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: 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: 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

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“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

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“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

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“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

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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: Doyle, Camus, and Tolstoy

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe. I’ve been reading a lot and going for walks in the amazing weather. Here are a few books I read when I wasn’t walking:

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle

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“—What are fish-fingers made of? – Fish. – What kind of fish? – All kinds. – Cod, said my ma. – White fish. –Why do they—  —No more questions till you’re finished. That was my da. – Everything on the plate, he said. – Then you can ask your questions.”

There are interesting books where nothing happens, then there are books where nothing interesting happens. I found Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha to be the second type of book. It’s about a 10-year-old kid named Patrick (“Paddy”) Clarke who lives in Ireland in the 1960s. He has a younger brother named Sinbad, a group of friends, and parents who fight. He makes fun of his brother, plays with his friends, and tries to figure out how to get his parents to stop fighting. That’s basically the book.

Doyle is great at getting inside the head of a 10-year-old kid, but I kept waiting for the story to start. Yes, something kind of happens in the last few pages, but by then it’s too late to care. Even if you do care, the incident is mentioned too briefly for you to have enough time to care about it. That made for a very confusing ending.

Since there doesn’t seem to be much of a story, you could probably rearrange most of the scenes in the book any which way without substantially changing your reading experience.

Also, the book’s meant to be very funny. For some reason I wasn’t able to laugh much during it. So overall, the book had terrific stylistic merits, but didn’t really seem to have much of a meaningful story. Maybe I’m missing something, though. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this slice-of-life.

 

Notebooks 1951-1959, by Albert Camus

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“August 8, 1957. Cordes. For the first time, after reading Crime and Punishment, absolute doubt about my vocation. I seriously consider the possibility of giving up [….] Am I this creator? I believed it. More precisely, I believed that I could be it. Today I doubt it, and the temptation is strong to reject this incessant effort which renders me unhappy in happiness itself […] Am I capable of what I dream? If I am not capable of it, what good is it to dream? [….] October 17. Nobel. Strange feeling of overwhelming pressure and melancholy.”

Albert Camus kept these notebooks from 1951 to his death in 1959. The notebooks could be seen as a slice-of-life (like Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha). Somehow, real-life was much more interesting than the fictional rendition of it.

In these notebooks, there were a lot of thoughts and philosophizing. Camus also wrote of books he read, of ideas he had for books, and of a trip he took to Greece. Most of it was done in a very detached way, like you’d expect from someone like Camus.

Then I reached the part that I quoted above, and everything changed.

Let me explain. The first entry is straightforward enough—Camus doubts his abilities as a writer. A mere two months later, he wrote the second entry, about how he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. That’s cool in itself, but what makes it so interesting is his melancholic reaction. Apparently, he even had panic attacks about it for a long time afterwards.

So, I used to think that if Camus could write sentences like, “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know” in The Stranger, he had to have been a very detached person. Reading these notebooks revealed a whole new side to him. It was a surprisingly flawed and insecure side, and that revelation of hidden depths was what made this book so fascinating for me.

War and Peace Part 1, by Leo Tolstoy

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“Prince Andrei looked at [Pierre] with kindly eyes. But even so his friendly and affectionate glance expressed an awareness of his own superiority. ‘You are dear to me, especially because, in the whole of our high society, you are the only person who is alive. You’re fortunate. Choose whatever you like, it doesn’t matter. You will always fit in anywhere, but just one thing: stop going to see those Kuragins, leading that kind of life. It doesn’t suit you at all: all this bingeing and playing the hussar, and all the rest of it.’”

So I went to the library and took out the only copy of War and Peace they had. I figured I might as well take it out now in case the library closes again. Then I won’t have to return it, and I could have forever to read the whole thing. So that’s what I did.

However, the War and Peace I took out was not the classic version but the “Original Version”—the first complete draft. It’s supposed to be pretty similar to the “canonical” version, though. I’ve never read the “canonical” version, even though I tried to do so when I was much younger. In any case, I’ll try to review one part of War and Peace every week or so (there are 7 parts in total), and I’ll try not to spoil it in the process. (Other parts: 2 3 4 5 6 7)

What to say about the first part? Well, Napoleon is invading everywhere, and the Russians are going to war with him. We’re introduced to the main characters—Pierre, Andrei, Natasha, and so on. Andrei is a youngish prince who’s going to war. Pierre is a youngish illegitimate son who’s Andrei’s friend. He’s not going to war. Natasha’s a 13-year-old girl who prefers older men. Obviously she’s not going to war. In terms of plot, it’s a decent one. Some surprising developments happen, other characters are introduced, more surprises happen, and then they go to war.

When I first tried to read the book, I thought it very stodgy and boring. This time, I’m surprised to see that’s not the case. Maybe it’s this translation (Andrew Bromfield), or maybe Tolstoy was never stodgy to begin with. I mean, who would have thought War and Peace could be funny? The book also makes interesting observations about people and their contradictions, like Andrei being affectionate towards Pierre while secretly reveling in his own superiority.

On the whole, Part 1 doesn’t feel much like a draft. Yes, there are a few characters who sometimes go on rants about their backstory for no reason other than that Tolstoy wanted you to know. Yes, some scenes don’t feel as “sharp” as they probably were intended to be. None of that makes Part 1 any less enjoyable, though.

I hope you all have a nice week. Maybe take some walks if you are able to do so safely. If you’ve read the “canonical” version War and Peace, how does it compare with this version so far?

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Lem, Gogol, and Tolstoy

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

I also want to give my condolences to George Floyd’s family, and express my wishes that we as a society can put aside our differences for the sake of our common humanity.

With that being said, here are the books I’ve read this week:

Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem

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“I went closer, and when the next wave came I held out my hand.  What followed was a faithful reproduction of a phenomenon which had been analyzed a century before: the wave hesitated, recoiled, then enveloped my hand without touching it, so that a thin covering of ‘air’ separated my glove inside a cavity which had been fluid a moment previously, and now had a fleshy consistency.  I raised my hand slowly, and the wave, or rather an outcrop of the wave, rose at the same time, enfolding my hand in a translucent cyst with greenish reflections.  I stood up, so as to raise my hand still higher, and the gelatinous substance stretched like a rope, but did not break.”

Solaris is about a psychologist named Kelvin who travels to a planet called…Solaris. This planet is covered by an ocean. The ocean is sentient. It molds itself into forms according to the subconscious yearnings of the people on the planet.

Just that idea alone makes the book super cool. Also, the way Lem uses tension is great. Everything feels like it’s angled towards a certain point, and things that he leaves you in suspense about in a previous chapter gets resolved later on. Basically, everything builds up to something else.

The book also has a lot of interesting philosophical ideas, but the ideas aren’t shoved into the book for the sake of being there. They’re relevant to the characters, and so they add another layer of enjoyment.

The end is kind of anticlimactic, though, but Solaris is still worth reading, just for the idea of a sentient ocean planet.

 

The Overcoat, Nikolai Gogol

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“They offered the mother her choice of three names, Mokiya, Sossiya, or that the child should be called after the martyr Khozdazat. ‘No,’ said the good woman, ‘all those names are poor.’ In order to please her they opened the calendar to another place; three more names appeared, Triphiliy, Dula, and Varakhasiy. ‘This is a judgment,’ said the old woman. ‘What names! I truly never heard the like. Varada or Varukh might have been borne, but not Triphiliy and Varakhasiy!’ They turned to another page and found Pavsikakhiy and Vakhtisiy. ‘Now I see,’ said the old woman, ‘that it is plainly fate. And since such is the case, it will be better to name him after his father. His father’s name was Akakiy, so let his son’s be Akakiy too.’ In this manner he became Akakiy Akakievitch. They christened the child, whereat he wept and made a grimace, as though he foresaw that he was to be a titular councillor.”

My god this book is hilarious. It’s about a guy named Akaky Akakievich who lives in Russia and loves his work as a titular councillor. The only problem is that he has a super-shabby overcoat that his fellow workers tease him about, and that stands no chance against the frost of St. Petersburg. Akaky’s solution is to try to get a new overcoat.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. This is one of those books where the plot wouldn’t work without an engaging voice. A lot of people could have written the same story, but they probably wouldn’t have been able to make it as entertaining as Gogol did. He uses caricatures, but not to the point of unbelievability, and he writes in a satirical voice, but not to the point of hitting you over the head with his views, and not to the point where his wordplay gets in the way of enjoying the story itself.

It’s short, it’s funny, and it’s not to be missed.

 

What is Art?, Leo Tolstoy

10 GIFs That Perfectly Encapsulate Writer's Block

“Voltaire said that ‘Tous les genres sont bons, hors le genre ennuyeux’(all styles are good except the wearisome style); but with even more right one may say of art that Tous les genres sont bons, hors celui qu’on ne comprend pas, or qui ne produit pas son effet (all styles are good except that which is not understood, or which fails to produce its effect), for of what value is an article which fails to accomplish that for which it was intended?”

Later on in his life, Tolstoy had a crisis about the purpose of art, so he wrote this book to sort things out. Along the way, he made all sorts of controversial statements (like that Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony weren’t real art).

Even so, the first half of What is Art? is amazing. It touches on all sorts of interesting ideas, like sincerity (people shouldn’t aim to reproduce the effects they’ve felt from someone else’s art, but rather to convey something they themselves have felt), and clarity (people shouldn’t have to work to feel affected by a piece of art). The book is worth a read for these ideas, as well as a hilariously scathing review he gives of Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring Cycle.

The second half of What is Art? seems like it’s more of Tolstoy’s own subjective opinion than anything. He says the aim of art should aspire to some Christian brotherhood, which is all well and good for art that wants to aspire to that, but might be less relevant to art that has other intentions. How does he reconcile this? He doesn’t. I doubt anybody can.

Weirdly enough, though, Tolstoy does predict the advent of GMOs in one of his book’s chapters.

In the end, What is Art? is one of those books that will make you think. It will make you question a lot of what you know. It’s definitely worth a read.

Until next week. Stay safe, stay healthy, stay hopeful, and stay human.