Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Maguire, Barry and Pearson, and Tolstoy

Hello. I hope you are all healthy and safe during these troubled times. I also hope that you get some enjoyment/sanity from the three books I’ve reviewed below:

Son of a Witch, by Gregory Maguire

trampoline gifs Page 9 | WiffleGif

“It was hard to take the measure of a man who displayed the flaccid composure of a corpse. No brow is noble when it is dead: It has no need to be. This lad seemed about as close to death as one could be and still harbor hope of recovery, yet the sense she had about him was neither tranquil nor restive.  He was a young man, with youth’s agreeable form: That much was apparent despite the bandages. The young suffer and die, too, and sometimes it is merciful, she thought. Then she was filled with an unseemly glee and selfishness that she had lived a long odd life of her own, and it wasn’t over yet. She was in better shape than this poor benighted kid.”

This is a book about Liir, a supposed kid of Elphaba The Wicked Witch of the West. It is the fifth in a series that takes the premise of “The Wizard of Oz” and gives it a dark twist. In this book, Liir is trying to find a girl named Nor who has gone missing. In the process he goes on all sorts of adventures with the guards of Oz, giant elephants, and flocks of birds. All the time he’s wondering whose son he really is.

This book was interesting, but it didn’t feel super thought-out. There was a massive flash-back in the beginning that was supposed to explain the past, but it felt like the story could have been as good (and less confusing) if the flash-back were just the beginning of the story. There were also characters who seemed to fall in love too conveniently. Finally, the author seemed to try to create a mystery around the protagonist, but went on to reveal the answer to the mystery multiple times in different ways, without seeming to think that the reader would be able to figure it out from those hints.

This was one of those books whose second half was better than its first. In the beginning, I didn’t really know what was going on because of the flash-back. As a result, the beginning suffered because I spent all my time trying to figure out the plot instead of becoming invested in the protagonist. Once I figured things out (which was much closer to the middle/end of the book than it probably should have been), I was able to get into the story. However, by the time I had gotten into the swing of it, the second half was basically over, leaving me with an obvious-feeling ending (what with all those hints to the mystery floating around).

So overall the book felt pretty anti-climactic, despite some good parts in the middle/end. Maybe it was the flash-back’s fault, or maybe I was just unusually slow in figuring out what was happening. Maybe you’ll have a better experience than me.  I sure hope you do.

Peter and the Shadow Thieves, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Peter Pan Diamond Edition - Peter's Shadow Clip on Make a GIF

“Pondle stared at [Tinkerbell], saying nothing. Wren went on: ‘And as I say, there wouldn’t be no other collector in all of England could claim to have one of these, now could there?’ Pondle kept staring at Tink. ‘I brought it to Your Lordship first,’ continued Wren, ‘because I know how much Your Lordship appreciates the truly rare item. But if the price is too high, I certainly understand.’ Wren picked up the canvas and made as if to cover the cage. ‘I’ll just take it to Lord Shaftsbury, and I’m sure he–‘ ‘Shaftsbury!’ said Pondle. Edgar [a monkey] emitted a screech. Pondle detested Shaftsbury, who had once outbid Pondle on an albino ocelot, and never failed to remind him of this at social gatherings.”

This book is about the flying boy Peter Pan. He has to go to London and save his friend Molly from mysterious shadow thieves who are after a super-powerful substance called starstuff. If you read last week’s review of Peter and the Sword of Mercy, you would know that these thieves are part of a group called “The Others” who are competing with the “Starcatchers” for possession of the starstuff. If you didn’t read last week’s review, I’ve just filled you in.

This book was much better than Sword. First of all, it took time setting everything up. Second of all, its plot was unified. It didn’t try to distract you with irrelevant-seeming subplots set in completely-different locations from the main plot. That made me feel more engaged with the story.

There were logic gaps, though. One character in the book could steal peoples’ shadows to possess them. The question I was left with was why he didn’t just steal everyone’s shadows to begin with. It would have saved him a lot of trouble, and the book probably would have had a much different ending.

Even so, this book was very entertaining to read. The authors definitely have a way with comedic adventure.

War and Peace Part 6, by Leo Tolstoy

Best napoleon GIFs - Primo GIF - Latest Animated GIFs

“Historians, describing world events, say that such and such an event took place because it was willed by one man– Caesar, Napoleon, Bismarck, and so on– although to say that a hundred thousand people were killed in Russia, that they killed each other because one or two men wanted it to happen, is as meaningless as saying that a hill weighing millions of poods, which has been undermined, collapsed because the last workman Ivan dug his shovel under it. Napoleon did not bring Europe into Russia, it was the people of Europe who brought him with them and made him lead them.”

In the previous few parts of Tolstoy’s epic first draft of War and Peace (1 2 3 4 5), there was so much peace you probably forgot its title also had the word “War” in it. Well, this part’s here to remind you of that. Also featured: lost love, angst, and Napoleon. If you like Napoleon, you’ll really like this part of the book. It had a Victor Hugo-esque digression/essay about Napoleon in it. This digression was interesting to read all on its own. Somehow, it also didn’t slow down the plot. Mind you, this is Tolstoy’s first draft, and based on other reviews of his final version, it seems that he wound up adding more digressions later on that did wind up slowing down the plot.

This time it worked, because it wasn’t emphasized so much that it became obnoxious. It was just there as another part of the story, just like the parts about war and lost love and angst.

Another observation I had about War and Peace: One of the reasons Tolstoy’s great seems to be that he’s able to get across the feeling of pleasure. If there’s a gathering of friends, there’s going to be some fun/comedy. If there’s a soldier riding to war, there’s going to be something written about the energy he feels on the way to the battlefield. What I found interesting was that Tolstoy got this across not via verbose imagery, but by giving brief descriptions and telling us the character felt happy, and by topping it off with some fun dialogue.

Finally, this part contained parallels to the previous war-sections, which were interesting, and which made the story feel like everything was coming together in some grand way. Hopefully it does come together in Part 7. This is the second-to-last part after all!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Barry and Pearson, Buck, and Tolstoy

Hello! Happy Tuesday and happy August. Here are three more books I’ve reviewed. All of them have people who try to fly (with varying degrees of success).

Peter and the Sword of Mercy, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Find & Share on GIPHY

“Wendy again squeaked, chirped, and chittered at the water. Again, nothing happened. Now, to Wendy’s further embarrassment, a second dockworker, apparently a friend of the first, ambled up. ‘What’s this?’ he asked his friend. ‘This girl,’ said the first man, pointing at Wendy, ‘is talking to the porpoises.’ ‘Is she, now?’ said the second man. ‘I do that myself sometimes.’ ‘True,’ said the first. ‘But only when you’ve been drinking.'”

You may have heard of Peter Pan, that flying boy from J.M. Barrie’s classic children’s story. You may have also heard of Tinker Bell and Captain Hook, but you probably haven’t heard of the Starcatchers.

That’s okay, because they’re not actually part of Barrie’s story. They’re part of the Peter Pan spin-off series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. For those of you who don’t know, the Starcatchers are a secret organization that looks for “starstuff.” Starstuff is a magical substance that falls from the sky that can make people (like Peter Pan) fly. There is another secret organization, called the Others, that wants to use the starstuff for evil purposes. So, we have the basic plot of The Sword of Mercy: Starcatchers vs Others.

The only problem is that the Starcatchers were disbanded years before Sword of Mercy, so nobody’s around to prevent the Others from looking for a secret cache of starstuff hidden somewhere in London. The only person who can stop the Others is a girl named Wendy, and the flying boy named Peter. So the actual plot of Sword winds up being more like this: Wendy has to find Peter and then work with him to save the day.

Well. Now that the long-winded summary is out of the way, let’s move on to the review.

I’ve always been a fan of these books when I was little. They were so expansive and fun. I revisited them to see if they would still hold up. Some of the books do (like Peter and the Shadow Thieves), but this particular book doesn’t. The historical elements are entertaining (it takes place in 1902), but the characters are too thinly-drawn for me to feel much about them.

Also, the chapters in Sword don’t seem to be as rich as the chapters of other books in the series. In those books, it felt like the writers took care and effort to develop their scenes to be effective. The stakes would be set, the action would happen, and you’d get some sort of resolution or cliff-hanger. Since the scenes were well-structured, the resolutions were satisfying and the cliff-hangers were exciting.

Many chapters in this book are too brief to be developed with that level of panache. The writers don’t seem to take the time to really ground their scenes and build their stakes meaningfully. The action can sometimes be interesting, but because the set-up is rushed, the resolutions of the scenes aren’t as satisfying.

That is, if there even are resolutions. 99% of the time, these super-short chapter-scenes end with cliff-hangers. All well and good, but the lack of set-up makes it so these cliff-hangers don’t feel as meaningful or exciting as they should be. Finally, Sword reuses plot devices from previous books in the series without trying to make them new and fresh.

With all that being said, Sword feels more like the authors are just going through the motions of churning out a book instead of really investing time and effort into making the book good. So I’d recommend this book for younger people who would enjoy the book’s ideas, but I’d tell older people to check out earlier books in the series (like Peter and the Shadow Thieves).

The Mahabharata, Translated by William Buck

Sri Krishna Geethopadesam To Arjuna || Daana Veera Soora Karna ...

“‘Do not call me Death!’ she replied. ‘I will never kill for you.’ Brahma looked at that winsome girl. ‘I will make them equal. You will not have to take them, either men or gods or devils. I will make greed and anger and malice and shame and jealousy and passion. I will make them this way and that way. I will make disease and war from your tears. Those two only I will make that way. Do nothing–they will all come to you, soon or late. There is nothing to do, nothing to stop doing, for you or for them. But only greet them well in their hour. You have nothing else to say, they will kill themselves. And only the foolish will weep over what none can avoid.’ Then Shiva began his dance, for till then, though he raised his foot, he could not put it down.”

The Mahabharata is an ancient Sanskrit tale about two warring families. It’s so epic. It’s epic in size, and it’s epic in contents. The good thing for me is that the version I read was condensed to 293 glorious pages.

The entire story is intact. The only thing missing from it is the Bhagavad Gita. The condensed version feels epic anyway. Maybe because of its poetic style, or because of the various stories within, or because its cast of characters includes gods walking the earth and struggling alongside humans. Compared to the other mythologies I’ve read (Greek, Norse, the Bible), this is something new. The gods actually fly down to earth and have stakes in the story, instead of just watching everything from the heavens.

I expected the characters to be cardboard cutouts, but for some reason they came across as surprisingly human. Instead of just reading about their actions, you also get a sense of their interiority and emotions, which makes the book even more enjoyable.

For me, the story’s philosophical richness was probably the best part. The Mahabharata doesn’t say that the gods would solve every problem ever, so it’s able to explore things like life’s meaning, the source of discontent, and ways people can overcome vice. Even better: It explores them well.

So there you have it: war, love, death, life, philosophy. Now do yourself a favor and read it.

War and Peace Part 5, by Leo Tolstoy

Bonaparte GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

“‘How did you fly, with wings?’ asked Nikolai. ‘No, just with my legs. You just have to make a bit of an effort with your legs.’ ‘Oh yes. Oh yes,’ Nikolai said with a smile. ‘Like this,’ Natasha said, promptly leaping up on to the divan. She put an expression of effort on her face, stretched her arms out in front of her and tried to fly, but only jumped down to the floor. Sonya and Nikolai laughed. ‘No, wait, that’s not right, I will fly, I will,’ said Natasha.”

(Parts 1 2 3 46 7 here).

Even though Natasha is the only character in this week’s review who fails to fly, Part 5 of the first draft of War and Peace is still worth reading. For one thing, it’s much better than Part 4. There’s still no war, but there is variety. There are hunting scenes, theater scenes, and even a scene where someone holds a kind of intervention. The scenes are very entertaining in their own right, and you get to see the characters not just as lovers but as hunters and singers and musicians and people.

Now, Tolstoy spent like the entirety of Part 4 giving painstaking details and trying (and perhaps failing) to convince you that his characters were in love with each other.

Even though there’s less romance in Part 5, the romance that exists is much more believable. Maybe because it’s easier to care about actual people falling in love. Even when the characters act super-dramatically about their love, it works better than Part 4, because now you understand where they’re coming from. Yes, in Part 4 there was one character working very hard to reform legislation, but the legislation in question wasn’t that interesting (at least for me), so the character didn’t get any more humanized, and his love scenes didn’t benefit.

So maybe it’s that entertainingness that makes Part 5 work. You join the characters on their hunting expeditions, you laugh aloud with them, and in the process you stop seeing them as characters and start seeing them as people. When they finally do fall in love, you actually care.

Also, I may have mentioned in my previous reviews of War and Peace that parts of some sections read like first drafts. Part 5 doesn’t suffer from that. Maybe Tolstoy really is hitting his stride now.

Until next Tuesday! I hope you all stay healthy and safe, and that your feet remain firmly on the ground.