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

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“‘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:

The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years #Offtopicday | Cartoon ...

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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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Lister, Douglass, and Lin

An American in Paris (1951). Lise Bouvier is played by Leslie Caron.

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe. As promised, I have reviewed three inspiring books to keep your spirits up during these troubled times:

Genghis Khan, R.P. Lister

GENGHIS

“There are a lot of dogs roaming loosely about a Mongol camp, and sometimes they knock small children over, out of curiosity and a sense of fun [….] ‘Dai Sechen, my kinsman,’ he [Genghis Khan’s father] said in an anxious, fatherly way, ‘my son Temujin [Genghis Khan] is afraid of dogs. Do not let him be frightened by the dogs.’ This is often how it is with parents, for whom time goes so quickly that they do not bear in mind that what is true when a boy is three, and no bigger than most dogs, is no longer true when he is nine. So they suddenly come out with the belief that one of their children dislikes mutton, because six years ago they used to have trouble with him about it; whereas in fact for the last five years the boy has eaten it eagerly.”

This is a history of Genghis Khan. It’s not just any history, though. It’s informed by a book called The Secret History of the Mongols, which was written in 1240, 13 years after Genghis’s death. The Secret History had access to people who knew Genghis, as well as to the lore about his life passed down through storytelling. The Secret History was lost for centuries, until it was found. However, when it was found, it was discovered that this book was written for Mongol princes, and wasn’t understandable to anybody but an expert.

R.P. Lister is that expert. He tells his own history of Genghis Khan, drawing heavily on The Secret History and interpreting it in terms that the rest of the world can understand.

His not-so-secret history is fascinating, and makes for an entertaining read. Even though it focuses mainly on Genghis’s rise to power, it does briefly sketch out how his family went on to conquer the rest of everything. There are a few names that are confusing to keep straight (Genghis had so many valued commanders), but that doesn’t detract much from the overall enjoyability of the book.

What stands out the most is the writer’s gentle humor. It manages to be insightful without being wry, and gives the book a spirit of benevolence. That probably sounds cheesy, but there’s no other way to describe it. You’ll have to read it yourself to see what I mean.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Frederick Douglass

DOUGLASS

“This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping me, must also succeed in killing me.”

Douglass’s memoir is amazing. It tells of how he learned to read, endured slavery, escaped, and became an abolitionist. It speaks so much to the ability of people to overcome their circumstances and find dignity. It also speaks so much to the power of the individual to change others’ lives. If you’re ever in a situation where you think nothing you can do would produce positive change, read Douglass’s memoir, and be inspired. Even if you’re not in such a situation, you probably will be one day, so read this book anyway.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Grace Lin

MTNMOONN

“‘Husband,’ she said, ‘I’ve said it was your fault that Minli ran away and I was wrong. I am to blame. Minli knew I was discontent with our fortune; if I had not been, she would not have left. I am sorry.’ Ba could not speak. The moon outside was so full it looked as if it would burst, and moistness dampened his eyes. He placed his hand tenderly on Ma’s head. ‘Ahh, good,’ the fish said. ‘If you make happy those that are near, those that are far will come.’ Ma’s head raised in a jerk. She looked over at the fish and then looked at Ba, her eyes wide. ‘Did the fish say something?’ she asked.”

This children’s book is set in ancient China, and is about a girl named Minli. Her family is poor, and she thinks she can find out how to improve their fortune by running away, traveling to a legendary place called Never-Ending Mountain, and seeking out an oracle called the Old Man of the Moon. Along the way, there are talking fish, dragons, and many adventures.

There are also a lot of Chinese folk tales. These stories may seem irrelevant at first, but they have a direct bearing on the events of the story. This is one of those books where everything comes together at the end, but while many such books may be confusing along the way, this one never is.

This book also has a lot of great wisdom that’s applicable not just to the lives of children, but also to adults. Especially nowadays.

Even better, there are illustrations. They are beautiful. They are done by the writer herself.

Finally, this book is the first in a series. There are two other books in it. Better start with the first one!

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Solzhenitsyn, Vian, and Madox Ford

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Hello everyone! I hope you’re all doing well. Here are two sad books I’ve read that I wouldn’t recommend to you now, and one funny one. The funny one is distinguished from the others via its color photo. See it? That’s the one I recommend.

 

A World Split Apart, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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“In today’s Western society, the inequality has been revealed between the freedom to do good and the freedom to do evil. A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him, parliament and press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that each single step of his is well-founded and absolutely flawless. Actually, an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself; from the very beginning, traps will be set out all around him. Thus mediocrity triumphs, with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.”

Pictured above, the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is famous for his huge book on Soviet gulags called The Gulag Archipelago. If you don’t want to read that just yet, you might want to start out with A World Split Apart. This book is a transcription of the commencement address he gave at Harvard University in 1978. Like The Gulag Archipelago, this book contains profound ideas. Unlike The Gulag Archipelago, It’s a very short read.

Solzhenitsyn makes interesting points about how we’re facing spiritual decay in the face of modern life, and that without preserving our spiritual nature (like morality and so on), we’re doomed. It’s fascinating, because it makes you think about the nature of good and evil, and the role that both society and the individual play in promoting morals.

Basically, A World Split Apart is a good book to get a sense of Solzhenitsyn the thinker. It’s short, it’s accessible, and it’s not The Gulag Archipelago.

 

To Hell With the Ugly, by Boris Vian

To Hell With The Ugly

“To hell with the ugly.”

The reason for this short quote is because I took this book out from the library, then returned it, and now don’t have it with me anymore to quote from. If you want a sense of what it’s like, cross Holden Caulfield with Raymond Chandler, and throw in some sex for good measure.

Compared to Solzhenitsyn, To Hell With The Ugly is shallow. However, it’s very entertaining to read. Here’s the basic premise: Beautiful people are captured. Then they’re forced to reproduce with other beautiful people to create more beautiful people who are programmed to take over positions of high power in the government.

“Take over the government for what?” you might ask.

You’ll never know the true reason, because Vian doesn’t give it. Instead, you’ll get the idea that although beautiful people are beautiful, ugliness is needed, too, to provide a contrast to beauty, so ugliness itself can be a form of beauty. You’ll also get a lot of laughter.

So in the end, even though the book’s mystery is never really solved, it’s still worth reading for its humor.

 

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier

“She knew nothing—nothing of life, except that one must live sadly. That she now knew. What happened to her on the night when she received at once the blow that Edward wished her to go to her father in India and the blow of the letter from her mother was this. She called first upon her sweet Saviour—and she thought of Our Lord as her sweet Saviour!—that He might make it impossible that she should go to India. Then she realized from Edward’s demeanour that he was determined that she should go to India. It must then be right that she should go. Edward was always right in his determinations. He was the Cid; he was Lohengrin; he was the Chevalier Bayard.”

This book took me forever to read. I started it about a year ago, left it, then went back to it and so on. It’s about two couples who are friends. John and Florence are one couple, and Edward and Leonora are the other, and John tells the story about their lives. Some people live. Some people die. In the end, it’s a tragedy.

For some reason I went into this expecting it to be a murder mystery. Obviously, it’s not. Instead, it’s an interesting experiment in structure (it’s apparently “literary impressionism” due to its non-linearity). However, the language itself is stodgy, and doesn’t really bring the tragedy to life. This could be a good thing. You probably won’t feel sad reading it. However, it also won’t make you laugh. All in all, if this were a happier time, I would recommend that you read The Good Soldier. Not now, though.

Go read Boris Vian instead.

Until next time!

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