Lit in the Time of War: Maupassant, Ali, and McCulley

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I have read three books this week and have reviewed them below. I have also provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant: Ten Volumes in One, Volume 3, by Guy de Maupassant

“The Academician was silent. And his companion, the political man, murmured: ‘Yes, indeed; we ought to occupy ourselves a little more with the children who have no father.’”

(Reviews of Volumes 1, 2, 4 here)

We’re back with the third volume of Guy de Maupassant’s complete short stories. They continue to be amazing, they continue to treat women as real people, and this time their plots actually become somewhat more interesting than in the past.

In a previous review, I mentioned that some of the stories he’d written were like sketches. This version also had some sketch-like stories, but they were more interesting than in previous volumes because they were set in countries other than France, and thus enabled Maupassant to make different and more intriguing observations than in the sketch-like stories he’d set in France.

I probably sound like a broken record already, but we’re only up to volume three of ten, so expect me to keep repeating to you: read this book. It’s terrifically worth it.

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, by Nujood Ali, Ghostwritten by Delphine Minoui

“Compared to dreams, reality can be truly cruel. But it can also come up with beautiful surprises.”

This book was very interesting. It’s about a 10-year-old girl named Nujood who lives in Yemen, and whose father arranges for her to marry a man. She suffers abuse at his hands and finally runs away and becomes the first woman in Yemen to ever successfully divorce from her husband. She then goes on to inspire other child-brides to get divorces from their abusive husbands.

While the story was terrific, the person who ghostwrote this memoir didn’t write it very well. She made certain decisions that made this story unintentionally less powerful, like italicizing he when referring to Nujood’s husband—think things like “he was coming, he was here, he walked in, I couldn’t stand the sight of him.” Also, a lot of the story felt like a sketch instead of an actual story (compare it with First They Killed My Father and Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina).

Finally, I Am Nujood was strangely non-chronological—it jumped between the present of her seeking a divorce to the past of her becoming married back to the present of her seeking a divorce and back to the past. While there are a lot of books that do this amazingly (like practically everything Chingiz Aitmatov wrote), in this book it didn’t work because there didn’t seem to be any real justification for why the author was choosing to make these time jumps. It wasn’t like Nujood’s character developed in a very specific way that could only be seen by telling her story in this non chronological way, for instance. As a result, it came off more as distracting than helpful.

Overall, I would recommend this book for the terrific story it tells, but not for the way it was written. If you want to read terrific memoirs that are also terrifically-written, I would recommend another book.

The Mark of Zorro, by Johnston McCulley,
Read by Bill Homewood

Best Quotes:

“‘A maiden likes to be wooed of course, even though she has made up her mind [to marry].’ ‘I have a servant who is a wonder at the guitar,’ Don Diego said. ‘Tonight I shall order him to come out and play beneath the señorita’s window. ‘And not come yourself?’ Doña Catalina gasped. ‘Ride out here again tonight, when the chill wind blows in from the sea?’ gasped Don Diego. ‘It would kill me!’”

[Don Diego said] ‘Perhaps I may come out again to see you within a few days, if I survive this night. Buenos noches, Señorita. I suppose I should…ah… kiss your hand.’ ‘You need not take the trouble,’ Señorita Lolita replied. ‘It might fatigue you.’ ‘Ah, thank you. You are thoughtful, I see.’”

[Zorro said] ‘It would be an insult to my sword to run you through.’”

“‘You have about as much knowledge of a Franciscan’s principles and duties as has the horse you ride.’ [said the insulted man]. ‘I ride a wise horse, a noble animal! He comes when I call, and gallops when I command. Do not deride him until you ride him. Ha! An excellent jest!’ [said Sergeant Gonzalez].”

This book was so good. It’s about a woman, Señorita Lolita, who is being reluctantly wooed by the wealthy but boring Don Diego. Then she meets the masked bandit Zorro who everyone is chasing and trying to kill. Who does she fall in love with? You guessed it. Hijinks and fighting ensue.

It’s clear that the author had a terrific amount of fun writing this book, in the same way that Tolstoy had a terrific amount of fun writing War and Peace. The author of Zorro also made these keen observations of people and their nuances, which was unexpected. For instance, there were a bunch of vigilantes who were chasing down Zorro, only they weren’t doing it for glory or money justice as might be expected, but just because it gave them an excuse to have fun together and get drunk afterwards.

In terms of the adventure, it was very well-plotted and paced, the characters were very entertaining due to the author’s ability to observe them, and the story in general was very good.

Two things I would say: the book was very hypocritical and old-fashioned. Zorro puts a woman at gunpoint and forces her to kiss his hand. Then when he sees another man making unwanted advances on her, he gets all feminist, fights him off, and insists that women should never be forced to do things they don’t want to do.

There’s another part of the book where he forces some innocent people to take part in whipping a judge (which was framed as being a very heroic and noble act, totally uncorrupt and totally not like the corrupt governor forcing his troops to be complicit in oppressing the nobility by throwing some of them in jail for no real reason). So that was interesting.

The book was old-fashioned in that the author took for granted that Native Americans could only be servants, and that all women were unable to use swords. On the second point, it was interesting to see that even though the author could have gone the route of making the women all completely-helpless damsels in distress, there were some scenes where the women made daring escapes and rode horses better than the men who chased them. That was unexpected, and a bit refreshing, but the old-fashioned-ness of the book still stands.

Overall, if you’re looking for a very good action-adventure story with terrific twists and some sharply-observed (though sometimes old-fashioned and hypocritical) characters, I would definitely recommend this book. I’d especially recommend the audiobook version—the narrator took it to a whole new level of exciting.

Here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support people in Ukraine:

UN Women—Provides food, water, and other essential resources to women and refugees. Donate here: https://unwomenusa.org/civicrm/contribute/transact?reset=1&id=188

Care.org—Provides cash support, food, water, and other needed relief to Ukrainians, prioritizing women, children, and the elderly. Donate here: https://www.care.org/

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

Plan USA—Provides psychological support to Ukrainian refugees and helps their children attend school. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/humanitarian-response-ukraine-plan-usa/

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