What If You Wasted Your Entire Life?

Leo Tolstoy and the Meaning of Life

Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy

Like many wealthy young men, Tolstoy spent his days vacillating between the responsibilities of a young noble and the pleasures of the whore house. Finally, he mostly gave up on both and found religion.  Found True Religion is more accurate. He was Russian Orthodox his entire life until renouncing orthodoxy for his own version of True Faith in Jesus. The Death of Ivan Ilyich – a novella easily read in an afternoon – was his first published effort after his awakened faith. It tells the story of a man who, with no real effort or drive, rises to a mid-level bureaucratic position, and in so doing, learns to despise his once beloved wife, largely ignores his once adorable children, and spends his time proving to his colleagues and neighbors that he is a man of great culture and import. He is a Kardashian: pretense with little substance.

While hanging curtains in his new and ostentatious home,  Ilyich falls. Over the next days, he feels an ache in his side and then develops a metallic taste in his mouth. At his wife’s nagging, he agrees to see a doctor, then doctors, and then specialists who all fail to accurately diagnose his ailment. He knows, but will not admit, that he is in a downward spiral toward pain and death. He comes to detest his life and despises those around him. Death was never meant for him. Not now! Doctors, friends, and family are all liars who feign concern but plot their escape to the card table. People avoid him, he thinks, because he reminds them of death, of wasting, and of their own demise. His only comfort is his peasant servant, a theme seen throughout all of Tolstoy’s writing.

His last days are excruciating. Not from pain only but from the pestering realization that he has lived his life wrongly. Like a vapor. He has lived a false life elevating artifice and selfishness just as those he now despises. Just an hour before dying he feels release realizing that a good life is an authentic life.  A peasant life.  A life of empathy and compassion. His heart turns and he is washed in love and pity for his family and friends. He sees his death as their release from the burden of his care.

No Answers But Good Questions

But Ilyich is no mere pamphlet.  Tolstoy avoids pedantry and Ilyich’s dying revelations are implied and open to interpretation. Is this part of Tolstoy’s genius? To let each reader meander to their own meanings? Can we live authentically as wealthy people? What good is it to ‘inherit the earth’ if you are poor, weak, and dying? Thirteen years later, Tolstoy will publish Resurrection where the themes of Ilych are expanded. The Death of Ivan Ilyich rests comfortably on the same bookshelf with other great philosophical fiction (and isn’t all Russian lit philosophical?). Tolstoy presents the problem, hints at solutions, but raises as many questions as he answers.

What does it mean for readers of It’s The Good Life? Tolstoy’s protagonist came to see on his deathbed what we already know: the good life includes living intentionally, engaging relationships, and knowing what is truly meaningful. There are still questions: are leisure and fine things wrong? Is there an intrinsic reward in service and hard work? I’ll let you read the book and work these things out for yourself.

Modern readers can struggle with the prose and Tolstoy famously takes time to develop the story. But it is a wonderful and thought-provoking read. Can be profitably read and re-read.

Four stars.

Go here to see the book on Amazon.
Go here to see the book on Goodreads.


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What If Your Mountain Was Just A Mountain of Crumbs?

 A Mountain Of Crumbs

I found much to enjoy here and much to relate to: my grandparent’s extreme frugality and my mother’s granite belief in the duty of hard work. My family’s sloughing off of the old ways. Gorokhova tells the interesting history of a young girl growing up in the Soviet Union but I wish she would have parsed her story more thoroughly. Why was her mother such a staunch supporter of the state? How did the author decide so easily to leave country, family, and friends? I would have loved for her to juxtapose the poverty and security of the Soviet welfare state versus freedom loving Americans who, awash with money and religion, allow people to ‘sleep under bridges’ and suffer without health care.

It seemed so easy for the author to leave her homeland and family. Leading up to the point, she never expresses longing for freedom or for the West. Mostly she is perturbed with silly state protocol – the same things I feel when I renew my driver’s license. In fact, her decision to leave isn’t really even a decision: she simply jumps aboard a wind that blows from an American student: he proposes to her as a means to help her leave the USSR with the caveat that he will continue to see other women while they are married. This apparently presents a better future than the author is expecting in Moscow but she doesn’t explain why.

However much I wished for something deeper, I was absorbed by the book and story. The prose is wonderful, especially for a non-native speaker. The characters can be thin and, typical for memoirs, there are dry spots but the story will carry anyone with an interest in family or history. This isn’t quite Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn but a very good read in its own right. I’m not sure of the book’s appeal to those without a connection to Russia or the Eastern Bloc. Well worth the cost.

A Mountain of Crumbs
The mountain hamlet of my Slovak Grandparents

Three-and-a-half stars. Well worth the price of admission.

See here at Amazon
See here at Goodreads

Go here for the author’s website



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The best written novella ever?

Norman Mailer is quoted as saying that he wouldn’t change two words of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. I won’t even attempt to try to review it except to say that it’s the best short thing I’ve read in a long, long time. I was surprised at how dark the story is compared to the movie adaptation.  Was Holly damaged or just controlling her own destiny with absolutely no care for any other human? Was she capable of caring? What is the morality of using people when they line up voluntarily to do your bidding? Great read with fantastic prose. I’m on the hunt for more Capote.

This quote captures much of the sense of the story:

‘Never love a wild thing, Mr. Bell,’ Holly advised him. ‘That was Doc’s mistake. He was always lugging home wild things. A hawk with a hurt wing. One time it was a full-grown bobcat with a broken leg. But you can’t give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do, the stronger they get. Until they’re strong enough to run into the woods. Or fly into a tree. Then a taller tree. Then the sky. That’s how you’ll end up, Mr. Bell. If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky.’



Does adulthood rob the joys of reading?

If you loved books as a child, you know the feeling. Immersion isn’t the right word for that implies that you keep yourself. It’s more of a complete melting of lines. You are in the story. The story world is the real world. You are so lost that coming back to your mother’s world with the call of ‘dinner’s ready’ is absolutely annoying.

As a grown-up, I’ve experienced this just a few times. I’ve only read part of one Stephen King book. I don’t know the title or the story but a group of plants uproot themselves and start chasing someone. It was so completely frightening that I put the book down. Then I sat back and laughed. Crap-o-moly. I’m a damned scientist. Plants chasing people? That’s scary? That’s just stupid. And I’ve never picked up another King book. Two other books caught me in the same way. One was Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy (my review here) and the other was History, A Novel by Elsa Morante. I’ve gone back to both as an older grown-up and found them to be less of what I remembered. Which is just fine. We change and we age and so do our tastes.

All this to say that there are three wonderful short essays in the New York Times this week about just the topic. The first two are in the weekly feature Bookends where two writers opine on a topic. This week’s is Is It Harder To Be Transported by a Book as Your Get Older? In the first part, Francine Prose talks about the veil between book-worlds and real-worlds. I’m fascinated by her point that “for many children, the line between reality and the imagination is thinner and more porous than it is for most adults. When a 4-year-old talks to her mermaid doll, she is talking to a mermaid.” She goes on to say that, as we age, and as reality sets in (presumably a reality of  sick children and bills and careers), we begin cross-referencing our reading. We step out of and more observe the world where mermaids talk back to us. We start to compare this character with that one and this plot with this book. For me, inept as I am with commas, I scan the page for correct usage. (How sad is that!) This leads directly to Benjamin Moser‘s observation that it gets harder to enjoy reading for reading’s sake as one puts on the mantle of a professional writer.

The third essay is a quick interview with Mary Roach, author of a series of non-fiction let-me-explain-this-kind-of-creepy-stuff books. She is asked about the last great book she read. She says that she ‘missed my flight for literature’ reading Tim Johnston’s Descent. She was so engrossed in the book that she missed the boarding announcement for her flight. That’s happened to me, too, but I attribute it to old age and hearing loss.


A dreary end for old men

Now here’s a sad description of the end. From The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, Chapter 2:

First line of the chapter:

My father was slowly fading, wilting before our eyes.

And the last lines from the same chapter:

What still remained of him – the small shroud of his body and the handful of nonsensical oddities – would finally disappear one day, as unremarkable as the grey heap of rubbish swept into a corner, waiting to be taken by Adelia [house keeper] to the rubbish dump.

And then there’s the famous line by Yeats in Sailing to Byzantium:

An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick.

Hmm. Schultz was Polish. Yeats Irish. Maybe I should move to Japan where they honor their old folk?



Tolstoy, Mother Earth News, and Can’t We All Just Get Along?


First, an apology

Sometimes, I think I should apologize to my friends and readers. Blogging wisdom tells authors to select a topic, write about it widely and deeply, and provide usable and shareable content for readers. And don’t forget the SEO! Besides the brute fact that I hate the very concept of content there are just too many things that fascinate me to limit my writing to one topic.  I tried running multiple sites one time and it was just too time consuming. So I appreciate every reader who hangs in there when something like Tolstoyan communes pops up.

I saw this article in the New Yorker about life in one of the last Tolstoyan communes. Now, I love me some Tolstoy. I’ve read most of his major writing at least once, took up Russian – Здравствуйте! – to read his books in the original (and have never done so), and whenever asked, I’m happy to offer my opinion that Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written. It’s a little embarrassing but I even started dressing like the Great Man once. Nothing like wearing a bright green smock with a wide belt to get you some stares.

Tolstoy Communes

It’s well known among students of Tolstoy that he basically invented his own religion based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He rejected mystery, miracles, and the spiritual and considered Jesus to be a wise but very human teacher. He corresponded frequently with Gandhi about non-violence and pacifism and ate a vegetarian diet. He identified with the poor, setting up schools and eschewing a life of wealth and ease. He tried to forgo sex and struggled deeply with his ‘animal lust’ as Troyat outlines in his biography of the writer. In other words, he actually lived the way he talked. It’s unheard of today, even in religious circles, and certainly one reason for his appeal in a time of great tumult.

Wiki says that there were Tolstoyan communes throughout the world and all adhered to principles of non-violence, non-resistance, and vegetarianism. Commune members lived simply and did not participate in government. They considered the state to be a violent and corrupt means of artificial control. In many ways, they were similar to the British and American Shakers. Alas, Tolstoyan Communities had a short history. Most attempted to be self-sustaining and weren’t able to support themselves. Neighbors were often suspicious of their non-violent neighbors. Governments made life difficult for them. Finally, it’s hard to keep a movement growing when you fail to propagate membership from within. Abstinence wasn’t a requirement but was very highly regarded.

Tolstoy had mixed feelings about the groups formed after his name. He was happy to see people joining together to champion non-violence and simplicity but argued strongly he should never be propped up as a model and that every man should seek out his own answers within himself.

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Good Gawd – read this book!

Book Review, The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey

Good gawd. What a glorious book.

The story begins bleak and droning with bright cold punctuated by the briefest of flashes of pure joy. Mabel and Jack live lives of dark loss after Mabel births a stillborn child. They move from home in Pennsylvania to a homestead in Alaska as far away from memories as possible. Jack is a farmer of sorts but older and nothing in Pennsylvania has prepared him for the hardship of wooing a living from the Alaskan wild. And Mabel? She’s the soft child of a university lit professor who is only sure that nothing can be more difficult than living in the place where her soul is buried under a tree in the orchard. Jack works hard on the land all day and at night wonders if Mabel’s spirit will ever awaken. Mabel spends the day cooking, sweeping, and wondering if the new ice on the Wolverine River will break under her weight and finally relieve her of an unbearable burden. But it’s the first snow of the season and in a rare giddy moment they both go outside and build a snow man. A short smooth snowman that Jack shapes into a snow girl. The next morning they wake with the world is still frozen but the snow girl is gone along with her hat and mittens.

Jack sees it first. A flash of red through the woods. A red fox on its heels. Then Mabel sees too. After a time and after days of hints both see the girl – a fairy wisp of a thing on which snowflakes land but never melt. From here the story brings the girl closer into the couple’s lives and then into the lives of friends. But questions are never resolved. Really never even asked. Might asking be too presumptuous? Is the child real? How does she survive? Where does she go each summer? Can she summon the weather? We never know. At the story’s end, all that is left are clothes in the snow, empty but still buttoned closed. Unlike Aesop, there is no moral to the story. There is no resolution, no crescendo.

It amazes me but the book doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some have said that it’s only a retelling of a favorite Russian fairy tale. I suppose it is. So is Stravinsky’s wonderful Rite of Spring but that doesn’t diminish the work. I’ve read that some find it boring and admit that there is a kind of droning and unrelenting undertone of barrenness that permeates the story but the magic of the child overwhelms the bleak landscape. Others forget that the story is a fairy tale where normal rules of physics don’t always apply. Yes, there are technical inconsistencies but I’ve never figured out how Aladdin flew his carpet either. This is no manual for homesteading the Alaskan wilderness.

Several themes run throughout the book. There are good questions about family and community. Ownership weaves a thread through the book. Who owns the land? Who owns the girl? Death looms large and is always present. It’s wild Alaska, after all, in the early part of the last century, where a living wasn’t so much made as extracted from the life around you. Ivey avoids blood simply for blood’s sake but doesn’t shy from it either. Animals are trapped, shot, and skinned. Even the Snow Child captures and dispatches her meals with nonchalant ease. And there is the death and birth of magic and wonder. Mabel, through the loss of a child, has lost even more deeply. She is presented as an old and sad woman without hope or glint in her eye. Everything is dark. Is her inner death worse than any that the thin river ice would offer? But whatever embers she harbors inside flame instantly to life with the Snow Child. And even if we can’t hold magic –isn’t an intangible hope exactly what magic is? –  just being able to imagine that it could be true can be uplifting.

Ivey has stacked her mantle with enough trophies and awards to overwhelm any writer and rightly so.  The writing is perfect. Words are perfectly chosen and sentences crafted just so to lead the reader to the next. Read it first for the story and then for the prose. And then read it again.

Five Stars

Eowyn Ivey’s blog Letter From Alaska here.

The Snow Child page here with reader questions.

LitLovers Community page for The Snow Child here.

The Snow Child on Amazon here.

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