Definitely Maybe… (a book review)

It feels a bit funny to see the cover of this book with English words on it, because I know its original Russian version so well. The book is really, truly Soviet, if I may say so. I mean to say that in it, the characters, their moral/ethical positions, the setting, the events, and everything else up to the last line is filled with the worldview of the Soviet people. Well, this makes the book even more interesting for us today, when the Soviet Union is only history.

Still, the problems raised in the book are global, or I’d rather say, universal. The novel is amazing in its ability to live and remain ‘fresh’ through time: today, half of a century later, it reads as if it was written just yesterday by someone who always looks into the future.

I am sure, the authors did.

Definitely Maybe (Russian: За миллиард лет до конца света,  literal translation: A Billion Years Before the End of the World, sometimes called Definitely Maybe: A Manuscript Discovered Under Unusual Circumstances) is a science fiction novel by Russian writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, first published 1974. The story takes place in Leningrad, USSR. The protagonist, an astrophysicist Dmitry Malyanov, is officially on vacation, but continues to work on his thesis, “The Interaction of Stars with Diffused Galactic Matter”. Just as he begins to realize that he is on the verge of a discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize, his life becomes plagued by a number of strange events, which finally lead him to a great deal of stress and make him unable to do his research anymore.

Little by little, Malyanov begins to suspect that someone (or something) deliberately intends to prevent him from continuing his work. Meanwhile, the same idea occurs to his friends, also talented scientists, who find themselves in a similar situation—some powerful, mysterious, and very selective force impedes their work.

An explanation is proposed by Malyanov’s friend, the mathematician Vecherovsky. He posits that some mysterious force is trying to slow down mankind’s scientific pursuit, which might become a threat to the very fabric of the universe in some distant future. In fact, it is the Universe itself that resists attempts of rational beings of constructing supercivilizations. Vecherovsky proposes to treat this universal resistance to scientific progress as a natural phenomenon which can and should be investigated and even harnessed by Science.

As the novel concludes, the other scientists, including Malyanov, have been forced to abandon their research, and Vecherovsky remains alone to battle the universe and continue their work.

I just finished reading the book for the 4-th or possibly the 5-th time, and enjoyed it again– maybe even more than the previous times. It glows with love for the world we live in. It is profound in thought; it touches deepest problems of human ethics, and at the same time, it is full of humor and life. I do recommend you to try reading it.

Also, I absolutely love and would like to recommend a few more books by Strugatsky brothers:

Snail on the Slope (Russian – “Улитка на склоне”) is a philosophic and deeply psychological sci-fi novel ;

The Doomed City (Russian: Град обреченный) is a 1972 science fiction novel — an absolutely amazing philosophic piece to read

Roadside Picnic (Russian: Пикник на обочине), a 1971 novel; within ten years after the first publication, 38 editions of it were published in 20 countries.

The Ugly Swans (Russian: Гадкие лебеди) written in the 1960-ies, but published only in 1987, during Gorbachev’s Perestroika.

Side Thoughts About Reading Fiction

Has it ever come to your mind that mankind might have never accepted the idea of writing books that are supposed to give the reader nothing, but pleasure? I am talking about fiction. Well, we all know that quite many people find fiction books absolutely useless and never read them. In the early ages, especially when only a tiny part of society could read at all, the mankind could easily decide to pass on fiction at all and limit itself to just using books for the purpose of sharing useful information, like coursebooks, instruction manuals, all sorts of directories and documentation, etc. Wow, just think about it: people might have never understood the pleasure of reading for fun. Eww, what a dull planet we would be then!

Unlike other inventions of the mankind, and even more — despite them — fiction books manage to remain incrediblly popular among millions, and this fact itself is amazing.

“It took thirty-eight years before 50 million people gained access to radios. It took television thirteen years to earn an audience that size. It took Instagram a year and a half.” says Gary Vaynerchuk, a social media personality and a serial entrepreneur. I can’t help thinking that, with all these changes in the world, with so many other things to see and experience, and with having dramatic lack of free time, people’s affection for reading fiction looks… well, it looks kind of weird!

I used to think that this has something to do with the insatiable appetite of all humans for obtaining new emotional experiences. The best (or the safest) way to get them is to make yourself comfortable with a book in a soft chair and follow your protagonist’s adventures, unless you perfer to throw yourself into the storming ocean of real life experiences. Through centuries, fiction books continued to play the role of a soft sedative for emotionally thirsty people. But now, in the 21-st century, when we have all sorts of other emotional teasers like television, the Internet, virtual games, etc., why do we remain so attracted to books? So I think that it is not just about emotions — fiction books help feed our thirst for fantasizing. Our imagination refuses to be chained within the limits of a movie, or a game, or something that has been prepared for our eyes, and — alas! — has a finished, static shape. We need more: some basic blocks for experiences which we can build and colorize in our own minds, to our personal tastes, and fiction books, so far, remain the only phenomenon that can give it to us.

Please, let me know what you think about this. Your comments are very welcome.

The Truth Behind the Christmas Tree

xmas-treeThis is a picture of the famous Harold Lloyd’s Christmas Tree of 1974. According to some Internet resources, it took the Lloyds family a whole month to decorate it. Well, I have no idea how much this giant could weigh, but–

Cats of the world, keep away! 🙂

The tree was made by wiring three large Douglas firs together. The carcass was then fireproofed and reinforced with bamboo and steel bolts. The resulting giant was 20 feet high, 9 feet wide, and 30 feet in diameter. Thousands of Ornaments were used to decorate it. They say, Harrold Lloyd loved collecting Christmas ornaments, he would buy some  new items all the year round, wherever he used to travel. xmas-tree-HL

The tree is supposed to look beautiful, and– well, in human understanding it does, because it is perfectly proportional, amazingly luxurious, enormous in size, and it was ‘assembled’ of so many shining items, each one really beautiful in itself, that it wows everyone who takes a look at it.

But to me, it also looks bizarre, even a bit scary, especially now, when I know that it conceals three bodies of some day gorgeous and healthy trees and a mass of bamboo sticks and bolts.

It looks kind of scary because it reminds me of our world today: seemingly beautiful, shining and full of life, but being held together by quite a big mass of ugly stuff, and we, people people of the world, are nothing more than billions of shining, but freakishly vulnerable decorations, helplessly hanging down from it. Each of us knows this, but we prefer not to think about it: we keep hanging and shining, and pretending that there is nothing wrong with our big Mother tree.

I did not intend to make you sad by this post: I was just telling what I consider to be the truth. But if it did make you sad, it means that you also feel the way I do… at least a little bit. Do you?

Reading Elevation by Stephen King

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As soon as I finished reading Elevation, my very first thoughts about the book were these:
– The author must have reached a new level of personal maturity: his story teaches the reader.  A story like Elevation could never be written by a young, inexperienced lad. The author does not aim to boost anybody’s emotions, he rather intends to open the reader’s eyes at the most important things in life: understanding, support, friendship, kindness;
– Amazingly, after nearly five decades of writing thrillers and suspense, Stephen King has come up with a piece of full hearted, touching prose; and
– I love the fact that Elevation is not as long as some of King’s novels. Its length perfectly harmonizes with the plot and the pace of the story.

Elevation is a masterly written, brillitly plotted, very imaginative and paradoxical story, which literally glows with wisdom and kindness of its author. While reading the first chapters, I could not help anticipating a sudden twist of the plot or a shocking event that would change the dynamics of the narration, because… well, I was reading a Stephen King’s book, but nothing of the kind happened, and somewhere half way through the book I began to enjoy the unusually tender, touching and inspiring flow of the story.

It is set in a town of Castle Rock, where the locals live a dull, slow-paced, provincial life, full of prejudices and biases. The main character, Scott, who struggles with a mysterious illness that causes him to lose weight, becomes involved into a silly, escalating battle with the lesbians living next door. Little by little, Scott begins to understand the prejudices faced by his neighbors, and decides to make an attempt and help them.

Unlikely for Stephen King’s books, Elevation reads like a light, pacifying, heartwarming tale; it demonstrates how different experiences can influence our ways of thinking; it tells how resentment can be healed and proves that the most steadfast prejudices can be overcome. In his Washington Post review of the book, Ron Charles wrote: “[King] has written a slim book about an ordinary man in an extraordinary condition rising above hatred and learning to live with tact and dignity. That’s not much of a Halloween book, but it’s well timed for our terrifying season.”

I would strongly recommend this book to everyone: it is uplifing; it is elevating; it inspires hope, and hope is exactly what many of us need to overcome the laziness of mind and apathy in the middle of this “terrifying season”.

Back to Blogging

Female student writing at deskI never thought that returning to blogging after a break of a few months would be so difficult. In fact, these days, I am returning not only to blogging, but to writing fiction, as well. The break was necessary, for I had to focus on writing a massive non-fiction book on preparing for the first job interview, which is intended for students and college/university graduates. Now, that work is almost finished, the book will be published in one of the leading  Ukrainian publishing houses in 2019.

2018-09-27_sore-throatSo, my mind is free from that work, but I recently found out that it is kind of free from other thoughts, too! I am hollow and empty like a Christmas tree ball ornament!

It must be tiredness, I guess. Some call this a writer’s block, others call this laziness of mind, or procrastination.

Whatever it is, I need a boost. I hope that reading a really good fiction book can revive my emotional life, and then, I will be able to return to writing fiction again. Please, give me some advice on how to overcome it, if you have your ‘remedies’ against the thing called writer’s block.

Thank you!

 

The Aftertaste of Portnoy’s Complaint

Portnoys-complaintWhy do we rate some books as classics, while many other books remain labeled in our minds as ‘just another great novel’? To me, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is a good example illustrating the answer to this question.

When I opened Portnoy’s Complaint for the first time, I could feel its Jewish-American scent from the very first lines. It felt like being physically present in that community and knowing the protagonist and his family in person. The images drawn by Philip Roth were so vivid that I was disgusted by the feeling of presence in their bathroom when I came across the descriptions of various physiological acts performed there by the protagonist. Some scenes disturbed me: they reminded me of other similar families which I used to know. The first pages caused some unpleasant aftertaste, so I had to close the book for a while and let my disgust calm down.

However, the book did not let me go, I started thinking about it. Surprisingly, the scenes that had caused my disgust in the beginning, slowly floated away with time, and then the main character — the self-antagonistic protagonist with painfully inflamed, guilt-infested mind, captured my imagination. The few first pages of the book left such a strong aftertaste that I had no other choice, but to open the book again and read it to the end.

To be honest, this guy–the protagonist–still disgusts me: this obtrusive Jewish bore keeps making me think about his problems… against my will! No, I am not going to discuss his mental and emotional health here… not in this post, but isn’t it amazing how the protagonist has all the qualities of an antagonist, and in fact, in this book, he is both! Two in one!

What attracts my attention is the fact that Philip Roth’s novel has captured my imagination so much that, weeks after reading it, I still return to it in my mind, thinking about its characters as if they are real people living next door.

I am certainly not the first one to develop this aftertaste from the novel. The book has  been sensationally popular; millions of people have read it since the day it was published. As Bernard Avishai wrote in his article for Huffington Post,

“By 1975, six years after the book’s publication, Portnoy’s Complaint had sold nearly half a million copies in hardback in the United States, three and a half million in paperback. The book brought what was in the back of our minds to the tips of tongues.”

The reviews of the book are countless, too. And quite controversial. Some rate the book as absolutely excellent, others are openly negative, but nearly no one evaluates the book as average.

The novel touches every reader in a unique way, no matter what kind of emotions it evokes, because Portnoy’s Complaint is–

“…a novel that is playfully and painfully moving, but also a work that is certainly catholic in appeal, potentially monumental in effect–and, perhaps more important, a deliciously funny book, absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious.” NYTimes review

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How to Pick the Right Book to Read?

pick-a-book

Deciding what book to read is becoming more difficult every day due to the tremendous, ever-growing offer of books in the market, and I assume that making this choice will only become more challenging in the future. Whenever we approach a book shelf (or equally, when we do an online search), we have a number of personal preferences/criteria in mind, but neither the short description of the book, nor its cover, nor illustrations can guarantee that we will like the book. Looking through the readers’ reviews is also only a relatively-efficient way, because– well, you know, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

Is there an algorithm for selecting a book with a near 100% satisfaction guarantee?

Yes, there is one for me, and it is really simple. I believe that any book can be fairly evaluated by the quotes taken from it and the readers’ ratings of these quotes. Luckily, there are a number of websites (goodreads.com is one the most popular among them), where you can find lists of quotes nearly for every book. Whenever I need to make an opinion about a book, I go to those pages and read the quotes left by the readers of the book.

I know, it would be logical to ask, “What if a book has not been quoted on Goodreads yet?” Well, to me the answer is simple: I will wait till it is. There are thousands of other books to enjoy.

Another question would be, “What if I don’t like those quotes?” In this case, I’ll exclaim, “Great! This is exactly what you need to make your choice!” The best way to determine for yourself if the book ‘suits’ your personal taste and immediate reading needs is to read a few lines which other people have aready noted as the best pearls of the author. Simply look through the quotes and decide whether if you like them, or not. If you do, you will be reading the book the next minute. If you don’t, you can move on and look for another book.

My method may not be perfect, of course, but it suggests some degree of objectiveness, so it works for me. For example, if I search for quotes from Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller), I can see hundreds of quotes left by grateful readers, and I love nearly all of them. When I look for novels by James Patterson, there are also lots of quotes, but they are not always good to my liking. At this point the choice becomes personalized, and this is very good, because everyone can quickly determine for themselves, who of the authors they like more.

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The Thing About Luck

luckHuman luck is real, and it is a she. I have always known this with my subconscious mind, and now, when I have spent enough time studying it, I have learned to stay inspired with it. Luck shows itself to those who really want to see it, and Alice Hoffman’s words are correct: you don’t know if it is good or bad until you have some perspective.

My heroine Inga in A Soft Spot for Luck believes that–

…luck is a careless moth. It appears all of a sudden, circles around your hand, even touches it jauntily, and flies away, so you can’t catch it. We spend our whole lives chasing and trying to catch our luck, when in fact, all we need to do is just stretch out a hand and let it land there… Moreover, while we chase our moth of luck, we balance on the edge of an abyss, and the name of that abyss is Fate.”

moth2

To those who needs a vivid image of it, Luck looks like a moth. To some it is a myth, a thing to believe in; to others, it is an invisible being – a smart one – which offers us chances to pick from. But finally, luck is always drawn to the feeling that can be developed in us: inspiration of love.

Let me say this again: Luck is real. It is everywhere, inside and around us. We live in it like fish lives in water. Luck is our natural habitat, it is our other air. We simply don’t realize its presence, because we can’t see or touch it.

We tend to forget this at times – like breathing the air. But whenever we walk into a stuffy room, we start worrying about air conditioning, don’t we? The same thing with luck. We start complaining about luck insufficiency or luck failure when we don’t have enough of it. There is no need to follow or chase our luck; we just need to prepare ourselves to live with whatever it offers us.

Blow-dice

Huxley’s Novel Where Nothing Happens…

This post is about Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley. I just ran across a short Youtube video, where the reviewer’s main idea was to say that ‘characters talk a lot’, but ‘nothing really happens’ in the novel…

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I happened to have Crome Yellow in my home library since I was a teenager. The book was not a translation into Russian: it was an original, unabridged edition, a rare thing for the books, published in the Soviet Union. Now, I even think that the Soviet-time censors allowed it to be published because they also saw Crome Yellow as a book where ‘nothing really happens’. A perfect book for a censor, no doubt.   aldous6

It rested untouched in my room, on the English books shelf, for years. Published in 1979 by the USSR’s “Progress” publishing house, it was smaller than  traditional books, but a bit larger than classical Penguin books, so my mother left it standing right behind the glass of the shelf, showing me its whole cover, while a few dozens of original Penguin editions (once brought by Dad from a conference trip to America) were obediently lining along the shelf behind it.

Every morning, a sun beam creeped into the room to count little penguins on the book spines (I deliberately kept the curtains wide open to let the sunbeam in). I would wake up and lie quietly for a while, listening to birds chirping right outside and watching that beam. It would creep along the shelf and light up little images of penguins one by one, until it reached the bright yellow cover of Crome Yellow, and then the whole shelf would start glowing with tender, yellowish light. When the beam reached leter ‘R’, it was time for me to get up and go to school.

I did not try reading the books from that shelf until I was 16 or so. They were written in real American and British English, not the English that I was taught in the Soviet-time high school, so they were too difficult for me to read. When I finally turned my eyes toward that shelf, I was a senior high school student, preparing to enter a university department of English language and philology, and I was looking for every possible opportunity to learn the ‘real’ English language, which the natve speakers used.

Crome Yellow was the handiest book to reach, so I took it from the shelf first. Having struggled through the first dozen of pages, I realized that I could read it– with dictionary, of course, and very slowly, but I understood the language in general. Then, with every next page, I got used to Huxley’s style, and reading became easier. I think I did not understand some of the idioms, but I sensed sarcasm and the witty style of a young, intelligent and a bit maximalistic narrator from the very beginning. Thanks to Crome Yellow, for the first time in my life, I felt proud of myself: I could read original English classics!

At that time, I had no idea about other books written by Huxley, neither I knew who he was or when exactly he lived; I could not even tell whether he was British or American, but reading Crome Yellow opened the whole new world of literature-in-English for me. It was largely due to this book that I finally decided to pursue the idea of obtaining a university diploma in English language and literature.

Now, when I am familiar with most of Aldous Huxley’s books, I realized that I never happened to re-read Crome Yellow since university. I downloaded it for reading this morning, and from the very first lines I am in love with this book again!

How could that reviewer not see the wonderful work of mind going on right behind the words of the characters? How can anybody say that ‘nothing really happens’ in the book, when what happens every second is the work of sharp, witty, observational mind, which provokes the reader to think together with the narrator? To me, the excellence of the novel is exactly in its atypical plot structure: the simplicity of the plot was developed deliberately in order to picture the life of people, who ‘talk a lot’ and would like to accomplish a lot, but their intentions seldom go farther than just talking, so ‘nothing really happens’ in their lives.

Today, three decades after I was a teenager, that yellow cover still faces the window in my parents’ apartment, and the long shelf of Penguin books still makes a neat line behind it. Every time I visit my parents’ home, I am tempted to enter that room in the morning hours to see how the sun beam travels along the shelf, showing me little penguins on the book spines and creeping to reach yellow cover with big white letters: Crome Yellow. When it does, I remember the words from the book:

“All that happens means something; nothing you do is ever insignificant.”
― Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow

Aldous3It was a significant thing for me to watch that sun beam creep over Crome Yellow cover every morning: it helped me choose my directions in life. I am thankful to Huxley for this, because he could convince me so gently! Nothing really happened, but I came to the most important, life altering decision. Isn’t it what distinguishes a real classic from a scribbler?

* * *

These are my favorite lines from the book. Enjoy (or read the whole book, I am sure you will love it):

“He had been making an unsuccessful effort to write something about nothing in particular”

“Things somehow seem more real and vivid when one can apply somebody else’s ready-made phrase about them.”

“He took nobody by surprise; there was nobody to take.”

“As for women, I am perpetually assuring myself that they’re the broad highway to divinity”.

Dostoevsky’s drawings

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Fyodor Dostoevsky never discussed his drawings with anybody. Neither he left any notes describing his attempts to picture his characters or scenes from his stories. He must have believed that writing was a very intimate business, so the only person who was allowed to keep Dostoevsky’s diaries, notebooks and sketchbooks, was his wife, Anna. It was largely due to her effort that many of Dostoevsky’s sketches and drawings were preserved in very good condition and can be studied by researchers today.

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Interestingly, Dostoevsky never produced anything else but the three types of drawings:
1. Portraits of people, which were made with great attention to detail and, as a rule, they were images of his new characters, which he crafted while working on every new book;

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2. Architectural forms, mainly of Gothic style buildings, which Dostoevsky – an architect by diploma – also drew with amazing care for detail; and
3. Exercises in calligraphy, which, very probably, helped him concentrate when he was planning his novel plots, because these ‘exercises’ appear quite often among his notes, made at the beginning stages of work with every big manuscript.

D1 His drawings, as well as writing sketches are usually scattered all over the page, which shows how thoroughly he used to put together little pieces of ideas, scattered thoughts and observations to develop every scene, description, or dialog.

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This is how great books were (and are) put together: huge work of mind; mindblowing concentration of thought, amazing work of imagination.

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Writings from the Couch

Processes of Discovery in the Mind

Shelf Love

live mines and duds: the reading life