Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Portis, Miller, and Palahniuk

In Which I Review Charles Portis’s “True Grit,” Arthur Miller’s “Incident at Vichy,” and Chuck Palahniuk’s “Consider This”

Hello! Happy August. I hope you’re vaccinated or are getting vaccinated, and that you’ve been able to read and enjoy the summer some.

If you’re looking for reading material, I’ve reviewed three more books that might give you some ideas…

True Grit, by Charles Portis

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“‘I will inform them myself,’ said I. ‘Who is the best marshal they have?’ The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, ‘I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them [….] The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into this thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.’ I said, ‘Where can I find this Rooster?'”

This book, which inspired the movies, is about a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie who wants to avenge her father’s murder in the Wild West. So she enlists the help of Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed marshal with dubious morals.

What made the book good was the dialogue. All the characters were very witty and could hold their own, and entertain the reader at the same time. Meanwhile, Portis was usually able to get away with this without coming off like he was forcing his characters to be witty for the sake of showing off to the reader. That made the dialogue work, in my opinion.

The plot was interesting, too, but an important part of it felt illogical and sexist (I won’t spoil it, though–you’ll have to see for yourself whether you agree). This didn’t ruin the book, but it did make the story less impactful than it could have been.

Basically, if this book didn’t have any dialogue, it would not be worth reading. Fortunately for us, it does.

“Incident at Vichy,” by Arthur Miller

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“Many times I used to ask my friends– if you love your country why is it necessary to hate other countries? To be a good German why must you despise everything that is not German? Until I realized the answer. They do these things not because they are German but because they are nothing. It is the hallmark of the age– the less you exist the more important it is to make a clear impression.”

This play by Arthur Miller is about a group of people in Vichy France in 1942. They’re prisoners of the Nazi collaborators and they don’t know why. This set-up lets Arthur Miller examine ideas like collective guilt, the psychology of groups and individuals, idealism and nihilism, and so on.

The play was thought-provoking. It reminded me of Sartre’s “The Condemned of Altona,” except Miller’s play was much shorter and asked more questions than it answered. It also seemed to have more psychological depth when examining the nature of guilt.

In contrast to another play (Miller’s tragic “Death of a Salesman”), “Vichy” felt fresher. “Salesman’s” characters had to adhere to Miller’s pre-ordained tragic plot-formula. “Vichy’s” characters didn’t adhere to a formula, which meant that Miller didn’t have to contrive everyone’s actions to fit into it. “Vichy’s” characters were being explored, which gave them more room to act like real humans, whereas if Miller had let “Salesman’s” characters act too human, they wouldn’t have fit well into the play’s tragic formula.

So even though “Salesman” is more lauded than “Vichy” (Pulitzer Prize, etc.), and more emotionally-engaging (personal opinion), I would still argue that “Vichy’s” characters are more realistic than “Salesman’s.”

Anyway, I would recommend it.

Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, by Chuck Palahniuk

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“This is another reason to bother collecting stories. Because our existence is a constant flow of the impossible, the implausible, the coincidental. And what we see on television and in films must always be diluted to make it ‘believable.’ We’re trained to live in constant denial of the miraculous. And it’s only by telling our stories that we get any sense of how extraordinary human existence actually can be.”

This is a book of writing advice. It read a lot like, “remember to use verbs instead of adjectives! And remember to do XYZ!”, and a lot of it felt obvious or were things I already did in my writing. Even so, they were good reminders. Also, it was interesting to read them because Palahniuk brought a new perspective to why these different things were important to do.

Palahniuk also included memoir-like sections about his crazy fans, how he learned to write, and how his experiences shaped his views on the craft. These sections were filled with anecdotes like, “I did XYZ and it worked for me so much in writing Story ABC.” Even if people give you writing techniques, it helps for them to also give you real anecdotes that explain how such techniques worked for them.

Overall, everything wasn’t different after I finished reading this book, but it enriched things a little bit. In terms of substance, Consider This felt more useful than Cortázar’s book on writing, less useful than Stephen King’s book, and equally useful as Vargas Llosa’s.

So I would recommend it.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Ishiguro, Oates, and Agee

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Hello! I hope you’re hanging in there. Here are three more books I’ve read and reviewed for your enjoyment.

My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs: The Nobel Lecture, by Kazuo Ishiguro

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“The next generation will come with all sorts of new, sometimes bewildering ways to tell important and wonderful stories. We must keep our minds open to them, especially regarding genre and form, so that we can nurture and celebrate the best of them. In a time of dangerously increasing division, we must listen. Good writing and good reading will break down barriers. We may even find a new idea, a great humane vision, around which to rally.”

In 2017, when Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he gave this speech.

It’s an interesting speech, telling of all sorts of writerly epiphanies he had in his life—from how he came to write about Japan while living in Britain to how he came to put more emphasis on developing the relationships between characters. In that way, My Twentieth Century Evening feels like a condensed memoir. Ishiguro’s speech is also a chronicle of chronicle of the changing times (from ~1960 to 2017). In that way, it also reads like a condensed history of society.

However you read this condensed book, it’ll probably make you curious to read some of Ishiguro’s other books. It certainly has done that for me.

The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (Second Edition),
Edited by Joyce Carol Oates

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“As Tolstoy said, talent is the capacity to direct concentrated attention upon the subject: ‘the gift of seeing what others have not seen.’ Though it is hardly necessary, I suggest that the reader read this volume as it is assembled, more or less chronologically. A tale will unfold, by way of numerous tales, that is uniquely and wonderfully American.”

Both this book and Ishiguro’s book chronicle time in their own way, but while Ishiguro’s book is short, Oxford is ridiculously long. When measured, its spine reaches almost two inches in thickness. When counted, its pages reach almost a thousand in number.

Is it worth reading the numerous tales within? Somewhat, because it’s interesting to see how American fiction grew and changed throughout history, and how different genres (fantasy and horror) also grew and changed.

The stories themselves vary in quality, though. Some are amazing, while others don’t seem to give a rewarding reading experience or add much new insight into life.

In case you want only the essentials, here are some of the stories I found to be the best:

“The Paradise of Bachelors & The Tartarus of Maids” by Herman Melville, “A Journey” by Edith Wharton, “The Little Regiment” by Stephen Crane, “A Death in the Desert” by Willa Cather, “The Man Who Was Almost A Man” by Richard Wright, “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, “Defender of the Faith” by Philip Roth, “Filthy with Things” by T.C. Boyle, and “Mercy” by Pinckney Benedict.

I thought they were good for several reasons, ranging from their engaging voices (like Stephen Crane and Herman Melville) to their impact (Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Pinckney Benedict). Others were just entertaining to read (Willa Cather, Philip Roth, and T.C. Boyle).

In the end though, I can’t tell anybody what makes writing great or not, since it’s all subjective. For instance, maybe you’ll think Melville’s story is awful while another writer’s story is amazing.

It might be worth reading Oxford to find out. Even if it’s not worth it, you’ll still learn a lot from the experience.

A Death in the Family, by James Agee

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“‘See here, Poll,’ he said. ‘It’s bad enough right now, but it’s going to take a while to sink in. When it really sinks in it’s going to be any amount worse [….] That’s when you’re going to need every ounce of common sense you’ve got,’ he said. ‘Just spunk won’t be enough; you’ve got to have gumption. You’ve got to bear it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice. You’ve got to keep your mind off pitying your own rotten luck and setting up any kind of a howl about it. You’ve got to remember that things as bad as this and a hell of a lot worse have happened to millions of people before and that they’ve come through it and that you will too. You’ll bear it because there isn’t any choice—except to go to pieces.’”

James Agee’s book is about a death in a family living in Tennessee in the early 1900s.

More specifically, Jay Follet is a father who believes his own father is dying, so he drives over to tend to him. His father turns out to be fine, so he drives back home to his family. The problem is, he dies on the way there, and everyone else is left to deal with their grief the best they can.

Half of the book is about life before Jay’s death, and half is about the immediate aftermath. For me, that was a surprising approach. That approach isn’t done for the sake of being surprising, though. It’s done to convey a surprising experience.

Since the book doesn’t talk much about life after the funeral, you don’t get a sense of the grief being resolved. Instead, since the book emphasizes Jay’s life and death, you get a sense of the “birth” of his family’s grief. You get a sense of the family’s denials, guilts, and regrets. You get to see some of them continue on with their normal life as if they hadn’t yet come to understand the full impact of Jay’s death. Then you get to see them feel guilt about it, and regret how they behaved in their denial.

In the stories I’ve read about people dying, I never saw these ideas explored, mainly because many stories about death focused on the long-term aftermath rather than just the immediate aftermath. Also, they didn’t really seem to examine the experience of grief as in-depth as this book did. In other books, I found characters would react to death by being very sad or angry, which is expected. Agee digs beneath this expected-ness to expose grief’s unexpected nuances. There’s tragedy, but also comedy. There’s sadness and anger, but also hope.

At the risk of sounding stuffy, I’ll just finish by saying that even though nothing really happens in the book itself, Agee is great at portraying the various nuances of human experience.

 

I hope you enjoyed my reviews. Let me know if you’ve read any of these books, or plan to. Next week I’ll be reviewing only one book, known to some as the greatest Finnish novel ever written.

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kushner, Mulisch, and Van Gogh

Hello everyone. I hope you’re all healthy and safe. I’ve read three more books. Below are my reviews:

Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner

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“The blood lies on the snow of a formal winter garden, now trampled and muddy. A man lies dead, the snow filling in the hollows of his eyes, while another man is twisted up, grunting, sweating frog-ponds on the frozen earth, waiting for someone to come and help him. The hero of this little tableau has just vaulted the garden wall and is running like mad into the darkness while the darkness lasts.”

Swordspoint is a fantasy book about a swordsman named Richard St. Vier who’s hired by nobles to duel others who the nobles want to die. Richard always wins, so he has a big reputation. Richard also has a lover named Alec, who’s a former university student. Meanwhile there are nobles who want power, and a noble named Michael who wants to become a swordsman himself (even though it goes against custom).

So you have all these pieces and you’re waiting for them to come together, and they do, sort of. Then they kind of fall back apart. Characters who seem like they’re going to be relevant are only relevant for a scene or so, and then disappear into obscurity. Themes that you think will be explored fully are mentioned somewhat, then fade into the darkness. Conflicts that you think will be resolved one way are resolved in another, less-exciting way, and you’re left wondering what happened.

I would say to read it for the middle. That’s where things kind of come together and the book is at its most compelling. Also, the book is notable for its early exploration of LGBTQ themes in fantasy lit—it was published in 1987.

That’s another reason to read it.

 

The Assault, by Harry Mulisch

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“‘Fake,’ said Anton. ‘I understand that you’d want to defend your father. He was, after all, your father. But if your father had been my father, if everything had been turned around, would you then be defending Fake Ploeg? Let’s not kid each other. Your father was killed by the Communists with premeditation because they had decided that it was essential, but my family was senselessly slaughtered by Fascists, of whom your father was one. Isn’t that right?’ Fake turned his back to Anton and remained motionless, bent slightly forward, as he asked, ‘Are you implying it was my father’s fault that your family was murdered?’ […] ‘Why can’t you love your father without trying to white-wash him?’ asked Anton. ‘After all, it doesn’t take much to love a saint. That’s like loving animals. Why don’t you simply say: my father was definitely a collaborator, but he was my father and I love him.’ ‘But dammit, he was not a collaborator, at least, not in the way you’re implying.’ ‘But suppose you knew for certain,’ Anton said to his back, ‘that he had done terrible things… God knows… just name something… wouldn’t you still love him?’”

In this book, a kid named Anton lives in occupied Holland during World War II, and witnesses a traumatic event involving bicycles and Nazis. In this event, his family dies, leaving him as the only survivor. Anton spends the rest of his life trying to forget the incident, only for reminders of it to keep popping up (the book spans from the year 1945 to 1981).

There are an awful lot of coincidences and chance encounters, but the way they’re handled makes up for it. The author could’ve just had Anton react the same way each time (try to avoid his past, etc.). That would’ve made the book boring and monotonous. Instead, Anton has different reactions, so different aspects of his experience are emphasized, and different effects are achieved. It’s this variety of effects that gives the book a sense of development and makes it an interesting and unpredictable read.

The Assault also has a lot of great dramatic moments and psychological insights. None of it is melodramatic, though, probably due to the contrast between dramatic moments and quiet moments. Even so, the quiet moments don’t really seem to go beyond what I had expected. I expected psychological suppression and I got psychological suppression (instead of getting a new insight into Anton, etc). So while the encounters and drama aren’t monotonous, the quiet moments are.

It’s also interesting to see how things evolve as time progresses. We see the end of World War II, the Vietnam War, and the nuclear disarmament movement. We see that Anton, whose life changed in 1945, is kind of trapped in the past as the rest of the world moves on and forgets him and his strife. This is fascinating.

Overall, I’d say this book is better than most I’ve read recently, due to its dramatic sincerity and interesting ideas. And it’s even more interesting if you read about Mulisch’s life…

Van Gogh on Art and Artists: Letters to Emile Bernard

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“Last year you did a picture—according to what Gauguin told me—which I imagine to be somewhat as follows: on the grass, which fills the foreground, lies stretched full length the figure of a girl in a blue or white dress; behind her the edge of a wood of beech trees, the ground covered with red leaves which have fallen, the tree-trunks gray-green giving the effect of vertical stripes [….] So I said to myself what a simple subject, and how well he achieves elegance with nothing.”

These letters are between the painter Vincent Van Gogh and fellow artist Emile Bernard. Van Gogh’s letters are interesting to read but the main thing I got out of them was that you have to go to Africa to become a true artist. So even though Van Gogh gives some insights on others’ work (like the idea of everything expressing its inner nature), I don’t feel that the majority of the letters say anything revolutionary. Even so, it is cool to see Van Gogh’s thoughts on some of the other painters of his time, and I’m sure that, for painters, there’s probably a lot more to be gained from this book than what I did.

Thanks for reading. If you read any of the books I’ve reviewed, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

See you next week.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Hugo, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky

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Hello! I hope you are all well. I have reviewed three great books for today. Beforehand, I tried to read other books (like Moby Dick and The Red and the Black) but I couldn’t get through them, even though I’m sure they are also great books. Meanwhile:

Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo

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“[Javert’s] brow was not visible; it disappeared beneath his hat: his eyes were not visible, since they were lost under his eyebrows: his chin was not visible, for it was plunged in his cravat: his hands were not visible; they were drawn up in his sleeves: and his cane was not visible; he carried it under his coat. But when the occasion presented itself, there was suddenly seen to emerge from all this shadow, as from an ambuscade, a narrow and angular forehead, a baleful glance, a threatening chin, enormous hands, and a monstrous cudgel.”

I saw the musical first, then read the book. The book is better.

It’s also super-long, but somehow it’s still interesting. It’s about the French Revolution and focuses on a criminal named Jean Valjean who strives for redemption while being pursued by an inspector named Javert. It’s also about the lovers, Marius and Cosette, a feisty kid named Gavroche, and many others. It’s also about sewers.

The sewers are a digression. There are a lot of digressions in Les Mis that try to develop the writer’s ideas about the problems in France and how to solve them.

If the book just consisted of digressions, it would have been boring. Fortunately, there’s also a fascinating story with well-written scenes and vivid characters. Hugo wasn’t afraid to explore the highs and the lows of life. That means the reader can become super-involved with the story to the point that he or she doesn’t mind the digressions as much. Maybe that was just my experience, but maybe it will be yours, too.

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

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“We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it. A very foggy night, with great rings round the lamps in the streets! There was an indistinct talk of its being wet. I considered it frosty [….] A man, sitting in a pigeon-hole-place, looked out of the fog, and took money from somebody, inquiring if I was one of the gentlemen paid for, and appearing rather doubtful (as I remember in the glimpse I had of him) whether to take the money for me or not. Shortly afterwards, we were very high up in a very hot theatre, looking down into a large pit, that seemed to me to smoke; the people with whom it was crammed were so indistinct.”

This book is filled with surprises.

For one, I read Dickens when I was younger and found him uninteresting, but maybe I was too young to enjoy it, because this book was surprisingly-good.

David Copperfield is about David Copperfield. That’s it (I’m kidding). David Copperfield is a boy in Victorian England who endures hardships and grows up to become a famous writer. The story starts out detailing Copperfield’s hard upbringing. Later on, the scope widens to include the numerous subplots he becomes involved with. It is here where he meets notorious characters like Mr. Micawber and Uriah Heep.

Dickens tries to tie everything together at the end, and partially succeeds. A lot of the book is truly impactful due to plot twists that work out amazingly. Other parts (including the very end) are super-contrived due to plot twists that don’t work.

Parts of the book made me think Dickens was anticipating the advent of cinema. He included the literary equivalents of jump-cuts and time-lapses, for instance (like in the passage I quoted). This made the book feel surprisingly modern.

Another surprise to me is that, while Dickens is sometimes thought of as a depressing writer, I didn’t find that to be the case. Yes, he occasionally writes about depressing topics, but the story’s outlook on life is much more hopeful than depressing. It’s like the difference between a story that recounts tragedies and is suffused with a sentiment of, “Everything is awful” and a story that recounts tragedies but whose spirit is more, “All is not lost, there can still be hope.” Maybe that is just the way I see it. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this if you have read Dickens.

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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“It’s God that’s worrying me. That’s the only thing that’s worrying me. What if He doesn’t exist? What if Rakitin’s right—that it’s an idea made up by men? Then if He doesn’t exist, man is the chief of the earth, of the universe. Magnificent! Only how is he going to be good without God? That’s the question. I always come back to that. For whom is man going to love then? To whom will he be thankful? To whom will he sing the hymn? Rakitin laughs. Rakitin says that one can love humanity without God. Well, only a sniveling idiot can maintain that.”

I found this book somewhat interesting and somewhat boring.

The idea of the main plot is interesting. A guy named Dmitri Karamazov is accused of murdering his father. His two other brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, are horrified, and chaos ensues.

The rest of the book is somewhat boring. It’s filled with all sorts of philosophical talk that sometimes seem relevant to the characters and sometimes don’t. I found the relevant philosophizing to be interesting, but not the irrelevant philosophizing.

Overall, while Dostoyevsky seemed keen on developing every nuance of every thought, he seemed to do it at the expense of telling an engaging story. Unlike in the case of Les Mis, I didn’t find that the remainder of The Brothers Karamazov could make the digressions worthwhile. In Les Mis, you could take out the digressions and still have a good experience. In Dostoyevsky, if you take out the philosophizing, you’re not left with much that’s actually interesting (other than the idea of the plot).

In Les Mis, the plot is interesting and the characters are interesting, because they have consistent and understandable motivations. In The Brothers Karamazov, the characters are unfathomable and inconsistent. That’s perfectly alright in the emotionally-fraught scenes where the characters themselves probably don’t understand themselves. However, this also happens in less-tense scenes. For instance, a lot of this book consists of the youngest brother, Alyosha, desperately wanting to see one of his other brothers, only for him to conveniently forget about them a second later when Dostoyevsky wants to develop other characters instead. After a scene of developing the character of Mrs. So-and-So, Alyosha would suddenly remember, “Oh yes! I desperately need to visit my brother! I can’t believe I forgot that!”

So in the end, I found that Dostoyevsky’s book has big philosophical digressions and unfathomable characters.

I will say that I found one part of the book interesting. It’s a subplot that stars a bunch of kids who act consistently and also philosophize. The only difference is that their philosophizing is relevant to their characters, and doesn’t bog the story down. If the rest of the book could have been like that, I would have loved it.

As it is, it’s great that Dostoyevsky explored his ideas about the future of Russia, but I was left wondering why he did so in story-form when the story itself doesn’t seem exciting enough to make all the philosophy worth it. Then again, these are just my thoughts in the 21st century. I would imagine that this book would have been very exciting to read when it was originally published. Also, I would imagine that this book is still very exciting for people to read in the 21st century. Maybe you’ll find it more engaging than I did. If you don’t, there’s always the juggling group called the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

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Keep healthy, keep safe, and keep reading!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Lagerkvist

Books in Bloom

Hello! I hope you are all healthy, safe, and happy. Hopefully, you’ve also been able to enjoy the great spring weather.

I should be back to reviewing three books at a time in the next week or so. In the meantime, I’ve read one more book. It’s a very interesting book, too, but it doesn’t really have much to do with spring…

Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist

Barabbas

“Once Sahak asked if he really had not seen [Jesus] at some other time as well. Barabbas did not answer at once. Then he said that he had also been present in the courtyard of the palace when the rabbi was condemned, and described all that had happened. He also mentioned the extraordinary light that he had seen surrounding him on that occasion. And when he noticed how happy it made Sahak to hear about this light, he did not bother to mention that it was only because he had been dazzled by the sun, coming straight out into it from the dungeon. Why should he mention it? It was of no interest to the other—it was of no interest to anyone. By not bothering to give an explanation of the miracle, he made Sahak so happy that he wanted to hear all about it over and over again.”

In the Bible, Jesus died on the cross, but he took someone else’s place to do so. The man who had been saved was named Barabbas.

This book is the story of his life after his escape from crucifixion. While many other people in Barabbas believe in Jesus, Barabbas himself isn’t so sure. He wants to believe in the man who saved him, but he can never quite do so.

For some reason this book reminds me of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s the somewhat detached narration style, or maybe it’s just because Barabbas involves a lot of crime and punishment (like The Stranger does). Maybe it’s because both of these books are short, or because both of their authors won the Nobel Prize in Literature (and got commemorative stamps made in their honor).

In any case, Barabbas is an interesting book to read.

It’s very good at contrasting Barabbas’s doubt with everyone else’s faith, and making you feel his inner conflict about it. At the same time, it doesn’t seem to go that deeply into his thoughts– nothing really unexpected is revealed. He doubts, and angsts about his doubt, but that’s about it.

Even so, the book’s good for another reason, and that reason is the plot. There are some very cool scenes that mirror other scenes that came before, or that make you see old parts of Barabbas in a new way. This makes the incidents in the book feel connected to each other, even though the book’s story spans multiple years. Each part of the book informs the other parts, if that makes sense.

This book has a lot of good sections, but for some reason, the overall effect feels diluted. I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because there is just a little bit too much in between the good parts. Maybe it’s something else.

In any case, Barabbas is a good book to read. Maybe even a good spring read.

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Fowles

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Hello everyone! I’m back, having survived the majority of my essays and finals. To celebrate, I’m planning on doing a special post soon where I review three long and great books for your enjoyment.

To give myself time to read these great books, I’m going to be reviewing only one book for the next few posts. This should only last a short while, and then I’ll go back to reviewing three books per week.

In the meantime, here’s this week’s book:

The Collector, John Fowles

John Fowles

“He said, it’s rather like your voice. You put up with your voice and speak with it because you haven’t any choice. But it’s what you say that counts [….] He said, critics spiel away about superb technical accomplishment. Absolutely meaningless, that sort of jargon. Art’s cruel. You can get away with murder with words. But a picture is like a window straight through to your inmost heart. And all you’ve done here is build a lot of little windows on to a heart full of other fashionable artists’ paintings.”

The first half of this book is about a man who used to collect butterflies by stalking and kidnapping them. Now, he stalks and kidnaps a young art student. He keeps her captive in the basement of a cottage he bought, but doesn’t do much with her other than have conversations.

The second half of this book is told from the student’s perspective in epistolary form. It retells the kidnapping, but also explores her backstory.

The rest of the book is what happens afterwards.

I thought this was a very good book. It took what could have been told in an extremely cliché way (“Oh no she’s been captured!” etc.) and gave it a more original spin (which I won’t reveal here). I think the book is so good because Fowles put a lot of thought into it. Rather than just writing at a surface-level, he went on to consider the implications his story could have. For that reason, the book managed to go deeper than most books dealing with the same topic. Also, The Collector was not just about a kidnapping. There were reflections on art, humanity, and British politics as well.

This book had a really self-assured tone, which was a welcome relief. So many books seem to be written in a style as if their writers are trying to prove they’re worthy of being called writers. Fowles didn’t come across like he was trying to do anything other than to tell his story and explore its ideas. Funnily enough, I felt like he wound up proving himself by not worrying about proving himself at all.

Of course, there are some things I wished the book did better. Some of its implications weren’t fully explored, and some parts felt cheesy, but those qualms were nothing in the face of how good it was.

In short, I would recommend it.

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I wish you the best of health and hope. It’s very tough, but as cheesy as it sounds, we can do it.

Until next time!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Calvino, Tolstoy, and Moliére

 

 

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Hello everyone. I hope you are all healthy and safe. I have reviewed three more books. Hopefully they’ll be helpful:

 

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Calvino

“Dawn had broken when he said: ‘Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.’ ‘There is still one of which you never speak.’ Marco Polo bowed his head. ‘Venice,’ the Khan said. Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’ The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’ And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.’ ‘When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice.’ ‘To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.’ ‘You should then begin each tale of your travels from the departure, describing Venice as it is, all of it, not omitting anything you remember of it.’”

In this book, the explorer Marco Polo talks with Kublai Khan about the nature of reality. Polo also describes all of the cities he has traveled to within the Khan’s domain. The catch: none of the cities actually exist. However, Polo reasons that by describing all of the cities that don’t exist, he can give the Khan insight into the cities that do exist. His reasoning is borne out throughout the rest of the book.

There is a lot of description of different made-up cities, which is interesting to read. What makes the book satisfying is the way Calvino is able to draw conceptual connections between the frame dialogues and the descriptions of the cities. In the end, this gives humanity and meaning to what would otherwise have just been a series of pretty descriptions.

Another interesting part of the book is that Calvino writes about different cities under different headings, and scatters these headings throughout the book. For instance, he would describe one city under “Trading Cities 1”, then go on to describe another city under “Thin Cities 3”, another under “Cities & The Dead 5”, and then another under “Trading Cities 2.” I’m not sure why he does this, but it gives the book a sense of complexity that calls for multiple readings. Is there a reason behind this complexity, or did he just put them in to confuse readers?

Read it and find out.

 

Childhood, Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy

“Every now and then [the greyhound] Gizana kept stopping, pricking up his ears, and listening to the hallooing of the beaters. Whenever he did this I was not strong enough to move him, and could do no more than shout, ‘Come on, come on!’ Presently he set off so fast that I could not restrain him, and I encountered more than one fall before we reached our destination. Selecting there a level, shady spot near the roots of a great oak-tree, I lay down on the turf, made Gizana crouch beside me, and waited. As usual, my imagination far outstripped reality. I fancied that I was pursuing at least my third hare when, as a matter of fact, the first hound was only just giving tongue.”

This was the first book Tolstoy ever published. It’s about the childhood of a Russian boy named Nicholas, and is heavily autobiographical.

Sometimes it was boring, other times it was entertaining, other times it was funny, and other times it was sad. However, from this book alone, you would not immediately be convinced that Tolstoy would have become a great writer. For the most part, the chapters don’t really relate to each other. It seems like you could take some of them out without losing much of the overall story.

Also, ¾ of the book is overrun with melodramatic sentimentality (“My lips parted themselves as though smiling, the perspiration poured from me in streams”). However, there are flashes of sincerity throughout which comprise the other 1/4 (“In early days it never occurred to me to think what a rare and wonderful being this old domestic was. Not only did she never talk, but she seemed never even to think, of herself”). These bits of sincerity are what save the book from being boring, and they are the first hints of Tolstoy’s genius.

Everybody starts somewhere, but not everybody arrives. In his future work, Tolstoy could have easily ditched sincerity in favor of melodrama. In that case, he likely wouldn’t have arrived at his position as a great writer.

Fortunately for us, he chose sincerity instead.

 

“Don Juan”, Moliére

DJ

“DON JUAN (about to strike PIERROT) What did you say?
PIERROT (moves behind CHARLOTTE) Lord, I’m afraid of no one.
DON JUAN (goes after PIERROT) Just wait a minute.
PIERROT (moves to other side) I’m afraid of nothin’.
DON JUAN (runs after him) We’ll see.
PIERROT (again goes behind CHARLOTTE) I’ve seen better ones than him.
DON JUAN Hah!”

In this hilarious play, Don Juan’s womanizing ways lead to his downfall. That’s not the best part of the play, though. The best part is the comedy. It’s like a form of psychological slapstick—there is physicality in the humor (like in the excerpt above), but there’s also a psychological element that makes the physicality even funnier (Pierrot pretending not to be afraid). This humor makes the play a joy to read.

The story itself is somewhat contrived: Don Juan is repeatedly told that he will suffer because of his womanizing, Don Juan repeatedly ignores these warnings, then he suffers due to heavenly intervention. Thankfully, the humor is there to keep the play fresh.

 

I hope you have enjoyed these reviews. I will not be able to post next week because I will be studying for finals, but check back afterwards for more lit in the time of Coronavirus. In the meantime, I wish you all the best.

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

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

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One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty

Welty

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

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

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

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

 

“A Touch of the Poet,” Eugene O’Neill

ON

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

ONeill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genghis Khan, R.P. Lister

GENGHIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOUGLASS

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

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

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Grace Lin

MTNMOONN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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