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: Swafford, Bradbury, and Tolstoy

Hello. Due to power-outages from the hurricane, you may be reading this much later than the Tuesday on which I planned to publish it. I hope you’re all okay, and that you enjoy my belated reviews.

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, by Jan Swafford (narrated by Michael Prichard)

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“[Sculptor Franz Klein was commissioned to make a bust of Beethoven’s head] So, one day, Beethoven found himself lying face-up at an angle […] while [Klein] slathered a thick mass of reeking wet gypsum over his face. As the procedure went on and on with excruciating slowness, Beethoven became increasingly fearful that he was going to suffocate. Suddenly, in a spasm of anger and fear, he jerked off the almost-set cast, threw it to the floor, and ran from the room. [Klein salvaged the mask and it became the quintessential sculpture of Beethoven the genius…] But no earlier portraits had that look, and neither did later ones done from life by artists who were observing what was actually in front of them: the man rather than the myth [….] The Klein mask and the bust he made from it are not the real portrait of a genius. They are the face of a man scowling because he is angry, and uncomfortable, and frightened.”

It took me 42 hours to finish this audiobook. It’s worth it. Beethoven is a biography about a composer written by a composer (Jan Swafford). It talks about the world Beethoven lived in, his creative growth, his music, and his human side.

It was an exciting read, even if parts of the beginning felt more like a history textbook than a biography. Eventually even the history got exciting, because Swafford explained how it informed Beethoven’s ideals and music.

I was surprised by how well-structured this huge book was. Instead of just saying “and then Beethoven did this, and then he did that, etc.” it depicted Beethoven’s life via a series of thematic arcs and threads that gave the composer’s life narrative interest and momentum. For instance, Swafford framed the beginning of Beethoven’s compositional career as his struggle to find fame, escape Mozart’s influence, and develop an individual voice. Beethoven succeeded when he wrote his third symphony, and because the book was building to that point, the success felt more satisfying than I had expected it to be.

Then there was the music. A good portion of this book was about Beethoven’s music. Swafford analyzed it, talked about its influences, and explained how it succeeded or failed in having an effect. Also, he made it understandable, so all us non-musicians could learn why Beethoven’s music was so great.

When Swafford wasn’t analyzing Beethoven’s music, he was analyzing Beethoven and his psychology. If you just think about Beethoven’s work, it’s easy to forget that he had flaws and virtues like everyone else. Thankfully, the writer remembered to humanize him. Even more impressive, the book explained why Beethoven became who he was. At the end, I felt like I had known Beethoven personally. I knew how he thought, how he saw the world, how he sometimes got in his own way, and how his past informed his life.

So there you have it. Because of its structure, Beethoven is basically a symphony in book-form. Its insights into Beethoven and his music make it a symphony worth reading. It’s even better if you listen to it, since Michael Prichard (the narrator) did an amazing job bringing Beethoven to life.

The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury

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“As for the rest of him, I cannot say how I sat and stared, for he was a riot of rockets and fountains and people, in such intricate detail and color that you could hear the voices murmuring small and muted, from the crowds that inhabited his body. When his flesh twitched, the tiny mouths flickered, the tiny green-and-gold eyes winked, the tiny pink hands gestured. There were yellow meadows and blue rivers and mountains and stars and suns and planets spread in a Milky Way across his chest. The people themselves were in twenty or more odd groups upon his arms, shoulders, back, sides, and wrists, as well as on the flat of his stomach. You found them in forests of hair, lurking among a constellation of freckles, or peering from armpit caverns, diamond eyes aglitter. Each seemed intent upon his own activity; each was a separate gallery portrait.”

Bradbury wrote a bunch of short stories and needed a way to make them work together in a book, so he wrote about a man with living tattoos that depicted stories. The Illustrated Man is the result.

There were some famous stories in this book, like “The Veldt,” but there were also other less-famous stories that were still good reads. What made them good was that they were sci-fi stories that were about how Bradbury saw life. For instance, he wrote about living fire balloons (“The Fire Balloons”) and questioned the meaning of religion at the same time. If the story had just been about fire balloons, it probably would have been just as entertaining, but less fulfilling.

There were fun stories, too, like “The Exiles,” which was about dead writers’ ghosts living on Mars. Other stories felt like they could have been Twilight Zone episodes (like “Zero Hour”). That variety probably also made the book good. You can only read so many philosophical stories before they all feel like the same story.

Overall, The Illustrated Man is a great book to read if you enjoyed Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and want more. If you’ve already read a lot of Bradbury’s short stories, you probably won’t find new ones in The Illustrated Man.

 

War and Peace Part 4, by Leo Tolstoy

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“Prince Andrei found the excessive contempt for people that he observed in Speransky unpleasant, as well as the variety of devices and proofs he adduced to confirm his opinion. He deployed every possible weapon of argument, apart from simile, and switched from one to the other too boldly, or so it seemed to Prince Andrei [….] He transposed the question to the heights of metaphysics, moved on to definitions of space, time and thought and, deducing therefrom his refutation, descended once more to the grounds of the argument.”

(Parts 1 2 3 here). The super-long Part 3 of the first draft of War and Peace was exciting. Tolstoy was hitting his stride as a great writer at last! Napoleon was doing amazing things, and the characters were all thinking amazing thoughts. What could Part 4 be other than even more amazing?

Less amazing. Maybe because it only had peace in it and focused more on the everyday lives of the characters. Back when Tolstoy wrote about characters’ everyday lives in Part 2, he managed to make it interesting. There was some sort of momentum that ran through his work that made you want to read on. In Part 4 there doesn’t seem to be that momentum. Yes, some people fell in love with people you wouldn’t expect them to, but there are only so many times you can read about people falling in love before it gets boring.

There was still philosophy in this part, but for some reason it wasn’t as engaging as it had been in the previous part. Maybe because the characters were too concerned with legal reform and falling in love (again and again) for me to care much about them. Maybe Tolstoy thought that after the drama of the last part, he had to make this part less intense. Or maybe he ran out of steam after Part 3 and had to regroup.

Overall, this part felt like he was setting up for the next part. That’s all well and good, but Part 3 managed to set up for Part 4 and was still interesting. Why couldn’t he have made this part interesting, too?

Well, enough whining. I’m sure Part 5 will be better (and Part 6 and Part 7).

Until Tuesday.

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: Filipovič, Flaubert, and Tolstoy

 

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe (as always). Today is Hemingway’s birthday. Even though none of the books I’ve read for this week are by him, I hope you still find them inspiring:

Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo, by Zlata Filipovič

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“I went with Alexandra to the old Sarajevo library, the Vječnica. Generations and generations of people enriched their knowledge by reading and leafing through countless books. Somebody once said that books are the greatest treasure, the greatest friend one has. The Vječnica was such a treasure trove. We had so many friends there. But now we’ve lost the treasure and the friends and the lovely old building. They all went up in the destroying flames. The Vječnica is now a treasure trove of ashes, bricks, and the odd scrap of paper. I brought home a piece of brick and a fragment of metal as a memento of that treasure-house of friends.”

In 1991, ten-year-old Zlata Filipovič started keeping a diary of her life in Sarajevo, the capitol of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At first she wrote about her days at school, her friends, and her piano lessons. In 1992, the Bosnian war began, and Zlata started writing about her days sheltering from bombs, her dead friends, and her ruined childhood.

She also wrote about how she found solace. Sometimes, after being without electricity for days, it would turn on, and she and her family would get to enjoy TV. Other times she’d be able to meet some of her surviving friends. In spite of these reprieves, Zlata wanted to enjoy her childhood again, and she spent about three years before she could.

Early on in her diary, Zlata wrote that since Anne Frank named her diary “Kitty,” she wanted to give her own diary a name, too. She decided on “Mimmy.” As time passed, parts of her diary were published. These sections were used to help the international peace efforts, and people began thinking of Zlata as the Anne Frank of Sarajevo. At that point, Zlata no longer wanted to be like Anne Frank. Anne Frank wound up dead, and Zlata didn’t want to die. The interesting thing is that while Anne Frank kept a diary and died, Zlata’s published diary gave her international attention, which likely wound up being a reason she and her family were finally able to be transported out of war-torn Sarajevo to Paris.

Her diary is worth reading. It’s one of those accounts that make you grateful for what you have. It’s also one of those accounts that show how seeking hope can help people through times of tragedy.

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857, Translated by Francis Steegmuller

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“What worries me in my book [Madame Bovary] is the element of entertainment. That side is weak; there is not enough action. I maintain, however, that ideas are action. It is more difficult to hold the reader’s interest with them, I know, but if the style is right it can be done. I now have fifty pages in a row without a single event [….] If I bring it off, it will be a great achievement, I think, for it will be like painting in monotone without contrasts—not easy. But I fear all these subtleties will be wearisome, and that the reader will long for more movement. Still, one must be loyal to one’s concept. If I tried to insert action, I would be following a rule, and would spoil everything. One must sing with one’s own voice, and mine will never be dramatic.”

This book has a bunch of letters by the writer Gustave Flaubert, spanning from the first letter he ever wrote as a child to the letters he wrote when he published Madame Bovary. The book’s like a diary in a way. You see how Flaubert develops as a writer. He goes from being obsessed with sentimentality to despising it and wanting to achieve a pure prose. You also see the way his awkward similes gradually transform into astutely-conveyed images. Later on, you can see his struggles with Bovary, which turned out to be one of the best parts of the letters.

Seeing all of the thought he put into his book gave me more respect for him as a writer. After I read Bovary, I thought it was overrated and sometimes boring. I didn’t see how style alone could sustain a book. Maybe Flaubert didn’t even think it might come off as uninteresting at all. After gaining some context from these letters, I still think Bovary is boring, but now I see that Flaubert was much more reflective than I thought. He created his own vision of a style-based story, and he knew that people might be bored by his story, but was determined to write it that way because it was just who he was. Now that’s inspiring.

So overall, I’d say these letters are interesting to read because they show you how Flaubert came into his own as a writer.

War and Peace Part 2, By Leo Tolstoy

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“Sidorov winked at them and began talking to the French, rapidly gabbling out incomprehensible words: ‘Kari, mala, musiu, paskavili, muter, kaska, moushchit,’ he gabbled, trying to pronounce the words with an expressive intonation. ‘Ho, ho, ho! Ha, ha, ha, ha! Uh! Uh!’ The soldiers broke into a roar of laughter so hearty and jolly that it was involuntarily communicated across the line to the French, after which it seemed that they all really ought to unload their muskets, blow up their ammunition and go back home as quickly as possible. But the muskets remained loaded, the loopholes in the houses and fortifications gazed forward as menacingly as ever and the cannon detached from their limbers remained facing each other just as before.”

In the second part of Tolstoy’s epic first draft of War and Peace (first part here, third part here, fourth part here, fifth part here, sixth part here, seventh part here), some of the characters go to war. These characters include Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, a guy named Dolokhov, a guy named Rostov, and a guy named Denisov.

There are basically two groups of soldiers, and the characters are split between these two groups. Some of the characters go from one group to the other, and other characters stay in the same group. In the end it all culminates in an epic-ish battle, which is nice.

Splitting his characters into two groups enables Tolstoy to shift points of view a lot without causing too much confusion. It also enables him to draw parallels. There would be one scene of a character hearing about someone stealing something, and then there’ll be another scene of a character in the other group being stolen from. There’ll be a scene where one character in the first group hears about a certain army being defeated by Napoleon, and then there’ll be another scene where other characters in the second group fight against Napoleon (I won’t spoil what happens).

Part 2 isn’t what you’d expect from an account of war. If you’ve ever read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (you should), you would remember how most of the book is about the awful horrors of war. There’s some horror in Part 2 of War and Peace, but not as much as I expected. There’s a surprising amount of happiness, actually—happiness about potentially being promoted in the army, happiness about being able to command armies, and happiness about hanging around in the barracks doing nothing. Now, if you’ve ever read Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, you’d find jolly talking mice laying siege to some castle. Part 2 of Tolstoy’s book reminded me more of that (minus the talking mice). I’m guessing there’ll be more horror in future sections, but Tolstoy can’t pile it all on this early or it’ll get boring. With that being said, all the happiness in Part 2 makes it surprisingly refreshing.

One other thing: This is a first draft I’m reading. Part 1 doesn’t read much like a draft. Some of Part 2 does. This kind of shows in Tolstoy’s descriptions of battles. The narration comes off more like something you’d read in a history textbook, with random details scattered in that sound like something the narrator heard from his uncle who fought in the war. Come to think of it, Tolstoy probably did hear those details from one of his relatives, since they did fight in the war, and Tolstoy did ask them about their experiences when he was researching for the book.

In any case, even if the battles don’t quite come to life, the characters always do, and on the whole, this surprisingly happy section was pretty entertaining.

Until next time!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: 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?