Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov

Hi everyone. If you’re in the US, I hope you are voting or have already voted (safely, of course).

Now, if you’re looking for something to entertain you that’s marvelous and life-affirming and not election-related, you’ve come to the right place.

Jamila, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“We were crossing the steppe along the soft, beaten road. Daniyar’s voice soared, ever new melodies followed one another with astounding grace. Was he so gifted? What had happened to him? It was as if he had been waiting for this day, for this hour to come! And suddenly I understood his strangeness which made people shrug and smile–his dreaminess, his love of solitude, his silences. I understood why he spent his evenings on the look-out hill and his nights alone on the river bank, why he was constantly listening to sounds inaudible to others, and why his eyes would suddenly sparkle and his usually drawn eyebrows twitch. This was a person who was deeply in love. And I felt that this was not merely love for another person; this was different, it was a tremendous love–of life, of the earth. Yes, he kept this love within himself, in his music–it was his guiding light. An indifferent person could never have sung as he did, no matter how great his voice.”

Here’s another Chingiz Aitmatov story, which some have called the greatest love story ever.

It’s set in Kyrgyzstan and is about a woman (her name’s Jamila) whose husband is away fighting in World War II. She falls in love with a crippled soldier who was sent back from the front to help out in the large USSR-owned farm called the collective.

All of this is told from the perspective of a guy who’s reminiscing about his childhood and what got him interested in painting, so it’s technically two stories in one. That means it’s not really a love story in the traditional sense. It has traditional love, too, but it also has other forms, too (like love of life, family, etc.)

That was refreshing, especially as someone whose main experience with “love stories” was mostly-cheesy YA novels (with some important exceptions) filled with mushy and contrived love-triangles. To me it seems there has to be something aside from two peoples’ attraction to each other for a love story to not seem cheesy. Fortunately, Aitmatov’s story doesn’t seem cheesy. Actually, I was surprised by how real the characters felt. They felt like people I knew, unlike the people in those cheesy YA novels.

Well, I don’t think any of this is really giving you any real sense of what makes this story good. Let me take another crack at it…

I once heard someone say that certain events in real life are less profound than people imagine them to be. Given that reasoning, an understated love story would be more realistic and powerful than an over-stated one with love-hexagons thrown in for good measure. Such a love story would also exist in a world where it’s clear that the love story is just a part of the world, and not the entire world. Such a love story would thus benefit from the fact that realistic and engaging characters don’t have to be flattened out for the sake of contrived and steamy plots. Also, the ultimate meaning of this type of story wouldn’t be limited to just two peoples’ love for each other (like some YA novels where whatever plot that’s introduced gets thrown away for the sake of incessant obsessing about the love-interest). Finally, the ultimate meaning to such a story would resonate with any type of person, regardless of his or her hormonal state. That’s exactly what happens with Aitmatov’s story.

So there you have it. And the best part? You can read the story for free via one of the links on this Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamila_(novel)

Happy Tuesday! See you next week.

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Omar Khayyam

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe. Due to something urgent that came up, I wasn’t able to read a book this week, but I did read an amazing poem that’s practically as good as a great book, so I hope that makes up for it:

The “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam

The “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam is soooooo good. It affirms life, love, and happiness, and it’s only like a fifteen-minute read.

I learned about this ancient Persian poem from Eugene O’Neill’s play, “Ah, Wilderness!” (Whose title’s actually a direct quote from it). Obviously this left no choice but for me to check it out myself.

Reading the “Rubaiyat” makes me feel like the writer who wrote it actually felt what he was writing, in a slightly good-humored sort of way. I honestly have no idea why. It’s just something about the way it’s written/translated.

It has a lot of fascinating metaphors about wine, wizardry, pottery, checkers, and so on. But it’s much better than this other famous poem (George Sterling’s “Of Wine and Wizardry“). In my opinion, the Rubaiyat is much more…alive.

Finally, something interesting in a lot of medieval Arabic/Persian literature is the fact that wine is seen as something that’s not wonderful to drink in this life now, but that you can have as much of it as you want in the afterlife, so you might as well abstain now and then drink it later on. Meanwhile this poem argues the exact opposite: live now because you only have a short time to do so. Can it be subtly trying to disprove the afterlife? Who knows?

Finally, it has a lot of references to The Shahnameh (by Ferdowski) and the Bible.

If you’ve ever read the poem (or re-read it), I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Best Line(s):

“Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,

Before we too into the Dust descend;

Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie

Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and–sans End!”

Stay healthy, stay safe, and stay in love with life.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Stephens and Tolstoy

Hello. I hope you are all healthy and safe. This will be the last time for a while where I review multiple books at once, since school starts next week. However, I’ll do my best to review at least one book (or short story, depending on my workload) a week.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy reading about the following two insightful and inspiring books:

The Fire Chronicle, by John Stephens

Dragon Breathing Fire on Make a GIF

“‘[…] because it was how I used to be, before you and your sisters and your mother. I lived entirely in my head.’ ‘And it was better, right?’ Michael said. ‘Things hurt less?’ ‘No! I mean, yes, I felt less pain, but the point of life isn’t to avoid pain. The point of life is to be alive, to feel things. That means the good and the bad. There’ll be pain, but also joy and friendship and love, and it’s worth it. Believe me. Your mother and I lost ten years of our lives, but every minute of every day we had our love for you and your sisters, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Don’t let the fear control you. Choose life, son.’”

This is the second book in a series by John Stephens. It’s about Kate, Michael, and Emma, three siblings who have to find three books that have magical powers, before evil forces do. The three books in question are called the “Books of Beginning.” One of the books can control time, but we don’t know what the other two books can do.

Based on this story’s title, you might suspect that the second book has to do with controlling fire. Surprise—it doesn’t. It has to do with life. You’ll have to figure out for yourself where the fire part comes in (Hint: it has to do with dragons).

In the story, Kate uses the time-traveling book and gets separated from Michael and Emma. While Kate tries to return to them, the others try to find the second book. So there’s a dual plot.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and at first, the dual plot wasn’t that interesting. Just when I got sort of invested in one group’s progress, I had to read about the other group’s battle with a dragon, and so on. As the book progressed, more things were revealed, and the dual plot became more interesting as a result.

Even though the book had a good ending, I was left wondering if the dual plot was worth it. Maybe it was, since this is the second book in a trilogy. Second books usually don’t have enough momentum to keep you interested, but the book’s dual plot itself helped it keep a sense of momentum because you were always wondering what was happening elsewhere.

An interesting insight I got from this book was that the parts that I found to be the best were the most realistic parts. Not in the sense that dragonless parts were better than dragon-filled parts (dragons are too cool for that), but in the sense that when the characters felt true, the story was better. Which is more satisfying? A cliché reaction, or a different, more genuine-feeling one? Probably the second one. It makes you think more deeply about what’s happening, instead of glossing over it as just another cliché.

With all that being said, this book had its clichés, but it also had those more genuine parts, and for me, the genuine parts, along with its momentum, made it worth the listen.

War and Peace Part 7, by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy GIF | Gfycat

“Let me not be reproached with selecting trivial details to describe the actions of people who are acknowledged as great, like this Cossack, like the bridge at Arcole, and so on. If there were no accounts attempting to portray the most banal details as great, then my descriptions would not exist either. In a description of Newton’s life, the details of his food, the fact that he stumbled, cannot have the slightest impact on his significance as a great man—they are extraneous; but in this case the opposite is true. God knows what would be left of great men, rulers and warriors if all of their actions were translated into ordinary, everyday language.”

(Parts 1 2 3 4 5 6)

That quote is basically this last part in a nutshell. You get to see the trivial details that went into the makings of a masterpiece. Let me explain.

I didn’t know what to expect from this part. War and Peace had been so hyped up, what with everyone who was anyone calling it a great book.

It turned out not to be as good as I thought.

The beginning and middle of the end were good (some of it reminded me of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5), but the very end felt sketched-out and illogical. That left me shaken at first. This? The greatest book ever?

Then I remembered this was Tolstoy’s first draft, and remembered that quote up above, and felt inspired.

In this version of War and Peace, I got to see Tolstoy not as some god-like figure, but as a writer just like the rest of us, who had the same struggles as us in figuring out how to fit grand ideas into a story, and how to give that story a satisfying ending. The thing is, I know Tolstoy eventually succeeded in overcoming these struggles to make his book great.

After reading this book, I looked up the Wikipedia summary of the actual War and Peace. Its ending was very different. Plot points that seemed half-developed in this version were fully developed there, and ideas that were partially-explored here were fully-explored there. From reading that summary, I realized that Tolstoy was able to make his book great, but that the foundation of that greatness was already present in this version.

For instance, he took some parts of the plot that seemed to have little impact in the first draft, and connected them to other parts to build them up to be impactful. Or he took plot-points to their logical and more dramatic conclusions. Or he fleshed out mini-resolutions and framed them as steps in the development to the overall resolution. So in the final version, the emotional impacts from each mini-resolution aren’t isolated episodes, but necessary parts in making for a satisfying ending.

But the thing is, in this version of War and Peace, I saw how that transformation became possible. In official biographies of Newton, it may not matter if he stumbled or ate food, but in the grand scheme of things, stumbling could have made his gravitational discoveries possible.

In the case of Tolstoy, you could see his first draft as being not-so-great/relevant-to-his-greatness, or you could see it as a beginning of his greatness. He was able to revise it to greatness.

All that being said, I found this book a very valuable read, because I saw that such a transformation was possible. Even if your story ends in a really measly way, you could always make it amazing, and for all Tolstoy’s talk about life and death and meaning, the story of his own transformation was the most profound part of this book.

That’s why I’ll close by saying that Tolstoy’s first draft of War and Peace was one of the most inspiring things I ever read. We all have so much potential.