Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Chekhov, Nye, and Kawabata

In Which I Review Stories by Anton Chekhov, Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, and a Novel by Yasunari Kawabata

Hello! Happy August. I hope you’re well. I’ve read three books (again). One’s of short stories, one’s of poems, and one’s a novel…

Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, by Anton Chekov,
Translated by Constance Garnett

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“The town was a little one, worse than a village, and it was inhabited by scarcely any but old people who died with an infrequency that was really annoying.”

So here we are with more Chekhov. This book had a lot of stories I already read, and a few new ones.

In reading the new stories (including “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” “The Grasshopper,” “Easter Eve,” “The Dependents”, and “In the Ravine”), it was interesting to see their varying quality. “Easter Eve” felt like a better story than “The Grasshopper,” for instance, even though “The Grasshopper” was written much later.

The (super-subjective) reason: in some of his stories Chekhov came to rely too much on theme for an effect at the expense of his characters. “Easter Eve” was just a story about a man grieving his friend’s death. “The Grasshopper” was trying to get across a moral about women who have affairs. That made the characters less realistic, which somehow made the story less enjoyable.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to contrast “Ward No. 6” with “The Lady With The Dog.” In “Ward,” Chekhov prioritized his theme. “Lady” had more of a focus on characters. While both stories were obviously very good, “Ward” felt to me like a less well-written version of “Lady.” There was the sense that “Ward’s” characters were thinking and acting like they did because Chekhov needed for them to act that way to illustrate his theme, and not because that was how they actually would have reacted given their circumstances. Meanwhile “Lady” had a theme, but the characters didn’t act contrivedly–when they thought about the theme, they were doing so in reaction to something that could have logically made them react that way.

In any case, Chekhov’s still a great writer. Anything I say about him is going to be subjective, and I’d still definitely recommend this book.

Voices in the Wind: Poems for Listeners, by Naomi Shihab Nye

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“If this is the best you can do, citizens of the world,
I resolve to become summer shadow,
turtle adrift in a pool.”

This is a book of poems written in 2018. They were interesting to read, especially after having read a lot of books from the 1800s and 1900s. It also showed how even references to 2018-era events could become dated or unintentionally ironic in the face of 2021-era events.

The poems themselves were good, though. I have a feeling they’d be even better on audiobook. They were humorous and sometimes poignant. I liked how Nye told stories in some of her poems. They felt like anecdotes in poem-form, which meant they usually left me with something to think about.

Even so, sometimes it would feel like one of the poems was gearing up to leave the reader with a very interesting idea to contemplate, only to end with a line about how the poem was talking about something in a museum. I haven’t read as much poetry as I have read prose, but this seemed to me like it limited the poem’s scope.

In any case, I still enjoyed this collection, and if you’re looking for something to think about, you might enjoy it as well.

Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata,
Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

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“As he caught his footing, his head fell back, and the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.”

The book is about an affair between a man named Shimamura and a geisha named Komako. Also, out of the two best sentences I’ve ever read, this book has one of them (included above for your enjoyment. If you’re curious about the second sentence, see here).

Anyway. Snow Country‘s plot was nonexistent, and early on I almost gave up reading it because it felt boring. Thankfully, the second half of the book was much more interesting (even if it didn’t really have a plot, either).

I’ll explain by contrasting this book with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts. Both were plotless, but while the clichés and shallow-seeming characters in Lahiri’s book didn’t make up for that (in my subjective opinion), Snow Country had a lot of interesting language (see that great sentence) and characterization.

Here’s what I mean about characterization: early on, I wasn’t sure exactly why Character X kept acting a certain way. As the book went on, Kawabata was able to gradually convey the reason. Not only did this make the character very interesting, it also made the book feel more engaging, since the character’s behavior gave new significance to the overall story.

So, if you’re someone who likes poetic language, interesting characterization, and a book where nothing happens (but is actually not boring to read), this is for you.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Comment below!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Rayfield and Tolstoy

Hi! Happy almost-finals period! I’ll be brief. One book I’ve reviewed is super long, and the other is super-short, and you’ll never guess which is which by the title of this post…

Anton Chekhov, A Life, by Donald Rayfield,
Read by Fred Williams

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“There were few diversions. The pianist Samuelson came and played Chopin’s C Major Nocturne for Anton. Gorky, after illegally stopping in Moscow for an ovation at the Moscow Arts Theater, kept Anton company. When he visited, a gendarme patrolled outside. A wild crane broke off its flight south to join the surviving tame crane in Anton’s garden […] Visitors filled Anton’s study with smoke and made him miss meals. Masha did not come until 18 December, followed by Bunin.”

This book was huge but it was very fun. I mean it was an audiobook, but still. It was a biography of Chekhov, and from it I learned that he wasn’t the mild-mannered gloomy person I thought he was, but a womanizer.

He was also super-dysfunctional. In fact, another title for this book could have been, “Chekhov and His Dysfunctional Family.” Seriously. I felt like I was listening to an audiobook version of a reality TV show set in the 1800s. That was a very small part of what made it fun.

What made it more fun was the narrator, Fred Williams. He was terrific. He read in a completely straight voice, but somehow, the way he read things was very entertaining (especially when describing the shenanigans of Chekhov’s pet mongoose, or narrating that time when Chekhov “descended upon his old garden to salvage any remaining plants to bring back to his new garden”). So in other words the narrator and the narration were perfectly-matched.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable book. I would recommend it, and I would especially recommend the Fred Williams reading of it.

Short Stories by Leo Tolstoy, by Leo Tolstoy,
Read by Bart Wolffe

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“During the night, Delesov was aroused by the noise of a falling table in the anteroom and the sound of voices and stamping feet. ‘Just wait a little, I will tell Dmitri Ivanovitch!’ said Zakhar’s voice. Albert’s voice replied passionately and incoherently. Delesov leapt up and went with a candle into the anteroom. Zakhar in his night dress was standing against the door. Albert in cap and alma viva was trying to pull him away and was screaming at him in a pathetic voice, ‘You have no right to detain me! I have a passport! I’ve not stolen anything from you! You must let me go! I will go to the police!’ ‘I beg of you Dmitri Ivanovitch,’ said Zakhar, turning to his barin and continuing to stand guard at the door, ‘he got up in the night, found the key in my overcoat pocket, and has drunk up the whole decanter of sweet vodka. Was that good? And now he wants to go. You didn’t give me orders and so I could not let him out.’”


A short book written by Tolstoy? Unheard of!

Well, this is a short story collection so it’s not necessarily a book in and of itself (unlike his Childhood). Even so, it is unexpectedly short, with five stories within.

The first story was undoubtedly the best. It was called “The Three Hermits.” I won’t spoil it but it was basically magical realism at its finest.

The second story, “Three Deaths” was the second-best. Tolstoy’s narration was like a camera, and the story itself was very sad. Just look at that title!

The fourth story, called “God Sees the Truth but Waits,” was also interesting for its deep humanity in the face of inhumanity.

The other two stories, “Albert” and “Ermak” were interesting, but not as good. Well, actually, “Albert” was interesting. It was about a genius violinist who was also homeless.

“Ermak” absolutely wasn’t interesting. It was basically about a bunch of Cossacks killing a bunch of Tatars, and it read more like a history textbook than a story by Tolstoy.

In other words, read “The Three Hermits,” and then if you have time, read “Three Deaths” and “God Sees the Truth but Waits,” and then if you REALLY have time, read the other two.

Then, if you’re feeling daring, go read some of his longer works.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Chekhov and French Tales

Hello! I hope you’re all well. It’s Midterms Week here at school, so I’ve only been able to read two books. They were worth it, though…

The Tales of Chekhov Volume 1, Translated by Constance Garnett

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“‘And why did you leave us so early on Thursday, Nikolay Timofeitch?’ ‘Hm! It’s queer you noticed it,’ says the shopman, with a smirk. ‘You were so taken up with that fine student that . . . it’s queer you noticed it!’ Polinka flushes crimson and remains mute. With a nervous quiver in his fingers the shopman closes the boxes, and for no sort of object piles them one on the top of another. A moment of silence follows. ‘I want some bead lace, too,’ says Polinka, lifting her eyes guiltily to the shopman. ‘What sort? Black or coloured? Bead lace on tulle is the most fashionable trimming.’ ‘And how much is it?’ ‘The black’s from eighty kopecks and the coloured from two and a half roubles. I shall never come and see you again,’ Nikolay Timofeitch adds in an undertone.”
(From “Polinka”)

This was an interesting collection of six Chekhov stories. They were of varying lengths. What struck me the most about them was that Chekhov can write about people in a way that reminds you of people you know in real life. I experienced this when reading his “The Darling.”

Also, I used to think of Chekhov as someone who did character sketches but now I think of his stories more as relationship sketches. Yes, Chekhov gets you to know his characters, but he does that so he can then get you to understand their relationships with other people. For instance, in one of his stories, you could figure out pretty easily that Character A secretly likes Character B, but you don’t really understand the full meaning of that dynamic until Chekhov develops it in the rest of the story.

Sometimes, it felt that he went on too much about a relationship dynamic. There was one story where Character C kept crawling back to his beloved Character D after supposedly leaving her for good. After he crawled back to her for the fourth time, I found myself wondering what the point was.

Overall though, it was an entertaining collection that I would recommend. If you’re just out to read one or two stories from it, I’d recommend “Polinka” and “Anyuta.”

French Tales, Translated by Helen Constantine

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“Hugues Barros can no longer see anything on this earth. A slight foam rises through the corners of his mouth, frequent spasms shake his limbs. With one last effort he raises himself little by little into a sitting position. And he dies sitting up, his eyes vague, like a creature that is just awakening.” (From “The Bull From Jouvet”)

This is a collection of 22 French short stories by writers including Annie Saumont, Guy de Maupassant, and Émile Zola. Each story is set in one of France’s 22 regions.

Most of the stories were enjoyable. They also introduced me to some new French authors (like Alphonse Daudet) and made me sad about the fact that more of their work hadn’t been translated into English (like Annie Saumont). In fact, you can’t find English versions of some of the stories anywhere outside of this collection. Believe me. I tried. That alone makes it worth reading.

Some things made the collection less enjoyable than it might have been. Some of the stories felt like they had the exact same ending, to the point I found myself correctly guessing the resolution in advance. Also, a few of the stories were less interesting than others, but that might just be personal taste.

The good news is that there were so many interesting stories. Some of my favorite stories included Annie Saumont’s “You Should Have Changed at Dol”, Stéphane Émond’s “House in the Woods”, Daniel Boulanger’s “The Cattle Man”, Colette’s “Where Are the Children?”, Guy de Maupassant’s “A Mother’s Tale”, Paul Hervieu’s “The Bull from Jouvet”, and Alphonse Daudet’s “The Pope’s Mule.”

So even though the collection wasn’t perfect, I’d still recommend that you take a chance on it.

Until next week!

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