Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Omar Khayyam

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe. Due to something urgent that came up, I wasn’t able to read a book this week, but I did read an amazing poem that’s practically as good as a great book, so I hope that makes up for it:

The “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam

The “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam is soooooo good. It affirms life, love, and happiness, and it’s only like a fifteen-minute read.

I learned about this ancient Persian poem from Eugene O’Neill’s play, “Ah, Wilderness!” (Whose title’s actually a direct quote from it). Obviously this left no choice but for me to check it out myself.

Reading the “Rubaiyat” makes me feel like the writer who wrote it actually felt what he was writing, in a slightly good-humored sort of way. I honestly have no idea why. It’s just something about the way it’s written/translated.

It has a lot of fascinating metaphors about wine, wizardry, pottery, checkers, and so on. But it’s much better than this other famous poem (George Sterling’s “Of Wine and Wizardry“). In my opinion, the Rubaiyat is much more…alive.

Finally, something interesting in a lot of medieval Arabic/Persian literature is the fact that wine is seen as something that’s not wonderful to drink in this life now, but that you can have as much of it as you want in the afterlife, so you might as well abstain now and then drink it later on. Meanwhile this poem argues the exact opposite: live now because you only have a short time to do so. Can it be subtly trying to disprove the afterlife? Who knows?

Finally, it has a lot of references to The Shahnameh (by Ferdowski) and the Bible.

If you’ve ever read the poem (or re-read it), I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Best Line(s):

“Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,

Before we too into the Dust descend;

Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie

Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and–sans End!”

Stay healthy, stay safe, and stay in love with life.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aristotle

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you’re all healthy and safe.

I started school yesterday (online) but have managed to read a book. It’s by Aristotle. You may have heard of it:

Poetics, by Aristotle

Spinning Aristotle on Make a GIF

“Also the poet should as far as possible work out the play with the appropriate dramatic gestures, for among poets of equal ability, those who themselves are in the emotional states they depict are the most convincing; that is, one who is in the throes of distress conveys distress and one who is in a rage conveys anger most truthfully and accurately. For this reason, poetry is the art of a man of genius or of one having a touch of madness—the first sort are versatile, the second excitable.”

Aristotle’s Poetics is considered to be super-influential in fiction and drama and screenwriting and literature and so on. It’s also surprisingly short.

But is it worth the read?

Maybe. It’s so short it’s not even like you have to make time to read it. It’s also the origin of all sorts of cool ideas, but you’ve probably already heard of most of them before—deus ex machina doesn’t really make a story satisfying, endings are much harder to write than beginnings, and unity is the key to everything.

So it may be good as a refresher, but it doesn’t really add much beyond that. It’s also a bit outdated. Take unity. Aristotle says that if you have a drama, you have to have it take place in such a way that every event has to arise out of the previous event in the story, and that every event should go on to cause the next event. Don’t include anything that isn’t caused by something before it and doesn’t go on to cause something after it.

Okay, but look at Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” There’s an event that happens that isn’t caused by anything else—the arrival of a troupe of theater performers. This troupe goes on to cause the play’s protagonist to take action towards his main goal (which I won’t spoil). It’s well-done, and makes the play better, even though nothing in the play caused the troupe to arrive other than coincidence.

So there are events that can happen without being caused by previous events as long as they go on to cause future events. That’s something that Aristotle didn’t seem to mention.

So, with that being said, Poetics is good as a basic overview of dramatic theory, but it’s also good as a basic overview of how “canonical” rules can and should be broken.

History Shakespeare GIF by GIPHY Studios Originals - Find & Share on GIPHY

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Stephens and Tolstoy

Hello. I hope you are all healthy and safe. This will be the last time for a while where I review multiple books at once, since school starts next week. However, I’ll do my best to review at least one book (or short story, depending on my workload) a week.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy reading about the following two insightful and inspiring books:

The Fire Chronicle, by John Stephens

Dragon Breathing Fire on Make a GIF

“‘[…] because it was how I used to be, before you and your sisters and your mother. I lived entirely in my head.’ ‘And it was better, right?’ Michael said. ‘Things hurt less?’ ‘No! I mean, yes, I felt less pain, but the point of life isn’t to avoid pain. The point of life is to be alive, to feel things. That means the good and the bad. There’ll be pain, but also joy and friendship and love, and it’s worth it. Believe me. Your mother and I lost ten years of our lives, but every minute of every day we had our love for you and your sisters, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Don’t let the fear control you. Choose life, son.’”

This is the second book in a series by John Stephens. It’s about Kate, Michael, and Emma, three siblings who have to find three books that have magical powers, before evil forces do. The three books in question are called the “Books of Beginning.” One of the books can control time, but we don’t know what the other two books can do.

Based on this story’s title, you might suspect that the second book has to do with controlling fire. Surprise—it doesn’t. It has to do with life. You’ll have to figure out for yourself where the fire part comes in (Hint: it has to do with dragons).

In the story, Kate uses the time-traveling book and gets separated from Michael and Emma. While Kate tries to return to them, the others try to find the second book. So there’s a dual plot.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and at first, the dual plot wasn’t that interesting. Just when I got sort of invested in one group’s progress, I had to read about the other group’s battle with a dragon, and so on. As the book progressed, more things were revealed, and the dual plot became more interesting as a result.

Even though the book had a good ending, I was left wondering if the dual plot was worth it. Maybe it was, since this is the second book in a trilogy. Second books usually don’t have enough momentum to keep you interested, but the book’s dual plot itself helped it keep a sense of momentum because you were always wondering what was happening elsewhere.

An interesting insight I got from this book was that the parts that I found to be the best were the most realistic parts. Not in the sense that dragonless parts were better than dragon-filled parts (dragons are too cool for that), but in the sense that when the characters felt true, the story was better. Which is more satisfying? A cliché reaction, or a different, more genuine-feeling one? Probably the second one. It makes you think more deeply about what’s happening, instead of glossing over it as just another cliché.

With all that being said, this book had its clichés, but it also had those more genuine parts, and for me, the genuine parts, along with its momentum, made it worth the listen.

War and Peace Part 7, by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy GIF | Gfycat

“Let me not be reproached with selecting trivial details to describe the actions of people who are acknowledged as great, like this Cossack, like the bridge at Arcole, and so on. If there were no accounts attempting to portray the most banal details as great, then my descriptions would not exist either. In a description of Newton’s life, the details of his food, the fact that he stumbled, cannot have the slightest impact on his significance as a great man—they are extraneous; but in this case the opposite is true. God knows what would be left of great men, rulers and warriors if all of their actions were translated into ordinary, everyday language.”

(Parts 1 2 3 4 5 6)

That quote is basically this last part in a nutshell. You get to see the trivial details that went into the makings of a masterpiece. Let me explain.

I didn’t know what to expect from this part. War and Peace had been so hyped up, what with everyone who was anyone calling it a great book.

It turned out not to be as good as I thought.

The beginning and middle of the end were good (some of it reminded me of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5), but the very end felt sketched-out and illogical. That left me shaken at first. This? The greatest book ever?

Then I remembered this was Tolstoy’s first draft, and remembered that quote up above, and felt inspired.

In this version of War and Peace, I got to see Tolstoy not as some god-like figure, but as a writer just like the rest of us, who had the same struggles as us in figuring out how to fit grand ideas into a story, and how to give that story a satisfying ending. The thing is, I know Tolstoy eventually succeeded in overcoming these struggles to make his book great.

After reading this book, I looked up the Wikipedia summary of the actual War and Peace. Its ending was very different. Plot points that seemed half-developed in this version were fully developed there, and ideas that were partially-explored here were fully-explored there. From reading that summary, I realized that Tolstoy was able to make his book great, but that the foundation of that greatness was already present in this version.

For instance, he took some parts of the plot that seemed to have little impact in the first draft, and connected them to other parts to build them up to be impactful. Or he took plot-points to their logical and more dramatic conclusions. Or he fleshed out mini-resolutions and framed them as steps in the development to the overall resolution. So in the final version, the emotional impacts from each mini-resolution aren’t isolated episodes, but necessary parts in making for a satisfying ending.

But the thing is, in this version of War and Peace, I saw how that transformation became possible. In official biographies of Newton, it may not matter if he stumbled or ate food, but in the grand scheme of things, stumbling could have made his gravitational discoveries possible.

In the case of Tolstoy, you could see his first draft as being not-so-great/relevant-to-his-greatness, or you could see it as a beginning of his greatness. He was able to revise it to greatness.

All that being said, I found this book a very valuable read, because I saw that such a transformation was possible. Even if your story ends in a really measly way, you could always make it amazing, and for all Tolstoy’s talk about life and death and meaning, the story of his own transformation was the most profound part of this book.

That’s why I’ll close by saying that Tolstoy’s first draft of War and Peace was one of the most inspiring things I ever read. We all have so much potential.

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.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Lowry and Tolstoy

Hello! I hope you’re enjoying your summer. In reading War and Peace, I found that Part 3 was twice as long as the other parts I’ve read so far, so I only had time to read one other book this week instead of my usual three. Even so, it was a good other book.

Messenger, by Lois Lowry

Music Video Kids GIF by Radical Face - Find & Share on GIPHY

“‘I remember what he was like! If we close the border, we won’t have to do that anymore! We won’t have to deal with thieves and braggarts and people who have lice in their hair, the way Matty did then, when he came!’ Matty turned to look. It was a woman. He was stunned, as if someone had slapped him. It was his own neighbor, the very woman who had made clothes for him when he came. He remembered standing there in his rags while she measured him and then put on her thimble to stitch the clothing for him. She had a soft voice then, and talked gently to him while she sewed. Now she had a sewing machine, a very fancy one, and bolts of fabric with which she created fine clothing.”

I previously read Lowry’s The Giver when I was younger, and liked it. I had Messenger lying around, so I decided to read it too. It’s about a kid named Matty who ran away from a troubled village and now lives in a peaceful one. He spends his days with a blind man. When he’s not with the blind man he’s traveling through a forest, bringing messages to other villages. The forest usually kills people who travel through it, but not Matty. Things are changing, though. His peaceful village is becoming corrupt and xenophobic. The blind man has a daughter in another village who said she would come to their village eventually. Now, Matty has to brave the forest and bring her to his village, and somehow, that will wind up saving the day.

I appreciated this book a lot because Lowry had something to say, and everything in the book was geared towards getting that across. Also, Lowry was pretty good at building interest through mystery. She’d mention something called “Trading” and leave you to wonder about it and then explain it in the next chapter. Somehow, she did this without coming off like she was just building suspense for suspense’s sake. Maybe that was because the explanations to the mysteries actually went on to have relevance to the plot’s development.

The book’s plot wasn’t the most original (some parts were pretty predictable), but the story itself had substance and meaning behind it that made for a rewarding reading experience. Also, even in some of the predictable parts, Lowry added an element of unpredictability—you’d be correct to guess that Character X does this, but you wouldn’t have guessed that Character Y reacts like that, and that refreshing surprise makes up for the predictability. It’s quite an achievement.

War and Peace Part 3, by Leo Tolstoy

Russian And French Armies In "War And Peace" (1968)Part 3 GIF | Gfycat

“Standing right beside the road, with one crooked arm stretched clumsily out above, was this old oak with a double trunk, its bark broken away on one of them. The entire old tree, with its awkward, naked arms, hands and fingers, with its hundred-year-old bark overgrown with moss, with its scabs and naked, protruding limbs, seemed to speak of old age and death. ‘There you go, up to the same old nonsense again,’ it seemed to be saying to the nightingales and the birch trees, ‘playing at some joy of spring or other, babbling the same old boring, stupid stories about spring, about hope, about love. It’s all rubbish, all stupid nonsense. Just look at me: I’m awkward and crooked, standing here the way I was made, but I’m strong, I don’t pretend, I don’t ooze sap and put out young leaves (they’ll only fall off), I don’t play with the winds, I stand here, and I’ll carry on standing here, naked and crooked, for as long as I can.’ Now, on his way back, Prince Andrei remembered the oak tree which had matched his thoughts about himself, and he glanced ahead along the road, looking for the old man with his naked, battered arm stretched out in reproach to the laughing, amorous spring.”

In Part 1 of Tolstoy’s first draft of War and Peace, there was peace. In Part 2, there was war. In Part 3, there is both. At first there’s peace, and we get to catch up with Pierre and his friends back in Russia. People get married to other people you wouldn’t expect. Other people don’t marry. Then there’s war, including the epic Battle of Austerlitz, and then there’s some peace, some surprises, and then more war.

The Austerlitz section is interesting to read, since it includes the planning that went up to the battle, the actual battle, and the aftermath. Yes, Tolstoy still comes off like he’s writing about things he heard from other people, but he keeps it more anchored in his characters’ experiences. That means Austerlitz feels less like a part of a history textbook and more like a part of reality.

You get the sense that Tolstoy is hitting his stride in Part 3. Dramatic events happen, unexpected things happen, and philosophical conversations happen. This is practically the first time in the book that Tolstoy’s characters actually start having in-depth philosophical conversations about life’s meaning. Unlike in Dostoyevsky, these conversations don’t ruin the book’s pacing or drama, so they make the book more interesting. The philosophy also makes Part 3 more thoughtful than the other two parts. Maybe it’s just me, but it seemed that for the first time, Tolstoy was beginning to reach beyond goodness towards greatness.

Even so, that greatness comes at a cost (especially in a first draft that was being published as a serial). After what feels like the perfect place to end Part 3, Tolstoy keeps going and starts summarizing. Things get less and less engaging as the section runs out of steam. Finally, it ends. The end is somewhat interesting, but much less interesting than it could have been had Tolstoy ended the section earlier.

In any case, Part 3 is better than the other two parts, mostly because of the dramatic moments and the increased thoughtfulness. It somewhat makes you look forward to Part 4 (and Part 5 and Part 6 and Part 7).

 

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

Sarajevo Pidgeons GIF by scope.travel | Gfycat

“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

Improbable Research

“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

Napoleoni GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

“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: Orwell, Theophrastus, and Aitmatov

Hello. I hope you are all well. I’ve been able to get back to the library to take out some really thick and really thin books. One of them is reviewed here. The others will probably take a while longer to get through.

Meanwhile, here are my reviews:

Animal Farm, by George Orwell

Animal Farm – Once Upon A Book Time

“‘I have little more to say. I merely repeat, remember always your duty of enmity towards Man and all his ways. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend. And remember also that in fighting against Man, we must not come to resemble him. Even when you have conquered him, do not adopt his vices.’”

Animal Farm is about a bunch of animals on a farm who rebel against their human farmer, kick him out, and try to govern themselves. It’s also an allegory about the Russian Revolution. Will the animals manage to live in peace among themselves and preserve their enmity towards Man? Will they remain steadfast in their determination not to adopt his vices? If you’ve already read the book and are re-reading it like I did, you’ll know the answer.

Yet is the book still worth re-reading? For me it was. The first time I read it, I was really young and didn’t fully understand all of its political subtext. This time I did understand the subtext, and so I found myself laughing at some of the references to the Russian Revolution.

Even if you did understand the subtext first time around, Animal Farm is one of those books that become more enjoyable when you know the ending. You now have time to think. How exactly do the animals wind up in their situation? Could it have been prevented? What lessons can we learn now?

Basically, Animal Farm is still as classic as ever. It’s also very short and worth the hour-and-a-half it would take to read, or to re-read, or to re-re-read.

 

Characters, by Theophrastus

greek vases | Tumblr

“When he’s serving in the military and the infantry are advancing to attack, [the Coward] calls to his comrades and urges them to stand alongside him first and survey the field, saying it’s hard to tell which men are the enemy. Hearing a roar and seeing men falling, he tells his comrades that in his haste he forgot to bring his sword. He then runs to his tent and sends his slave outside, ordering him to see where the enemy troops are. Hiding the sword under his pillow, he then spends a long time pretending to search for it.”

Characters is that book that you take out when you’re able to get back to the library for the first time in months. It’s written by a Greek named Theophrastus. In it, he satirizes different types of people he’s met in Athens (such as the Coward, the Pinchpenny, and the Complainer). The satirical sketches are short and sometimes entertaining. They’re much more entertaining when you realize they were written thousands of years ago, and that people haven’t really changed much since then.

 

The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, by Chingiz Aitmatov

Camel Sahara GIF by Head Like an Orange - Find & Share on GIPHY

“‘I have no writing table. As soon as my brood settle down to sleep, Zaripa reads, and I write down things while I can still remember what happened—about the war, and especially my years in Yugoslavia. Time passes and the past goes further away into the distance.’ He was silent, and then added, ‘All the time I’m thinking about what I can do for my children. Of course there is a general truth for everyone, but everyone has his own understanding about things, and this understanding dies with him. When a man hovers between life and death in the midst of a world conflict; when he is nearly killed a hundred times over and yet still survives, then he has learnt a great deal about good and evil, truth and falsehood […] My legacy is my soul, my writings, and in them is all that I understood and learnt from the war. I have no greater riches to leave to my children.’”

This book is so amazing that its essence can’t really be summarized by one quote. Written by Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov, it’s set in Kazakhstan under the Soviet Union. It takes place during one day in the life of a man named Yedigei, who’s going to bury his friend, Kazangap, in the desert. It’s also about aliens, nuclear war, traditional legends, and peoples’ lives. It’s funny, tragic, and heartfelt. It feels so epic, but it’s only like 350 pages long.

With all that epicness, Aitmatov’s book can also be interpreted as a criticism of the Soviet Union’s treatment of Kazakhstan. Basically, he implies that the Soviet Union tried to erase the Central Asian peoples’ history and traditions to better oppress them. What’s surprising is that this book was published while Kazakhstan was still a Soviet state—Aitmatov was able to get this book (Soviet criticism and all) past the censors and into print.

The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years may remind you of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five because of its aliens, non-chronological progression, and intellectual leanings. There’s a difference, though. Vonnegut’s book has more of a detached intellectualism. Aitmatov’s book has some intellectualness, but it’s mainly a compelling and compassionate story about people.

Its cover is really cool, too:

The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years #Offtopicday | Cartoon ...

I can keep rambling on incoherently and listing adjectives to try to convince you to read it, but I won’t. I’ll just say that Aitmatov’s book is amazing and underrated and that it should be a classic.

Beautiful Summer GIFs That Will Make You Feel Like You're There ...

Until next time! I hope you are all safe, healthy, happy, and reading.

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

Hello! I hope you’re all enjoying the summer. Here’s a book that may make it more enjoyable:

The Brothers Seven, by Aleksis Kivi

beautiful stream in woods gif | creativeartworksblog

 

[Upon encountering an evil spirit in the woods]:

“SIMEONI. But let us first try to cast it out with spells.

JUHANI. Well said! First a spell or twain. But what should we say to him? Whisper to me, Simeoni; for at this moment I find myself stupefy’d. You whisper the words to me, and I ’ll hurl them in his face so the weald resounds.

SIMEONI. Follow my exact words, then. ‘Here we stand.’

JUHANI. Here we stand!

SIMEONI. ‘Like God ’s holy crusaders, fiery swords in hand.’

JUHANI. Like God ’s holy crusaders, fiery swords in hand.

SIMEONI. ‘Go thy way.’

JUHANI. Go to hell!

SIMEONI. ‘We are Christ’s soldiers, baptiz’d in the Blood of the Lamb.’

JUHANI. We are Christ’s soldiers, God ’s gallow-glasses, baptiz’d in the Blood of the Lamb.

SIMEONI. ‘Tho’ we can ’t read.’

JUHANI. Tho’ we can ’t read.

SIMEONI. ‘But we still believe.’

JUHANI. But we still believe and place our full trust in Him.

SIMEONI. ‘Go now.’

JUHANI. Go now!

SIMEONI. ‘Afore the cock crows.’

JUHANI. Afore the cock crows!

SIMEONI. ‘And hails the light of the Lord.’

JUHANI. And hails the light of the Lord of Hosts!

SIMEONI. But he pays us no mind.

JUHANI. But he pays us—aye, he ’ld not care tho’ I skrik’d at him with the tongue of a angel. Gorblimey, brothers! Naught else for it now but: now, boys!”

[They attack the spirit only to discover that it is their horse.]

There are many unexpected things about Aleksis Kivi’s The Brothers Seven, but the fact that it has seven brothers is not one of them. Before getting into the unexpectedness, here’s an overview of what it’s about:

Once upon a time in Finland, you had to know how to read to receive church confirmation and thus officially become an adult and get married. In the book, seven orphaned brothers—Juhani, Aapo, Tuomas, Simeoni, Timo, Lauri, and Eero—refuse to learn how to read. The person trying to teach them treats them badly, and so they run away from home and go into the woods. There, they build houses, burn things down, get chased by things, argue, go hunting, play hockey, get chased by more things, and so on. They also get redeemed.

One unexpected thing: the book was published in 1870, but it’s the first Finnish novel ever written. Why? It’s the first one written in Finnish and not in Swedish, which was the main language in Finland at the time. So people had probably been writing novels before that point, just not in Finnish.

Another unexpected thing: in its day, Finnish people wanted to be portrayed as idealized hard-working people. Kivi’s book portrays them as being reckless and head-strong mischief makers.

At first, the book was criticized for this unexpected approach. Then people began calling it the greatest Finnish novel ever written.

Here’s the most unexpected thing about The Brothers Seven: you hear the words, “greatest Finnish novel ever written,” and maybe you’d go on to expect it to be something like The Brothers Karamazov, with a tremendous page-count and somewhat-developed characters and lots of angst.

It has very little of that. The book’s only 300-something pages, the characters are flat, and the book reads more like a Shakespearian comedy than it does an “Epic Novel.” Literally—not just in content, but in language and format. The prose parts are written as prose, but the archaic-sounding dialogue is written out as in a play.

So it’s not the traditional type of “greatness.” That’s okay, though, because Kivi’s book has its own kind of greatness. It’s vivid and hilarious. Some of the comedy may seem cheesy, but that doesn’t stop parts of it from being funny.

In any case, it seems the unexpectedness of Kivi’s book makes it great. The beginning and middle are very funny and unexpected, but the ending is expected and actually disappointing.

For that reason, I would recommend reading up to the aftermath of the brothers’ encounter with bulls (Chapter 9—you’ll see what I mean), and then skipping to the final chapter (Chapter 14). That’s just my take, though.

Another unexpected thing may happen, which is that you enjoy chapters 10 to 13 even more than this review leads you to suppose.

Until next time! Meanwhile, I hope you’re all healthy and safe and enjoying the summer.

summer gifs Page 144 | WiffleGif

 

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

gifs stuff The Book Thief bookedits bookthiefedit ...

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

Best Ishiguro GIFs | Find the top GIF on Gfycat

“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

Typewriter GIF - Find on GIFER

“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

Driving Old School GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
“‘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.

Book Read Sticker by Tatiana for iOS & Android | GIPHY