Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Shanbhag, Kadohata, and Kertész

Hello! Happy Tuesday. It’s the end of the semester here, so I have several papers I’m writing. Somehow, I’ve also read several books. Here they are:

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag,
Translated by Srinath Perur

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“In the middle room of the old house […] [the protagonist’s sister Malati] told me about her college, her classmate Vandana, whose step-mother served her leftovers, and who was in love with a boy they called Koli Ramesh. It was Malati who carried letters between them. In the new house, we were locked in the cells of individual rooms, and there was no opportunity to exchange casual confidences. Lying alone in my room, I sometimes wondered if Malati’s happiness would have been better served had Sona Masala not existed at all.”

This book is about a family in Bangalore who runs a mysterious business called Sona Masala. Before they started the business they were happy but poor. After they start the business they become miserable and greedy.

This book has been compared with Chekhov. I do not see it. Yes, it has good brevity, but Chekhov still gives a lot more meaning in one short story than this author does in his entire book.

There’s also another difference– Chekov actually has warmth, even when he’s describing unsympathetic characters and cynical situations. This book doesn’t, or if there is warmth, it’s not really that warm. For instance, the protagonist’s father is supposed to be the moral compass of the book. However he never really gets a chance to say anything other than paltry things along the lines of, “Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this,” or, “In the old days, people actually respected each other,” which rob him and his role of their weight. He’s never really given a chance to speak and be taken seriously, so he doesn’t really provide as convincing of a counterweight as he seems like he’s there to do.

Any moments of happiness are fleeting and not taken seriously, either. They’re treated like, “Oh, we were only happy then because that was before we moved into the new house, don’t mind that nonsense.” A book absolutely doesn’t have to be unicorns and butterflies, but the lack of real happiness in this book means that any contrasts made between the family’s old life and their new life don’t really work as well as they could have.

Going back to a point I made at the beginning, the book doesn’t really say as much as it could have. The protagonist is complicit in the family’s dysfunction, sure, but I found myself really wondering why he acted that way, and not receiving an answer. For me, it’s not enough just to say and show that characters act differently because they’re in a new house and have new wealth. There needs to be more of a sense of why (even if it’s a very subtle implication). There’s definitely room for this kind of implication, but it’s never really made. Instead, this book seems to treat the characters as if greed just sprang upon them and took them unawares, and as a result, it doesn’t really say as much as it could have.

Contrast this with Chekhov, where even in his less-hopeful stories, he includes a measure of warmth as an effective contrast (which actually winds up heightening the level of cynicism), he says all that he could say within the space (making the most of his characters and their conflicts), and really gets at why the characters are acting the way they do.

I may sound harsh, and I don’t mean to. This book was still good, and I would still recommend it to read. But I would definitely not say that it was Chekhov-level good.

Half a World Away, by Cynthia Kadohata

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“No, the future was not bright for Dimash if he didn’t learn to walk differently. Walking was important. Jaden knelt down in front of him […] Dimash gazed at him intently, his shoulder scrunched, his stance geeky. Jaden pulled the boy’s shoulder up until both sides were even. ‘Here, stand like this. Good! Now watch.’ Jaden walked evenly, with a little bit of swagger. ‘That’s how you walk. Come on, walk to me.’ Dimash pushed his shoulder down and walked to Jaden even geekier than usual. ‘No,’ Jaden said, patiently but firmly. ‘When you walk, you must be cool. Then maybe nobody will bother you.'”

This book is about a boy named Jaden who was adopted from Romania at the age of eight. Angry at having been given up by his birth-mother and unable to form emotional attachments, Jaden grew up stealing, lying, and setting fire to the toys given to him by his adoptive parents. When he’s eleven, his parents take him with them as they adopt someone from Kazakhstan. Jaden thinks they’re adopting again because he’s a bad son. However, once they reach Kazakhstan, he forms connections with a toddler at the orphanage (Dimash) and the man who drives them around (Sam), and eventually realizes he loves his adoptive parents.

This book is interesting because it involves two adoptions (instead of just one), and describes the mindset of someone who was adopted as an older child. It’s also an enjoyable read.

While Jaden’s psychology is well-conveyed, he seems too emotionally-aware considering his circumstances. He grew up in an environment where he never knew love and had to suppress his emotions, so he likely wouldn’t be able to understand his feelings as well as he seems to in this book (“he felt sad” “he felt happy” “he felt angry” etc.).

This discrepancy makes this book read less like the character is actually experiencing life, and more like the author is writing down her guesses about what it would be like to experience life through the character’s perspective.

In any case, this is a good book, and even though it’s for middle-grade readers, it’s still a good read for adults, too.

Dossier K., by Imre Kertész, Translated by Tim Wilkinson

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“[Interviewer:] What would be of more interest to me right now is the difference between fiction and autobiography, as critics and readers alike commonly refer to Fatelessness as an autobiographical novel.

[IK:] Incorrectly, I have to say, because no such genre exists. A book is either autobiography or a novel. If it’s autobiography you evoke the past, you try as scrupulously as possible to stick to your recollections [….] A good autobiography is like a document: A mirror of the age on which people can ‘depend.’ In a novel, by contrast, it’s not the facts that matter, but precisely what you add to the facts.

This book is the autobiography/memoir of Imre Kertész, who won a Nobel Prize. It’s written in an interview format, and talks about his life in Nazi-era Hungary, his experiences in Birkenau as a teenager, his return to Hungary after the war, and the discovery that Hungary has become a dictatorship too.

I have never read any of his books. After having learned about his experiences and his thoughts on life, I want to.

This memoir was also somewhat entertaining because Kertész was pretending to be two people. The “interviewer” would ask some question, and the “interviewee” would answer something along the lines of, “no, you don’t understand, it wasn’t like that at all,” or, “that’s a very interesting observation. I never thought of that myself.” This interplay made the story feel less like a cut-and-dry interview and more like a conversation between two real people. In the end, this didn’t detract from the book’s subject matter but somehow made it more powerful.

In any case I would recommend this book. Now I need to read more by him.

Until next week!

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: Goldenveizer, Schiffman, and Balzac

Hello! What do quotations from Tolstoy, books on magic, and Balzac all have in common? They’re all included in this week’s post!

Talks With Tolstoy, by A.B. Goldenveizer,
Translated by S.S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf

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“[Tolstoy said] ‘I think that every great artist necessarily creates his own form also. If the content of works of art can be infinitely varied, so also can their form. Once Turgenev and I came back from the theatre in Paris and discussed this. We recalled all that is best in Russian literature and it seemed that in these works the form was perfectly original. Omitting Pushkin, let us take Gogol’s Dead Souls. What is it? Neither a novel nor a story. It is a something perfectly original.'”

Yes, someone really did have such conversations with Tolstoy, and he really did write them down to be read by us lucky people in the future.

Reading this book, I got a better sense of how Tolstoy thought, what he seemed ignorant/naive about, and how the way he thought could have played into what he wrote.

For instance he talked about something that likely inspired his story, “The Three Hermits.” he mentioned how he constantly rewrote, even after he reached a point where other people praised his works-in-progress. On the other hand, he was also very sexist, and he seemed to think that at one point in the past, colonialism wasn’t done out of self-interest, but out of the goodness of the colonists’ hearts.

In other words, it was insightful, inspiring, and disillusioning all at once. If you want to learn how Tolstoy thought in the years leading up to his death, and try to guess at how his thoughts informed his work, read this book.

Abracadabra! by Nathaniel Schiffman

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“I’ve started performing a casual trick for a friend, then realized that because I didn’t plan it out or think about it beforehand, I suddenly find myself not knowing how the trick should proceed. The idea of magic is that it is impromptu, whimsical, snap-of-the-finger. These ideas are mutually exclusive to the reality that careful natural planning must go into creating the illusion. The same idea has been expressed for many arts besides magic. Renowned Hollywood director Billy Wilder said of the movies, ‘Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.'”

This entertaining book is about magic–how to do magic tricks, how to make them convincing through misdirection, how magic was used throughout history, and how aspects of it pop up everywhere in daily life.

To be actually good at magic (instead of just buying some rigged prop to show off once and then forget about), you apparently have to do a LOT of work.

It’s not enough to know the trick, you have to know how to pull the trick off well. You have to know how to hide what you’re doing and how to direct your audience’s attention so that they look at what’s most exciting about the trick. So you have to learn a lot of psychology. You also have to practice a lot. Only then can you get up on some stage and “casually” pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Basically, this book made me realize just how much work goes into pulling that rabbit out of the hat.

So if you’re interested in learning how magic really works (and how aspects of it are very relevant to your non-magical life), read this book.

The Unknown Masterpiece,” by Honré de Balzac

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The old man continued, saying as he did so, ‘That is how to lay it on, young man. Little touches. Come and bring a glow into those icy-cold tones for me. Just so. Pom! Pom pom!’ And those parts of the picture that he had pointed out as cold and lifeless flushed with warmer hues. A few bold strokes of color brought all the tones of the picture into the required harmony with the glowing tints of the Egyptian, and the differences in temperament vanished.”

This is a story about a painter who is painting a masterpiece. He won’t let anyone see it at first, and in the meantime he shows off his talent on others’ paintings. Finally, two people do see it, and I won’t spoil what happens next.

“The Unknown Masterpiece” was an interesting story. It made me think a lot about art and revision. Sometimes, if a piece of art feels almost-finished and you don’t know how to proceed, the work doesn’t need to be completely re-thought. Instead, you just might need to add a few small details.

Basically, if you’re interested in art, read this story. It’s very worthwhile.

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: Faqiri

Hi everyone, I’m going to write very briefly today because of school. However, I did want to tell you some great news and to introduce you to a great writer.

First the great news: I wrote a novelette about a year ago that has just been accepted for publication. It’s the first time I’m being paid for my fiction. I’m very excited to share more details with you when the story comes out in September 2021.

Now, here’s the great writer:

“The Doleful Village”, by Amin Faqiri, Translated by Iraj Bashiri

“It was at dusk when Dadkhoda and his son entered my room. I was lighting the lantern. Dadkhoda sat down. His son, too, sprawled himself on the floor beside the father. I put more air in the lantern. It caused the kerosene to overflow and the lantern to be set aflame. Dadkhoda said, ‘You should have given the lantern more time to warm up.'”

I read this story about two days ago and still can’t stop thinking about it. The plot doesn’t matter as much as the way the events are arranged and juxtaposed to make an impact. To get that aspect across I’d need to spoil the story. I won’t do that.

I’ll tell you some things about it though. It’s about a man who tells another man about his family. The family has a bull that dies, and the village believes that the man’s wife put a jinx on the bull for it to die. In the present, the family’s young kid wants to go to school.

See? Nothing’s interesting about it, but there are connections between the events that make them all gain in meaning. At the end, it has a huge impact.

The best thing you can do is to read the story. It’s free. Here it is.

I tried to find more stories by this writer on Amazon but I can’t seem to find any, which is unfortunate. I’d love to hear if anybody knows where they might be available.

That’s all for now. Stay healthy and hopeful!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov

Hello. I hope you are all healthy and safe, and doing your best to stay that way. I’m in the middle of midterms week at school, but I’ve managed to read a great book. I wanted to share it with you:

The Place of the Skull, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“If only I could write something, something that would get a reaction from thousands and thousands of people, people who would treat it as something of intimate concern to them personally, as a fire in their own house, a misfortune affecting their own children, only then could the Word, caught up by thousands of people, none of them indifferent, overcome the power of profit and triumph over vice!”

Basically, if you have a chance to read Chingiz Aitmatov, get your hands on everything you can by him. He’s criminally-underrated. (I’ve reviewed another one of his masterpieces here).

The Place of the Skull is another modern-ish classic. It’s a bunch of stories woven into one. It’s the story of a family of wolves living on the Kazakh steppe, an absurdly-idealistic Russian who’s expelled from a seminary, Jesus Christ, and a farmer. The wolves just trot along through the story and make you feel a bit like you’re reading Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. The idealistic Russian wants to infiltrate the drug trade to see what makes people sink to depravity (he also wants to reform some of the depraved people, which is fascinating to see). Jesus Christ gets crucified. The farmer (named Boston for some reason) has to deal with Soviet collectivization (where the USSR forced Kazakhs to work on a big farm instead of working on their own individual farms), and with the wolves that trot their way into his plotline. It’s all very exciting in actuality.

One thing I will mention. It… has… a… lot… of… ellipses. But once you get over that…

…the book’s a joy to read.

It’s fresh with ideas and heart. Its plot is well-done, too. You have a bunch of stories but they work well together, and the overall story wouldn’t have the same impact it does have if it weren’t to have all of those stories within it. Its grand scope also enables it to talk about environmentalism, the meaning of life, wolves, and morality.

Another thing I’ll mention. This book has all this philosophy in it, but for some reason it’s able to make it entertaining to read (unlike some Russian novels I’ve read–my opinion only).

The philosophy in Aitmatov’s novel asks questions that are actually interesting to contemplate: What makes people sink to immorality, how is the environment related to humanity, what gives people the power to be good, can humanity ever redeem itself, etc. So instead of having some boring guy droning on about a philosophical parable, Aitmatov’s book has characters who are actually struggling with topics that are super-relevant to their existence, and for some reason, you feel a sense of urgency when you read it. Maybe it’s because you get the sense that the author cares a lot about what he’s writing about, or he makes it so you understand why the characters care about it, and why you should care about it, too. At some points I thought he could’ve taken his ideas farther than he did, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment.

Basically, read it for yourself.

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

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“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: Orwell, Theophrastus, and Aitmatov

Hello. I hope you are all well. I’ve been able to get back to the library to take out some really thick and really thin books. One of them is reviewed here. The others will probably take a while longer to get through.

Meanwhile, here are my reviews:

Animal Farm, by George Orwell

Animal Farm – Once Upon A Book Time

“‘I have little more to say. I merely repeat, remember always your duty of enmity towards Man and all his ways. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend. And remember also that in fighting against Man, we must not come to resemble him. Even when you have conquered him, do not adopt his vices.’”

Animal Farm is about a bunch of animals on a farm who rebel against their human farmer, kick him out, and try to govern themselves. It’s also an allegory about the Russian Revolution. Will the animals manage to live in peace among themselves and preserve their enmity towards Man? Will they remain steadfast in their determination not to adopt his vices? If you’ve already read the book and are re-reading it like I did, you’ll know the answer.

Yet is the book still worth re-reading? For me it was. The first time I read it, I was really young and didn’t fully understand all of its political subtext. This time I did understand the subtext, and so I found myself laughing at some of the references to the Russian Revolution.

Even if you did understand the subtext first time around, Animal Farm is one of those books that become more enjoyable when you know the ending. You now have time to think. How exactly do the animals wind up in their situation? Could it have been prevented? What lessons can we learn now?

Basically, Animal Farm is still as classic as ever. It’s also very short and worth the hour-and-a-half it would take to read, or to re-read, or to re-re-read.

 

Characters, by Theophrastus

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“When he’s serving in the military and the infantry are advancing to attack, [the Coward] calls to his comrades and urges them to stand alongside him first and survey the field, saying it’s hard to tell which men are the enemy. Hearing a roar and seeing men falling, he tells his comrades that in his haste he forgot to bring his sword. He then runs to his tent and sends his slave outside, ordering him to see where the enemy troops are. Hiding the sword under his pillow, he then spends a long time pretending to search for it.”

Characters is that book that you take out when you’re able to get back to the library for the first time in months. It’s written by a Greek named Theophrastus. In it, he satirizes different types of people he’s met in Athens (such as the Coward, the Pinchpenny, and the Complainer). The satirical sketches are short and sometimes entertaining. They’re much more entertaining when you realize they were written thousands of years ago, and that people haven’t really changed much since then.

 

The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“‘I have no writing table. As soon as my brood settle down to sleep, Zaripa reads, and I write down things while I can still remember what happened—about the war, and especially my years in Yugoslavia. Time passes and the past goes further away into the distance.’ He was silent, and then added, ‘All the time I’m thinking about what I can do for my children. Of course there is a general truth for everyone, but everyone has his own understanding about things, and this understanding dies with him. When a man hovers between life and death in the midst of a world conflict; when he is nearly killed a hundred times over and yet still survives, then he has learnt a great deal about good and evil, truth and falsehood […] My legacy is my soul, my writings, and in them is all that I understood and learnt from the war. I have no greater riches to leave to my children.’”

This book is so amazing that its essence can’t really be summarized by one quote. Written by Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov, it’s set in Kazakhstan under the Soviet Union. It takes place during one day in the life of a man named Yedigei, who’s going to bury his friend, Kazangap, in the desert. It’s also about aliens, nuclear war, traditional legends, and peoples’ lives. It’s funny, tragic, and heartfelt. It feels so epic, but it’s only like 350 pages long.

With all that epicness, Aitmatov’s book can also be interpreted as a criticism of the Soviet Union’s treatment of Kazakhstan. Basically, he implies that the Soviet Union tried to erase the Central Asian peoples’ history and traditions to better oppress them. What’s surprising is that this book was published while Kazakhstan was still a Soviet state—Aitmatov was able to get this book (Soviet criticism and all) past the censors and into print.

The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years may remind you of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five because of its aliens, non-chronological progression, and intellectual leanings. There’s a difference, though. Vonnegut’s book has more of a detached intellectualism. Aitmatov’s book has some intellectualness, but it’s mainly a compelling and compassionate story about people.

Its cover is really cool, too:

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I can keep rambling on incoherently and listing adjectives to try to convince you to read it, but I won’t. I’ll just say that Aitmatov’s book is amazing and underrated and that it should be a classic.

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Until next time! I hope you are all safe, healthy, happy, and reading.

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

Hello! I hope you’re all enjoying the summer. Here’s a book that may make it more enjoyable:

The Brothers Seven, by Aleksis Kivi

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[Upon encountering an evil spirit in the woods]:

“SIMEONI. But let us first try to cast it out with spells.

JUHANI. Well said! First a spell or twain. But what should we say to him? Whisper to me, Simeoni; for at this moment I find myself stupefy’d. You whisper the words to me, and I ’ll hurl them in his face so the weald resounds.

SIMEONI. Follow my exact words, then. ‘Here we stand.’

JUHANI. Here we stand!

SIMEONI. ‘Like God ’s holy crusaders, fiery swords in hand.’

JUHANI. Like God ’s holy crusaders, fiery swords in hand.

SIMEONI. ‘Go thy way.’

JUHANI. Go to hell!

SIMEONI. ‘We are Christ’s soldiers, baptiz’d in the Blood of the Lamb.’

JUHANI. We are Christ’s soldiers, God ’s gallow-glasses, baptiz’d in the Blood of the Lamb.

SIMEONI. ‘Tho’ we can ’t read.’

JUHANI. Tho’ we can ’t read.

SIMEONI. ‘But we still believe.’

JUHANI. But we still believe and place our full trust in Him.

SIMEONI. ‘Go now.’

JUHANI. Go now!

SIMEONI. ‘Afore the cock crows.’

JUHANI. Afore the cock crows!

SIMEONI. ‘And hails the light of the Lord.’

JUHANI. And hails the light of the Lord of Hosts!

SIMEONI. But he pays us no mind.

JUHANI. But he pays us—aye, he ’ld not care tho’ I skrik’d at him with the tongue of a angel. Gorblimey, brothers! Naught else for it now but: now, boys!”

[They attack the spirit only to discover that it is their horse.]

There are many unexpected things about Aleksis Kivi’s The Brothers Seven, but the fact that it has seven brothers is not one of them. Before getting into the unexpectedness, here’s an overview of what it’s about:

Once upon a time in Finland, you had to know how to read to receive church confirmation and thus officially become an adult and get married. In the book, seven orphaned brothers—Juhani, Aapo, Tuomas, Simeoni, Timo, Lauri, and Eero—refuse to learn how to read. The person trying to teach them treats them badly, and so they run away from home and go into the woods. There, they build houses, burn things down, get chased by things, argue, go hunting, play hockey, get chased by more things, and so on. They also get redeemed.

One unexpected thing: the book was published in 1870, but it’s the first Finnish novel ever written. Why? It’s the first one written in Finnish and not in Swedish, which was the main language in Finland at the time. So people had probably been writing novels before that point, just not in Finnish.

Another unexpected thing: in its day, Finnish people wanted to be portrayed as idealized hard-working people. Kivi’s book portrays them as being reckless and head-strong mischief makers.

At first, the book was criticized for this unexpected approach. Then people began calling it the greatest Finnish novel ever written.

Here’s the most unexpected thing about The Brothers Seven: you hear the words, “greatest Finnish novel ever written,” and maybe you’d go on to expect it to be something like The Brothers Karamazov, with a tremendous page-count and somewhat-developed characters and lots of angst.

It has very little of that. The book’s only 300-something pages, the characters are flat, and the book reads more like a Shakespearian comedy than it does an “Epic Novel.” Literally—not just in content, but in language and format. The prose parts are written as prose, but the archaic-sounding dialogue is written out as in a play.

So it’s not the traditional type of “greatness.” That’s okay, though, because Kivi’s book has its own kind of greatness. It’s vivid and hilarious. Some of the comedy may seem cheesy, but that doesn’t stop parts of it from being funny.

In any case, it seems the unexpectedness of Kivi’s book makes it great. The beginning and middle are very funny and unexpected, but the ending is expected and actually disappointing.

For that reason, I would recommend reading up to the aftermath of the brothers’ encounter with bulls (Chapter 9—you’ll see what I mean), and then skipping to the final chapter (Chapter 14). That’s just my take, though.

Another unexpected thing may happen, which is that you enjoy chapters 10 to 13 even more than this review leads you to suppose.

Until next time! Meanwhile, I hope you’re all healthy and safe and enjoying the summer.

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Ishiguro, Oates, and Agee

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Hello! I hope you’re hanging in there. Here are three more books I’ve read and reviewed for your enjoyment.

My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs: The Nobel Lecture, by Kazuo Ishiguro

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“The next generation will come with all sorts of new, sometimes bewildering ways to tell important and wonderful stories. We must keep our minds open to them, especially regarding genre and form, so that we can nurture and celebrate the best of them. In a time of dangerously increasing division, we must listen. Good writing and good reading will break down barriers. We may even find a new idea, a great humane vision, around which to rally.”

In 2017, when Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he gave this speech.

It’s an interesting speech, telling of all sorts of writerly epiphanies he had in his life—from how he came to write about Japan while living in Britain to how he came to put more emphasis on developing the relationships between characters. In that way, My Twentieth Century Evening feels like a condensed memoir. Ishiguro’s speech is also a chronicle of chronicle of the changing times (from ~1960 to 2017). In that way, it also reads like a condensed history of society.

However you read this condensed book, it’ll probably make you curious to read some of Ishiguro’s other books. It certainly has done that for me.

The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (Second Edition),
Edited by Joyce Carol Oates

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“As Tolstoy said, talent is the capacity to direct concentrated attention upon the subject: ‘the gift of seeing what others have not seen.’ Though it is hardly necessary, I suggest that the reader read this volume as it is assembled, more or less chronologically. A tale will unfold, by way of numerous tales, that is uniquely and wonderfully American.”

Both this book and Ishiguro’s book chronicle time in their own way, but while Ishiguro’s book is short, Oxford is ridiculously long. When measured, its spine reaches almost two inches in thickness. When counted, its pages reach almost a thousand in number.

Is it worth reading the numerous tales within? Somewhat, because it’s interesting to see how American fiction grew and changed throughout history, and how different genres (fantasy and horror) also grew and changed.

The stories themselves vary in quality, though. Some are amazing, while others don’t seem to give a rewarding reading experience or add much new insight into life.

In case you want only the essentials, here are some of the stories I found to be the best:

“The Paradise of Bachelors & The Tartarus of Maids” by Herman Melville, “A Journey” by Edith Wharton, “The Little Regiment” by Stephen Crane, “A Death in the Desert” by Willa Cather, “The Man Who Was Almost A Man” by Richard Wright, “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, “Defender of the Faith” by Philip Roth, “Filthy with Things” by T.C. Boyle, and “Mercy” by Pinckney Benedict.

I thought they were good for several reasons, ranging from their engaging voices (like Stephen Crane and Herman Melville) to their impact (Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Pinckney Benedict). Others were just entertaining to read (Willa Cather, Philip Roth, and T.C. Boyle).

In the end though, I can’t tell anybody what makes writing great or not, since it’s all subjective. For instance, maybe you’ll think Melville’s story is awful while another writer’s story is amazing.

It might be worth reading Oxford to find out. Even if it’s not worth it, you’ll still learn a lot from the experience.

A Death in the Family, by James Agee

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“‘See here, Poll,’ he said. ‘It’s bad enough right now, but it’s going to take a while to sink in. When it really sinks in it’s going to be any amount worse [….] That’s when you’re going to need every ounce of common sense you’ve got,’ he said. ‘Just spunk won’t be enough; you’ve got to have gumption. You’ve got to bear it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice. You’ve got to keep your mind off pitying your own rotten luck and setting up any kind of a howl about it. You’ve got to remember that things as bad as this and a hell of a lot worse have happened to millions of people before and that they’ve come through it and that you will too. You’ll bear it because there isn’t any choice—except to go to pieces.’”

James Agee’s book is about a death in a family living in Tennessee in the early 1900s.

More specifically, Jay Follet is a father who believes his own father is dying, so he drives over to tend to him. His father turns out to be fine, so he drives back home to his family. The problem is, he dies on the way there, and everyone else is left to deal with their grief the best they can.

Half of the book is about life before Jay’s death, and half is about the immediate aftermath. For me, that was a surprising approach. That approach isn’t done for the sake of being surprising, though. It’s done to convey a surprising experience.

Since the book doesn’t talk much about life after the funeral, you don’t get a sense of the grief being resolved. Instead, since the book emphasizes Jay’s life and death, you get a sense of the “birth” of his family’s grief. You get a sense of the family’s denials, guilts, and regrets. You get to see some of them continue on with their normal life as if they hadn’t yet come to understand the full impact of Jay’s death. Then you get to see them feel guilt about it, and regret how they behaved in their denial.

In the stories I’ve read about people dying, I never saw these ideas explored, mainly because many stories about death focused on the long-term aftermath rather than just the immediate aftermath. Also, they didn’t really seem to examine the experience of grief as in-depth as this book did. In other books, I found characters would react to death by being very sad or angry, which is expected. Agee digs beneath this expected-ness to expose grief’s unexpected nuances. There’s tragedy, but also comedy. There’s sadness and anger, but also hope.

At the risk of sounding stuffy, I’ll just finish by saying that even though nothing really happens in the book itself, Agee is great at portraying the various nuances of human experience.

 

I hope you enjoyed my reviews. Let me know if you’ve read any of these books, or plan to. Next week I’ll be reviewing only one book, known to some as the greatest Finnish novel ever written.

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