Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Chopin, Le Guin, and Haig

In which I read Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “No Time to Spare,” and Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library.”

Hello! I’ve read three books. They’re all good for summer reading. One has stature, another has eggs, and the third has a lot in common with Tolstoy’s work…

The Awakening and Selected Stories, by Kate Chopin

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“During his oblivious attention he once quietly rested his head against Mrs. Pontellier’s arm. As gently she repulsed him. Once again he repeated the offense. She could not but believe it to be thoughtlessness on his part; yet that was no reason she should submit to it. She did not remonstrate, except again to repulse him quietly but firmly. He offered no apology. The picture completed bore no resemblance to Madame Ratignolle. She was greatly disappointed to find that it did not look like her. But it was a fair enough piece of work, and in many respects satisfying. Mrs. Pontellier evidently did not think so. After surveying the sketch critically she drew a broad smudge of paint across its surface, and crumpled the paper between her hands.”

Kate Chopin’s book is about a woman named Edna Pontellier who seeks independence and selfhood in a male-dominated society.

I’ve never read about a female character with so much stature. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this. I guess it’s just an attitude that the author had towards her which came across in the depiction of her. Her life doesn’t revolve around a guy or other people, and she did have a sense of self.

She also wasn’t made more than she was or judged to be less than she was because of that (such as by fitting her into an archetype of “love interest” or “seductress”). This was a character who could reject her husband’s hand on her arm and also reject her own attempts at drawing without being turned into a joke or a way to illustrate something about another character.

She also didn’t feel like she was just there to make a point about feminism, and this might be what ultimately gives her stature. If you’re writing some story about someone to convey a message, the character becomes less than a fully-actualized being because his or her personhood is subordinated to the message you’re trying to convey.

For instance, in this scene, Edna could’ve drawn a bad picture with her husband’s hand on her arm and then shoved his hand off and drawn a great picture, which could have subordinated her character to the message of “women don’t need men” and reduced her complexity and sense of stature.

Contrast this with the idea of a female character existing in a work that may touch upon themes but which don’t reduce the character’s complexity for their sake. In the scene as it’s written, Edna’s just pushing the guy’s hand off, but even so she’s dissatisfied with the picture for its own sake. That’s fascinating.

Basically, this stature was very refreshing to experience, and the book itself was very good as well. It’s a shame that Chopin’s future works were rejected after this novel was published, but we can help make up for that by reading this book nowadays.

One final note: The short stories weren’t as good, so I would recommend them less. They were much more sketched-out than fully-developed.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters,
by Ursula K. Le Guin

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“So you put your freshly boiled egg into the egg cup–but which end up? Eggs are not perfect ovoids, they have a smaller end and a bigger end. People have opinions about which end should be up, i.e., which end you’re going to actually eat the egg out of. This difference of opinion can become so passionate that a war may be fought about it, as we know from Jonathan Swift. It makes just as much sense as most wars and most differences of opinion.”

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote several essays and published them in this book in 2017. She died a year later. As a result, there was a lot of unintentional irony in this book, like when she wrote about how people never get to experience true solitude anymore.

If only she knew….

Anyway, the essays were entertaining. They weren’t the most entertaining essays ever but they were fun to read, with one exception. She wrote an essay about eating eggs. I never thought I’d laugh so much about someone chopping an egg apart.

Overall, this was an entertaining and quick read.

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

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“Maybe there was no perfect life for her, but somewhere, surely, there was a life worth living.”

The Midnight Library is about a woman who dies and then gets to live all the different lives she could have lived by reading various books from the “Midnight Library.” The woman’s name is Nora Seed (get it?)

This book was a good read. I appreciate anyone who likes to write about how great life is. It felt like a cross between The Magic Treehouse and Mitch Albom’s books. It also reminded me a lot of Tolstoy’s books for various reasons (some good, others less good).

Firstly, it had a very important quality: conviction. There’s something great about someone who can write about something he actually cares about without seeming to worry what others might think.

In other words, there are a lot of carefully-written “safely sophisticated” books out there that condescend to tell you about the boringness of suburbia while clearly trying to come off as profound. Now, here’s a book about the “riskier” topic of life’s meaning which also cheerfully pays homage to a lot of different authors. Even so, the author didn’t come off as condescending or like a pretentious literary try-hard. He was having so much fun that he wanted you to join him!

When an author doesn’t try to take himself too seriously while also enjoying what he writes, he can get away with writing about anything. The book will contain his warmth and enthusiasm, and that sincerity will draw readers in. You see this quality in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and in Anna Karenina, and you also see it in Haig’s book.

Even so, Haig’s characters felt kind of contrived, like they were being shepherded along by the author to have realizations at opportune moments. Also, there wasn’t much subtext, since the author basically spelled everything out about the characters’ psychologies. This is also similar to Tolstoy. There’s a character in Resurrection who’s shepherded about and psychoanalyzed in a very similar way.

In both instances, the characters in question lose out on depth and realism. Their sole function isn’t to live but to serve the message of the story.

Finally, the symbolism and metaphors felt over-emphasized. Sometimes it helps to let readers make some subconscious connections instead of telling them things along the lines of, “Nora Seed’s life is a seed that can grow in different directions!” That also happened in Tolstoy’s Resurrection—“Look! The protagonist always overhears sermons about Jesus and the book’s even titled Resurrection! That means he’s a Jesus parallel!”

In any case, this kind of approach makes the meaning of the story very, very clear to readers, but it takes some of the fun out of the experience for readers who might want to figure some things out for themselves.

So overall, I would say that this book was a good read, but that Haig might eventually write books that are even better (in one reader’s super-subjective opinion).

Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them? I’d love to hear your comments!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forty Stories, by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Robert Payne

ORIGINS: Anton Chekhov

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

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

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

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

Now that’s interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basically, I’d recommend it.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Malraux

Hello! Happy Hanukkah (and the 250th anniversary of Beethoven)! I hope that you’re all hopeful now that the vaccine is on its way. I’ve read a book for the occasion. Its title is very fitting:

Man’s Hope, By André Malraux

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“‘To be linked more closely with the Party is worthless, if one’s to be estranged from the very men for whom the Party’s working.”

André Malraux wrote Man’s Fate, a very good book that I recommend you all read (it was one of the better books I read in high school).

Then Malraux wrote Man’s Hope, which isn’t as good as Man’s Fate but is still worth reading. In this essay-like post, I’ll tell you why.

Man’s Hope is about a cast of characters fighting in the Spanish Civil War for different reasons. Malraux himself fought in the Spanish Civil War, so his book has some interesting things to say about war. Since Malraux was philosophical, those things are mostly philosophical.

Even so, some of those philosophical things also raised questions that weren’t answered. For instance, Malraux says that after idealism has spurred soldiers to enter the army, they go on to lose parts of themselves as they fight, and that they use less and less of themselves as they fight, which makes it easier to fight but also degrades their humanity.

But then Malraux also shows soldiers as fighting not for some big ideology like communism or fascism but to belong. Basically, people who are bound together by a shared ideology fight not for that ideology but because they derive a sense of meaning from belonging with each other.

So, if soldiers are aware that they keep losing parts of their humanity in war, how do they justify that it’s worth belonging with their fellows if it’s just as likely that their fellow soldiers have lost parts of their humanity, too? Malraux never suggests any answer or explanation for this.

I read Man’s Fate when I was younger, so I may not have been as critical of it, but I still do remember how everything seemed to be treated thoughtfully. Not like, “Oh, this guy’s so considerate and wholesome” but like, “Oh, this guy really thought through everything he wrote about.” He examined what people thought or believed and then explored why they thought or believed what they did. That gave a lot of insight which might not have been as obvious had he not done it.

Malraux kind of did that in Man’s Hope, too, since he got below the surface-level of ideology as causing the war, but then he didn’t seem to consider the meaning of the stuff he talked about as much as he did back in Man’s Fate. There wasn’t that level of insight in Man’s Hope as a result. So that’s why I think that Man’s Hope wasn’t as good as Man’s Fate (you may think differently though).

In any case, Man’s Hope is still good reading because of the very thing that makes it not as good as Man’s Fate. In some parts, the fact that Malraux didn’t really explore his ideas as fully as he could have was a good thing. For instance, there’s a scene where a man who had given up playing music for the sake of being a soldier suddenly wants to play music again and sits down in front of an organ and cranks out a tune. Malraux never tells the reader why, but unlike in the case I talked about earlier, there’s more of a sense that Malraux intentionally didn’t explain it so he could get the reader to think about it after finishing the book.

Basically, it seems that writers can get away with intentionally not explaining things in certain cases where it’s clear that the reader will get more out of wondering about the answers him or herself. In other cases, it seems that writers may accidentally not explain things that cause the reader confusion and take away from how good a book could have been. That doesn’t mean that the book isn’t worth reading, though.

In conclusion, read it and keep hoping.

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Gorky, Bowker, and Said

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe. I’ve read three very interesting books. Some you might not want to read, but others you probably would.

 

Mother, by Maxim Gorky

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“People love their own feelings—sometimes the very feelings that are harmful to them—are enamored of them, and often derive keen pleasure even from grief, a pleasure that corrodes the heart. Nikolay, the mother, and Sofya were unwilling to let the sorrowful mood produced by the death of their comrade give way to the joy brought in by Sasha. Unconsciously defending their melancholy right to feed on their sadness, they tried to impose their feelings on the girl.”

Mother by Maxim Gorky is (you guessed it) about a mother in Russia under the Tsar. Her son is a revolutionary and he brings home revolutionary friends and the mom eventually becomes a revolutionary, too. Maybe that’s why Gorky’s book is called the “Great Revolutionary Novel,” but may as well be called the “Stilted Ideological Tract.”

Most of what the characters do is to explain why socialism is great and why imperial rule is bad. Gorky tries to get you invested in these ideas by making the characters sympathetic, but his idea of making people sympathetic seems to be slapping on sympathetic-sounding tags. Someone has kind eyes and smiles warmly and the mother is very happy her son has made such a good friend.

Also, the book says that people should think for themselves and that by thinking for themselves, they will realize socialism is good. Well, the mother never really thinks for herself. She just hears her son talk about socialism, and is amazed by his oratorical skills. So she comes to like socialism not because she thinks for herself about whether she likes it or not, but because she likes her son’s speaking skills. The rest of the people in the book don’t really think for themselves, either. It’s obvious they’ve just gobbled down someone else’s Manifesto and are spouting words from it, because what they say about socialism usually comes out very stilted and forced. So if you write characters with kind eyes and warm smiles, and a mother who accepts their ideology without showing her processing it and coming to terms with it, how can you get your reader invested in the ideology, too? You can’t.

Yet this is what Gorky tries to do, and then he seems to expect the readers’ investment in his ideology to be the most compelling reason for them to keep reading. Well, it’s not compelling. Gorky doesn’t even develop the opposing ideas so he can show their flaws. There’s a scene where someone gives a speech about these opposing ideas. Instead of giving us the speech, Gorky glosses over it, labeling it as bad, and then spends long pages quoting someone else’s speech about socialism and labeling it great. What are we left with? For me, at least, an inability to connect with Mother’s ideas.

It’s interesting because in the book a character repeatedly says that you can’t just tell people ideas, you have to connect with their hearts, but the book rarely connected with my heart.

Here are the rare parts where it did: when the characters stopped acting like mouthpieces and started acting like humans. The son felt affection for a girl. The mother sometimes thought about life’s wonders. A few characters sometimes reflected on other peoples’ situations. We got to understand the source of one character’s troubled outbursts.

None of these things really have much to do with socialism. Everyone, even non-socialists, can have such experiences.

And then the book seems to contradict its own ideas. First, Gorky writes that we should try to understand everyone, then he has one character say that a lot of rich people are inherently evil and so there’s nothing to understand, they just have to be done away with violently (and the other characters agree). First one character says you shouldn’t get married because it would go against socialism. Then Gorky implies that the very same character winds up marrying anyway.

Overall, Mother wasn’t as provocative as I thought it would be. It mainly made me think of how misguided idealism could wind up causing more trouble than there already is. The very system that the socialists criticize kind of turns out to be the same system the socialists establish. In Gorky’s Tsarist Russia, people can’t read certain books, the government takes their money for its own purposes, and people are shot and imprisoned by the Tsar’s police force if they rebel. In Communist Russia, people couldn’t read certain books, Stalin’s government took their money for its own purposes, and people were shot and imprisoned by the secret police force if they rebelled. But, unlike in Tsarist Russia where one of Gorky’s characters says, “the prison is our place of rest and study,” the prisons in Stalinist Russia were anything but restful.

 

Inside George Orwell: A Biography, by Gordon Bowker

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“Two days after his visit [to Orwell], Muggeridge lunched with Warburg [Orwell’s publisher] and reported, somewhat uncomfortably, that ‘a characteristic remark of Warburg’s was, in a rather plaintive voice, that what George should do was to use his little remaining span of life and energy to write at least two more books.’ Nineteen Eighty-Four, he told him shortly afterwards, ‘had a very good chance of having a large sale.’ The implication was that Warburg now saw his ailing author only as the source of more books, and, presumably, more profit to Warburg.”

This book is a biography of George Orwell. It gives a fresh picture of Orwell. He’s not just a saint, but a womanizer with flashes of cruelty. Inside George Orwell also gives great insight into the inspirations for his books. Working for the BBC during WWII inspired 1984, living near a farm with the word “Manor” in its name partially-inspired Animal Farm, and so on.

For some reason, I didn’t think the book was as engaging as it could have been. Maybe I would have thought otherwise had I not been reading other biographies at the same time that were better. Those biographies have arcs to them—Beethoven was amateurish at first but then he started taking risks and look at how his music grew in complexity! Orwell’s bio lists what happened to him in the year of X, what he did in this war, what he did in that war, how he was storing up ideas for the future, and so on. In one part, the author seems to be writing about Orwell’s love-life, but then in the next paragraph he writes about the publication of one of Orwell’s books, before returning to Orwell’s love-life two paragraphs later. I found these disconnected ideas sort of confusing.

On the reading-front: Read this for its insight into his psychology, what inspired his books, how he died from over-work, and how he was exploited by his publisher for the sake of profit.

 

Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said

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“Nino was bending over the atlas. ‘I’m looking for a country that is at peace,’ she said, and her finger crossed the many-coloured border lines. ‘Maybe Moscow. Or Petersburg,’ I said, mocking her. She shrugged her shoulders, and her finger discovered Norway. ‘I’m sure that’s a peaceful country,’ I said, ‘but how do we get there?’ ‘We don’t,’ sighed Nino. ‘America?’ ‘U-boats,’ I said cheerfully. ‘India, Spain, China, Japan?’ ‘Either they’re at war, or we can’t get there.’ ‘Ali Khan, we’re in a mousetrap.’ ‘You are quite right, Nino. There’s no sense in running away. We will have to find a way to get a bit of common sense into our town, at least till the Turks come.’”

You’ll probably want to read this book. It’s a love-story between a Muslim Azerbaijani boy named Ali (who narrates the book) and a Christian Georgian girl named Nino. It is set in Azerbaijan, during World War I and World War II. At that time, there were still horses and swords and princes in Azerbaijan, even when Europe had cars and guns and republics.

The conflict comes from the romance between Ali and Nino and how they navigate a changing world. The lovers’ parents disapprove of their relationship for religious reasons, and they themselves have clashing values. Ali represents Asia, and Nino represents Europe, but they manage to get along anyway. Meanwhile, the world around them changes. Azerbaijan is ruled by imperial Russia for a while, then becomes independent, then gets caught in a tug-of-war between Asia and Europe. These global dynamics have a huge impact on the story.

The book itself is very well-written in terms of its style and story. When Said writes about mundane things, you’re interested. When Said writes about epic chases through the desert, you’re interested. Maybe it’s because Said manages to get across Ali’s excitement about everything he experiences, which makes you excited, too. Maybe it’s also because the story is really good, and it’s filled with intriguing ideas about Europe and Asia. Somehow, Ali and Nino manages to get all this across without becoming a Stilted Ideological Tract like other books out there. That must be the reason Ali and Nino is known as Azerbaijan’s national novel.

In any case, you won’t regret reading this book. If you do read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Until next time. Enjoy the summer!

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kushner, Mulisch, and Van Gogh

Hello everyone. I hope you’re all healthy and safe. I’ve read three more books. Below are my reviews:

Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner

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“The blood lies on the snow of a formal winter garden, now trampled and muddy. A man lies dead, the snow filling in the hollows of his eyes, while another man is twisted up, grunting, sweating frog-ponds on the frozen earth, waiting for someone to come and help him. The hero of this little tableau has just vaulted the garden wall and is running like mad into the darkness while the darkness lasts.”

Swordspoint is a fantasy book about a swordsman named Richard St. Vier who’s hired by nobles to duel others who the nobles want to die. Richard always wins, so he has a big reputation. Richard also has a lover named Alec, who’s a former university student. Meanwhile there are nobles who want power, and a noble named Michael who wants to become a swordsman himself (even though it goes against custom).

So you have all these pieces and you’re waiting for them to come together, and they do, sort of. Then they kind of fall back apart. Characters who seem like they’re going to be relevant are only relevant for a scene or so, and then disappear into obscurity. Themes that you think will be explored fully are mentioned somewhat, then fade into the darkness. Conflicts that you think will be resolved one way are resolved in another, less-exciting way, and you’re left wondering what happened.

I would say to read it for the middle. That’s where things kind of come together and the book is at its most compelling. Also, the book is notable for its early exploration of LGBTQ themes in fantasy lit—it was published in 1987.

That’s another reason to read it.

 

The Assault, by Harry Mulisch

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“‘Fake,’ said Anton. ‘I understand that you’d want to defend your father. He was, after all, your father. But if your father had been my father, if everything had been turned around, would you then be defending Fake Ploeg? Let’s not kid each other. Your father was killed by the Communists with premeditation because they had decided that it was essential, but my family was senselessly slaughtered by Fascists, of whom your father was one. Isn’t that right?’ Fake turned his back to Anton and remained motionless, bent slightly forward, as he asked, ‘Are you implying it was my father’s fault that your family was murdered?’ […] ‘Why can’t you love your father without trying to white-wash him?’ asked Anton. ‘After all, it doesn’t take much to love a saint. That’s like loving animals. Why don’t you simply say: my father was definitely a collaborator, but he was my father and I love him.’ ‘But dammit, he was not a collaborator, at least, not in the way you’re implying.’ ‘But suppose you knew for certain,’ Anton said to his back, ‘that he had done terrible things… God knows… just name something… wouldn’t you still love him?’”

In this book, a kid named Anton lives in occupied Holland during World War II, and witnesses a traumatic event involving bicycles and Nazis. In this event, his family dies, leaving him as the only survivor. Anton spends the rest of his life trying to forget the incident, only for reminders of it to keep popping up (the book spans from the year 1945 to 1981).

There are an awful lot of coincidences and chance encounters, but the way they’re handled makes up for it. The author could’ve just had Anton react the same way each time (try to avoid his past, etc.). That would’ve made the book boring and monotonous. Instead, Anton has different reactions, so different aspects of his experience are emphasized, and different effects are achieved. It’s this variety of effects that gives the book a sense of development and makes it an interesting and unpredictable read.

The Assault also has a lot of great dramatic moments and psychological insights. None of it is melodramatic, though, probably due to the contrast between dramatic moments and quiet moments. Even so, the quiet moments don’t really seem to go beyond what I had expected. I expected psychological suppression and I got psychological suppression (instead of getting a new insight into Anton, etc). So while the encounters and drama aren’t monotonous, the quiet moments are.

It’s also interesting to see how things evolve as time progresses. We see the end of World War II, the Vietnam War, and the nuclear disarmament movement. We see that Anton, whose life changed in 1945, is kind of trapped in the past as the rest of the world moves on and forgets him and his strife. This is fascinating.

Overall, I’d say this book is better than most I’ve read recently, due to its dramatic sincerity and interesting ideas. And it’s even more interesting if you read about Mulisch’s life…

Van Gogh on Art and Artists: Letters to Emile Bernard

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“Last year you did a picture—according to what Gauguin told me—which I imagine to be somewhat as follows: on the grass, which fills the foreground, lies stretched full length the figure of a girl in a blue or white dress; behind her the edge of a wood of beech trees, the ground covered with red leaves which have fallen, the tree-trunks gray-green giving the effect of vertical stripes [….] So I said to myself what a simple subject, and how well he achieves elegance with nothing.”

These letters are between the painter Vincent Van Gogh and fellow artist Emile Bernard. Van Gogh’s letters are interesting to read but the main thing I got out of them was that you have to go to Africa to become a true artist. So even though Van Gogh gives some insights on others’ work (like the idea of everything expressing its inner nature), I don’t feel that the majority of the letters say anything revolutionary. Even so, it is cool to see Van Gogh’s thoughts on some of the other painters of his time, and I’m sure that, for painters, there’s probably a lot more to be gained from this book than what I did.

Thanks for reading. If you read any of the books I’ve reviewed, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

See you next week.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Lem, Gogol, and Tolstoy

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe.

I also want to give my condolences to George Floyd’s family, and express my wishes that we as a society can put aside our differences for the sake of our common humanity.

With that being said, here are the books I’ve read this week:

Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem

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“I went closer, and when the next wave came I held out my hand.  What followed was a faithful reproduction of a phenomenon which had been analyzed a century before: the wave hesitated, recoiled, then enveloped my hand without touching it, so that a thin covering of ‘air’ separated my glove inside a cavity which had been fluid a moment previously, and now had a fleshy consistency.  I raised my hand slowly, and the wave, or rather an outcrop of the wave, rose at the same time, enfolding my hand in a translucent cyst with greenish reflections.  I stood up, so as to raise my hand still higher, and the gelatinous substance stretched like a rope, but did not break.”

Solaris is about a psychologist named Kelvin who travels to a planet called…Solaris. This planet is covered by an ocean. The ocean is sentient. It molds itself into forms according to the subconscious yearnings of the people on the planet.

Just that idea alone makes the book super cool. Also, the way Lem uses tension is great. Everything feels like it’s angled towards a certain point, and things that he leaves you in suspense about in a previous chapter gets resolved later on. Basically, everything builds up to something else.

The book also has a lot of interesting philosophical ideas, but the ideas aren’t shoved into the book for the sake of being there. They’re relevant to the characters, and so they add another layer of enjoyment.

The end is kind of anticlimactic, though, but Solaris is still worth reading, just for the idea of a sentient ocean planet.

 

The Overcoat, Nikolai Gogol

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“They offered the mother her choice of three names, Mokiya, Sossiya, or that the child should be called after the martyr Khozdazat. ‘No,’ said the good woman, ‘all those names are poor.’ In order to please her they opened the calendar to another place; three more names appeared, Triphiliy, Dula, and Varakhasiy. ‘This is a judgment,’ said the old woman. ‘What names! I truly never heard the like. Varada or Varukh might have been borne, but not Triphiliy and Varakhasiy!’ They turned to another page and found Pavsikakhiy and Vakhtisiy. ‘Now I see,’ said the old woman, ‘that it is plainly fate. And since such is the case, it will be better to name him after his father. His father’s name was Akakiy, so let his son’s be Akakiy too.’ In this manner he became Akakiy Akakievitch. They christened the child, whereat he wept and made a grimace, as though he foresaw that he was to be a titular councillor.”

My god this book is hilarious. It’s about a guy named Akaky Akakievich who lives in Russia and loves his work as a titular councillor. The only problem is that he has a super-shabby overcoat that his fellow workers tease him about, and that stands no chance against the frost of St. Petersburg. Akaky’s solution is to try to get a new overcoat.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. This is one of those books where the plot wouldn’t work without an engaging voice. A lot of people could have written the same story, but they probably wouldn’t have been able to make it as entertaining as Gogol did. He uses caricatures, but not to the point of unbelievability, and he writes in a satirical voice, but not to the point of hitting you over the head with his views, and not to the point where his wordplay gets in the way of enjoying the story itself.

It’s short, it’s funny, and it’s not to be missed.

 

What is Art?, Leo Tolstoy

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“Voltaire said that ‘Tous les genres sont bons, hors le genre ennuyeux’(all styles are good except the wearisome style); but with even more right one may say of art that Tous les genres sont bons, hors celui qu’on ne comprend pas, or qui ne produit pas son effet (all styles are good except that which is not understood, or which fails to produce its effect), for of what value is an article which fails to accomplish that for which it was intended?”

Later on in his life, Tolstoy had a crisis about the purpose of art, so he wrote this book to sort things out. Along the way, he made all sorts of controversial statements (like that Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony weren’t real art).

Even so, the first half of What is Art? is amazing. It touches on all sorts of interesting ideas, like sincerity (people shouldn’t aim to reproduce the effects they’ve felt from someone else’s art, but rather to convey something they themselves have felt), and clarity (people shouldn’t have to work to feel affected by a piece of art). The book is worth a read for these ideas, as well as a hilariously scathing review he gives of Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring Cycle.

The second half of What is Art? seems like it’s more of Tolstoy’s own subjective opinion than anything. He says the aim of art should aspire to some Christian brotherhood, which is all well and good for art that wants to aspire to that, but might be less relevant to art that has other intentions. How does he reconcile this? He doesn’t. I doubt anybody can.

Weirdly enough, though, Tolstoy does predict the advent of GMOs in one of his book’s chapters.

In the end, What is Art? is one of those books that will make you think. It will make you question a lot of what you know. It’s definitely worth a read.

Until next week. Stay safe, stay healthy, stay hopeful, and stay human.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Fowles

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Hello everyone! I’m back, having survived the majority of my essays and finals. To celebrate, I’m planning on doing a special post soon where I review three long and great books for your enjoyment.

To give myself time to read these great books, I’m going to be reviewing only one book for the next few posts. This should only last a short while, and then I’ll go back to reviewing three books per week.

In the meantime, here’s this week’s book:

The Collector, John Fowles

John Fowles

“He said, it’s rather like your voice. You put up with your voice and speak with it because you haven’t any choice. But it’s what you say that counts [….] He said, critics spiel away about superb technical accomplishment. Absolutely meaningless, that sort of jargon. Art’s cruel. You can get away with murder with words. But a picture is like a window straight through to your inmost heart. And all you’ve done here is build a lot of little windows on to a heart full of other fashionable artists’ paintings.”

The first half of this book is about a man who used to collect butterflies by stalking and kidnapping them. Now, he stalks and kidnaps a young art student. He keeps her captive in the basement of a cottage he bought, but doesn’t do much with her other than have conversations.

The second half of this book is told from the student’s perspective in epistolary form. It retells the kidnapping, but also explores her backstory.

The rest of the book is what happens afterwards.

I thought this was a very good book. It took what could have been told in an extremely cliché way (“Oh no she’s been captured!” etc.) and gave it a more original spin (which I won’t reveal here). I think the book is so good because Fowles put a lot of thought into it. Rather than just writing at a surface-level, he went on to consider the implications his story could have. For that reason, the book managed to go deeper than most books dealing with the same topic. Also, The Collector was not just about a kidnapping. There were reflections on art, humanity, and British politics as well.

This book had a really self-assured tone, which was a welcome relief. So many books seem to be written in a style as if their writers are trying to prove they’re worthy of being called writers. Fowles didn’t come across like he was trying to do anything other than to tell his story and explore its ideas. Funnily enough, I felt like he wound up proving himself by not worrying about proving himself at all.

Of course, there are some things I wished the book did better. Some of its implications weren’t fully explored, and some parts felt cheesy, but those qualms were nothing in the face of how good it was.

In short, I would recommend it.

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I wish you the best of health and hope. It’s very tough, but as cheesy as it sounds, we can do it.

Until next time!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Calvino, Tolstoy, and Moliére

 

 

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Hello everyone. I hope you are all healthy and safe. I have reviewed three more books. Hopefully they’ll be helpful:

 

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Calvino

“Dawn had broken when he said: ‘Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.’ ‘There is still one of which you never speak.’ Marco Polo bowed his head. ‘Venice,’ the Khan said. Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’ The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’ And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.’ ‘When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice.’ ‘To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.’ ‘You should then begin each tale of your travels from the departure, describing Venice as it is, all of it, not omitting anything you remember of it.’”

In this book, the explorer Marco Polo talks with Kublai Khan about the nature of reality. Polo also describes all of the cities he has traveled to within the Khan’s domain. The catch: none of the cities actually exist. However, Polo reasons that by describing all of the cities that don’t exist, he can give the Khan insight into the cities that do exist. His reasoning is borne out throughout the rest of the book.

There is a lot of description of different made-up cities, which is interesting to read. What makes the book satisfying is the way Calvino is able to draw conceptual connections between the frame dialogues and the descriptions of the cities. In the end, this gives humanity and meaning to what would otherwise have just been a series of pretty descriptions.

Another interesting part of the book is that Calvino writes about different cities under different headings, and scatters these headings throughout the book. For instance, he would describe one city under “Trading Cities 1”, then go on to describe another city under “Thin Cities 3”, another under “Cities & The Dead 5”, and then another under “Trading Cities 2.” I’m not sure why he does this, but it gives the book a sense of complexity that calls for multiple readings. Is there a reason behind this complexity, or did he just put them in to confuse readers?

Read it and find out.

 

Childhood, Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy

“Every now and then [the greyhound] Gizana kept stopping, pricking up his ears, and listening to the hallooing of the beaters. Whenever he did this I was not strong enough to move him, and could do no more than shout, ‘Come on, come on!’ Presently he set off so fast that I could not restrain him, and I encountered more than one fall before we reached our destination. Selecting there a level, shady spot near the roots of a great oak-tree, I lay down on the turf, made Gizana crouch beside me, and waited. As usual, my imagination far outstripped reality. I fancied that I was pursuing at least my third hare when, as a matter of fact, the first hound was only just giving tongue.”

This was the first book Tolstoy ever published. It’s about the childhood of a Russian boy named Nicholas, and is heavily autobiographical.

Sometimes it was boring, other times it was entertaining, other times it was funny, and other times it was sad. However, from this book alone, you would not immediately be convinced that Tolstoy would have become a great writer. For the most part, the chapters don’t really relate to each other. It seems like you could take some of them out without losing much of the overall story.

Also, ¾ of the book is overrun with melodramatic sentimentality (“My lips parted themselves as though smiling, the perspiration poured from me in streams”). However, there are flashes of sincerity throughout which comprise the other 1/4 (“In early days it never occurred to me to think what a rare and wonderful being this old domestic was. Not only did she never talk, but she seemed never even to think, of herself”). These bits of sincerity are what save the book from being boring, and they are the first hints of Tolstoy’s genius.

Everybody starts somewhere, but not everybody arrives. In his future work, Tolstoy could have easily ditched sincerity in favor of melodrama. In that case, he likely wouldn’t have arrived at his position as a great writer.

Fortunately for us, he chose sincerity instead.

 

“Don Juan”, Moliére

DJ

“DON JUAN (about to strike PIERROT) What did you say?
PIERROT (moves behind CHARLOTTE) Lord, I’m afraid of no one.
DON JUAN (goes after PIERROT) Just wait a minute.
PIERROT (moves to other side) I’m afraid of nothin’.
DON JUAN (runs after him) We’ll see.
PIERROT (again goes behind CHARLOTTE) I’ve seen better ones than him.
DON JUAN Hah!”

In this hilarious play, Don Juan’s womanizing ways lead to his downfall. That’s not the best part of the play, though. The best part is the comedy. It’s like a form of psychological slapstick—there is physicality in the humor (like in the excerpt above), but there’s also a psychological element that makes the physicality even funnier (Pierrot pretending not to be afraid). This humor makes the play a joy to read.

The story itself is somewhat contrived: Don Juan is repeatedly told that he will suffer because of his womanizing, Don Juan repeatedly ignores these warnings, then he suffers due to heavenly intervention. Thankfully, the humor is there to keep the play fresh.

 

I hope you have enjoyed these reviews. I will not be able to post next week because I will be studying for finals, but check back afterwards for more lit in the time of Coronavirus. In the meantime, I wish you all the best.

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