Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: King, Süskind, and London

Hello! Happy 2022! I hope that you are all enjoying your holiday season with many books and much good health. If there’s snow near you, I also hope that you are staying warm and safe.

Last time, I reviewed several not-so-uplifting books. This time, I’ll kick 2022 off with one book that’s slightly more inspiring…

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King

Best Shawshank Sewer GIFs | Gfycat

“I asked him once what the posters meant to him, and he gave me a peculiar, surprised sort of look. ‘Why, they mean the same thing to me as they do to most cons, I guess,’ he said. ‘Freedom. You look at those pretty women and you feel like you could almost …not quite but almost …step right through and be beside them. Be free.”

This was the first Stephen King book I ever read, and it was good. It wasn’t as amazing as I thought it would be, though, considering all the hype. Maybe it’s because I already saw the movie and knew the ending.

For the first time in my life, I’d actually say that the movie was somewhat better than the book, because it emphasized some important through-lines more and made better choices than the book about certain side-characters. Also, the book was less of an experience and more of a mystery—once you knew its solution, there wasn’t much left to experience in the book.

Meanwhile, the movie was more of an experience (since film is basically about experiencing things by watching them on-screen). So even knowing the solution to the mystery didn’t take away from the glory of reliving that experience.

In any case, I enjoyed this book. It was definitely well-written, and I hope that there are other Stephen King books out there that I can read in the future that are just as good, if not better. Do you have any recommendations?

Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, Translated by John E. Woods

Putting On Perfume GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

[A long quote but worth it!] “And [Father Terrier] rocked the basket gently on his knees, stroking the infant’s head with his finger and repeating ‘poohpeedooh’ from time to time, an expression he thought had a gentle, soothing effect on small children [….] Terrier wrenched himself to his feet and set the basket on the table. He wanted to get rid of the thing, as quickly as possible, right away if possible, immediately if possible. And then it began to wail. It squinted up its eyes, gaped its gullet wide, and gave a screech so repulsively shrill that the blood in Terrier’s veins congealed. He shook the basket with an outstretched hand and shouted ‘Poohpeedooh’ to silence the child, but it only bellowed more loudly and turned completely blue in the face and looked as if it would burst from bellowing.”

This book is about a kid who has a wonderful sense of smell but doesn’t smell of anything himself. Oh yeah, and he’s a murderer.

Given that I first heard of this book on an International Baccalaureate reading list, I thought it would be kind of stuffy and literary. To my great surprise and delight, it was actually very funny (while also being literary).

The author clearly enjoyed writing this book, in the way Tolstoy clearly enjoyed writing War and Peace. When the writer really likes what he or she is writing about, it comes across to the reader and makes the reading experience so much fun. These kinds of books are so much better than books where the author’s clearly just trying to come across as witty or sophisticated without deeply caring about what he or she is writing about.

Anyway, the unexpected humor, great plotting, strong characterization, and amazing twist (the book feels almost like speculative fiction at certain points) makes Perfume a super-recommendable book.

Martin Eden, by Jack London

merrittrps gif packs

“It was the finest thing yet that [Martin Eden] had seen in this small glimpse of that [upper-class] world. He was moved deeply by appreciation of it, and his heart was melting with sympathetic tenderness. He had starved for love all his life. His nature craved love. It was an organic demand of his being. Yet he had gone without, and hardened himself in the process. He had not known that he needed love. Nor did he know it now. He merely saw it in operation, and thrilled to it, and thought it fine, and high, and splendid.”

If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, you may remember that I listed London’s autobiographical novel Martin Eden as an “honorable mention” in my Top Ten Books I Read in High School post. I reread it recently for a paper I had to write. It was so good.

Martin Eden is about a sailor named Russ Brissenden Martin Eden (!) who meets a high-society girl named Ruth, and falls in love with her. But he needs to have a steady career in order to get her parents to agree for them to get married. So, like all practical men seeking a steady career, Martin decides that he will become a famous writer. Poverty ensues, but love endures (or does it?)

Cheesy summary aside, I didn’t realize how good this book was until I actually analyzed it. See, Jack London seemed to think that his protagonist was driven by consistent selfish individualism, and that’s easy enough to accept when you read the book once and don’t think too hard (or at all) about it.

However, when reading the book closely, it became obvious that Martin was just driven by his need for love (I could go on and on about this, but basically his need for love was a much more consistent and clear motive for Martin’s actions than any kind of individualism). If Martin’s need for love was such a clear motive (in contrast to all those times Martin explicitly told himself he was a poor excuse for an individualist), why did London still insist that his book was about Martin’s individualism?

Keeping in mind that I could also be wrong, we could go on to speculate that deep down, London knew the book’s dominant through-line wasn’t individualism, but that he insisted otherwise to cover up insecurities or other things he didn’t want to admit (imagine a tough guy like London saying his latest book was about craving love).

Anyway. For a guy who might have been lying to himself, London still had the guts to make this a consistent thread throughout his story, even if in the end he underemphasized that thread and tried to hide it beneath unconvincing thematic stuff about individualism. And even in spite of all the stuff about individualism, London’s book still possessed remarkable insight due to that partially-smothered thread. That’s what made the book so good, in my view.

So if you’re a writer, it might be a good idea to really know why you write, and if you’re a reader, it might be an interesting idea to reread some old favorites.

If you just want to know if I would recommend this book, I definitely would, and I’d be curious to hear any thoughts you might have about it.

 Also, if you want to listen to a great Bill Hughes song about Martin Eden…

Happy New Year!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Żeromski, Korelitz, and London

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe.

I’ve read four books, but will only be reviewing three of them. Two of them could be seen as escapism, while the third probably can’t…

The Faithful River, by Stefan Żeromski,
Translated by Bill Johnston

Animated River GIFs | Tenor

“[As one character tries to convince a woman named Ryfka to give her a sleigh to go to a doctor]: ‘Do you have a sleigh?’ ‘There’s one here but it’s just a little one that belongs to some of the tenants.’ ‘Let it be the tenants’. Come on! Fetch the keys and climb out of the hole here.’ Ryfka gave a quiet, desperate sob. She stood on the other side of the window, crying. ‘You won’t do it?’ ‘They’ll murder me. They’ll knock my block off!’ ‘You’ll live.’ This argument she somehow found convincing.

This book is set during a conflict between Polish rebels and Russian soldiers, and is about a wounded Polish rebel who is being sheltered by a woman in a manor-house. Obviously, bad things will happen if the rebel is discovered by the Russians, and so the woman has to use all her wits to conceal him. In the meantime, they fall in love.

For a book that was originally published in 1912, it was surprisingly great. The dialogue was surprisingly snappy, the plot was surprisingly compelling, and the characters were surprisingly deep.

Something I also didn’t expect was that the romance was delayed until later on. This made sense (the rebel was too wounded to fall in love at first). This also made the romance more convincing– by the time the characters fell in love, they knew each other well enough to have something to be attracted to. They became two developed characters that I found myself wanting to get together, instead of two cardboard cutouts falling in love over nothing.

So, this book has a lot of action, it’s well-paced, and it’s well-written. I would recommend.

The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Typewriter GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

“These particular students, these ardent apprentices, would be utterly indistinguishable from their earlier Ripley counterparts: mid-career professionals convinced they could churn out Clive Cussler adventures, or moms who blogged about their kids and didn’t see why that shouldn’t entitle them to a regular gig on Good Morning America, or newly retired people ‘returning to fiction’ (secure in the knowledge that fiction had been waiting for them?)”

This book is about a writer named Jake who wrote one best-seller and then wrote a second not best-seller, and went on to sink into obscurity. We find him teaching creative writing at a college program called Ripley. There, he encounters a student who tells him about a plot for a novel, a plot so good it’ll obviously become a best-seller… Later, the student dies, and Jake sees his chance to rip off the other guy’s story and reclaim his fame in the process. Jake does become famous, but then starts getting threats in the mail about someone who knows that he stole his student’s story…

This book was entertaining to read because it was about someone who went into writing for all the wrong reasons– for the fame, for the ego-boost, and for the admiration, rather than because he actually loved to write.

It was also fun to see all the twists in the book (which I’m not giving away). Basically, if you like mystery stories (and novels-within-novels), you would probably like this book.

I did feel that the protagonist wasn’t really characterized much beyond the fact that he was a writer (and all his backstory relating to being a “failed” writer). I also felt that parts of the book could have been shortened (there was a huge buildup to something that didn’t need to be that big). And finally, the protagonist was narcissistic to the point of being a little annoying.

In spite of that, I’d still recommend the book. It’s fun to read, and everything does come together satisfyingly in the end.

The Scarlet Plague, by Jack London

2004006 - gifopolis.com

“The old man shook his head sadly, and said: ‘The gunpowder will come. Nothing can stop it—the same old story over and over. Man will increase, and men will fight. The gunpowder will enable men to kill millions of men, and in this way only, by fire and blood, will a new civilization, in some remote day, be evolved. And of what profit will it be? Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. It may take fifty thousand years to build, but it will pass. All things pass.'”

This sci-fi book is about a global pandemic, only this one is called the Scarlet Plague, it breaks out in 2012 instead of in 2020, and the world of 2012 has wireless communications while also somehow still having telegraphs.

No wonder. The book was written in 1915.

In any case, the Scarlet Plague is super-deadly, to the point where it kills its victims within hours. It acts so fast that it instantly wipes out all the government infrastructure and leaves only a few survivors who go on to form “tribes.” Oh, and the whole story is basically an old man telling his grand-kids about the plague while they sit around in the ruins of California.

It’s interesting to compare London’s imaginings of a pandemic with the reality of one, which basically hammers home the fact that only so much can be imagined, and that some things in reality are much more complicated than in the imagining of them.

On a somewhat unrelated note, parts of this book reminded me of Anna Kavan’s Ice— there’s a guy who wants a girl, but the girl is being held captive by an brutal tribe-leader called the Chauffeur. Replace the Scarlet Plague with the ice-ification of the planet, call the Chauffer the Warden, and you basically have the general gist of Ice.

In any case, I would recommend this book, but only if you feel like reading about another pandemic. If you don’t feel like it, I would recommend the other two books instead.