Lit in the Time of War: Frankl

Hello. Welcome to December. I hope you’re healthy, safe, and as warm as could be expected during these cold times. I’ve reviewed one book this week (due to it being a busy last week of classes). It’s a very meaningful book, though. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

(Note: This review mentions suicide.)

Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, by Viktor Frankl,
Narrated by David Rintoul

“What we create, experience, and suffer in this time, we create, experience, and suffer for all eternity. As far as we bear responsibility for an event, as far as it is ‘history,’ our responsibility, it is overwhelmingly burdened by the fact that something that has happened cannot be taken out of the world. However, at the same time, an appeal is made to our responsibility precisely to bring what has not yet happened into the world.”

Victor Frankl is famous for his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, and for creating Logotherapy (existentialist therapy). Yes To Life: in Spite of Everything contains lectures he gave that became the foundation for Man’s Search for Meaning. Surprisingly, these lectures were only published in English in 2020.

The lectures are about the pointlessness of suicide, the unethical nature of euthanasia, Frankl’s own experiences in a concentration camp, and the ultimate power people have to create meaning in spite of everything that may seem to strip life of any meaning it may have had.

The book was terrific in getting this last (and main) point across. Some people may lose heart in the face of adversity (of any kind), but others can see it as a call to meaning and come to approach life with more determination and intention.

Overall, if you’re looking for a convincing case for life’s enduring meaningfulness, or are interested in tracing the development of Frankl’s philosophy, I would strongly recommend Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything.

As promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

The Salvation Army–Provides food, warm bedding, stoves, and hygiene kits to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://sawso.org/sawso/ukraine-disaster-and-refugee-relief

Direct Relief–Gives medical aid to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://www.directrelief.org/emergency/ukraine-crisis/

Project HOPE–Gives medical and mental health support to refugees in Ukraine, Moldova, Poland, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.projecthope.org/crisis-in-ukraine-how-to-help/04/2022/

Core–Provides medical, food, cash, and long-term support to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://www.coreresponse.org/ukraine/

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Lit in the Time of War: Collins

Hello. I hope you had a meaningful Thanksgiving. I read one book this week, and have reviewed it below. I have also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, by Suzanne Collins,
Read by Santino Fontana

“The shirt. The shirt. His [Coriolanus Snow’s] mind could fixate on a problem like that, anything really, and not let go. As if controlling one element of his world would keep him from ruin. It was a bad habit that blinded him to other things that could harm him. A tendency toward obsession was hardwired into his brain and would likely be his undoing if he couldn’t learn to outsmart it.”

“‘You know what I won’t miss? People,’ Coriolanus replied. ‘Except for a handful. They’re mostly awful if you think about it.’ ‘People aren’t so bad, really,’ she [Lucy Gray] said. ‘It’s what the world does to them. Like us in the arena. We did things in there we’d never have considered if they’d just left us alone.’”

“‘It certainly supports her [Dr. Gaul’s] view of humanity. Especially using the children.’ ‘And why is that?’ asked Dean Highbottom. ‘Because we credit them with innocence. And even if the most innocent among us turn to killers in the Hunger Games, what does that say? That our essential nature is violent,’ Snow explained. ‘Self-destructive,’ Dean Highbottom murmured.”

If you’ve read The Hunger Games, you probably heard of Coriolanus Snow, the dictator of the dystopia known as Panem. Well, this book gives us life from his perspective—the events and choices that cause him to become the dictator we all know and hate. Along the way, he participates in the 10th Hunger Games by mentoring a girl named Lucy Gray Baird, falls in love with her, and has to keep her from dying in the Games.

This book was unexpectedly terrific. It had psychological depth—Snow wasn’t treated as irredeemably evil, instead being nuanced and understandable (having to control everything because he had no control in his youth during the war, etc.). Collins also didn’t judge him, which was impressive, given what he went on to do in the book.

She also included a lot of thought-provoking ideas. After the war, the Capitol suppresses the Districts as a form of punishment. Although there is an ideal of the Capitol as a very fair and noble government, there’s also a mentality of fear in the Capitol (causing a concern with superficiality and images of power and stability instead of with substantial compassion to the citizens).

The book’s philosophical angle is also seen through Snow’s discussions with Dr. Gaul, one of the people in charge of running the Hunger Games. Dr. Gaul says that the Capitol is at eternal war with the Districts, and this justifies the Hunger Games. But she doesn’t consider another way out—coming to understand the Districts and treating them with the respect and compassion they deserve.

What also made this book good was how it implied a connection between Snow’s primal needs (for control) and the eventual philosophical rationalizations (people are evil and need to be controlled or destroyed preemptively, etc.) that grew around these fears like a kind of protective armor. It’s easy to ascribe humanity’s woes and evils to flawed or twisted philosophies, but that’s not the whole story, and Collins’s book gets at the deeper needs driving the creation of these twisted philosophies. This point makes the book a very important read.

Overall, if you’re looking for an excellent and well-paced philosophical character-study, I’d recommend this book.

As promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able, especially since it’s Giving Tuesday and your donations will likely make more of an impact today due to nonprofits’ special fundraising campaigns:

House of Ukraine: The only Ukrainian cultural museum south of Los Angeles. This Giving Tuesday, they’re raising $50,000 in medical supplies for Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://houseofukraine.org/

UNICEF: Delivers urgent supplies (medicine, water, etc.) and academic support to children in Eastern Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.unicefusa.org/mission/emergencies/child-refugees-and-migrants/war-ukraine

International Rescue Committee: Gives food, medical care, and emergency supplies to Ukrainians in need. This Giving Tuesday, they’re matching donations up to $1,500,000. Donate here: https://help.rescue.org/donate/ukraine-acq

Doctors Without Borders: Gives urgent medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. This Giving Tuesday, gifts up to $195,000 will be matched. Donate here: https://donate.doctorswithoutborders.org/secure/giving-tuesday-22

Lit in the Time of War: Dillon

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I’ve read one book this week and have reviewed it below. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

Suppose a Sentence, by Brian Dillon

“What did I think I was seeing in these other sentences? Or hearing, or hoping to emulate? With the first three, it’s obvious: an epigrammatic snap, some truth at odds with received wisdom, a relevance to writing, a degree of portability: as a critic, I can imagine insinuating any one of them into an essay or review. Maybe not without a little pomp and satisfaction. But the others? How to say, because this must be the word, what I love there?”

This is a book recommended to me by a professor. It’s about sentences. Namely, it surveys different sentences across time, from Shakespeare to Anne Carson, and comments on them. The author seems keen to get at what makes the sentences work for him, which is interesting to read about. It’s also cool to see the evolution of the sentence throughout time, and how what makes such sentences good throughout time change.

That’s what I got in terms of content. What my professor really wanted me to pay particular attention to was how the author used sentences himself to effectively convey his scholarly argument. It was fascinating to see this, given that he started out the entire book with a super long sentence, included fragments throughout, and seemed more like he was having a conversation about a very interesting topic than he was trying to stiffly contrive his words into an academic-ish mold. There’s room for playfulness, in other words, and that’s inspiring.

Overall, if you like style, sentences, or are looking for a way to give your academic writing more panache (like myself), this book is a terrific and valuable read, and I’d definitely recommend.

As promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able:

Razom For Ukraine—Provides medical relief for soldiers and doctors on the front line. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

Revived Soldiers Ukraine—Provides medical support to soldiers and civilians. Donate here: https://www.rsukraine.org/

United Help Ukraine—Provides medical supplies to soldiers, and ships goods to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://unitedhelpukraine.org/

World Central Kitchen—Feeds Ukrainian refugees as they cross into Poland. Donate here: https://wck.org/

I’ve Been Published!

I’m so honored to have my crime story “And Then We Sailed Away” published in the wonderful Uncharted Magazine. My editor referred to it as a story about the nature of goodness and complicated family ties, which I think sums it up perfectly. This story is very special to me because I first wrote it in high school. Persistence pays off–I’m thrilled with where it wound up, and am so grateful for everyone involved in publishing it.

You can read the story below. Note that it does contain dark themes (given that it’s a crime story!) If you do read it, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Lit in the Time of War: Meshchaninova, Ng, and Wiesel

Hello! Happy November, and happy National Adoption Month. I’ve read three books this week, all having to do with adoption in some form or another, and have reviewed them below. I’d recommend all of them, but would likely recommend the third one the most. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

Stories of A Life: A Novel, by Natalya Meshchaninova,
Translated by Fiona Bell

(Note: This review mentions sexual abuse)

“The diary should start in a mysterious tone, I thought. On a new page I wrote something like: ‘I am Natalie. I’m 14 years old, but already mature enough…’ I liked what I’d written, about how I was already mature enough. It wasn’t clear what I was mature enough for, but it was good. A promising start. I continued: ‘My love overwhelms me’ (no need to mention that it was unrequited). ‘My beloved is a handsome man with sensual lips. Yesterday, as I walked through the park on my way home from practice’ (no need to say what sport, it lent some mystery) ‘my heart began pounding. I sensed that he was gaining on me, my demon, my dark angel’ [….] Now satisfied with the first page of my diary, I moved on. Although, of course, none of it bore any relation to reality.”

This is a book about a girl named Natalie who grows up in Russia after the fall of Soviet Union, is sexually abused by her uncle Sasha, and tries to come to terms with her suffering.

While the book was very sad, it also had some unexpectedly humorous parts (such as the excerpt above). I found that its humor made the sad parts even sadder.

The book also had some very good observations about neglect’s impact on peoples’ growth. Natalie had an adoptive sister who her parents somehow despised. The sister went on to steal and do drugs. Natalie’s sister then had a son who also went on to steal and get in trouble with the law. According to Natalie’s observations, both were doing this to get attention, even if it was bad attention, in the hopes that such attention might somehow turn into the affection they’d never had.

Overall, this was a short but excellent read that I would definitely recommend.

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng, Read by Jennifer Lim

“‘How about other books, Mrs. McCullough? [Did she buy] Any other books with Chinese characters [for her adopted Chinese daughter]?’ Mrs. McCullough bit her lip. ‘I haven’t really looked for them,’ she admitted. ‘I hadn’t thought about it.’ ‘I can save you some time,’ said Ed Lan. ‘There really aren’t very many. So May Ling [the daughter] has no dolls that look like her, and no books with pictures of people that look like her.’ Ed Lan paced a few steps. Nearly two decades later, others would raise this question, would talk about books as mirrors and windows, and Ed Lan, tired by then, would find himself as frustrated as he was grateful. ‘We’ve always known,’ he would think. ‘What took you so long?’”

This is a book about a girl named Pearl and her nonconformist mother named Mia, who move into a development called Shaker Heights in Ohio. Pearl becomes infatuated with the lifestyle of their conformist and rich landlord, Elena Richardson, and befriends the Richardson children. However, when Mia and Elena find themselves taking opposite sides of an adoption scandal, Pearl and Mia’s newfound stability (and past secrets) are threatened.

I have controversial thoughts about this book. I felt as though the author did not care about the characters as people. Instead, she seemed to care about them only as much as they were useful for her to convey the ideas she wanted to.

This came across in various ways. For instance, the Richardsons were not sincerely humanized—yes, the author tossed them a few bits of sympathy, but for some reason they rang false, making me feel like the author was just including superficially-sympathetic details out of a kind of halfhearted obligation. The unsympathetic portrayal of these characters contrasted strikingly with the author’s idealized portrayal of Mia—many characters suddenly loved her (some people loving her to the point of being willing to commit crimes for her sake), and whoever didn’t love her was portrayed as irrationally entrenched in mean-spirited ways.

Contrast this with a book like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—neither book truly humanized their antagonists, but while Ng’s book sincerely idealized its protagonist, Kesey’s book took its protagonist somewhat less seriously (and portrayed him with flaws that made him seem real). Kesey’s book definitely has its own problems, but overly-idealizing its protagonist wasn’t one of them.

For me, the only part of this book that truly felt sincere was the adoption case and its proceedings. The lawyer Ed Lan (mentioned in the excerpt above) felt like one of the only genuinely sympathetic characters in the book. I felt that the author seemed to have put more thought into his viewpoint, emotions, and ideas than she did for many of the main protagonists, and I was hoping for more of this thoughtfulness to show up throughout the rest of the book.

Overall, I would say that Little Fires Everywhere was very readable (and if you listen to the audiobook, you’ll find that its narrator’s terrific). However, in my very subjective opinion, the book wasn’t very open and sincere towards many of its characters, and thus wasn’t as strong as it could have been.

I’d still recommend that you read it for yourself though—you may disagree entirely with my thoughts. You might even find a new favorite book.

The Time of the Uprooted, by Elie Wiesel,
Translated by David Hapgood

“‘[…] Your mother tells me she has found a wonderful charitable woman who will look after you. You must be respectful to her. And obedient. And grateful. You will use the Christian name that she gives you, but never forget that you carry the name of my own father: Gamaliel. Try not to dishonor it. You’ll take it back as yours when this ordeal is over. Promise me you won’t disown your name. Every name has its story. Promise me, my child Gamaliel, that one day you will tell that story.’ And the child promised.”

This is a book about a Jewish kid named Gamaliel whose parents have a Hungarian Christian woman take him in so he can escape persecution during the Holocaust. He takes on a false name and never sees his parents again. Many years later, Gamaliel is an old man in America, feeling dispossessed and disconnected. His only friends are a group of other exiles who have suffered persecution under various regimes. When Gamaliel is asked to communicate with a disfigured Hungarian woman in a hospital, he wonders if she might be the Christian woman who had adopted him so long ago.

This book was terrific. It had a lot of good thoughts about life. It also had tremendous emotional impact (I literally cried at the end, and I don’t cry easily). It was clear that the author truly cared about his characters, and this made all the difference in how he saw them and portrayed them.

What I also found fascinating about this book was how self-concerned Gamaliel was. At the same time, though, his self-concern didn’t come off as narcissistic, since it was also evident that he truly cared about the other characters. You got to hear about the other exiles’ stories, and one of these stories in particular was one of the most impactful parts of the book.

Overall, if you’re looking for a terrific book about refugees, meaning, compassion, and reconnection, I would wholeheartedly recommend Wiesel’s The Time of the Uprooted.

If you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

As promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

Voices of Children—Provides psychological counseling for children and helps refugee evacuations. Donate here: https://voices.org.ua/en/

Save the Children—Provides food, water, money, hygiene kits, and psychosocial support to children. Donate here: https://www.savethechildren.org/us/where-we-work/ukraine

UNCHR Refugee Agency—Provides refugees with food, water, health support, and assistance in rebuilding damaged houses. Donate here: https://give.unrefugees.org/

American Red Cross—Provides medicine, food, and hygiene items to Ukrainians. Also helps refugees reconnect with missing family-members. Donate here: https://www.redcross.org/about-us/our-work/international-services/ukraine-crisis.html

Lit in the Time of War: Wiesel, Lahiri, and Erofeev

Hello! I hope you are all well. If you are in the US, I hope you are all voting!

I’ve read three books this week, and have reviewed them below. I have also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.


From The Kingdom of Memory: Reminiscences by Elie Wiesel,
By Elie Wiesel

“What lessons can be learned from this? Two men can be brothers and yet wish to kill each other, and also whoever kills, kills his brother. But we only learn these lessons too late. In time of war, whoever is not our brother is our enemy; we are forbidden to be compassionate or give in to our imagination. If the soldier were to imagine the suffering he is about to inflict, he would be less eager to wage war. If he were to consider the enemy a potential victim—and therefore capable of weeping, of despairing, of dying—the relationship between them would change. Every effort is made, therefore, to limit, even stifle, his imagination, his humanitarian impulses, and his capacity to experience a feeling of brotherhood toward his fellow man.”

Elie Weisel is so wise. This book collects his wisest speeches and essays all in one place. In this book, he talks about his experiences during the Holocaust, literature’s power, the importance of remembering atrocities of the past instead of denying them, and his hopes for peace.

If you were to read only two books by Wiesel, I would recommend this book and Night. It’s hard to explain how important From The Kingdom of Memory is without reading it yourself, but I hope that you get a sense of it from the passage I have quoted, and that you are inspired to read it yourself.

In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, Translated by Ann Goldstein

“Credo che il mio nuovo linguaggio, piú limitato, piú acerbo, mi dia uno sguardo piú esteso, piú maturo. Ecco la ragione per cui continuo, per il momento, a scrivere in italiano.”

“I think that my new language, more limited, more immature, gives me a more extensive, more adult gaze. That’s the reason I continue, for now, to write in Italian.”

Once upon a time, the author Jhumpa Lahiri wrote in English. Then she moved to Italy and started writing only in Italian. This is a book about why she chose to write in Italian.

It has some interesting ideas about language and identity—Lahiri associated different languages with different emotions. She associated Bengali and English with insecurity and embarrassment, for instance, but associated Italian with escape and creating her own identity.

Given this focus, her book gave me a better understanding of language’s importance in creating identity. It also left me with a lot of questions. Why did Lahiri think that she could grow more as a writer in Italian than in English? She mentions that it gives her a new perspective, which makes sense, and how never really having a mastery of Italian would mean she’d always be growing in terms of language, but isn’t there much more to writing (like understanding other people) than perspective and language-mastery? Still, I admire her a lot for switching to Italian, and for writing this book in Italian after only a year or so in Italy.

Overall, if you’re curious about language and identity, I’d recommend this book.

Moscow to the End of the Line, by Venedikt Erofeev,
Translated by H.W. Tjalsma

“Now I’m almost in tears feeling sorry for myself [….]I’m sorry because I just calculated that from Chekhov Street to this hallway I drank up six rubles—but where and what and in what sequence, to good or evil purpose? This nobody knows and, now, nobody will ever know. Just as we don’t know to this day whether Tsar Boris killed the Tsarevich Dimitri or the other way around.”

“This [brew] is more than a beverage—it is the music of the spheres. What is the finest thing in the world? The struggle for the liberation of humanity. But even finer is this (write it down):
Zhiguli Beer: 100 g.
‘Sadko’ Shampoo: 30 g.
Dandruff Treatment: 70 g.
Athlete’s Foot Remedy: 30 g.
Small Bug Killer: 20 g.
The whole thing is steeped for a week in cigar tobacco and served at table.”

Moscow To The End of The Line stars a fictionalized version of Venedikt Erofeev as he drunkenly boards a train and tries to stay onboard long enough to reach the end of the line, his girlfriend, and his son. Along the way, he speaks (and drinks) with angels, sphinxes, devils, and ordinary passengers. He also makes a lot of references to Russian history, literature, and art, so if you know a lot of Russian history, have read a lot of Russian literature, and have seen a lot of Russian art, this is the book for you! If not, I would recommend holding off until you have done the above. The book is very funny already but it’s even funnier if you know what the author’s referencing.

Finally, I think that beyond the book’s humor, you could interpret it as saying a lot about how revolutions go awry—they can set off towards one destination only to wind up in a completely different place (like a drunken guy on a train).

So those are my thoughts about this terrific book. I would definitely recommend you read it sometime in your life, but you may want to read it sooner or later, depending on your knowledge of Erofeev’s references.

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books. Feel free to comment below!

Finally, as promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need:

Razom For Ukraine—Provides medical relief for soldiers and doctors on the front line. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

Cash for Refugees—An organization founded by refugees for refugee. Gives cash to Ukrainian refugees so they can use the money for needs not covered by other humanitarian efforts (like SIM cards and clothes) and reclaim a sense of agency. Donate here: https://donorbox.org/cashforrefugees2

Mriya—An organization started by Boston University students to provide items like tourniquets and sleeping bags to Ukrainian soldiers. Donate here: https://mriya-ua.org/

Doctors Without Borders—Ships emergency supplies to Ukrainian hospitals. Donate here: https://donate.doctorswithoutborders.org/secure/donate 

Lit in the Time of War: Friel, Rulfo, and Mumcu

Hello! Happy Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and November 1st. I hope you are staying warm, healthy, and safe. I’ve reviewed three books this week, and have included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need.

“Translations,” by Brian Friel

“And it can happen—to use an image you’ll understand—it can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of…fact.”

In this play, English military cartographers Lancey and Yolland have come to the Irish town Baile Beag, to Anglicize the place-names for military purposes. A local man named Owen helps them by serving as a translator (to others’ chagrin). The play goes on to talk about language-based colonialism and its awful effects.

For me, I thought the play was interesting but flawed. There was one character who went on and on about the importance of learning Irish only to have an abrupt change of heart for no real reason. If someone were to have such a deep understanding of Irish’s importance, it would seem to me that he or she would need a strong and clearly-defined reason to change his or her view, but in this play there didn’t seem to be any such reason.

Also, Owen was framed as being the cause of troubles that the town suffered. Though it was absolutely true that his translation played an important role in enabling these troubles to happen, it didn’t directly cause them (there was an unrelated subplot that wound up being the main cause of them). To me, this break in causality seemed to weaken the play’s theme.

If you are interested in learning something about language-based colonialism, I would definitely recommend Translations—it does a very good job of intellectually sketching out this dynamic. However, just know that its characters and plot don’t embody the theme as well as they could have (in my subjective view).

Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo

En español:

“Muchos años antes, cuando ella era una niña, él [su padre] le había dicho: ‘Baja, Susana, y dime lo que ves.’ Estaba colgada de aquella soga que le lastimaba la cintura, que le sangraba sus manos; pero que no quería soltar: era como el único hilo que la sostenía al mundo de afuera. ‘No veo nada, papa.’ [….] La lámpara circulaba y la luz pasaba de largo junto a ella. Y el grito de allá arriba la estremecía [….] ‘Es una calavera de muerto’ [….] ‘Busca algo más, Susana. Dinero. Ruedas redondas de oro. Búscalas, Susana.’”

Este libro es sobre un hombre que viaja a un pueblo llamado Comala para conocer la historia de su padre a quien nunca conoció. Al principio de libro, el pueblo parece desierto, pero luego el protagonista encuentra algunos habitantes. Habla con ellos y descubre que son fantasmas que hablan con los vivos. El libro sigue contando la historia de Pedro Páramo, el padre del protagonista, quien fue un dictador del pueblo que ordenaba la muerte de las personas y buscaba el amor inalcanzable.

Este libro fue muy bien escrito. Se sentía un poco como una obra de teatro, porque se contaba principalmente a través de monólogos y diálogos con muy poca reflexión interna. Aun así, funcionó muy bien. Su diálogo significó que su “pacing” fue excelente. También exploró ideas de la Revolución mexicana, la negación de las emociones, el machísmo, y el perdón (o la falta de perdón). Gabriel García Márquez había dicho que Pedro Páramo le inspiró mucho, y que este libro fue lo que le permitió escribir Cien Años de Soledad. Yo pude ver por qué. Fue un libro muy bueno, y yo definitivamente recomendaría que lo leyeran (¡en español o en inglés!)

In English:

“Many years before, when she was a girl, he [her father] had told her: ‘Go down, Susana, and tell me what you see.’ She was hanging from that rope that hurt her waist, that made her hands bleed; but she didn’t want to let go: it was practically the only thread that connected her to the outside world. ‘I don’t see anything, papa.’ [….] The lamp circled and the light passed by her. And the scream from there shook her up [….] ‘It’s a dead man’s skull’ [….] ‘Look for something else, Susana. Money. Round gold discs. Look for them, Susana.’”

This book is about a guy who goes to a town called Comala to learn the story of his father who he never knew. At first the town seems deserted, but then he finds some inhabitants. He speaks with them only to find out that they are ghosts speaking to the living. He goes on to learn the story of Pedro Páramo, his father, who was a dictator of the town who ordered peoples’ deaths and sought unattainable love.

This book was very well written. It felt a little bit like a play in that it was mostly told through monologues and dialogues with very little internal reflection. Even so, it worked very well. The dialogue-ness of it meant its pace was terrific, and it explored ideas of the Mexican Revolution, denial of emotions, machísmo, and forgiveness (or unforgiveness). Gabriel García Márquez had said that he was very inspired by Pedro Páramo, and that it was what enabled him to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. I could see why. It was a very good book and I would definitely recommend that you read it (either in Spanish or in English!)

The Peace Machine, by Özgür Mumcu,
Translated by Mark David Wyers

“They were human and they didn’t know why they were there. They were human and they would go on destroying each other. Because they didn’t know why they were there, they despised one another. Even if they measured the size of the world with compasses and angle rules, even if they created anthologies of the work of all the poets written in dead languages, even if glaciologists measured the age of ice stalactites, even if oceanographers plumbed the deepest oceans, even if uranium glowed, cogs and gears followed every order, and trees were pruned and trained to fit in the palm of one’s hand, they would go on destroying each other. Though they solved the how, they couldn’t work out the why. And so they despised each other.”

In a world where electricity has just been invented and our protagonist Celal has no choice but to run from authorities and say tongue-twisters that enable him to run (read the book and this will make sense!), a friend of Celal’s father comes up with an idea for a machine that will put an end to all war forever and bring peace to the land. Warmongerers make war machines. Why can’t peacemongerers make peace machines?

Celal gets caught up in these plans. In the process, he sticks his head in a lion’s mouth (literally and metaphorically), travels around the world, and gets embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrow the Serbian monarchs.

The book was very, very funny at points (such as the first chapter), very, very insightful at others (such as the excerpt I quoted), and less funny and insightful at others. It seems to me that the author had some truly terrific ideas, but that this book had a lower density of them than it could have had (if that makes sense). Look at a book like Pedro Páramo, and you see that the ideas are rich all the way through. Look at a book like The Peace Machine and you find a few terrific gems scattered here and there. This isn’t to say that the book isn’t worth reading—it absolutely is. Just that it felt like the author could have done even more with his ideas than he wound up doing in the book.

Still, it’s funny and has very good insights about war and peace, so I would recommend.

If you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

As promised, here is a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you are able:

The International Rescue Committee—Supports Ukrainian families in Poland by giving them food, water, and other vital supplies. Donate here: https://help.rescue.org/donate/ukraine-web

Action Against Hunger—Provides nutritious food, cash, hygiene kits, and mental health support to Ukrainian refugees.
Donate here: https://www.actionagainsthunger.org/donate/ukraine-emergency-response

Direct Relief—Provides trauma kits, insulin, and other important medical supplies to Ukrainians. Donate here: https://www.directrelief.org/emergency/ukraine-crisis/

Insight—Provides food, permanent shelter, and medicine/hormones to LGBTQI+ Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://www.insight-ukraine.org/en/join-donate/

Lit in the Time of War: Krasznahorkai and Zola

Stop the War and Read Krasnahorkai and Zola

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe, and that you had a happy Diwali if you celebrate. I’ve read the first parts of two massive novels this week, and have reviewed them below. I’ve also included a list of organizations you could donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, Part 1, by László Krasznahorkai, Translated by Ottilie Mulzet

“…I see in advance what will be, I hear in advance what will be, and it shall be sans joy and sans solace, so that nothing like this will ever come about ever again, so when I step onto the stage with you, musical gentleman, I won’t be happy in the least, if this commission, predicated upon a possibility, comes to fruition—and I now wish to say this to you as a way of bidding farewell: I don’t like music, namely I don’t like at all what we are about to bring together here now, I confess, because I’m the one who is supervising everything here, I am the one—not creating anything—but who is simply present before every sound, because I am the one who, by the truth of God, is simply waiting for all of this to be over.”

This is a book that’s supposed to be about the homecoming of some baron, but this first part is only about a famous professor of mosses who gets visited by the daughter he’d abandoned and goes on to kill people. It also has a lot of run on sentences. The entire 100ish-page section is probably told in 10 huge sentences or less.

While the sentences are meant to be an experiment, I found they made the book harder to read. It was sometimes hard to keep track of what was going on, and when I had to take breaks from reading, I was never sure where to pause because the sentences just flowed so relentlessly. I was also struck by how long winded the author seemed (probably due to the massive sentences).

On the other hand, parts of the book were funny, and he seemed to be building up some kind of metaphor. So maybe he does have something to say that’ll make this book worth reading. I look forward to reading more and finding out (and of course if you’ve read it and have any thoughts, let me know).

Germinal, by Émile Zola, Narrated by Frederick Davidson

“A rebellion was germinating in this little corner.”

This is a book about a bunch of miners who get exploited all day and eventually stage an uprising. They rebel because a new miner named Etienne has arrived to inspire them.

The first part of this book is about Etienne’s arrival into their midst. Etienne comes, falls for a girl named Catherine, and has to make the decision—should he stay or should he go away to look for more work?

I had previously tried reading Zola’s The Masterpiece only to give up because of its lack of realistic-seeming characters. Meanwhile Germinal was surprisingly good. It had very interesting descriptions of the mines that made them seem evil from the start. Its characters were also well-written (Etienne’s penchant for rebellion is established by the fact that he’d gotten fired from his previous job because he’d slapped his exploitative manager). Sure, Etienne kind of objectified Catherine, but it wasn’t so blatant that it took that much away from the book.

Also, it was interesting to compare Zola’s book to Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Read the first chapters of each and you’ll see just how influenced Grossman was by Zola.

Overall, if you’re looking for a massive classic to read this Halloween, I’d recommend Germinal (at least based on the first part—and I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read the rest of it, as well!)

As promised, here’s a list of some organizations supporting Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you are able.

Art of Living Switzerland—Helps Ukrainian refugees evacuate, find shelter, and receive food, transportation, and trauma support. Donate here: https://www.artofliving.org/ch-en/donate-ukraine

International Medical Corps—Expands access to health and medical support to Ukrainians in embattled areas and helps refugees evacuate. Donate here: https://give.internationalmedicalcorps.org/page/99837/donate/1

Save the Children—Provides food, water, money, hygiene kits, and psychosocial support to children. Donate here: https://www.savethechildren.org/us/where-we-work/ukraine

Voices of Children—Provides psychological counseling for children and helps refugee evacuations. Donate here: https://voices.org.ua/en/

Lit in the Time of War: Becker and Dragomán

Hello! I hope you are all well. I’ve read two books this week (one shortish and one longish). I’ve also included a list of organizations you could donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

Jakob the Liar, by Jurek Becker, Translated by Leila Vennewitz

“[Kowalski is] worried because such attacks of melancholy are completely foreign to Jacob; he can be grouchy and quarrelsome at times, but that’s different. He’s never been known to moan; moaning is what all the others do, whereas Jacob has been something of a spiritual comforter. Quite often, whether consciously or not, Kowalski went to him for his own weaknesses to be exorcised. Even before the days of the radio, actually even before the days of the ghetto. At the end of a particularly foul day […] where did he go that evening? To Jacob’s shop, but not because his schnapps tasted any better [….] He went there because afterward the world looked just a little bit rosier, because Jacob could say something like ‘Chin up!’ or ‘Things are going to be all right,’ with just a bit more conviction than other people. But also because among his scanty acquaintances only Jacob made the effort to say such things.

This is a book about a man named Jacob (who for some reason is named “Jakob” in the title) who lives in a Jewish ghetto during WWII and overhears a guard’s radio report saying that Russians are coming closer to their ghetto. Jacob lets others in on the news, lying about its origins and saying he has a radio. Unfortunately, this means that everyone starts constantly coming to him for hope, solace, and more radio reports. What does Jacob do? He lies, of course, and makes up more news reports. But what happens when Jacob realizes his lies give people the hope they need to endure? And how long can he go on like this in the face of the awful reality that only he knows?

The story was wonderfully told. Becker (who survived the Holocaust) had a very vivid and warm way of writing, which made this book a striking read. Its plot was engrossing, its characters were very sympathetic and alive (without being sentimental), it had philosophical depth, and it had a strong emotional impact (I literally cried).

Books with these qualities are the best kind, in my opinion. I would highly recommend Jakob the Liar.

The Bone Fire by György Dragomán,
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet

“[…] I draw the face of Father in the flour; he looks angry, but I know he’s not angry at me, he’s angry at the others, he loves me. I know that behind the anger there is a smile; I know I could also scratch that into the flour, but I don’t […] and next to Father I scratch Mother’s face as well […]  Mother’s face is sad, but I know that’s it’s not because of me, I know that behind her sadness there is joy somewhere [….] Grandmother says that I’ve understood the most important thing [….] Pain helps us to remember, but in such a way that we not only remember the part that hurts, but everything, because we must remember everything, because there is only that—what we remember—because what we forget is no more, it disappears from the past, it vanishes from the world.”

When thirteen-year-old Emma gets adopted by her grandmother, she learns that her grandmother is magical and that she is, too. At the same time, she also comes to learn about the repressive Eastern European regime she and her family lived under, the role that her parents played resisting it, and the role that her grandmother might have played being complicit in it.

This book also had that terrific “quadrifecta” of character, philosophical depth (it’s described as a political gothic for a reason), good plotting, and emotional impact.

The characters (like Emma) were not as deep as they could have been, I felt, but they were still deep enough to get the job done. Meanwhile Emma’s grandmother came across as the deepest character. She told her own story in snippets throughout the book, and it was one of the most compelling parts of the book.

There was also a great deal of discussion about the dictatorship, its fall, and its aftermath—now that the dictator is gone, what do the people do with all the collaborators (or supposed collaborators?) How much does this decision say about the collaborators’ guilt? How much does it say about the prosecutors’ own pain?

My only complaint about the book is that it was too long—it probably could have been shorter. Parts of it felt like the author was just filling up space with cool ideas he had for magic. This is a very minor complaint though. The book still worked very well, and the magic played a very important role in the end of the book, so it might have been justified.

Ultimately, if you want to start with a Dragomán book, I’d recommend The White King over this book, but if you loved The White King and just want more (especially if you are in the mood for a Halloween-y book), you definitely can’t go wrong with The Bone Fire.

Have you read any of these books? Let me know in the comments below!

Now, as promised, here’s a list of organizations supporting Ukrainians in need.

Razom For Ukraine—Provides medical relief for soldiers and doctors on the front line. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

World Central Kitchen—Feeds Ukrainian refugees as they cross into Poland. Donate here: https://wck.org/

Amnesty International—Investigates human rights violations in Ukraine to hold those responsible accountable, defends journalists and other people at risk. Donate here: https://www.amnestyusa.org/

UNCHR Refugee Agency—Provides refugees with food, water, health support, and assistance in rebuilding damaged houses. Donate here: https://give.unrefugees.org/

Lit in the Time of War: Cela

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you’re all well. As it is midterms week for me, I’ve reviewed only one book. It’s a good one. I’ve also provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians. Please donate if you are able.

The Family of Pascual Duarte, by Camilo José Cela,
Translated by Anthony Kerrigan

“I am not, sir, a bad person, though in all truth I am not lacking in reasons for being one. We are all born naked, and yet, as we begin to grow up, it pleases Destiny to vary us, as if we were made of wax. Then, we are all sent down various paths to the same end: death.”

The Family of Pascual Duarte is about a man named Pascual Duarte who comes from an abusive family, goes on to murder people, and tries and fails to escape his guilt.

The book was interesting, but its protagonist kept blaming God/Fate for his misfortune to the point where I started blaming Cela in my head (“oh no, Cela caused the protagonist’s dad/brother/Insert-Other-Person-Pascual-Kind-of-Cares-About to die!”). The protagonist then went on to blame God/Fate for why he wound up killing other people, even as Cela went on to make it clear that this was not the case at all, and that the protagonist had only himself to blame.

I thought it was interesting how Cela’s book read very much like Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Both books were framed by nameless editors/transcribers and included letters from other people at the end explaining the protagonists’ fates (as opposed to having the viewpoint characters describe their own ends).

The book also had some good insights into criminality. Cela’s very good at getting inside the mind of a murderer—there’s one part where the protagonist’s all “My mom is making me want to kill her with all her snide remarks!”, and even though this justification may come off as flimsy, Cela substantiates it to the point where I understood (while still disagreeing with) the protagonist’s decision to kill.

Ultimately, if you’re looking for a grisly murder book where the protagonist blames everything on Fate and God even as Cela makes it clear that the protagonist himself is the only one to blame, I’d recommend this book. And if you read it, let me know in the comments below!

As promised, here’s a list of some organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need:

United Help Ukraine—Provides medical supplies to soldiers, and ships goods to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://unitedhelpukraine.org/

UNCHR Refugee Agency—Provides refugees with food, water, health support, and assistance in rebuilding damaged houses. Donate here: https://give.unrefugees.org/

World Central Kitchen—Feeds Ukrainian refugees as they cross into Poland. Donate here: https://wck.org/

The Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties—Works to document Russian war crimes to help hold them responsible. Recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. Donate here: https://ccl.org.ua/pidtrymaty-czgs/