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

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“‘[…] 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

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“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: 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

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“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

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“‘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

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“‘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

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“‘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

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“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: Gorky, Bowker, and Said

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe. I’ve read three very interesting books. Some you might not want to read, but others you probably would.


Mother, by Maxim Gorky

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“People love their own feelings—sometimes the very feelings that are harmful to them—are enamored of them, and often derive keen pleasure even from grief, a pleasure that corrodes the heart. Nikolay, the mother, and Sofya were unwilling to let the sorrowful mood produced by the death of their comrade give way to the joy brought in by Sasha. Unconsciously defending their melancholy right to feed on their sadness, they tried to impose their feelings on the girl.”

Mother by Maxim Gorky is (you guessed it) about a mother in Russia under the Tsar. Her son is a revolutionary and he brings home revolutionary friends and the mom eventually becomes a revolutionary, too. Maybe that’s why Gorky’s book is called the “Great Revolutionary Novel,” but may as well be called the “Stilted Ideological Tract.”

Most of what the characters do is to explain why socialism is great and why imperial rule is bad. Gorky tries to get you invested in these ideas by making the characters sympathetic, but his idea of making people sympathetic seems to be slapping on sympathetic-sounding tags. Someone has kind eyes and smiles warmly and the mother is very happy her son has made such a good friend.

Also, the book says that people should think for themselves and that by thinking for themselves, they will realize socialism is good. Well, the mother never really thinks for herself. She just hears her son talk about socialism, and is amazed by his oratorical skills. So she comes to like socialism not because she thinks for herself about whether she likes it or not, but because she likes her son’s speaking skills. The rest of the people in the book don’t really think for themselves, either. It’s obvious they’ve just gobbled down someone else’s Manifesto and are spouting words from it, because what they say about socialism usually comes out very stilted and forced. So if you write characters with kind eyes and warm smiles, and a mother who accepts their ideology without showing her processing it and coming to terms with it, how can you get your reader invested in the ideology, too? You can’t.

Yet this is what Gorky tries to do, and then he seems to expect the readers’ investment in his ideology to be the most compelling reason for them to keep reading. Well, it’s not compelling. Gorky doesn’t even develop the opposing ideas so he can show their flaws. There’s a scene where someone gives a speech about these opposing ideas. Instead of giving us the speech, Gorky glosses over it, labeling it as bad, and then spends long pages quoting someone else’s speech about socialism and labeling it great. What are we left with? For me, at least, an inability to connect with Mother’s ideas.

It’s interesting because in the book a character repeatedly says that you can’t just tell people ideas, you have to connect with their hearts, but the book rarely connected with my heart.

Here are the rare parts where it did: when the characters stopped acting like mouthpieces and started acting like humans. The son felt affection for a girl. The mother sometimes thought about life’s wonders. A few characters sometimes reflected on other peoples’ situations. We got to understand the source of one character’s troubled outbursts.

None of these things really have much to do with socialism. Everyone, even non-socialists, can have such experiences.

And then the book seems to contradict its own ideas. First, Gorky writes that we should try to understand everyone, then he has one character say that a lot of rich people are inherently evil and so there’s nothing to understand, they just have to be done away with violently (and the other characters agree). First one character says you shouldn’t get married because it would go against socialism. Then Gorky implies that the very same character winds up marrying anyway.

Overall, Mother wasn’t as provocative as I thought it would be. It mainly made me think of how misguided idealism could wind up causing more trouble than there already is. The very system that the socialists criticize kind of turns out to be the same system the socialists establish. In Gorky’s Tsarist Russia, people can’t read certain books, the government takes their money for its own purposes, and people are shot and imprisoned by the Tsar’s police force if they rebel. In Communist Russia, people couldn’t read certain books, Stalin’s government took their money for its own purposes, and people were shot and imprisoned by the secret police force if they rebelled. But, unlike in Tsarist Russia where one of Gorky’s characters says, “the prison is our place of rest and study,” the prisons in Stalinist Russia were anything but restful.


Inside George Orwell: A Biography, by Gordon Bowker

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“Two days after his visit [to Orwell], Muggeridge lunched with Warburg [Orwell’s publisher] and reported, somewhat uncomfortably, that ‘a characteristic remark of Warburg’s was, in a rather plaintive voice, that what George should do was to use his little remaining span of life and energy to write at least two more books.’ Nineteen Eighty-Four, he told him shortly afterwards, ‘had a very good chance of having a large sale.’ The implication was that Warburg now saw his ailing author only as the source of more books, and, presumably, more profit to Warburg.”

This book is a biography of George Orwell. It gives a fresh picture of Orwell. He’s not just a saint, but a womanizer with flashes of cruelty. Inside George Orwell also gives great insight into the inspirations for his books. Working for the BBC during WWII inspired 1984, living near a farm with the word “Manor” in its name partially-inspired Animal Farm, and so on.

For some reason, I didn’t think the book was as engaging as it could have been. Maybe I would have thought otherwise had I not been reading other biographies at the same time that were better. Those biographies have arcs to them—Beethoven was amateurish at first but then he started taking risks and look at how his music grew in complexity! Orwell’s bio lists what happened to him in the year of X, what he did in this war, what he did in that war, how he was storing up ideas for the future, and so on. In one part, the author seems to be writing about Orwell’s love-life, but then in the next paragraph he writes about the publication of one of Orwell’s books, before returning to Orwell’s love-life two paragraphs later. I found these disconnected ideas sort of confusing.

On the reading-front: Read this for its insight into his psychology, what inspired his books, how he died from over-work, and how he was exploited by his publisher for the sake of profit.


Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said

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“Nino was bending over the atlas. ‘I’m looking for a country that is at peace,’ she said, and her finger crossed the many-coloured border lines. ‘Maybe Moscow. Or Petersburg,’ I said, mocking her. She shrugged her shoulders, and her finger discovered Norway. ‘I’m sure that’s a peaceful country,’ I said, ‘but how do we get there?’ ‘We don’t,’ sighed Nino. ‘America?’ ‘U-boats,’ I said cheerfully. ‘India, Spain, China, Japan?’ ‘Either they’re at war, or we can’t get there.’ ‘Ali Khan, we’re in a mousetrap.’ ‘You are quite right, Nino. There’s no sense in running away. We will have to find a way to get a bit of common sense into our town, at least till the Turks come.’”

You’ll probably want to read this book. It’s a love-story between a Muslim Azerbaijani boy named Ali (who narrates the book) and a Christian Georgian girl named Nino. It is set in Azerbaijan, during World War I and World War II. At that time, there were still horses and swords and princes in Azerbaijan, even when Europe had cars and guns and republics.

The conflict comes from the romance between Ali and Nino and how they navigate a changing world. The lovers’ parents disapprove of their relationship for religious reasons, and they themselves have clashing values. Ali represents Asia, and Nino represents Europe, but they manage to get along anyway. Meanwhile, the world around them changes. Azerbaijan is ruled by imperial Russia for a while, then becomes independent, then gets caught in a tug-of-war between Asia and Europe. These global dynamics have a huge impact on the story.

The book itself is very well-written in terms of its style and story. When Said writes about mundane things, you’re interested. When Said writes about epic chases through the desert, you’re interested. Maybe it’s because Said manages to get across Ali’s excitement about everything he experiences, which makes you excited, too. Maybe it’s also because the story is really good, and it’s filled with intriguing ideas about Europe and Asia. Somehow, Ali and Nino manages to get all this across without becoming a Stilted Ideological Tract like other books out there. That must be the reason Ali and Nino is known as Azerbaijan’s national novel.

In any case, you won’t regret reading this book. If you do read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Until next time. Enjoy the summer!

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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

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[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.

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I Read, and Refuse to Consume Liver and Cabbage for Dinner

I have read three more books, and I have reviewed them below. One of them involves liver and cabbage, and I will leave it up to you to find out which one that is…

Native Son by Richard Wright

Favorite Quote: “He was too weak to stand any longer. He sat again on the edge of the cot. How could he find out if this feeling of his was true, if others had it? How could one find out about life when one was about to die? Slowly he lifted his hands in the darkness and held them in mid-air, the fingers spread weakly open. If he reached out with his hands, and if his hands were electric wires, and if his heart were a battery giving life and fire to those hands, and if he reached out with his hands and touched other people, reached out through these stone walls and felt other hands connected with other hearts—if he did that, would there be a reply, a shock? Not that he wanted those hearts to turn their warmth to him; he was not wanting that much. But just to know that they were there and warm! Just that, and no more; and it would have been enough, more than enough. And in that touch, response of recognition, there would be union, identity; there would be a supporting oneness, a wholeness which had been denied him all his life.”

This book is so great that it beat out all the other books on my top ten list aside from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

This book is about an African-American named Bigger Thomas who commits a crime in Chicago, and winds up confronting racism and the law.

This summary doesn’t really do the book justice. The reason Native Son is so good is because it unites emotion and ideas with this exciting plot. Also, whereas some authors make their books good just in the beginning, Native Son is uniformly excellent all throughout. It does not wimp out on any aspect of its premise and it forces its characters to deal with the harsh consequences of their actions. It does not shy away from itself, and is brutally honest, both in its situational outcomes and its portrayal of life.

It is not to be missed.

Farewell Summer by Ray Bradbury

Favorite Quote: Every time you take a step, even when you don’t want to. . . . When it hurts, when it means you rub chins with death, or even if it means dying, that’s good. Anything that moves ahead, wins. No chess game was ever won by the player who sat for a lifetime thinking over his next move.”

Bradbury wrote this as a sequel to his book, Dandelion Wine, about a kid named Doug who experiences the wonders of summer. In Farewell Summer, Doug encounters old age and metaphorically goes to war with mortality. The book was okay, but you’d be much better off reading Dandelion Wine first. You get more invested in the characters and their story that way. Also, in the afterword of Farewell Summer, Bradbury even admits that this book is just a compilation of scenes and metaphors, while Dandelion Wine had more of a story. So, if you prefer more story, read Dandelion Wine, but if you prefer super-vivid imagery, try Farewell Summer.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” by Neil Simon

Favorite Quote: “EUGENE: Oh, God! As if things weren’t bad enough…and now this! The ultimate tragedy…liver and cabbage for dinner! A Jewish medieval torture!… My friend Marty Gregorio, an A student in science, told me that cooked cabbage can be smelled farther than sound traveling for seven minutes. If these memoirs are never finished, you’ll know it’s because I gagged to death one night in the middle of summer.”

As you can see, this is a funny play. It takes place during the Great Depression and focuses on various plot lines in the family of a kid named Eugene Jerome. For instance, Eugene’s cousin wants to dance on Broadway, and his brother may lose his job because he stood up to his boss. The version I read contained pictures from the film with captions saying that Eugene “had matured from a boy into a man” but I didn’t really pick up on that so-called maturation from my reading. Perhaps he did mature. Perhaps you should read it and see for yourself.

I hope you enjoyed my book reviews. Also, as it is summer, I am taking a hiatus to catch up with the real world. I will be back in September with more book reviews and writing advice. Stay tuned!