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

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“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!

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

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Hello everyone! Today, I’m reviewing the three books that comprise the autobiography of the Russian writer, Maxim Gorky.

Gorky

The first book is called My Childhood. This book could have been called “A Tale of Bitterness and Curiosity,” because that’s basically what it is.

It starts when Gorky is five, with his father’s death, and ends with Gorky going out into the world at around the age of twelve. Along the way, he’s raised by his mother and grandparents, gets unjustly treated by his grandfather, and starts acting out. Even though his childhood is rooted in bitterness (Gorky’s name literally means “bitter”), this book also tells of the roots of his compassion, and how he finds solace from his troubles by meeting different people, learning about their lives, and being curious about the world.

Another possible title for this book could have been “Maxim’s Marvelous Memory.” He seems to remember everything.

He remembers everyone’s name, and is able to recall certain details (like the specific pranks he played on his grandfather, and in what order he did so, for instance). He also has the uncanny ability to remember every single word of every single conversation he ever had with every single person he met. Wait, no. He likely reconstructed them from what little shreds of recollection he had.

In the end, though, even if some of the book’s specific details and conversations are reconstructed, they don’t take away from this book’s sense of truth, and my keen appreciation of Maxim’s marvelous memory:

“The only saints grandmother knew were Nikolai, Yowry, Frola, and Lavra, who were full of kindness and sympathy with human-nature, and went about in the villages and towns sharing the life of the people, and regulating all their concerns; but grandfather’s saints were nearly all males, who cast down idols, or defied the Roman emperors, and were tortured, burned or flayed alive in consequence. Sometimes grandfather would say musingly: ‘If only God would help me to sell that little house, even at a small profit, I would make a public thanksgiving to St. Nicholas.’ But grandmother would say to me, laughingly: ‘That’s just like the old fool! Does he think St. Nicholas will trouble himself about selling a house? Hasn’t our little Father Nicholas something better to do?’”

***

The second book in the trilogy is called In the World.

In this book, twelve-year-old Gorky goes into the world to find work to help support his grandparents. He makes a lot of unrealistically-mature observations about people, and takes on different jobs, such as working on a steamship with middle-aged men, or hawking religious icons to indifferent passerby.

It’s interesting to see him living the rough life and getting a full immersion into its wonders and crudeness, but parts of the book seem repetitive. For instance, he’d meet someone interesting, describe that person, and then go on to describe another interesting person. Also, he’d describe a lot of the work he does in detail, and hearing about him trying to sell religious idols makes for not-so-interesting reading.

However, there are some redeeming features to this book, like when he describes his encounters with literature and how he becomes super-interested in reading:

“It was hard to find books. We could not afford to subscribe to a library, but I managed to get them somehow, asking for them wherever I went, as a charity. One day the second officer of the fire brigade gave me the first volume of ‘[Mikhail] Lermontov,’ and it was from this that I felt the power of poetry, and its mighty influence over people. I remember even now how, at the first lines of ‘The Demon,’ Sitanov looked first at the book and then at my face, laid down his brush on the table, and, embracing his knee with his long arms, rocked to and fro, smiling.

‘Not so much noise, brothers,’ said Larionovich, and also laying aside his work, he went to Sitanov’s table where I was reading. The poem stirred me painfully and sweetly; my voice was broken; I could hardly read the lines. Tears poured from my eyes. But what moved me still more was the dull, cautious movement of the workmen. In the workshop everything seemed to be diverted from its usual course—drawn to me as if I had been a magnet. When I had finished the first part, almost all of them were standing round the table, closely pressing against one another, embracing one another, frowning and laughing.”

Despite these merits, this book isn’t as good as My Childhood. You basically read In the World so you can get to the third book without missing anything relevant.

***

The third book is called My Universities. It starts when Gorky’s around sixteen, and ends when he’s around twenty.

In this book, Gorky doesn’t actually attend a university. Instead, he attends the metaphorical university of life. This means that he travels more, meets more interesting people, and reads more books, like he did in Book 2.

Unlike in Book 2, he also falls in love, gets married, separates, and becomes a famous writer. This automatically makes Book 3 more interesting. What makes it even more so is that this book is less focused on the boring details of his day-to-day work.

Even though Book 3 is more interesting than Book 2, I found it less interesting than Book 1. Gorky’s less thoughtful, so you don’t get as much of the reflections and wonderings about life which made My Childhood so enjoyable.

There is one exception to this. Gorky tries and fails to end his life, and later has a sort of epiphany where he realizes how wonderful life actually is. This section is pretty heavy reading, but it is very inspiring to hear how great life is. If you don’t want to read the heavy part, the excerpt below is the inspiring part:

“Isot was a man of the night. He was wonderfully awake to all beauty, and expressed it in a wonderful way, with the words of a dreaming child. He believed fearlessly in God, in the church-like notion of Him and he imagined Him as a big, fine-looking old man, a kind and clever master of the world, who cannot conquer all evil only because—

‘He’s got no time for it; there’s too many men come about! But never mind; He’ll manage it all right, you’ll see. But Christ, Him I cannot understand at all. What am I to do with Him? There’s God—well, what more do I want? And here’s another one, if you please. The Son, so they say. What of that, that He’s the Son? God’s not yet dead, is He?’

But oftener Isot sits in perfect silence, thinking of something, and only from time to time murmurs, sighing.

‘Yes, that’s how it is…’

‘What?’

‘That is about myself…’

And sighs again, looking into the dim space.

‘How splendid life is!’

I agree with him.

‘Yes, it is splendid.’

The velvet stream of dark water moves powerfully along. Over it stretches itself in a curve the silvery line, the Milky Way; the big stars sparkle like golden larks, and the heart gently sings its unreasonable thoughts on the mysteries of life. Far away beyond the pastures rays of sun break out from the reddish clouds and—here it comes, spreading its peacock’s tail on the skies.

‘What a wonderful thing, the sun!’ mutters Isot, smiling happily.”

***

I promise I’ll have happier books to review next time. Until then, I hope you stay healthy and hopeful, and that you remember life is indeed splendid if you appreciate its wonders.

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: An Update

Hello everyone, it’s been pretty hectic what with this here Coronavirus. I hope you’re staying healthy, and I send my best wishes to you all.

I think that literature is vital to maintaining sanity in the face of the world’s madness. I have read many, many books in the past week. I want to do my part in contributing to the sanity by reviewing them.

Thus, I have resolved to resume posting weekly reviews as I have done in the past. My classes at school are now based at home for the rest of the semester. Virtual classes mean I don’t have to lose approximately 2 hours a day walking to and from places! So, I should have time to keep my resolution.

To give you something to look forward to, here are just a few of the books I’ll be reviewing:

Letters to a Young Novelist (Llosa)

The Good Soldier (Ford)

Madame Bovary (Flaubert)

Wind, Sand, and Stars (Saint-Exupéry)

Letters on Cézanne (Rilke)

Gargoyles (Bernhard)

…and many, many more.

Four Other Books I May or May Not Review Depending on How Interesting They Are:

The Tin Drum (Grass)

The Plague (Camus)

Love in the Time of Cholera (Márquez)

The Gulag Archipelago (Solzhenitsyn)

That last one’s pretty unlikely because it’s so long, but I promise to review something by Solzhenitsyn. He’s too good not to review.

So there you have it. There’s still hope in the world. Never forget that.

See you next week.