Lit in the Time of War: Hillenbrand, Maupassant, and Gladwell

Hello. I hope you are well. I’ve read three books this week. Here they are, along with a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help people in Ukraine.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, Read by Edward Hermann

“For these men [POWs] the central struggle of post-war life was to restore their dignity and find a way to see the world as something other than menacing blackness. There was no one right way to peace. Every man had to find his own path, according to his own history. Some succeeded. For others, the war would never really end.”

This is a nonfiction account of a man named Louis Zamperini, who was a troublemaker in his childhood, an Olympic track-star in his youth, a WWII pilot-turned-prisoner of war in his manhood, and a PTSD-battling survivor in his older age. You may have seen the Angelina Jolie movie about him. This is the book it was based on.

The book was very good. It had a great blend of wisdom, humanity, warmth, tragedy, suffering, and (tasteful) comic relief. What stood out most was this blend, along with the author’s keen insights into the sources of resilience (of the prisoners) and malice (of their captors).

I would definitely recommend.

The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant: Ten Volumes in One, Volume One, by Guy de Maupassant

“Then he went on a few steps, and stopped again to look about him, and the utter misery of his existence seemed to be brought out into full relief by the intense light which inundated the country. He saw his twenty years of café-life, dull, monotonous, heart-breaking. He might have traveled like others did, have gone among foreigners, to unknown countries beyond the sea, have interested himself somewhat in everything which other men are passionately devoted to, in arts and sciences, he might have enjoyed life in a thousand forms, that mysterious life which is either charming or painful, constantly changing, always inexplicable and strange. Now, however, it was too late.”

It’s so gooood. Unlike Chekhov, Maupassant was able to write female characters without being so sexist about it (so far, anyway). This made for a terrifically refreshing read.

Along with that, he was able to get at the humanity of everyone in his stories, even as they commit foul deeds (deceiving their spouse, etc.) I would say that there was one story that I felt that could have had a greater contrast to strengthen its effect.

Even so, if you’re looking for a short story writer who’s BETTER than Chekhov, I would recommend Maupassant without hesitation.

Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon,
by Malcom Gladwell, Read by Malcom Gladwell

“[Paul Simon:] In order for a problem to be something that you want to solve, it means it has to be interesting, which means you don’t know the answer to the problem. That’s why you’re interested, and you wonder, What’s the answer to that? What does that mean? How do you get there? How do you make yourself feel that chemical high that you feel when you make something that you like? [….] It’s the mystery of why that happens, but when that [chemical high] does occur to you the reward is so great you want that for your whole life.

This is a series of interviews with Paul Simon (of Simon & Garfunkel), interlaced with insights from other musicians about Paul Simon’s music, and excerpts from the music itself. It was very interesting to listen to.

What made it more interesting, in my subjective opinion, was to see the contrast between Paul Simon and Malcom Gladwell (whose comments framed everything Simon said). Paul Simon is a musician who doesn’t think too much about what’s going on in his music in terms of the source of his genius. Malcom Gladwell is a man who seems keen to create theories about everything. He seems to want the formula for genius, and he seems like he wants to dissect Paul Simon to get at that formula. As a result, the interview could sometimes read like Paul Simon talking about whatever he wants and Malcom Gladwell trying to shove him into a box labeled “Malcom Gladwell’s Theory of Musical Genius.”

In other words, it felt like Malcom Gladwell was less interested in Paul Simon as a person, and more interested in him as a specimen of genius. This made the book less enjoyable than it could have been, but it also gave interesting, semi-enjoyable insights (due to the contrast between Gladwell and Simon’s approaches to life and music and genius).

This book also had good music (obviously, it’s Paul Simon), it had good insights into his music by other musicians, and it even had good insights into him by Malcom Gladwell (though sometimes Gladwell would just go off on random theories that had no real basis in the reality that Paul Simon was trying to tell him).

So overall, I’d recommend, but I’d keep in mind the interesting dynamics underpinning this book.

As promised, here’s a list of places to donate in order to help Ukrainians in need:

Corus World Health: Gives needed medicines to Ukrainians, and supports the work of health care workers in Ukraine. Donate here: https://donate.corusworldhealth.org/

Voices of Children: Gives emergency psychological support to children in need, along with evacuation assistance. Donate here: https://voices.org.ua/en/

Humanity and Inclusion: Gives support to disabled people in Ukraine, including at-home rehabilitation, mine risk education, and emergency health services. Donate here: https://www.hi-us.org/ukraine

International Medical Corps: Expands access to medical and mental health services in Ukraine, and helps refugees. Donate here: https://give.internationalmedicalcorps.org/page/99837/donate/

Lit in the Time of War: Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky

In which I review books by Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky.

Hello! I hope you are well. Today at Princeton is officially Dean’s Date—when all essays are due. As a result, I’ll keep my reviews shorter than usual. Also, there’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need.

Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir, by Shahrnush Parsipur, Translated by Sara Khalili

“Although this madness [PTSD from prison] was my own, I wonder if society can be struck by a similar sort of collective insanity when pressure mounts beyond the peoples’ tolerance. Do they abandon all beliefs and begin to exist in an illusory world of their own creation? In that state, will they believe everything they are told?”

This book is about an Iranian writer who gets imprisoned. She experiences traumatic events in Evin Prison along with in other prisons. She gets released, then re-arrested, then released, then re-arrested again. Through it all, we see her remarkable character (she is very resilient and spirited), and learn about the horrors of incarceration.

I would recommend.

The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin,
Read by Eugene Yelchin

“‘‘Turn that thing [the radio] off, Yevgeny.’ ‘I can’t, Grandma,’ I said. ‘I’m in attitude.’ I was trying to balance on one leg in attitude, which Vaganova described as a pose on one leg with the other lifted at an angle of ninety degrees and carried back, bent at the knee. ‘You hurt your leg, Yevgeny?’ ‘No, Grandma. It’s…nothing.’ ‘He stands on one leg for nothing. You a stork?’ ‘I’m practicing ballet.’ ‘With a bad leg?’”

This book is a memoir about Yelchin’s experiences growing up during the Cold War. His mom’s obsessed with the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, his dad’s obsessed with poetry, and his brother’s obsessed with his newfound talent for ice-skating. Yelchin’s parents say he needs a talent, too—talent gets you a luxurious apartment and other such privileges. Yelchin’s brother is all set, but no matter what he does, Yelchin turns out to have no talent at anything. The only enjoyment he gets is from the drawings he makes at night under the table.

This book is funny, heartwarming, and extremely well-crafted. I would recommend.

Selected Poems, by Joseph Brodsky,
Translated by George L. Kline

“People and things crowd in.
Eyes can be bruised and hurt
by people as well as things.
Better to live in the dark.”

This is a book of poems by Brodsky translated into English and with a foreword by W.H. Auden, who says that Brodsky is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. This is also back when Brodsky was an unknown (1973, before his 1987 Nobel Prize).

In any case, I found the poems to be good but not as good as I’d hoped (I’d read some poems by Brodsky here and they were terrific).

Even so, there were some very good poems in this collection, and I’d recommend it. Also, while I never mention footnotes, I do have to say that Brodsky’s book has great footnotes about untranslatable nuances of the Russian original which were very helpful and insightful. I’d recommend.

As promised, a list of places to donate and help Ukrainians in need:

Direct Relief: Provides trauma kits, insulin, and other important medical supplies to Ukrainians. Donate here: https://www.directrelief.org/emergency/ukraine-crisis/

Nova Ukraine: Supports Ukrainians by evacuating refugees, serving meals, and providing aid packages. Also the first volunteer group to enter Bucha and provide food and reconstruction assistance there. Donate here: https://novaukraine.org/

WithUkraine: The official fundraising effort by the Embassy of Ukraine to the UK. Provides food and medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://www.withukraine.org/

Plan USA: Gives aid focusing on refugee children in Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/humanitarian-response-ukraine-plan-usa/

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Shanbhag, Kadohata, and Kertész

Hello! Happy Tuesday. It’s the end of the semester here, so I have several papers I’m writing. Somehow, I’ve also read several books. Here they are:

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag,
Translated by Srinath Perur

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“In the middle room of the old house […] [the protagonist’s sister Malati] told me about her college, her classmate Vandana, whose step-mother served her leftovers, and who was in love with a boy they called Koli Ramesh. It was Malati who carried letters between them. In the new house, we were locked in the cells of individual rooms, and there was no opportunity to exchange casual confidences. Lying alone in my room, I sometimes wondered if Malati’s happiness would have been better served had Sona Masala not existed at all.”

This book is about a family in Bangalore who runs a mysterious business called Sona Masala. Before they started the business they were happy but poor. After they start the business they become miserable and greedy.

This book has been compared with Chekhov. I do not see it. Yes, it has good brevity, but Chekhov still gives a lot more meaning in one short story than this author does in his entire book.

There’s also another difference– Chekov actually has warmth, even when he’s describing unsympathetic characters and cynical situations. This book doesn’t, or if there is warmth, it’s not really that warm. For instance, the protagonist’s father is supposed to be the moral compass of the book. However he never really gets a chance to say anything other than paltry things along the lines of, “Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this,” or, “In the old days, people actually respected each other,” which rob him and his role of their weight. He’s never really given a chance to speak and be taken seriously, so he doesn’t really provide as convincing of a counterweight as he seems like he’s there to do.

Any moments of happiness are fleeting and not taken seriously, either. They’re treated like, “Oh, we were only happy then because that was before we moved into the new house, don’t mind that nonsense.” A book absolutely doesn’t have to be unicorns and butterflies, but the lack of real happiness in this book means that any contrasts made between the family’s old life and their new life don’t really work as well as they could have.

Going back to a point I made at the beginning, the book doesn’t really say as much as it could have. The protagonist is complicit in the family’s dysfunction, sure, but I found myself really wondering why he acted that way, and not receiving an answer. For me, it’s not enough just to say and show that characters act differently because they’re in a new house and have new wealth. There needs to be more of a sense of why (even if it’s a very subtle implication). There’s definitely room for this kind of implication, but it’s never really made. Instead, this book seems to treat the characters as if greed just sprang upon them and took them unawares, and as a result, it doesn’t really say as much as it could have.

Contrast this with Chekhov, where even in his less-hopeful stories, he includes a measure of warmth as an effective contrast (which actually winds up heightening the level of cynicism), he says all that he could say within the space (making the most of his characters and their conflicts), and really gets at why the characters are acting the way they do.

I may sound harsh, and I don’t mean to. This book was still good, and I would still recommend it to read. But I would definitely not say that it was Chekhov-level good.

Half a World Away, by Cynthia Kadohata

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“No, the future was not bright for Dimash if he didn’t learn to walk differently. Walking was important. Jaden knelt down in front of him […] Dimash gazed at him intently, his shoulder scrunched, his stance geeky. Jaden pulled the boy’s shoulder up until both sides were even. ‘Here, stand like this. Good! Now watch.’ Jaden walked evenly, with a little bit of swagger. ‘That’s how you walk. Come on, walk to me.’ Dimash pushed his shoulder down and walked to Jaden even geekier than usual. ‘No,’ Jaden said, patiently but firmly. ‘When you walk, you must be cool. Then maybe nobody will bother you.'”

This book is about a boy named Jaden who was adopted from Romania at the age of eight. Angry at having been given up by his birth-mother and unable to form emotional attachments, Jaden grew up stealing, lying, and setting fire to the toys given to him by his adoptive parents. When he’s eleven, his parents take him with them as they adopt someone from Kazakhstan. Jaden thinks they’re adopting again because he’s a bad son. However, once they reach Kazakhstan, he forms connections with a toddler at the orphanage (Dimash) and the man who drives them around (Sam), and eventually realizes he loves his adoptive parents.

This book is interesting because it involves two adoptions (instead of just one), and describes the mindset of someone who was adopted as an older child. It’s also an enjoyable read.

While Jaden’s psychology is well-conveyed, he seems too emotionally-aware considering his circumstances. He grew up in an environment where he never knew love and had to suppress his emotions, so he likely wouldn’t be able to understand his feelings as well as he seems to in this book (“he felt sad” “he felt happy” “he felt angry” etc.).

This discrepancy makes this book read less like the character is actually experiencing life, and more like the author is writing down her guesses about what it would be like to experience life through the character’s perspective.

In any case, this is a good book, and even though it’s for middle-grade readers, it’s still a good read for adults, too.

Dossier K., by Imre Kertész, Translated by Tim Wilkinson

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“[Interviewer:] What would be of more interest to me right now is the difference between fiction and autobiography, as critics and readers alike commonly refer to Fatelessness as an autobiographical novel.

[IK:] Incorrectly, I have to say, because no such genre exists. A book is either autobiography or a novel. If it’s autobiography you evoke the past, you try as scrupulously as possible to stick to your recollections [….] A good autobiography is like a document: A mirror of the age on which people can ‘depend.’ In a novel, by contrast, it’s not the facts that matter, but precisely what you add to the facts.

This book is the autobiography/memoir of Imre Kertész, who won a Nobel Prize. It’s written in an interview format, and talks about his life in Nazi-era Hungary, his experiences in Birkenau as a teenager, his return to Hungary after the war, and the discovery that Hungary has become a dictatorship too.

I have never read any of his books. After having learned about his experiences and his thoughts on life, I want to.

This memoir was also somewhat entertaining because Kertész was pretending to be two people. The “interviewer” would ask some question, and the “interviewee” would answer something along the lines of, “no, you don’t understand, it wasn’t like that at all,” or, “that’s a very interesting observation. I never thought of that myself.” This interplay made the story feel less like a cut-and-dry interview and more like a conversation between two real people. In the end, this didn’t detract from the book’s subject matter but somehow made it more powerful.

In any case I would recommend this book. Now I need to read more by him.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Figes

Hello. The usual introductions won’t do this book much service, so I’ll just get straight to my review.

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes

hobbit at heart — x

“In 1958, after his release from the labour camps, Igor was visited by an old acquaintance of the family, a woman called Zina, who had seen his mother [Julia] in the Karaganda camp, where she, too, was a prisoner. Zina told Igor that Julia had died in the camp hospital and that she was buried in a mass grave. In 1986 Igor received another visit from Zina, by this time a woman of 80. She told him that on the previous occasion she had lied about his mother because Julia, before she died, had made her promise to spare Igor the awful details of her death [….] Julia had not died in hospital […] No one wanted to tell [Zina] where [Julia] was, but then one woman pointed to a sheep-pen on the steppe and said that she could be found there.”

This book is the greatest epic that was never written about Russia and communism. It covers everything from the start of communism to ~2006, and contains an incredible range of humanity (and inhumanity). I never expected such an experience from this book. The only thing comparable is William Craig’s Enemy at the Gates.

I mean this book has everything. It starts at the very beginning of Communism, and describes how children were so indoctrinated and distanced from their families (who prioritized working for the Soviet Union over bonding with their own kids) that the Soviet Union became their surrogate parents.

It goes on to describe collectivization, the Holodomor, and the great Terror. What struck me about this section was that, in some cases, even though people knew their relatives were being arrested, they would still rationalize that their relatives were arrested for a good reason. Some of them would even become informers and get other people arrested prove their loyalty to the Soviet Union. Later on after Stalin’s death, some of these informers would seek out the people they had betrayed and somehow try to make amends.

From there, the book goes on to describe World War II, the massive amount of people sent to prison camps, and then the war’s aftermath, when those people were released, and sometimes still held fond memories of their time in prison (as a coping mechanism).

Overall, this book was great. Most of all, it was great at showing peoples’ kindness and cruelty, and how humanity and inhumanity could sometimes even live within the same person.

In other words, read this book.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Spinelli, Hellbeck, and Rilke

In Which I Review Spinelli’s “Milkweed,” Hellbeck’s “Stalingrad,” and Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.”

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you had a happy Halloween. I’m back with three more book reviews. One’s historical fiction, one’s historical fact, and one’s of letters written during a historical period…

Milkweed, by Jerry Spinelli

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“’Tata, what is happy?’ […] ‘Were you ever cold, then warm?’ I thought of sleeping with the boys under the braided rug: cold, then warm. ‘Yes!’ I blurted. ‘Was that happy?’ [….] ‘No,’ he said. He tapped my chest. ‘Happy is here.’ He tapped his own chest. ‘Here.’ I looked down past my chin. ‘Inside?’ ‘Inside.’ it was getting crowded in there. First angel. Now happy. It seemed there was more to me than cabbage and turnips.”

This book was interesting it was about this kid named Misha who lives on the streets of Nazi-era Warsaw and steals food for his orphan family. But he also belongs to another family of Jews, which has been sent to the ghetto. He steals for them, too, even as doing so brings greater and greater risk…

The book was good, but Misha felt under-characterized. I kept expecting to care more about him and the other characters than I did. Maybe it was because Misha never really seemed to care much about them other than what they did for him. Maybe it was because I never saw other characters really caring about each other aside from hugging each other.

In either case, the book was still good. It had interesting ideas and main character. However, it was only kind of emotionally-impactful at the end, and I feel it could have been much more so.

Stalingrad: The City That Defeated the Third Reich,
by Jochen Hellbeck,
Translated by Christopher Tauchen and Dominic Bonfiglio

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“[After the battle when the Russians were rounding up German prisoners:] There was a motorcyclist, someone from army intelligence, and he was there next to a German driver who was wearing a Red Army jacket. I said to the company commander: ‘Why’d you give him a jacket?’ ‘He was cold.’ ‘And when exactly did you die so he could pull it off your corpse?’

This book was fascinating. It contains Russian eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Stalingrad obtained by a historical commission during the battle and immediately after it ended. These eyewitness accounts had been suppressed by the Soviets and only recently declassified (in 2010-ish).

This context alone made the book interesting because it gave a candid perspective on what the soldiers thought and believed during the war, instead of afterwards when they’d already won and could revise whatever they’d been thinking and feeling at that time. For instance, one soldier confessed in an interview that he’d been scared at one point, but in the memoirs he published later on he said he’d always marched bravely forward.

The book itself contained interviews with Red Army members, but it also contained excerpts from interrogations with Germans, and German diaries. These perspectives shed a lot of light on how propaganda worked to preserve cohesivity (or destroy it, in the case of the Germans).

It also gave a lot of insight into the human condition. For instance, in the excerpt–the German prisoners were likely sent to gulags where they froze to death, but before that point a Red Army soldier gave one of them his jacket to keep him from being cold. That blew my mind.

Basically, read this book. It’ll blow your mind, too.

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke,
Translated by M.D. Herter Norton

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“And let me here promptly make a request: read as little as possible of aesthetic criticism– such things are either partisan views, petrified and grown senseless in their lifeless induration, or they are clever quibblings in which today one view wins and tomorrow the opposite. Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as of criticism.”

Letters to a Young Poet contained letters written to who you might expect. Strangely enough, at the end, the translator decided to just start excerpting random letters rather than giving their contents in full. That made this book’s ending very anticlimactic.

In the meantime the letters that were quoted were interesting. For instance, Rilke thought you had to work all on your own and never socialize, because life corrupted you. But later on in life, he seemed to think he needed to learn more about life to work well as an artist.

Which is true? I don’t know. Besides, I can only provide you with clever quibblings. The best thing for you to do is to read Rilke’s book yourself.

Have you read any of these books before? Do you want to read any of them? Let me know in the comments!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Goldenveizer, Schiffman, and Balzac

Hello! What do quotations from Tolstoy, books on magic, and Balzac all have in common? They’re all included in this week’s post!

Talks With Tolstoy, by A.B. Goldenveizer,
Translated by S.S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf

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“[Tolstoy said] ‘I think that every great artist necessarily creates his own form also. If the content of works of art can be infinitely varied, so also can their form. Once Turgenev and I came back from the theatre in Paris and discussed this. We recalled all that is best in Russian literature and it seemed that in these works the form was perfectly original. Omitting Pushkin, let us take Gogol’s Dead Souls. What is it? Neither a novel nor a story. It is a something perfectly original.'”

Yes, someone really did have such conversations with Tolstoy, and he really did write them down to be read by us lucky people in the future.

Reading this book, I got a better sense of how Tolstoy thought, what he seemed ignorant/naive about, and how the way he thought could have played into what he wrote.

For instance he talked about something that likely inspired his story, “The Three Hermits.” he mentioned how he constantly rewrote, even after he reached a point where other people praised his works-in-progress. On the other hand, he was also very sexist, and he seemed to think that at one point in the past, colonialism wasn’t done out of self-interest, but out of the goodness of the colonists’ hearts.

In other words, it was insightful, inspiring, and disillusioning all at once. If you want to learn how Tolstoy thought in the years leading up to his death, and try to guess at how his thoughts informed his work, read this book.

Abracadabra! by Nathaniel Schiffman

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“I’ve started performing a casual trick for a friend, then realized that because I didn’t plan it out or think about it beforehand, I suddenly find myself not knowing how the trick should proceed. The idea of magic is that it is impromptu, whimsical, snap-of-the-finger. These ideas are mutually exclusive to the reality that careful natural planning must go into creating the illusion. The same idea has been expressed for many arts besides magic. Renowned Hollywood director Billy Wilder said of the movies, ‘Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.'”

This entertaining book is about magic–how to do magic tricks, how to make them convincing through misdirection, how magic was used throughout history, and how aspects of it pop up everywhere in daily life.

To be actually good at magic (instead of just buying some rigged prop to show off once and then forget about), you apparently have to do a LOT of work.

It’s not enough to know the trick, you have to know how to pull the trick off well. You have to know how to hide what you’re doing and how to direct your audience’s attention so that they look at what’s most exciting about the trick. So you have to learn a lot of psychology. You also have to practice a lot. Only then can you get up on some stage and “casually” pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Basically, this book made me realize just how much work goes into pulling that rabbit out of the hat.

So if you’re interested in learning how magic really works (and how aspects of it are very relevant to your non-magical life), read this book.

The Unknown Masterpiece,” by Honré de Balzac

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The old man continued, saying as he did so, ‘That is how to lay it on, young man. Little touches. Come and bring a glow into those icy-cold tones for me. Just so. Pom! Pom pom!’ And those parts of the picture that he had pointed out as cold and lifeless flushed with warmer hues. A few bold strokes of color brought all the tones of the picture into the required harmony with the glowing tints of the Egyptian, and the differences in temperament vanished.”

This is a story about a painter who is painting a masterpiece. He won’t let anyone see it at first, and in the meantime he shows off his talent on others’ paintings. Finally, two people do see it, and I won’t spoil what happens next.

“The Unknown Masterpiece” was an interesting story. It made me think a lot about art and revision. Sometimes, if a piece of art feels almost-finished and you don’t know how to proceed, the work doesn’t need to be completely re-thought. Instead, you just might need to add a few small details.

Basically, if you’re interested in art, read this story. It’s very worthwhile.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Anderson, Leskov, and Roth

In Which I Review Books By M.T. Anderson, Nikolai Leskov, and Joseph Roth

Hello! Happy Tuesday, and happy Rosh Hashanah. I’m back on campus at last, so I’ve been able to read a lot of new books (celebrating this). Below are three of them:

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, by M.T. Anderson

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“A lot of young Shostakovich’s pleasure came from a warm and happy home. His mother doted on him. His father cracked jokes. His older sister, Maria, played piano duets with him. His younger sister, Zoya, was growing into an angular, eccentric girl with a huge amount of energy and verve. She insisted on hanging all the pictures in the house at a slant.”


The best part of this book is its title, but the rest of it is pretty good, too. It’s about Dmitri Shostakovich, a Soviet composer who was kind of anti-Soviet at the same time. He wrote a symphony during the siege of Leningrad, and the Soviets decided to play it to boost morale. So it’s Shostakovich’s story and also the story of World War II.

To me, it read like a cross between a biography and a history book, with the best features of both: interesting anecdotes about the composer and other historical figures, and vivid accounts from people experiencing the siege.

Anderson made it very readable, and managed to balance out the grimmer parts of the book with some humorous parts. This made it more palatable than the haunting Enemy at the Gates (an amazing book about the Battle of Stalingrad).

What also made it more palatable was that Anderson included some profound insights into the human condition. For instance, the Nazis had calculated that they could starve Leningraders to death since it was physically impossible to survive on the amount of food within the besieged Leningrad. However, some Leningraders persevered anyway, and the ones who did reflected later on that “‘what saved us […] was hope and love.'” It may sound schmaltzy out of context, but it didn’t sound that way in the book.

So I’d definitely recommend reading it.

The Enchanted Wanderer: Selected Tales, by Nikolai Leskov, Translated by David Magarshack

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“The old man had mushrooms with buckwheat porridge for supper and this gave him heartburn; suddenly he was seized with a cramp in the pit of his stomach, began vomiting, and died towards morning, just like the rats in his granaries.”

I had never read anything by Leskov before so this was an interesting experience. This book contained five stories by him (in fact, Shostakovich wrote an opera about one of them).

The stories read like fairytales in that they didn’t have much interiority or atmospheric description. That was fine. They were entertaining enough as they were.

One involves a woman who kills many people for the sake of her lover, another involves a wanderer who goes on various adventures (like Odysseus but without boats and magical creatures). The others involve microscopic metal fleas, guards, and ghosts.

I would recommend the first two stories (“Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” and “The Enchanted Wanderer”) and the fourth (“The Sentry”), but the other two were less interesting. Leskov constantly seemed to go on about how Russia was absolutely the best at everything to the point where it got distracting and annoying.

So if you want to read Leskov, those three stories I mentioned above would be a good place to start.

Perlefter: The Story of a Bourgeois, by Joseph Roth,
Translated by Richard Panchyk

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“Once Henriette had left the house the maids changed quickly, and Perlefter could tolerate no new faces or new names. He called all the girls Henriette– whether their names were Anna, Klementine, or Susanne. Usually their name was Anna.”

This was a not-so-interesting book. It basically describes a guy (Perlefter) and his family. Random characters appear and disappear, and nothing happens. All of this is expected, because this book was actually a fragment Roth left behind instead of a story he published.

Considering that, parts of it were still funny. Also, this was written right before Roth wrote books like The Radetzky March, which makes for interesting comparisons. For instance, that fragment I quoted up above was very similar to a part of The Radetzky March where one character’s servant dies and he goes on to name all his future servants after the original one.

This goes to show that nothing a writer does is wasted. Roth may have abandoned this story but he didn’t abandon The Radetzky March, and so his ideas lived on.

So basically, if you’re interested in seeing the evolution of writers’ ideas into great pieces of literature, I would recommend this book. If you just want to read great pieces of literature, I would recommend The Radetzky March instead.

Have you read any of these books? Let me know in the comments below!

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: Weir

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe. Today I’m reviewing a book about the Wars of The Roses, a civil war that took place in England during the 1400s.

The Wars of the Roses, by Alison Weir

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“Pembroke, meanwhile, was hastening to join the King with his Welsh reinforcements, having joined up with Devon and his force. But on the evening of the 24th, when they came to Banbury, the two earls quarrelled over who should have the best lodgings at the inn. Pembroke, as the senior commander, insisted that he should occupy them, but Devon, who had arrived first, protested that they had earlier agreed to take lodgings on a first come, first served basis. Pembroke peremptorily ordered Devon out of the rooms, and Devon, put out because he had just seduced the innkeeper’s daughter, marched off in a rage with all his men.” (This quarrel takes place when they’re supposed to be making haste to march to fight against the army of the currently most influential man in England, the earl of Warwick).


This book by Alison Weir isn’t very interesting to read at first because you’re inundated with a bunch of names and dates and explanations of governmental systems. Then you realize that very few of those names are actually super-important for understanding what happened, and then you’re finally able to start making sense of it all. Even so, compared to other books I’ve read about this subject, Weir’s book is much less convoluted.

Another thing that’s worth mentioning: Weir starts her account super early on, with peoples’ parents and so forth, who don’t seem that relevant to the actual conflict’s outbreak. Sure, it can be relevant that Henry VI’s father was such a great king and that Henry VI wasn’t, but it doesn’t feel super-relevant to the point where it deserves multiple chapters of explanation.

Basically, I would say that the overabundance of irrelevant-seeming details is my biggest quibble with this otherwise well-written book. One of my greatest pieces of praise about this book is actually that the overabundance of details winds up adding a lot of flavor once the book gets into talking about the war itself.

So in the end, you have to be okay with what seems to be too much detail in the beginning before you can get to the point where the war starts and the details make the book entertaining.

(A final note: this book only discusses the first War of the Roses, so it has nothing about the Plantagenets.)

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Filipovič, Flaubert, and Tolstoy

 

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe (as always). Today is Hemingway’s birthday. Even though none of the books I’ve read for this week are by him, I hope you still find them inspiring:

Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo, by Zlata Filipovič

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“I went with Alexandra to the old Sarajevo library, the Vječnica. Generations and generations of people enriched their knowledge by reading and leafing through countless books. Somebody once said that books are the greatest treasure, the greatest friend one has. The Vječnica was such a treasure trove. We had so many friends there. But now we’ve lost the treasure and the friends and the lovely old building. They all went up in the destroying flames. The Vječnica is now a treasure trove of ashes, bricks, and the odd scrap of paper. I brought home a piece of brick and a fragment of metal as a memento of that treasure-house of friends.”

In 1991, ten-year-old Zlata Filipovič started keeping a diary of her life in Sarajevo, the capitol of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At first she wrote about her days at school, her friends, and her piano lessons. In 1992, the Bosnian war began, and Zlata started writing about her days sheltering from bombs, her dead friends, and her ruined childhood.

She also wrote about how she found solace. Sometimes, after being without electricity for days, it would turn on, and she and her family would get to enjoy TV. Other times she’d be able to meet some of her surviving friends. In spite of these reprieves, Zlata wanted to enjoy her childhood again, and she spent about three years before she could.

Early on in her diary, Zlata wrote that since Anne Frank named her diary “Kitty,” she wanted to give her own diary a name, too. She decided on “Mimmy.” As time passed, parts of her diary were published. These sections were used to help the international peace efforts, and people began thinking of Zlata as the Anne Frank of Sarajevo. At that point, Zlata no longer wanted to be like Anne Frank. Anne Frank wound up dead, and Zlata didn’t want to die. The interesting thing is that while Anne Frank kept a diary and died, Zlata’s published diary gave her international attention, which likely wound up being a reason she and her family were finally able to be transported out of war-torn Sarajevo to Paris.

Her diary is worth reading. It’s one of those accounts that make you grateful for what you have. It’s also one of those accounts that show how seeking hope can help people through times of tragedy.

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857, Translated by Francis Steegmuller

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“What worries me in my book [Madame Bovary] is the element of entertainment. That side is weak; there is not enough action. I maintain, however, that ideas are action. It is more difficult to hold the reader’s interest with them, I know, but if the style is right it can be done. I now have fifty pages in a row without a single event [….] If I bring it off, it will be a great achievement, I think, for it will be like painting in monotone without contrasts—not easy. But I fear all these subtleties will be wearisome, and that the reader will long for more movement. Still, one must be loyal to one’s concept. If I tried to insert action, I would be following a rule, and would spoil everything. One must sing with one’s own voice, and mine will never be dramatic.”

This book has a bunch of letters by the writer Gustave Flaubert, spanning from the first letter he ever wrote as a child to the letters he wrote when he published Madame Bovary. The book’s like a diary in a way. You see how Flaubert develops as a writer. He goes from being obsessed with sentimentality to despising it and wanting to achieve a pure prose. You also see the way his awkward similes gradually transform into astutely-conveyed images. Later on, you can see his struggles with Bovary, which turned out to be one of the best parts of the letters.

Seeing all of the thought he put into his book gave me more respect for him as a writer. After I read Bovary, I thought it was overrated and sometimes boring. I didn’t see how style alone could sustain a book. Maybe Flaubert didn’t even think it might come off as uninteresting at all. After gaining some context from these letters, I still think Bovary is boring, but now I see that Flaubert was much more reflective than I thought. He created his own vision of a style-based story, and he knew that people might be bored by his story, but was determined to write it that way because it was just who he was. Now that’s inspiring.

So overall, I’d say these letters are interesting to read because they show you how Flaubert came into his own as a writer.

War and Peace Part 2, By Leo Tolstoy

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“Sidorov winked at them and began talking to the French, rapidly gabbling out incomprehensible words: ‘Kari, mala, musiu, paskavili, muter, kaska, moushchit,’ he gabbled, trying to pronounce the words with an expressive intonation. ‘Ho, ho, ho! Ha, ha, ha, ha! Uh! Uh!’ The soldiers broke into a roar of laughter so hearty and jolly that it was involuntarily communicated across the line to the French, after which it seemed that they all really ought to unload their muskets, blow up their ammunition and go back home as quickly as possible. But the muskets remained loaded, the loopholes in the houses and fortifications gazed forward as menacingly as ever and the cannon detached from their limbers remained facing each other just as before.”

In the second part of Tolstoy’s epic first draft of War and Peace (first part here, third part here, fourth part here, fifth part here, sixth part here, seventh part here), some of the characters go to war. These characters include Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, a guy named Dolokhov, a guy named Rostov, and a guy named Denisov.

There are basically two groups of soldiers, and the characters are split between these two groups. Some of the characters go from one group to the other, and other characters stay in the same group. In the end it all culminates in an epic-ish battle, which is nice.

Splitting his characters into two groups enables Tolstoy to shift points of view a lot without causing too much confusion. It also enables him to draw parallels. There would be one scene of a character hearing about someone stealing something, and then there’ll be another scene of a character in the other group being stolen from. There’ll be a scene where one character in the first group hears about a certain army being defeated by Napoleon, and then there’ll be another scene where other characters in the second group fight against Napoleon (I won’t spoil what happens).

Part 2 isn’t what you’d expect from an account of war. If you’ve ever read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (you should), you would remember how most of the book is about the awful horrors of war. There’s some horror in Part 2 of War and Peace, but not as much as I expected. There’s a surprising amount of happiness, actually—happiness about potentially being promoted in the army, happiness about being able to command armies, and happiness about hanging around in the barracks doing nothing. Now, if you’ve ever read Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, you’d find jolly talking mice laying siege to some castle. Part 2 of Tolstoy’s book reminded me more of that (minus the talking mice). I’m guessing there’ll be more horror in future sections, but Tolstoy can’t pile it all on this early or it’ll get boring. With that being said, all the happiness in Part 2 makes it surprisingly refreshing.

One other thing: This is a first draft I’m reading. Part 1 doesn’t read much like a draft. Some of Part 2 does. This kind of shows in Tolstoy’s descriptions of battles. The narration comes off more like something you’d read in a history textbook, with random details scattered in that sound like something the narrator heard from his uncle who fought in the war. Come to think of it, Tolstoy probably did hear those details from one of his relatives, since they did fight in the war, and Tolstoy did ask them about their experiences when he was researching for the book.

In any case, even if the battles don’t quite come to life, the characters always do, and on the whole, this surprisingly happy section was pretty entertaining.

Until next time!