’s core. Sexism and racism were. The ideals were just ways for Kesey to distract readers from the fact he was using those ideals to indirectly rationalize that core. For instance, in Kesey’s view, women were at the heart of the “establishment” that suppressed individuality and sincerity. Since the establishment was portrayed as bad, women were bad, and attacking women in the name of individuality and sincerity was portrayed as good. It’s hard to explain without writing an essay, but I hope you get what I’m saying–the book’s end wasn’t individuality and sincerity, but justifying ill will towards women.

Anyway, Cuckoo’s Nest exposed the mess of humanity and inhumanity and how they could coexist in the same book or person or world and be glossed over. Everything could be rationalized and covered up by something else that looked saintly. Things could seem both amazing and awful at the same time.

But couldn’t things, including books, just be amazing?

So in the end, I have decided that this book isn’t worth reading. Enjoy something completely amazing instead.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Stephens and Stephens

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe. I’m reviewing two books this time, both part of the same series. I won’t spoil anything, though, so don’t worry.

The Emerald Atlas, by John Stephens

waterfall gifs | WiffleGif

“‘You ain’t from around here,’ the boy said. He kept his voice low, and the look on his face was one Kate recognized. She’d seen it on children who after years in orphanages had decided no one was ever going to adopt them. The boy had no hope. ‘My name’s Kate,’ she said, speaking in the same near-whisper as the boy. ‘This is my brother and sister, Michael and Emma. What’s your name?’ ‘Stephen McClattery. Where’re you from?’ ‘The future,’ Michael said. ‘Probably about fifteen years. Plus or minus.’ ‘Michael’s our leader,’ Emma said brightly. ‘So if we all die, it’s his fault.’”

I wrote about the second book in this “Books of Beginning” trilogy a few weeks ago. Now I’m writing about the first one.

This book starts with three siblings in an orphanage. The siblings are named Kate, Michael, and Emma, and the orphanage’s name is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the kids’ parents left them for some mysterious reason, but that they promised they would return. So the kids refuse to be adopted, and wind up being sent to another orphanage with a relevant name: Cambridge Falls.

There, they find the book that takes them through time and into danger.

So now that the dramatic summary is out of the way, let’s talk about the actual story. I first read this book as a kid and loved it. It had magical creatures and funny characters and adventure and so on.

Coming back to it was an interesting experience. I noticed how many times characters jumped from one mountain-ledge to another and were miraculously saved from falling to their deaths by massive gusts of wind that somehow pushed them to safety.

I also noticed how well put-together the themes were. The protagonists were orphans, and they encountered a group of orphans when they traveled to the past. They met creatures whose life-values gave insight into how the kids were affected by their orphan-ness. They also encountered people who seemed to represent what life could be like if the kids weren’t orphans. Also, all of their struggles seemed to be testing their values of family.

Basically, the story seemed to have a crux that everything else came out of—the adventures, the magical creatures, and the characters. Everything reflected an aspect of the idea of family.

So even though the story may have had miraculous gusts of wind, it also had a thematic unity that made it surprisingly rewarding to read.

The Black Reckoning, by John Stephens

Funny Death GIF | Gfycat

“‘When I first got here, I thought this place was a hell. You’re the one who told me it could be a paradise. It turns out we were both right. It could be either. It depends on who you are, because the world of the dead shouldn’t just be a place where you wait around like some kind of houseplant. It should matter what you did when you were alive, and if you spent your life only living for yourself, then yeah, maybe this should be a hell. But if you ever forgot yourself enough to love another person, then you should be able to remember that.’”

This is the third book in that “Books of Beginning” trilogy. If you’re someone who wants to make sure the entire trilogy is good before you start in on it, this review may be helpful.

In this book, Emma journeys into the world of the dead to find the third Book of Beginning, while Kate and Michael and their other friends stay in the world of the living and try to win a war against evil forces.

This book was well-written, but it didn’t feel very satisfying. I didn’t come to care more about the story as the book went on, and then I found the author getting rid of reasons I should care about the story without replacing them with reasons to care more.

For instance, take character deaths. If you’re going to kill a character, you want to get readers to care about that character beforehand so the death is impactful. Then you have to make sure the death doesn’t get readers to stop caring about the remaining characters. Ideally, you’d want to use the death to get readers even more invested in the remaining characters.

That didn’t really happen in this book, so after that aforementioned character died, it felt like the book was running out of reasons for you to care.

This may say something about the book in general. What made that original character sympathetic? Probably the fact that this character was the only one who actually had some trouble achieving goals. Instead of being helped along by miraculously-convenient gusts of wind, this character had to be resourceful in order to survive. As a result, you felt like this character’s battles could go either way.

Meanwhile, the other characters in the book didn’t seem to have to struggle as much. It felt like they would get where they needed no matter what happened. After the aforementioned character died, nothing was really at stake in terms of the plot.

What about in terms of the characters’ wants? I never really found out. Most of the characters wanted things that seemed obvious and expected. If one sibling got separated from another sibling, the other siblings wanted that sibling back, and that was all you really found out about it. This could apply to any sibling group, but in real life, siblings in this type of situation would have their unique takes on why they want their missing sibling back. Maybe they realize something new about that sibling that they never acknowledged earlier which makes them miss that sibling more. In fiction, learning about those types of realizations would make a reader understand the character more and be able to connect with him/her better.

That didn’t seem to happen much in this book. In other words, the characters didn’t seem to be feeling things and trying to make sense of things nearly as much as they probably should have. As a result, they didn’t seem truly engaged by the events of the story. Since the characters weren’t engaged, I couldn’t really be, either.

The only exception was that one resourceful character, who was engaged and who grew in engagement as the story went on as you learned more about this character’s backstory. If Stephens had made every character be just as engaged as that character, this story probably would have been much more satisfying.

So. Is this series worth it? Based on the trilogy as a whole, I would say maybe. It won’t change your life, but it does have its moments. Stephens is sometimes good at themes, and he’s sometimes good at characters, and he’s sometimes good at plots. Other times, he’s not.

Just based on the third book alone, I would say that it’s not worth it. But you might think differently. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Until next week!