Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Rayfield and Tolstoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A short book written by Tolstoy? Unheard of!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Chekhov and Kawabata

Hi! I hope you’re all healthy and safe, and are getting vaccinated if you are able. I’ve been writing papers and studying for finals, so I haven’t had much time to read, but I did have time for one entertaining story and one beautiful one:

“Kashtanka,” by Anton Chekhov

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“When it got quite dark, Kashtanka was overcome by despair and horror. She huddled up in an entrance and began whining piteously. The long day’s journeying with Luka Alexandritch had exhausted her, her ears and her paws were freezing, and, what was more, she was terribly hungry. Only twice in the whole day had she tasted a morsel: she had eaten a little paste at the bookbinder’s, and in one of the taverns she had found a sausage skin on the floor, near the counter — that was all. If she had been a human being she would have certainly thought: ‘No, it is impossible to live like this! I must shoot myself!’ [….] But she thought of nothing, she simply whined.”

This story is about a dog named Kashtanka who gets separated from her master and wanders around the streets. She eventually gets taken in by a mysterious stranger who turns out to be a circus-master. Thus begins her career in the circus.

The story was fun to read. It has around 10 chapters, but each chapter was rather short. Their titles were funny, too.

It was also interesting to see Chekhov think that dogs could see in color (even though they’re color-blind), so I kept being put off by that small detail. The end (not spoiling anything here) also felt a bit too convenient, like there wasn’t enough of a struggle to deserve it.

Even so, if you’re sort of stressed from writing papers and studying for final exams, this would be a terrific story to read on your break!

“The Pomegranate,” by Kawabata Yasunari

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“‘Kimiko, Kimiko!’ her mother called. ‘Keikichi is here.’ Kimiko had let her needle come unthreaded. She pushed it back into the pincushion. ‘Kimiko had been saying how she wanted to see you again before you leave.’ Keikichi was going to war. ‘But we could hardly go and see you without an invitation, and you didn’t come. It was good of you to come today.’ She asked him to stay for lunch, but he was in a hurry. ‘Well, do at least have a pomegranate. We grew it ourselves.’ She called up to Kimiko again. He greeted her with his eyes, as if it were more than he could do to wait for her to come down. She stopped on the stairs. Something warm seemed to come into his eyes, and the pomegranate fell from his hand.”

“The Pomegranate” is about a girl named Kimiko who picks a pomegranate. There’s a lot more to the story than that (as you can kind of see from the excerpt) but telling you any more will spoil things.

Just read it instead. It literally takes less than a minute and will be super-worth it. Kawabata also won the Nobel Prize, if that helps convince you.

Moral of the story: Just go and read it already 🙂

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Chekhov and French Tales

Hello! I hope you’re all well. It’s Midterms Week here at school, so I’ve only been able to read two books. They were worth it, though…

The Tales of Chekhov Volume 1, Translated by Constance Garnett

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“‘And why did you leave us so early on Thursday, Nikolay Timofeitch?’ ‘Hm! It’s queer you noticed it,’ says the shopman, with a smirk. ‘You were so taken up with that fine student that . . . it’s queer you noticed it!’ Polinka flushes crimson and remains mute. With a nervous quiver in his fingers the shopman closes the boxes, and for no sort of object piles them one on the top of another. A moment of silence follows. ‘I want some bead lace, too,’ says Polinka, lifting her eyes guiltily to the shopman. ‘What sort? Black or coloured? Bead lace on tulle is the most fashionable trimming.’ ‘And how much is it?’ ‘The black’s from eighty kopecks and the coloured from two and a half roubles. I shall never come and see you again,’ Nikolay Timofeitch adds in an undertone.”
(From “Polinka”)

This was an interesting collection of six Chekhov stories. They were of varying lengths. What struck me the most about them was that Chekhov can write about people in a way that reminds you of people you know in real life. I experienced this when reading his “The Darling.”

Also, I used to think of Chekhov as someone who did character sketches but now I think of his stories more as relationship sketches. Yes, Chekhov gets you to know his characters, but he does that so he can then get you to understand their relationships with other people. For instance, in one of his stories, you could figure out pretty easily that Character A secretly likes Character B, but you don’t really understand the full meaning of that dynamic until Chekhov develops it in the rest of the story.

Sometimes, it felt that he went on too much about a relationship dynamic. There was one story where Character C kept crawling back to his beloved Character D after supposedly leaving her for good. After he crawled back to her for the fourth time, I found myself wondering what the point was.

Overall though, it was an entertaining collection that I would recommend. If you’re just out to read one or two stories from it, I’d recommend “Polinka” and “Anyuta.”

French Tales, Translated by Helen Constantine

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“Hugues Barros can no longer see anything on this earth. A slight foam rises through the corners of his mouth, frequent spasms shake his limbs. With one last effort he raises himself little by little into a sitting position. And he dies sitting up, his eyes vague, like a creature that is just awakening.” (From “The Bull From Jouvet”)

This is a collection of 22 French short stories by writers including Annie Saumont, Guy de Maupassant, and Émile Zola. Each story is set in one of France’s 22 regions.

Most of the stories were enjoyable. They also introduced me to some new French authors (like Alphonse Daudet) and made me sad about the fact that more of their work hadn’t been translated into English (like Annie Saumont). In fact, you can’t find English versions of some of the stories anywhere outside of this collection. Believe me. I tried. That alone makes it worth reading.

Some things made the collection less enjoyable than it might have been. Some of the stories felt like they had the exact same ending, to the point I found myself correctly guessing the resolution in advance. Also, a few of the stories were less interesting than others, but that might just be personal taste.

The good news is that there were so many interesting stories. Some of my favorite stories included Annie Saumont’s “You Should Have Changed at Dol”, Stéphane Émond’s “House in the Woods”, Daniel Boulanger’s “The Cattle Man”, Colette’s “Where Are the Children?”, Guy de Maupassant’s “A Mother’s Tale”, Paul Hervieu’s “The Bull from Jouvet”, and Alphonse Daudet’s “The Pope’s Mule.”

So even though the collection wasn’t perfect, I’d still recommend that you take a chance on it.

Until next week!

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Afremow, Chekhov, Stanislavski

Hello! Happy New Year! I hope you all had a happy and safe New Year. I’ll be reviewing 3 books today– the last one I read in 2020, and the first two I read in 2021.

The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive, by Jim Afremow, PhD

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“Our desire to better ourselves and develop our natural gifts is what makes us all distinctly human.”

This was a very interesting and inspiring book. It’s written by a sports psychologist who trains professional athletes, so the book had a lot about developing the “champion’s” mindset, which is apparently essential for succeeding in elite athletics.

The book had tips from Afremow’s own experience, reflections written by Olympic athletes, Zen stories (my favorite part), and funny yet inspirational sayings– “cope, don’t mope,” and “when you’re anxious, make the butterflies in your stomach fly in formation.”

Needless to say, this book gave me a lot of insight into an athlete’s mindset. That sounds obvious, but let me explain. I like to play tennis for fun, but I always thought of tennis as hitting a ball around in a court, and I thought of professional tennis-players as people who were just really good at hitting a ball around in a court. It turns out that becoming a professional involves a whole way of life that requires commitment, character, resilience, and wisdom. And here I was thinking it was all about hitting a ball around in a court! Reading this book was fascinating just for that new perspective alone.

In the end, the book gave me much to think about, and has made me appreciate sports more than I used to. If you’re someone who’s looking to become athletic this New Year’s, this would be a good book to look at. If you’re someone who’s looking to self-actualize in any way, this would also be a good book to look at.

Forty Stories, by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Robert Payne

ORIGINS: Anton Chekhov

“He went up to her and put his hands on her shoulders, intending to console her with some meaningless words and to fondle her; and then he saw himself in the mirror. His hair was turning gray. It struck him as strange that he should have aged so much in these last years, and lost his good looks. Her shoulders were warm and trembling at his touch. He felt pity for her, who was so warm and beautiful, though probably it would not be long before she would begin to fade and wither, as he had done.”

This book contains Chekhov’s first story, his last story, and thirty-eight stories in between. Reading them in chronological order like this gave me an appreciation of how Chekhov developed over time. In the beginning, he wrote somewhat melodramatic sketches, but as time went on he started writing more detailed and thought-out pieces.

Something cool about this book is that at the end of every story there’s the month and year in which the story was published. This sounds like a trivial detail but it made for some fascinating autobiographical insights. In the 1890s, Chekhov wrote a bunch of stories where the protagonist had an affair, which was possibly inspired by an affair he was having. Also in the late 1890s to early 1900s, he wrote a lot about people aging or dying. He was aging and dying during that time, too.

What makes this interesting isn’t just that we can match up Chekhov’s life with his fiction. We can also see how life inspired his fiction and how his fiction became a constant reworking of the thoughts he probably had in life. For instance, he wrote all those affair stories in the 1890s, culminating with his famous “Lady With the Little Dog.” Just reading “Lady With the Little Dog” makes it seem like he just came up with all these great ideas while writing this one story, but reading this collection made me realize that Chekhov wouldn’t have been able to write such a great story had he not been spending the past few years working out all these ideas in his previous affair stories. It felt like watching a bunch of rehearsals for a play.

Now that’s interesting.

My Life in Art, by Konstantin Stanislavski,
Translated by Jean Benedetti

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“[The actor Rossi] reflected a while. ‘God has given everything you need for the stage, for Othello, for the whole of Shakespeare.’ (My heart leapt at his words.) ‘Now the matter is in your hands. You must have artistry. It will come, of course…’ Having spoken the truth, he began to dress it up with compliments. ‘But where and how am I to learn it, and from whom?’ I enquired. ‘Mmmm… If you don’t have a great master to hand, who can guide you? I can only suggest one teacher to you,’ the great actor replied. ‘Who? But who?’ I asked. ‘You,’ he concluded, with his famous gesture from Kean.”

The Russian actor and producer Konstantin Stanislavski is a genius. He wrote many amazing books about acting that went on to inspire “Method” acting. My Life in Art is Stanislavski’s autobiography.

In this book, Stanislavski tells how he got his start in acting, how he tried to figure out his own approach to acting (which he eventually did), and how he met and befriended people like Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorky. Apparently, Stanislavski got Chekhov and Gorky to write a few masterpieces for his Moscow Art Theater. Without Stanislavski, we might not have had plays like The Cherry Orchard or The Lower Depths. Also, Chekhov apparently met his second wife while working with Stanislavski in the 1890s, so without Stanislavski we might not have had masterpieces like “Lady With the Little Dog.” This basically makes Stanislavski a triple genius.

In any case, his book is brimming with wisdom and humor, and since it’s only about Stanislavski’s art-life, it felt very focused and rich. Yes, the ending of the book seemed a little unpolished, but if you were to read the book’s intro you’d understand why–Stanislavski was rushed into finishing his book before he was ready.

Even with the rushed ending, the autobiography was still a terrific last read for 2020. It showed that genius doesn’t come from innate talent but from trying so much and messing up so many times that you somehow mess up less and less and eventually start succeeding a bit.

Basically, I’d recommend it.