Learn English with Love!

Dear Friends,

just in case if someone of you is interested…The Romantic English Phrase Book, a perfect little gift to send to your romantic Russian-speaking friend, is now available as a Kindle book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07N7JMCH6

Learn English with Love!
Изучайте английский с любовью!

The phrase book was designed specifically to assist Russian-speaking women who are taking their first steps in learning English. It is a perfect communication tool for international couples in the moments when there is no interpreter at hand. Consider making this gift for your charming Russian-speaking friend and the phrase book will help you to establish your unique, common language of romance and togetherness.

The book has already helped dozens of couples. You are welcome to try it, too! https://www.amazon.com/dp/1545494223/

Kindle version: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07N7JMCH6

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.

Discussing Main Publishing Trends of 2018

booksIt is always good to be aware of the dynamics of the industry you represent, so I try not to miss the annual emails on main publishing trends that come with my subscriptions to various online resources for authors. In 2018, the major authors’ resource authorspublish.com has been discussing the following tendencies in the publishing industry:

1. The euphoria of self-publishing is wearing off ;

2. Independent publishers are becoming more likely to be closed to unsolicited submissions;

3. There are fewer eBook-only publishers (According to authorspublish.com, “A number of eBook-only publishers have closed this year. Others that have focused on eBooks only are now publishing print versions as well.”);

4. More literary journals are charging reading fees;

5. More prestigious literary journals are charging reading fees;

6. More literary journals are having free submission options;

7. Presses have no time to send rejections;

8. Print journals are becoming rarer and rarer;

9. Publishers are consolidating;

10. More small manuscript presses are using Submittable. 

These trends were kind of anticipated by experts, but now we have an ‘official’ confirmation that the changes are rue, which allows every author to make better conclusions about their personal writing and publishing strategies for 2019.

These facts, however, cannot provide a full and objective picture of the industry dynamics without another piece of information–on  international bestsellers lists for fiction books, published in a few European countries (France, Germany, Italy, and Spain) in English. After studying the lists provided in Nina Sabak’s article at publishingtrends.com and a few other similar resources, outlining current publishing trends in Russia, Poland and Germany, I came up with some interesting conclusions:

  1. There is an internationally developing tendency to print and sell mainly the books of certain genres: mainly mysteries, thrillers, then some fantasy books and a bit of speculative prose, while other popular genres (like romance) are not printed in large quantities in Europe;
  2. It is possible that the major publishers are taking steps toward printing mainly the bestsellers that can be regarded as ‘universally’ accepted pieces of reading and will more certainly be purchased as gifts (to be placed on a bookshelf and read again and again) rather than as pocket editions. This fact confirms that, due to the  quickly developing attitude to printed books as souvenirs rather than information (knowledge) carriers, the publishers all over the world tend to print a limited variety of the most popular bestsellers (innthe most popular genres), while the rest of the books tend to be distributed as e-books.

I also believe that in the nearest years, a new tendency to write shorter fiction books will continue to develop. This conclusion does not follow from the above mentioned articles, but the general tendencies listed here indirectly confirm such possibility.

Any way, the changes are coming tha they are inevitable. Let us see what changes the coming year is going to bring to the publishing industry. And now, just look at the beautiful picture below — very probably, for the last time, because as of now, more and more people prefer to have a kindle device or a phone in their hands while reading.

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Reading Elevation by Stephen King

elevation

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”.

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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Novel Chapters of the Size of Tweets?

Whenever I come across an attractive piece of reading, my first thought is: Why don’t I check out the Internet for some quotes from the book first? If I like the quotes, I can devote a few minutes to reading about the book and its author, and only then I would take the book and start reading it. shrinking-1

In the new millemium, this tendency has grown into a common pattern for many of us, because our time is too precious and the abundance of books which are marketed as bestsellers is so mindblowing that we simply cannot afford to ‘read everything we can get our hands on’, as many readers use to say about their childhood habits.

This change is going to influence the writers’ work, too. Today, the life of an author is such that in order to conquer readers’ attention, one has to compress every thought to the size of a tweet. I won’t be surprised if I see a bestseller with chapters of the size of tweets some day. This is the specificity of our time, and authors will have to adjust to it.

Our available reading time is shrinking, so do the lengths of fiction and non-fiction works. This is the thought that I wanted to share here, so I will wrap up the post, hoping that somebody will read it to the end.

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Agents Have Their Blocks, Too!

I have just ran across a blog post about reading blocks: a common problem for book editors and literary agents. The author explained that reading blocks may occur to everyone who works with books on daily basis, because they hardly ever read books for pleasure: to them, reading every new book means a hard work of mind, asking and answering questions like: ‘Can I sell this book?’ or ‘How am I going to promote it?’

The author of the post tried to convince her readers that even today, in the time when the world is facing terrible challenges like wars, economic stagnation, terrorism and increasing violence, the job of literary agents is needed, anyway, because they help create new voices in literature. Still, the gereral intonation of the post was a bit apologetic (at least to my mind), as if the author was trying to justify herself and her colleagues, so I felt bound to share my opinion on this.

Female student writing at desk

I am convinced that the work of finding new voices in literature IS very important: it is as important as finding new voices and discoveries in every other creative area.  Still, majority of people today tend to underestimate it, because they have already swallowed the poisonous pill of ignorance. This makes the role of humble publishing industry workers even more significant now, when the world is being shrugged by violence, terrorism, wars, arrogance and populism (in my mind all these phenomena grow from the same root of ignorance). By finding new voices and by bringing them to the world, editors and agents help promote education, intelligence, and ethical values, which altogether may help us overcome the disease of mass ignorance.

I would like to thank the editors and agents, who are not afraid to share about their work-related problems and chores. Knowing about your reading blocks helps us, authors, to see you as real people, rather than as ‘callous rejection machines’ with no emotions whatsoever (I picked this from Facebook).

The more talented voices are discovered and displayed to the world, the better our life will be, the less violence we will witness and the fewer ignorant minds will govern our lives. I am a strong believer in this principle, so I want to support and encourage you, editors and agents, to go on and do your work well.

As an educator, I have a similar professional goal: I share knowledge with those who can’t stand ignorance and I continuously look for new voices and smart ideas among the students I work with.

By the way, we, teachers, have teaching blocks, too. In fact, my recent block was so bad that I wrote a novel while trying to overcome it. But, as a popular saying goes, ‘once a teacher, always a teacher’, so I never stopped pursuing my mission: I teach. It does not matter where and in what form: in classroom, in the open air, online, or through the books I write.

To be able to teach really well, I need to learn from the new voices which you, editors and agents, create. So please, do not stop. Give us, readers, more food for thought… every day!

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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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Love… as Dostoevsky saw it.

Love. Is it a gift given to us from above, or a skill which can be developed by learning? I have been trying to figure this out, and of course, I am not the first one to ask this question. A great thinker of the 19-th century, Fyodor Dostoevsky, kept trying to answer this question during his whole life. Some of his thoughts on the topic can be found in his immortal novels. I spent this morning turning pages of my Soviet-time edition of Dostoevsky, published in 1958.

D001Let me start with a line from The Brothers Karamazov, one of the most acclaimed of Dostoevsky’s novels: 

“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Wow. Scary, isn’t it?

In the 19-th century the phrase ‘being unable to love’ sounded even worse than it sounds now: it meant that Creator himself had decided to deprive some particular people of the gift, and thus, they were in some way inferior, or sinful, or just ‘spotted’ and destinied to suffer endlessly.

Today, it is still common to hear that love is a gift given to us from above, but we tend to take it lightly, because — well — science tells us not to worry. “Love is a result of chemical reactions,” it says, “if your body has hormones — and, of course, every body has some,” it says, “then you have nothing to worry about: relax, you are capable of feeling love.”

Modern science looks at it with pragmatism, typical of the 21-st century. The notion ‘gift’ is defined by modern dictionaries as a natural ability or talent, and so, some people feel gifted for love, while others claim that love is a skill (interpreted by dictionaries as ‘the ability to do something well; expertise’), which can be acquired by training. Very convenient, don’t you think? 😉

When 150 years ago Dostoevsky wrote that–

“To love someone means to see them as God intended them.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

every reader would nod his head in agreement on reading this, a contemporary reader might shrug doubdfully or even express disagreement. Unlike our great-great-grandparents, we, modern people, prefer to believe that being in love is an exciting adventure, which may (and should) happen to anybody, it may involve lots of emotional experience, and– well, there is no need to worry: nobody dies of love anymore. Love is fun! Why even try to understand how God intended your partner, when you

In his latest stories, ever-gloomy Dostoevsky writes–

“To love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

Love IS a skill, agrees the great genius, because it can be developed. Moreover, it develops with suffering, it takes you time and suffering to learn the skill of love. In Dostoevsky’s latest story, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, his character says:

“I want to suffer so that I may love.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

If Dostoevsky’s characters finally managed to master the skill of love, they would realize the change that happened to them:

“They were renewed by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

but still, there was lots of suffering:

“But to fall in love does not mean to love. One can fall in love and still hate.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

and more suffering:

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

What a gloomy, dark, sad, derogatory approach! After this, I am not surprised that our high-school students are reluctant to read Dostoevsky.

Still, a genius is always a genuis. Even hundreds years later, his words remain meaningful. Moreover, they sound like a call for action, and no one of us could put it together as precisely as Dostoevsky did:

“Love a man, even in his sin, for that love is a likeness of the divine love, and is the summit of love on earth.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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P.S. This is a photo of a page from Dostoevsky’s book of notes. One of these days, I am going to put together a little post about his drawings and calligraphy practice. It seems he loved drawing while planning his scenes.

Shelf Love

live mines and duds: the reading life

May The Best Book Win!

librocubicularist | nonfiction | moonlights as the host of Silent Book Club Kota Kinabalu | writes on Scrivener