Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Osipovich, Bruder, and Berry

Hello! I’ve reviewed three books this week. I would definitely recommend the first one, and I would definitely not recommend the third one.

Stanislavski in Rehearsal: The Final Years, by Vasily Osipovich

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[Stanislavski was talking about an experience he had:] Smoke from the bonfires arose, the crowd murmured in a thousand voices. What was this? ‘These people are waiting for tickets for your production,’ I thought. ‘My God, what a responsibility we have to satisfy the spiritual needs of these people who have been standing here freezing all night; what great ideas and thoughts we must bring to them!’ So consider well, whether we have the right to settle accounts with them by merely telling them a funny anecdote. I could not fall asleep that night for a long time because of my feeling of responsibility [….] that night I felt that the people whom I had seen in the square deserved much more than we had prepared for them.”

This book was mind-blowing. The Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski is inherently mind-blowing, but he’s even more mind-blowing when he is in the final years of his life and striving to teach others his approach to acting so that they can develop it beyond what he had done so far.

Meanwhile our narrator and memoirist, Vasily Osipovich, has mastered the “old” way of acting which relied on playing clichés (an actor playing an evil character would twirl his moustache, for instance). Now, Osipovich wants to join Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theater to learn from him. The result: Osipovich gets his mind blown by Stanislavski and has to relearn everything he thought he knew about acting. So we see two journeys: Osipovich’s journey to improve as an actor, and Stanislavski’s to pass on his wisdom before he dies.

Stanislavski’s way of rehearsal seemed tyrannical—he’d stop the actors every few seconds and insist that they redo an entrance or a line. He’d keep having them redo it until they got it right, even if it took up all the hours in that day’s rehearsal.

On the other hand, it seemed like Stanislavski was committed to hard work for the sake of getting great results. Once, when Osipovich and the company got frustrated by Stanislavski’s insistence that they adopt a kind of “rhythm,” they asked him to do it himself, and he did so. When they asked him how he could do it so convincingly, he said he drilled himself extensively every day. After reading about how he drilled his own actors, I don’t doubt that he did the same to himself.

Stanislavski also said things that showed the power of this type of work. He started off with this: “Every exacting actor, however great, at certain intervals, say every four or five years, must go back and study anew.” Actors had to constantly examine themselves to get rid of clichés they were playing and other bad habits they’d fallen into. Apparently, each time Stanislavski himself started playing a new role, he relied on clichés. For every role he ever played, he then had to work hard to get rid of the clichés and replace them with truth.

Given all of this, Osipovich’s book about Stanislavski made me realize that talk of the “hard work” an artist has to do to learn his or her craft is a euphemism for insanely hard-core work.

I would definitely recommend reading this book.

A Practical Handbook for the Actor, by Melissa Bruder

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“Many actors have spent their careers trading on, and thus were limited by, their natural talents. Many of these actors had successful careers, it’s true, but few grew as artists, because they never took the time to develop a set of skills they could call their own, skills that could never be taken from them [….] How much greater is the self-respect of the man or woman who can call upon the technique he or she has developed over his or her years in the theatre to see him or her through even the most seemingly insurmountable acting problem.”

I can’t say much about this book because it basically just echoes some of the things Stanislavski said better ~200 years earlier. Because of that, I’d say that if you ever have to choose between a book by Stanislavski and a book by Bruder, I would choose Stanislavski.

My Experiences as an Executioner, by James Berry

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“Fortunately none of the people knew me, so that when the old gentleman asked them what was the matter, they could only tell them that Berry was traveling by that train, and that they wanted to have a look at him. The old gentleman seemed anxious to see such an awful man as the executioner, and asked me if I should know him if I saw him. I pointed out a low-looking character as being possibly the man, and my fellow traveler said, ‘Yes, very much like him’ [….] We got quite friendly, and when we reached Durham where I was getting out, he asked for my card. The reader can imagine his surprise when I handed it to him.”

James Berry was an English executioner in the 1800s, and he wrote this memoir about his experiences. It was one of the grimmest books I’ve read. To give you some perspective, it was much grimmer than Dostoyevsky’s books, and only slightly less grim than Enemy at the Gates.

Somehow, it managed to be this grim without any graphic descriptions. I think this was because of the book’s specificity. You don’t need to describe anything else if you give enough details about the exact number of inches an executioner wants to make the rope fall in a given execution and how he came to that calculation.

On the other hand, the book did give some valuable insights into humanity. Some of these included how awful an executioner feels about his job, how people react differently before they get executed, why people commit crimes, and the stigma that an executioner faces for having to execute people.

I don’t think any of that makes the book more readable, though.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Obama and the Promised Land

Hello! I hope you’re all staying warm. This is my last post before resuming school so I thought I would review something special.

A Promised Land, by Barack Obama

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“Except now I found myself asking whether those impulses—of violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others—were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain. For they seemed to lie in wait everywhere, ready to resurface whenever growth rates stalled or demographics changed or a charismatic leader chose to ride the wave of people’s fears and resentments. And as much as I might have wished otherwise, there was no Mahatma Gandhi around to tell me what I might do to hold such impulses back.”

A Promised Land is about Obama’s youth, his journey to the presidency, and his first few years in office (up to Bin Laden’s death in 2011).

The book itself is 700 pages long with 7 parts, which means you could finish the book in a week if you read one part a day (which was what I did). In terms of his presidency, Obama talks about how he handled the financial crisis of 2008, global politics, healthcare, climate, and terrorism.

A Promised Land felt like a cross between a history textbook, a human-interest story, and a memoir. Obama made it very clear up front that he wanted to give a lot of context for his decisions, which meant almost burying the reader in piles of details. This was probably what caused the book to feel somewhat like a textbook.

The good news was that Obama also wove in personal anecdotes from people he worked with and helped out. This made the book more accessible and interesting. Instead of just talking about how he got laws X Y and Z passed with the help of Mr. Such-and-Such, Obama made a point of first describing how a person he knew about had been suffering because such a law hadn’t been passed yet. This helped humanize the book a lot, especially when it came to intricate financial policies.

A Promised Land also gave some insight into what Obama was feeling and thinking during his presidency. This was probably the most interesting part of the book since it helped to demystify the presidency. Yes, it had its benefits, but it also had unexpected drawbacks. For instance, Obama talked about how he couldn’t go on spontaneous road-trips with his daughters without getting the Secret Service involved, which meant that they missed out on some aspects of normal life that could otherwise have been taken for granted.

After reading the book, I came away with two main insights. First, I realized how hard it was to be president. You have to manage a large group of people to deal with massive problems and unexpected developments while also trying to ensure cooperation across the aisle and among countries. That summary may not sound so difficult but reading about it in-depth made me realize that yes, it was very difficult.

The second insight I had was this: Obama wrote that he went into national politics because he thought he could make a bigger difference in peoples’ lives than he could have made at a more local level. However, he came to realize that even though he was president, he couldn’t solve as many problems as he would have liked. One reason was that in certain cases, local-level politicians were in a position that made them better able to solve the problem than Obama. The fact that a local-level politician could sometimes have more power than a national-level politician in a certain area was very interesting. It also made me wonder. If Obama had known this beforehand, would it have changed anything he did as president?

In the end, I would definitely recommend A Promised Land. It’s long and sometimes very textbook-y, but its insights also make it a very rewarding read.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Welty, O’Neill, and O’Neill Possessed by Wagner’s Ghost

Hello everyone! I hope you’re surviving quarantine okay. Since reading is amazing for passing the time, here are three books/plays that I have reviewed.

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One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty

Welty

“My mother always sang to her children. Her voice came out just a little bit in the minor key. ‘Wee Willie Winkie’s’ song was wonderfully sad when she sang the lullabies. ‘Oh, but now there’s a record. She could have her own record to listen to,’ my father would have said. For there came a Victrola record of ‘Bobby Shafftoe’ and ‘Rock-a-Bye Baby’, all of Mother’s lullabies, which could be played to take her place. Soon I was able to play her my own lullabies all day long.”

This is a thin memoir about Welty’s writing life. It’s not that interesting. The best part of this book is the insight it gives into the inspiration behind some of her stories, and the glimpse it gives into old rural Mississippi. The rest of the time, she tells about various events that happened to her without really reflecting much on her thoughts and feelings. This creates a sense of distance between her and the reader. For me, this meant that I couldn’t relate to her experiences.

If you’re looking for a good memoir written by a writer, don’t look to Welty. Look to Saint-Exupéry or Gorky. For memoirs on non-writers, Douglass and Shayakhmetov are good. Only read Welty if, near the end of the quarantine, you find that no other books remain but hers.

Even in that case, there are plenty of e-books that you could read first.

 

“A Touch of the Poet,” Eugene O’Neill

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“DEBORAH: Why, that the Hartfords never part with their dreams even when they deny them. They cannot. That is the family curse. For example, this book Simon plans to write to denounce the evil of greed and possessive ambition, and uphold the virtue of freeing oneself from the lust for power and saving our souls by being content with little. I cannot imagine you taking that seriously.”

Eugene O’Neill intended to write an 11-play cycle about the experiences of two families over the course of American history. These plays were supposed to examine materialism and dreams and greed. They were supposed to be his greatest accomplishment. However, for all of the tragedies he created, this turned out to be the worst of them all—he left us with an eternal cliff-hanger, because he only managed to draft two of the plays before he died.

“A Touch of the Poet” is the first play. It takes place in the late 1820s, and is about the two families—the Melody family and the Hartford family. The plot itself seems very simple on the surface. Sara Melody is in love with Simon Hartford, a boy who is recovering from sickness in the upstairs room of her father’s tavern. However, while Sara’s parents are okay with nursing Simon back to health, they’re not okay with her marrying him. The two families are apparently rivals.

Sara also has a father named Cornelius. Cornelius is in love with the past—he dresses in his old regiment uniform and reminisces about when he fought in the British army against the French in the Battle of Talavera and was commended by the Duke of Wellington. Cornelius also mistreats his wife. Sara despises him for that. She despises him even more because he doesn’t want her to marry Simon. The majority of the play is Sara fighting him for the right to marry Simon, and Sara fighting Simon’s mom, Deborah, for the same reason.

Somehow, even in draft-form, O’Neill manages to make this play more than a cheesy “star-crossed lovers” story. The interest comes from the ideas that O’Neill examines throughout the play—dreams vs. reality, past vs. present. Cornelius represents dreams and the past, and Sara represents reality and the present. These ideas mean that the conflict between them takes on greater importance than one in a typical “star-crossed lovers” story. In a way, this play reminded me a lot of Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung” cycle, because similar themes are explored (greed, family, etc.).

NOTE: “A Touch of the Poet” sets up events that happen in the next play, so scrolling down and reading that will expose you to minor spoilers.

 

“More Stately Mansions,” Eugene O’Neill (collaborating with Wagner’s Ghost)

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“SIMON […] It is a long time since I have thought of the soul. Out there in the gutters called streets beyond the wall it appears to be a weak sentimental supposition, a superstitious superfluity—but here in this garden—He checks himself as he meets [Deborah’s] eyes staring at him with a tender gloating fixity. He reads again. ‘And, but once kindled, quenchless evermore.’ He pauses, giving the pause a tense significance—thoughtfully. ‘Evermore.’ Yes, it is, I think, the most cowardly and convenient of all man’s evasions, that he forgets the present is merely the last moment of the past, and the delusion of his hope he calls the future is but the past returning to demand payment of its debt.”

This play is even more like Wagner’s Ring cycle. In addition to its high-falutin monologuery, “More Stately Mansions” takes place over 10 years, a time scale of Wagnerian proportions. Fortunately for us, while the performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle is 17 hours long, O’Neill’s play only lasts for 400 pages. Even so, it made me wonder if Wagner’s ghost perhaps possessed O’Neill while he was writing this play…

Simon and Sara have started a family. In the past, Simon used to want to write poetry, but with Sara’s urging, he took charge of a textile mill, then bought out his partner. In this play, he ditches his dreams, succumbs to greed, and goes on to buy out even more companies. Meanwhile, Sara puts aside her differences with Simon’s mother, Deborah. The two women become best friends for all of two acts, then spend the remaining 255 pages battling for dominance over Simon’s attention.

As in the previous play, O’Neill is able to make this play much more than a mere “rivalry” story. He does this by further developing the conflict between dreams and reality—Sara represents reality, and Deborah represents dreams. Both of them give long, clumsily-worded asides about these ideas. Simon also gives long, clumsily-worded asides, where he laments about how he’s caught between these two forces. In the end, the main conflict is resolved, but the ideological one is not. This makes for a massive cliff-hanger.

Unfortunately, O’Neill’s death means that this cliffhanger will be eternal. However, there’s an interesting book that some scholar wrote about the play cycle as a whole. I haven’t yet read it, but it’s supposed to give an overview of the cycle’s entire plot and thematic development. It’s scant consolation, but at least it’s not a cliff-hanger, and at least it’s not Eudora Welty’s memoir.

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I would love to hear your thoughts about these books, or about any other books you’ve been reading so far. In the meantime, I wish you the best.

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

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

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

Genghis Khan, R.P. Lister

GENGHIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOUGLASS

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

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

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Grace Lin

MTNMOONN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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