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

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

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

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First Excerpt (The Prose):

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

Second Excerpt (The Poetry):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Steinbeck, Pasternak, and Steinbeck

In Which I Review Books By John Steinbeck and Poems by Boris Pasternak.

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you are all well, and if you’ve experienced Henri, that you are safe. I survived, thankfully, and so I’m bringing you three more reviews. Two of them are about early Steinbeck novels, and one of them is a review of an online poetry collection…

The Red Pony, by John Steinbeck

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“As the gray and silent army marched past, led by Jody, the animals stopped their feeding and watched it go by. Suddenly Jody stopped. The gray army halted, bewildered and nervous. Jody went down on his knees. The army stood in long uneasy ranks for a moment, and then, with a soft sigh of sorrow, rose up in a faint gray mist and disappeared.”

This is a book of one longish story and a few shorter stories. They focus on a boy named Jody who lives on a farm in California. The first one’s about him getting a red pony to train and keep as his own. The other stories are about him doing other things on the farm. Somehow it’s supposed to be a collection about coming-of-age, but I didn’t see much coming-of-age in the stories themselves.

Anyway, the first story was good, but the others weren’t as good. My reasoning was ridiculously subjective: I was expecting more horses in this collection than there were, so I was distracted a lot of the time wondering when they would show up. When they finally did show up, they felt anticlimactic. So learn from me: there weren’t that many horses in these stories.

However, if you love occasional horses and want to read some early Steinbeck, this book would be an enjoyable read.

Online Poems of Boris Pasternak

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“Is it only dirt you notice?
Does the thaw not catch your glance?
As a dapple-grey fine stallion
Does it not through ditches dance?”

Recently, I came across this really cool website of poetry, and started reading all the poems on Boris Pasternak’s page. So, this isn’t really a review of a Pasternak poetry book. Instead it’s a review of the poems I read on the website.

Pasternak was interesting to read. Sometimes, he never really said anything about a specific object but referred to it indirectly through a mood or certain word-choices. Thus, a poem would seem to be about a bunch of curtains but in reality it was about an affair.

Some of the poems were unsatisfying since they were so confusing. Others were great. I could figure out what they were about, but it took some work to do so.

Other poems were entertaining because they were very evocative of seasons (springtime) and moods (sadness). Reading Pasternak also gave me an appreciation for how many ways someone could write about the same subject (springtime) or about the same mood (sadness). In fact, another name for Pasternak could be, “The Sad Poet of Springtime.”

Overall, I would recommend checking out at least some of the poems on the website. I’ve actually been inspired to check out more books by Pasternak in the future, so stay tuned…

Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck

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“The sergeant lined [the men] up in front of his desk. They passed everything but the sobriety test and then the sergeant began his questions with Pilon. ‘What branch do you want to go in?’ ‘ I don’ give a god-dam,’ said Pilon jauntily. ‘I guess we need men like you in the infantry.’ And Pilon was written so. He turned then to Big Joe, and the Portagee was getting sober. ‘Where do you want to go?’ ‘I want to go home,’ Big Joe said miserably. The sergeant put him in the infantry too. Finally he confronted Danny, who was sleeping on his feet. ‘Where do you want to go?’ ‘Huh?’ ‘I say, what branch?’ ‘What do you mean, “branch?”‘ ‘What can you do?’ ‘Me? I can do anything.'”

I don’t understand why this book wasn’t advertised as funny on its jacket because it is. It’s about a Californian man named Danny and his friends who live in a house called Tortilla Flat and go to ridiculous ends to get more wine to drink. It’s based on the legend of King Arthur somehow. Aside from some vague similarities, I didn’t really see any real parallels.

As I said before, the book was hilarious, and funnier than a lot of other “funny” things I read. Steinbeck seemed to be enjoying himself when he wrote this. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been as enjoyable as it was.

However, the end wasn’t as good. Steinbeck seemed to stop enjoying himself somewhere near the end of Chapter XII. The rest of the book felt phoned-in somehow. It was still funny, but then it became less and less funny, and then it turned into what felt like Steinbeck trying hard to get readers to feel emotions that he himself didn’t feel as a writer. To me, this forced emotionality marred the ending of what was otherwise a hilarious book.

So overall, the book was funny, and I’d definitely recommend it. Just don’t expect a greatly-written ending…

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Chekhov and Kawabata

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

“Kashtanka,” by Anton Chekhov

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

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

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

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

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

“The Pomegranate,” by Kawabata Yasunari

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Lonergan

Hello! I hope you’re all well. It’s the season of final exams and allergies, so I wanted to read something funny…

“Lobby Hero,” by Kenneth Lonergan

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“WILLIAM. OK, good. I’m glad to hear it. But that’s why I try to get you to improve your mind a little bit and apply yourself to something. Aim a little higher. But I can see it’s a hopeless cause. You’re probably intended to be just one of those guys who drifts through life doing one job or another, no plan, no specific intentions of any kind. And one day you’re gonna wake up in a lobby just like this one, except everybody’s gonna be calling you ‘Pops.’ And then you’re gonna look back and remember, ‘I should have listened to that guy William. He’s the only one that ever took the time to try to encourage me to cultivate my potential. My whole family was content to see me fritter my life away, but that William, man, he really tried to get me to focus my energies a little bit. And doddering useless old unemployed Pops doorman that I am, I have to admit he could have been a positive influence on me if I hadn’t been such a callous, careless kind of joke-telling, sit-on-my-ass-my-whole-life type of person when I was younger.’ But I guess that’s all right, because you’re not really trying to climb any higher anyway. You see what I mean?”

“Lobby Hero” probably could have been called, “The Play in Which Everyone Tries to Figure Stuff Out.” It’s about a man named Jeff who works in a lobby. He’s trying to figure out his life. Meanwhile, his boss William has a brother who’s in trouble with the police. William has to figure out how to help his brother, and one of the police officers, named Dawn, has to figure out her relationship with one of her superiors.

Parts of this play reminded me a lot of Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” in terms of their levity and humor. That was very surprising, considering that the playwright of “Lobby Hero” was the same man who wrote the script for that super-sad movie from a few years back. You know, the one called Manchester by the Sea.

In any case, “Lobby Hero” felt a bit like a sketch instead of a fully fleshed-out experience. Maybe it was because the entire play took place in a lobby and 90% of the play’s important action happened off-stage. That meant the majority of the play consisted of characters talking about all the interesting things that happened in other places. Imagine the entirety of “Hamlet” being told from the perspective of one of the pirates who capture Hamlet during his voyage to England—“Oh, yes, I knew Prince Hamlet, he was a bloke I captured. He had to avenge the death of his father, who was killed by his uncle. Did Hamlet succeed? Oh, yes, his friend Horatio just sent me a postcard telling me he did. Well, that’s all there is to that story. Now I have to figure out my life.”

In other words, all of the interesting action felt like it was just being summarized instead of being enacted on the stage, which took away from its power.

This type of approach could work in certain cases (like Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” or O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), but the character’s inner-life has to be interesting enough to compensate for the plot’s lack of immediacy. In Chekhov and O’Neill, the characters had a lot of cool layers, subtext, and secrets that the audience didn’t learn about right away.

Meanwhile, considering the fact that Jeff’s only real depth was that he couldn’t figure his life out and that the audience basically came to understand that upfront, his inner-life didn’t feel interesting enough to make the play feel fleshed out. The same felt true for the other characters, too.

So basically, read “Lobby Hero” if you want to see the writer of Manchester by the Sea being funny. That alone is pretty enjoyable.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Yezierska and Jerome

Hello! Happy almost-Purim. I’ve read two books this week, one Purim-related, one boat-related. You can probably guess which is which.

Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska

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“I pressed my face against the earth. All that was left of me reached out in prayer, ‘God, I’ve gone so far. Help me to go on [….] Help me not to want their little happiness. I have wanted their love more than my life. Help me be bigger than this hunger in me. Give me the love that can live without love.’ Darkness and stillness washed over me. Slowly I stumbled to my feet and looked up at the sky. The stars in their infinite peace seemed to pour their healing light into me. I thought of captives in prison, the sick and the suffering from the beginning of time who had looked to these stars for strength. What was my little sorrow to the centuries of pain which those stars had watched? So near they seemed. So compassionate. My bitter hurt seemed to grow small and drop away. If I must go on alone, I should still have silence and the high stars to walk with me.”

Bread Givers was written in the 1920s and is also set in the 1920s. It’s about a girl named Sara who grows up in a Jewish-American family in New York City. Her super-religious and self-centered father forces her three older sisters to marry wealthy-seeming men who make them miserable. Sara decides she doesn’t want to be married off and pursues a college degree instead.

I was very inspired by Sara’s strong sense of self. She was tempted to sacrifice herself and her ideals to marry a wealthy handsome man. She didn’t, since she knew herself well enough to realize she wouldn’t ever be happy in such an arrangement. Considering the fact that the book was written in the 1920s, this aspect of her character was especially striking.

There were two other things that stood out to me about the book. First, even though there were some very unsympathetic characters, such as Sara’s father, there would always be a part in the book that portrayed them in a sympathetic way. I still didn’t like Sara’s father, but these flashes of sympathy helped me understand why he was who he was. This sense of nuance enriched the story and made it better.

The other thing that stood out to me was the ending. Obviously I won’t spoil it. I will say that sometimes you read a book’s ending and it works very well. It may not have been expected but you could tell that the author put a lot of thought into it and realized that such an ending could be the only possible ending. These endings are very rare. I felt that the ending of Bread Givers was one of them.

One warning: The book was sort of sentimental at points. Some characters wept and wailed and banged their heads against the wall. This felt melodramatic because there are too many characters in the world who’ve done exactly the same thing. This melodrama was rare, though. I still recommend the book wholeheartedly.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome

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“I always determine […] that I’ll get up early every morning, and go and have a dip before breakfast [….] But when I get to the sea I don’t feel somehow that I want that early morning bathe nearly so much as I did when I was in town [….] Once or twice virtue has triumphed, and I have got out at six and half-dressed myself, and have taken my drawers and towel, and stumbled dismally off [….] And when I do get to the sea, it is rough and quite insulting. One huge wave catches me up and chucks me in a sitting posture, as hard as ever it can, down on to a rock which has been put there for me. And, before I’ve said ‘Oh! Ugh!’ and found out what has gone, the wave comes back and carries me out to mid-ocean. I begin to strike out frantically for the shore, and wonder if I shall ever see home and friends again, and wish I’d been kinder to my little sister when a boy (when I was a boy, I mean). Just when I have given up all hope, a wave retires and leaves me sprawling like a star-fish on the sand, and I get up and look back and find that I’ve been swimming for my life in two feet of water. I hop back and dress, and crawl home, where I have to pretend I liked it.”

This book is about three friends, “J”, George, and Harris, who go on a boat ride down the river Thames to cure themselves of “overwork.” They also take their dog with them.

Three Men in a Boat was great. The characters got into all sorts of mishaps which reminded them of previous mishaps and even future mishaps. 99% of the mishaps were hilarious. Three Men in a Boat also had some sober parts in it. Sometimes they felt cheesy but other times they were beautiful. Overall they helped vary the tone and made the funny parts funnier.

Anyway, I was laughing my way through this book, thinking that Jerome K. Jerome really knew how funny life was these days. Then about halfway through, I got to this line: “There is no more thrilling sensation I know of than sailing. It comes as near to flying as man has got to yet—except in dreams.” I also started seeing all these references to “nowadays in the 19th century.” This made me realize that this extraordinarily fresh-seeming book had been written in the 1800s, before airplanes had even been invented. So much for stuffy old writers!

Read it and weep (with laughter).

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Salinger

Hello! I hope you’re all well and are enjoying the Year of the Ox. Due to schoolwork and story-writing, I’ve read only one book this week. The good news is that it was very rewarding, funny, and recommendable.

Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger

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“Offhand, I can remember seeing just three girls in my life who struck me as having unclassifiably great beauty at first sight. One was a thin girl in a black bathing suit who was having a lot of trouble putting up an orange umbrella at Jones Beach, circa 1936. The second was a girl aboard a Caribbean cruise ship in 1939, who threw her cigarette lighter at a porpoise. And the third was the Chief’s girl, Mary Hudson.”

Nine Stories contains nine short stories by J.D. Salinger. I was left wondering why he was remembered for The Catcher in the Rye when these stories were so much better.

Some of my favorites were “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “The Laughing Man,” “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” and “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes.”

I’ll make some guesses about why these stories were so good. First off, Salinger was very subtle. In some subtle stories (not written by Salinger), there’s nothing left to the story once you figure out the subtext. In Salinger’s case, you could figure out the subtext halfway through and the story’s ending would still be impactful. That made the stories rewarding.

Also, Salinger’s stories were very funny in different ways. Aside from the pieces with a Holden Caulfield kind of sarcasm, there were goofy pieces (one character told stories to little kids about someone who traversed “the Paris-China border”) and ironic pieces (a character pretended to have been friends with Pablo Picasso to score an art teaching job). This variety of humor made the stories fresh.

Something else that added humor was that Salinger had his characters talk about random stuff. There were a lot of interjections like, “Could you stop picking your nose?” These could have felt contrived and corny but they usually didn’t, and somehow they also felt relevant to the story being told.

Needless to say, I would recommend these stories. More importantly, I would recommend them over The Catcher in the Rye.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Feynman, McCormack, and Saki

Hello and happy holidays! I hope you all enjoyed the Great Conjunction last night and are excited for the New Year. If you’re thinking of what you could read in 2021, (or sooner) here are three books I would recommend:

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character, by Richard Feynman

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“Then I had another thought: physics disgusts me now but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing. It didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with [….] So I got this new attitude: now that I am burned out, and I’ll never accomplish anything, [….] I’m going to play with physics whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever. Within a week, I was in the cafeteria and some guy fooling around throws a plate in the air [….] I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate [….] I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, ‘Hey Hans, I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is…” and I showed him the accelerations. He says, ‘Feynman, that’s pretty interesting but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?’ ‘Ha!’ I say. ‘There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.’ His reaction didn’t discourage me. I had made up my mind. I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked. I went on to work out equations of wobbles [….] Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it. There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.”

Richard Feynman is known for winning a Nobel Prize in Physics and for helping to invent the hexaflexagon, but his super-accessible and funny memoir is less about his scientific work and more about his life. Yes, he does tell about how he started out in science, how he worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, and how he came to win the Nobel Prize. However, he also tells about his adventures dancing samba in Brazil, his stints as an artist and drummer, and his time in Japan.

Reading (or in my case, listening to) this book was like having a really interesting and wise friend sit across from you and tell about all of his hijinks. Some of them were questionable, others weren’t, but all of them were entertaining, and it was great to hear about Feynman’s unique take on life. Yes, sometimes Feynman repeated himself (saying stuff similar to “I went to Japan and it was very interesting. Japan was really a very exciting place”) but that didn’t matter much. Also, in the audiobook version, the narrator occasionally read sentences twice in a row, but that happened so rarely that it didn’t matter much, either.

In the end, Feynman’s memoir was definitely worth the read. It was humorous, (usually) wise, entertaining, and insightful.

The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist, Second Edition, by Thomas McCormack

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“Still another genus is the craving for a certain meaningful modulation right here in the narrative. For an example, consider Hemingway’s feeling a need for the fishing scene in The Sun Also Rises; Tolstoy’s urge to send Levin out for a whole chapter just to reap wheat; Melville to ask, ‘How can I hope to explain myself here?’ and yet to know that ‘in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught,’ and then indite his fearsome, magniloquent passage on ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’; or Shakespeare to trouble forth his witches in Macbeth—all episodes that, by any artlessly mechanical measure such as ‘everything must advance the story’, would be deleted, at immense aesthetic loss.”

I heard about McCormack’s book from another book I read, and since McCormack edited The Silence of the Lambs, I figured he’d have some interesting things to say about writing.

He did have some interesting things to say about writing, but his book also felt thin. I read it over the course of an hour or so.

In terms of interestingness, McCormack talked a lot about how editors couldn’t just rely on fixing the more easily seen surface-level problems with books (“this scene is irrelevant to the story, the ending doesn’t work, etc.”) but also have to keep searching for subtler, “internal” problems—there may be nothing wrong with a story in and of itself, but there may be aspects missing from it that make it not as satisfying as it could be. Without knowing what the story lacks, the editor wouldn’t be able to fix such problems.

So then McCormack says that we all need an editors’ textbook, and spends the rest of the book trying to explain some things about editing. Maybe some stories don’t work because their characters aren’t as strongly affected by each other as they should be. Maybe other stories don’t work because the writer shoves in a lot of backstory near the beginning that doesn’t really contribute to the forward momentum of the story.

Maybe other stories do work because the writer included something extra that wouldn’t be seen as traditionally relevant but wound up actually enhancing the story, like in that excerpt above where he wrote about Tolstoy and Hemingway and Melville. Imagining the stories without those insertions, who would have thought that anything was missing? Nobody but the writers themselves.

That was the most interesting part of the book, in my opinion, but I’m sure that there’s much more that’s interesting in the book, too. It’s definitely given me some things to think about, and it feels like the kind of book you can return to multiple times and get new things out of each time. So, if you’re a writer or editor or even just a reader wanting to learn more about how books work or don’t work, McCormack’s book is a good read.

Reginald in Russia, and Other Sketches, by Saki

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“The silence continued. As a rule Lady Anne’s displeasure became articulate and markedly voluble after four minutes of introductory muteness. Egbert seized the milkjug and poured some of its contents into [the dog] Don Tarquinio’s saucer; as the saucer was already full to the brim an unsightly overflow was the result. Don Tarquinio looked on with a surprised interest that evanesced into elaborate unconsciousness when he was appealed to by Egbert to come and drink up some of the spilt matter. Don Tarquinio was prepared to play many roles in life, but a vacuum carpet-cleaner was not one of them.”

I stumbled upon Saki very recently and have been reading him since. Reginald in Russia was where I first stumbled upon him. This is a collection of short stories and one little play. One of the short stories is obviously about a guy named Reginald and his adventures in Russia, but the others are about different characters in different places.

Even though Saki was around in the stodgy old 1800s, he’s one of the funniest writers I’ve read (up there with Gogol). There’s something about the way he sets something up to happen, then has the reader spend the whole story waiting for it to happen, then making it happen near the end while revealing something that completely changes the meaning of what just happened. He’s probably so funny because he’s so good at causing this surprise.

I don’t really know what to compare it to. It’s sort of like spending all day anticipating a dinner where you’ll eat a chocolate fudge cake that someone made for you, only to find when you actually do bite into its frosty surface that it was secretly made of ice cream the whole time.

Something interesting about the twists though: They only seem to work when they create an emotional reaction in the reader that makes the twist worthwhile. In Saki’s case, this happens when the twist makes the story funnier than it was previously. Fortunately for us, this usually happened when reading Reginald in Russia.

A few of the stories I enjoyed the most were “The Reticence of Lady Anne,” “The Bag,” “A Young Turkish Catastrophe,” and “The Soul of Laploshka.” If you’re only going to read one Saki story from this entire book, I would recommend either “The Reticence of Lady Anne” or “The Bag.” Of course, reading only one story from this collection is much less enjoyable than reading the whole book, so you might as well do yourself a favor and read the whole book. The stories are hilarious and they’re great for the holidays.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Nix

Hello! Happy first day of fall. It’s very sad that summer’s gone, but now there will be piles of leaves to jump in. That’s not much consolation, I know. Maybe reading a book will help!

Sabriel, by Garth Nix

Cat Reading GIFs | Tenor

 “‘Go and give the regimental Sergeant Major my compliments and ask him to personally organize a section of the scouts. We’ll go out and take a closer look at that aircraft.’ ‘Oh, thank you sir!’ gushed Leftenant Jorbert, obviously taking the ‘we’ to include himself. His enthusiasm surprised Horyse, at least for a moment. ‘Tell me, Mr. Jorbert,’ he asked, ‘have you by any chance sought a transfer to the Flying Corps?’ ‘Well… yes, sire,’ replied Jorbert. ‘Eight times.’”

Sabriel is about a girl whose father gets trapped in the world of the dead and she has to go to rescue him. She’s a necromancer, which helps a bit. She has a bunch of magical bells that she can use to make living people and dead spirits do all sorts of things. Being a necromancer also has its drawbacks—it means she has all sorts of enemies who chase her as she tries to reach her goal. So she makes some friends to compensate, including one of the funniest talking cats I saw since Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

Sabriel had a good beginning and a good middle, with interesting ideas, fresh similes, and funny talking cats. So I thought it would be a decent book overall. However, the end was much better than anything that came before it, so it turned out to be a better book than I’d thought.

Why was the ending better? Maybe because it happened in multiple stages. It wasn’t just “boom boom pow!” At the point when I thought things would be resolved, another setback happened instead. When the characters overcame that setback, they then realized they had to go somewhere else to succeed in their mission. Along the way, the characters kept getting into worse and worse trouble. So the longer ending helped by gradually building tension.

It also helped by giving the author time to build up the characters more, and to reveal some surprises about them before the actual finale. This made them feel more real than they had felt throughout the beginning and middle of the book. The characters weren’t artificially made stupid for the sake of suspense, either. They even seemed smarter than they’d been in previous parts of the book. For instance, in the past, a character had a marked propensity towards procrastinating before setting out somewhere. In a similar situation in the finale, this procrastination was nowhere in sight. I was very excited to see this growth.

Then there were plot twists in the finale that weren’t contrived because they were set up ages in advance (No spoilers, don’t worry).

So the gradual buildup and the character development and the twists all likely helped make the ending better than the beginning and middle. All of these aspects helped make the ending feel earned, and raised the book to a new level of entertainingness in my eyes.

One last note: I would recommend listening to the audiobook version if you can. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

Until next week!