Lit in the Time of War: Abai, Toer, and Aladdin

Hello! Happy end of January. I hope you are healthy, safe, and warm, and that you’re reading a lot of enjoyable books. I’ve read three exceptional books this week, and have reviewed them below. Honestly, as I read them (especially the second one), I found myself wondering where they had been all my life. I hope you find them just as rewarding. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

Book of Songs, by Abai Qunanbaiuly, Rendered by John Burnside

“From afar, it strikes,
Through your heart, it breaks,
Your body is racked with fever.
From Khiva, come quick,
So much is at stake,
Hunt down the wildest of creatures—
You can tell the truth, if you’re strong,
With a silver tongue and a song.

No needle and thread,
Nor the bright steel blade
Can equal your skill in the arts and crafts.
To the wise, a pearl,
A trifle, to fools,
They lack true wisdom, blind to your gifts.
Yet not my voice speak in vain:
Truth cannot prevail with thoughtless men.”

This is a book of poems by the great Kazakh writer Abai. What makes the book particularly enjoyable is that all the poems are also available online, in song-form, as Abai would have performed them.

Abai’s poetry is subtle, but it’s very rich if you take the time to contemplate it. Take the poem above, for instance. Read through it twice or three times and you’ll come to see some cool parallels and correspondences between the two stanzas that give it deeper meaning. That’s what makes Abai’s poem so good.

Something I did wonder about was how different the translations were from the originals—there were parts in the transliterations of the Kazakh originals that included question marks whereas the translations didn’t have question marks, for instance. Guess you’d have to learn Kazakh to fully appreciate the originals.

However, if you only have an hour to spare, I’d strongly recommend reading (and listening to) the poems within this book.

The Fugitive: A Novel, by Pramoedya Anata Toer,
Translated by Willem Samuels

“The gambler slowly leaned closer to the beggar and whispered, ‘Maybe you are my boy.’ His voice rose in a blend of hope and pain. ‘Are you my boy?’ He silently held his breath. ‘You’re sick!’ came the accusation once more. The beggar now distanced himself slightly from the other man. ‘Maybe I am,’ the gambler agreed before retreating to where he had been sitting. He hugged his knees again and once more rested his head on them ‘What does your wife say?’ the beggar asked carefully. Now the gambler was suspicious and raised his head from his knees. ‘What’s it to you anyway?’”

This book takes place during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia during World War II. It’s about a soldier named Hardo who previously staged an uprising against the Japanese, failed, and is now being pursued for his rebellious ways. Hardo encounters several people who knew him, like the District Chief, his own father, his former comrades-in-arms, and the commander (named Karmin) who betrayed him and led to the failure of his rebellion.

The book was very good. Its situations were always dramatic—Hardo encounters his father but doesn’t let on that he’s his son, for instance. Parts of the book read like a play, which makes sense, given that it was structured like an Indonesian shadow play. Its play-like quality made me think of Harry Mulisch’s The Assault, only I liked The Fugitive a little better (especially for its ending).

Overall, if you’re looking for a dramatically-satisfying book with terrific themes and observations about humanity, I’d strongly, strongly recommend this book.

Aladdin: A New Translation, Told by Hanna Diyab
to Antoine Galland, Translated by Yasmine Seale,
and Edited by Paulo Lemos Horta

“The son, whose name was Aladdin, had received a careless upbringing, which instilled in him wild tendencies: he grew to be cruel, stubborn, and rebellious [….]  When Aladdin was old enough to learn a craft, his father, who knew only his own [tailoring], took him into the shop and tried to teach him needlework. But neither gentleness nor punishment could still his son’s wandering mind. As soon as the tailor had his back turned, Aladdin would escape and stay out until evening, and, unable to change his ways, Mustafa [his father] was forced to abandon his son to his dissipation. This pained him, and the grief of failing to guide his son to his duty brought about such a violent illness that he died a few months later.”

This is one of those books where you see that the storyteller/translator really enjoyed telling it. I say storyteller/translator because the book’s origins are super convoluted, and the way it’s told is influenced just as much by its translator as its original storyteller. It could’ve been translated stiltedly out of a desire to impress, for instance, and would’ve suffered as a result. Fortunately for us, it wasn’t translated that way.

In case you didn’t know, “Aladdin” is one of the stories in the One Thousand and One Nights. Well, not necessarily—it was tacked on at the end by the French story-collector Antoine Galland, who heard it told to him by a Syrian named Hanna Diyab.

Aladdin is a poor boy who encounters a long-lost “uncle” (who’s actually a greedy magician), who gives him fancy clothes and a magic ring and takes him to open the door to a cavern and retrieve a magic lamp for him. When the magician tries to get Aladdin to give up the lamp, Aladdin refuses, and the magician winds up shutting him up in the cavern and leaving him for dead. But Aladdin uses the magic lamp to escape, and then to make his other wishes (like marrying the sultan’s daughter) come true. In the process, he proves himself much more than the cruel, stubborn, and rebellious boy his family had always taken him for.

This story was good. It’s vaguely like the one told in the Disney movie, only here Aladdin has to deal with the magician, the sultan’s vizier, and the magician’s brother, which makes it more exciting.

The characters were entertaining, too. When Aladdin ordered the jinni of the lamp to build an exquisite palace for him across the way from the sultan’s own palace, the sultan made it a habit to spend every morning just going to admire it (instead of attending to whatever other important sultan duties he might have had). These quirky details made the story very enjoyable.

Overall, if you’re in the mood for a fast-paced entertaining read, I’d recommend Aladdin.

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

Rescue.org—Gives food, medical care, and emergency support services to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://help.rescue.org/donate/ukraine-web

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

United Way Ukraine—Provides food, water, and other emergency support for Ukrainian refugees and their children. Donate here: https://www.unitedway.org/our-impact/work/no-nav/unitedforukraine

Plan USA—Gives aid focusing on refugee children in Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/humanitarian-response-ukraine-plan-usa/

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Lit in the Time of War: Brierley

Hello! I’m back. I hope you’re all well, healthy, and safe, and that you had a happy Chinese New Year (if you celebrate it). I’ve read one book this week, and have reviewed it below, along with including my usual list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

Lion, by Saroo Brierly, with Larry Buttrose, Read by Vikas Adam

“Occasionally she’d pass me a snack between one of the bars, and one day, she gave me a necklace with a pendant of the elephant-headed god Ganesh. I was astonished. It was the first present I’d ever received from anyone [….] I later learned that Ganesh is often called the remover of obstacles and lord of beginnings. I wonder whether that was why the girl chose to give it to me. Ganesh is also a patron of letters, and so in a way is the patron of this book. The necklace was more than just a beautiful object to call my own. For me, it was a concrete demonstration that there were good people in the world who were trying to help me.”

This is a memoir about a kid named Saroo who’s born in India, gets separated from his family, gets adopted by an Australian family, grows up, and reconnects with his birth-family with the power of Google Earth.

You may have heard of Saroo if you saw the 2016 movie starring Dev Patel. Fortunately, the book has more detail than the movie. It describes Saroo’s time in India much more extensively, for instance. It gives a thorough account of the night he was separated from his family, talks about his life on the streets of Calcutta (now Kolkata), and his experiences in an abusive orphanage. The movie doesn’t really go into any of these experiences in the same level of detail.

The book describes Saroo’s upbringing in Australia, which the movie also doesn’t really show, either. It was very interesting to learn the story of Saroo’s adoptive-parents and what led them to want to adopt. Finally, the book gives an in-depth look at how Saroo found his birth-family by pure luck and persistence. For me, this was the most moving part of the book to read, as was Saroo’s discovery of how his birth-family family had gotten on since his disappearance.

The book has some interesting psychological insights as well, but it’s more about Saroo’s journey than his interiority, and so might not be the best book to read for deep psychological content. Even so, if you’re interested in learning more about his story, or if you just want to read a book that inspires hope, I would definitely recommend Lion.

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.

Renew Democracy Initiative—Provides meals, sleeping bags, and water filtration units to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://rdi.org/warmth/

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

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

Books Without Borders—Provides Ukrainian-language books to European Union cities where Ukrainian refugees are temporarily living. Donate here: https://bookwithoutborders.com/

Lit in the Time of War: Wright

Hello! I hope you all had a very happy New Year. I’m kicking it off by reviewing the second part of Richard Wright’s autobiography, and including my usual list of places you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. May 2023 be the year there’s finally peace.

Black Boy, Part 2, by Richard Wright,
Read by Peter Francis James

Favorite quotes:

“The artist and the politician stand at opposite poles. The artist enhances life by his prolonged concentration upon it, while the politician emphasizes the impersonal aspects of life by his attempts to fit men into groups. The artist’s enhancement of life may emphasize, at certain times, those aspects that a politician can use, but the politician at other times, eager to do good for man, may sneer at the artist, because the art product cannot be used by them. Hence the two groups of men, driving in the same direction, committed to the same vision, often find themselves locked in a struggle, more desperate than either of them wanted, while their mutual enemies gape at the spectacle in amazement.”

“Somehow man had been sundered from man, and in his search for a new unity, for a new wholeness, for oneness again, he would have to blunder into a million walls to find merely that he could not go in certain directions. No one could tell him. He would have to learn, by marching down history’s bloody road. He would have to purchase his wisdom of life with sacred death. He would have to pay dearly to learn just a little. But perhaps, that is the way it has always been with man.”

“I headed toward home alone, really alone now, telling myself that in all the sprawling immensity of our mighty continent, the least-known factor of living was the human heart. The least-sought goal of being was a way to live a human life. Perhaps, I thought, out of my tortured feelings I could fling a spark into the darkness. I would try, not because I wanted to, but because I felt that I had to, if I were to live at all.”

(First part here).

The second part of Wright’s autobiography tells of his adventures in Chicago, which, while not as brutally racist as the South he’d come from, is still horribly racist. Wright also starts writing stories, and describes writing three stories that would form part of his short story collection, Uncle Tom’s Children. He also joins the Communist Party.

This second part was just as good as the first part, but I was surprised by Wright’s naivety about Russian colonialism. He seemed to think that the Soviets had successfully turned “backwards” people into civilized ones while preserving their culture—little did he know about the atrocities of the Holodomor, forced collectivization, and the Kazakh Famine.

But Wright was smart enough to eventually become disillusioned with the Communist Party, and his reflections on its internal dysfunction were fascinating to read. It seemed to me that Wright was searching for a sense of purpose in life, as were many people during the Great Depression. Some turned to Communism as a utopian ideal, but as Wright showed, Communism became self-destructive. And so Wright had to find a new source of purpose in life, one that wouldn’t become self-destructive. His book left me wondering, when people lose a sense of meaning in life, how do they reclaim it without becoming self-destructive?

Ultimately, his book had terrific insights into humanity, race, politics, and art. Reading it also left me even more impressed by Wright’s powerful determination to stay true to himself in spite of everyone else trying to force him to conform to their standards and ideologies. I would strongly recommend.

A quick note: These next two weeks I’ll be traveling, and so likely won’t be able to post my usual book reviews until the 23rd. However, when I return, I’ll most likely be reviewing another book by Wright and what many claim was one of Dickens’ greatest epic novels, among others. So stay tuned.

And if you have any recommendations for other books I might enjoy throughout the rest of 2023, let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need:

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

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/

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/

Lit in the Time of War: Collins, Faccio, and Wright

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you all had a merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, or happy Kwanza. I’ve reviewed two-and-a-half books this week, and have included my usual list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins, Read by Carolyn McCormick

“I think Peeta was onto something about us destroying one another and letting some decent species take over, because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its childrens’ lives to settle its differences. You can spin it any way you like: [President] Snow thought the Hunger Games were an efficient means of control. [Rebel leader] Coin thought the parachutes would expedite the war, but in the end, who does it benefit? No one. The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.”

This last book in the Hunger Games trilogy was better than the second book, and more philosophically-interesting than the first. Katniss has been separated from Peeta in the aftermath of her second Hunger Games, and whisked away to District 13, the base of the anti-Capitol rebels. Now, she has been cast as “the mockingjay”: the symbol of the rebellion. Katniss doesn’t want any part in it. She just wants her loved ones to be safe. But in a time of war, she can’t afford to stay on the sidelines.

What I really admired about this book was its emphasis on resilience. Katniss goes through awful, awful things in the book, and sometimes says she can’t possibly go on. Then she does, with the help of a little humor or solidarity from a friend. This isn’t to glorify going on and on and on like some emotionless robot, but to praise Collins for her keen depiction of the small, seemingly-meaningless things that can be decisive in helping people to somehow keep going.

I also want to make a note about the terrific audiobook narrator, Carolyn McCormick. I had previously listened to this audiobook as narrated by someone else. That version felt like a much darker read because the narrator didn’t infuse any moments of humor in her reading. In contrast, McCormick accentuated the levity of some moments that gave my second listen of the book a completely different (and richer) texture. As a result, the book’s main through-line really came across well, and I found myself newly impressed by Collins’s depiction of the ability of people to endure the worst situations while still somehow being able to preserve their humanity.

Overall, I would recommend. This book has important things to say to us about the devastating nature of war, the immorality (and ultimate self-destructiveness) of starting to think like one’s enemies, and the power of resilience and humanity.

Messi: A Biography, by Leonardo Faccio,
Translated by Cecilia Molinari

“Like in Disney World, where it doesn’t matter if you take a photo of yourself hugging a stranger disguised as Mickey Mouse, soccer fans don’t care about taking a photo with a Messi [double] who’s not the real thing. They know they’ll probably never get to meet him in person and they want to be as close as possible to the star. It’s what happens at wax museums with a movie legend. Admirers demand their idols have an unflappable image where they can deposit their hopes and faith.”

After Lionel Messi and Argentina won the World Cup, I figured I’d pull out this old FC Barcelona-era biography I had of him and give it a read.

I started out expecting a chronological biography (“Messi was born in XYZ year, to LMNOP parents” etc.”) and instead got three sections told in nonchronological order, arranged around three different moments in Messi’s life.

This was an interesting approach, and as I read more I got to see what the author was trying to do. He showed the dehumanization that Messi faced as a cultural icon (with people seeing him more as a cash cow than as a real person). He showed Messi’s reaction to this treatment. He showed his family’s reaction to it (a very interesting part of the book described one of his brothers feeling superstitiously guilty whenever Messi lost a game or suffered something else).

Aside from that though, the book didn’t feel like it really had as much momentum or substance as it could have had, and its ending really petered out. The thrilling last line is literally: “At an age where we still believe in cartoons, suddenly growing artificially is like making a dream come true. La Pulga [Messi] had the starring role in that story.”

Overall, it was interesting. I just don’t know if it was the most interesting biography of Messi there is. Plus, it’s now outdated.

Black Boy, Part 1, by Richard Wright

“Why was it considered wrong to ask questions? Was I right when I resisted punishment? It was inconceivable to me that one should surrender to what seemed wrong, and most of the people I had met seemed wrong. Ought one to surrender to authority even when one believes that that authority was wrong? And if the answer was yes, then I knew that I would always be wrong, because I could never do it. Then how can one live in a world in which one’s mind and perceptions meant nothing, and authority and tradition meant everything? There were no answers.”

This book is terrific. To me, Richard Wright is probably one of the most underrated writers of American literature, much better than someone like Fitzgerald or even Salinger (due to his psychological depth and honesty of emotion). In Black Boy, Wright tells his own story of growing up in the American South, struggling to preserve his sense of self in the face of racist people and institutions.

What stood out to me in the first part of Wright’s autobiography was his inherent dignity. Where others may have given up in the face of opposition (like his school principal who pressured him to read a speech prepared for him to cater to white audiences), Wright stayed true to his own principles and sense of integrity. Though everyone (or nearly everyone) around him somehow thought his defiance meant he was bad and destined to the gallows (including most of his own family), Wright never gave up faith in himself. This personal strength was very impressive to read about.

The racist conditions that Wright had to endure were absolutely horrendous. Wright did a terrific job portraying them and their impact on his personal development, and showed how simple individual interactions were symptoms of larger institutional racism. If you know barely anything about race relations, or are trying to better inform yourself about racism and its horrible impact on peoples’ lives and dignity, Wright’s book would be a good place to start.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book. It’s engaging, insightful, and powerful, and is definitely not to be missed.

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

Here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. This holiday season, please do so if you are able.

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/

Outright International—LGBTIQ people tend to be left out of mainstream aid for various reasons. Outright International seeks to fix this by helping Ukraine-based LGBTIQ organizations provide urgent medical supplies, food, transportation, and psychological care to those in need. Donate here: https://outrightinternational.org/lgbtiq-ukraine-emergency-fund

Human Rights Watch—Investigates violence against civilians in Ukraine to help ensure those responsible are held to account. This holiday season, they’re matching gifts 5X. Donate here: https://donate.hrw.org/page/100202/donate/1?locale=en-US

Lit in the Time of War: Szalowski, Collins, and Wiesel

Hello! I hope you are all healthy, safe, and warm. To those who celebrate, happy (not quite) third night of Hanukkah. I’ve read three books this week and have reviewed them below. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

Fish Change Direction in Cold Weather, by Pierre Szalowski, Translated by Alison Anderson

“‘It looks as if they’re swimming closer to each other.’ Boris quickly sat back down by the aquarium. Julie still had something to say. ‘That’s it! When it’s cold, they get close to each other’ [….] ‘And they’re swimming two by two, in pairs. They’re no longer plotting their course individually, avoiding the others. They’re doing it together. And it’s just since they got cold that they’ve been like this. Look! Now they’re making double knots.’”

In this book, a Canadian boy’s parents get divorced and he wishes for the sky to help bring them back together. Instead, the sky brings forth a blizzard that causes a bunch of other people to come together: his homophobic neighbor and the male couple that lives across the street, and a Russian mathematician and a dancer. But will the storm bring his parents back together too?

This book was a fun read. The author had a great, unforced sense of humor that shone through in nearly every sentence. It also wasn’t overly self-conscious, which made the book even funnier–as opposed to writers whose books clearly were constructed to try and come off as funny, it was obvious to me that the author himself must have had a blast writing this book. This last point meant that Fish Change Direction in Cold Water had a lot of heart, making it a terrific feel-good story about the power of connection in hard times.

One thing I will say is that the book’s ending felt a little bit too neat and happy. I won’t spoil it other than that, though, and this shouldn’t dissuade you from reading the book, especially given how funny it was to read. I would recommend.

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins, Read by Carolyn McCormick

“It’s interesting though, when I think of what Peeta said about the attendant on the train being unhappy about the Victors having to fight again, about people in the Capitol not liking it. I still think all of that will be forgotten once the gong sounds, but it’s something of a revelation that those in the Capitol feel anything at all about us. They certainly don’t have a problem watching children murdered every year, but maybe they know too much about the Victors, especially the ones who’ve been celebrities for ages, to forget we’re human beings.”

The second book in The Hunger Games trilogy involves Katniss and Peeta trying to prevent a rebellion from breaking out as a result of Katniss’s actions at the end of their first Hunger Games. But Katniss and Peeta fail, and so the Capitol throws them and past years’ Victors into a new arena for them to fight to the death again.

This book wasn’t as good as the first book, especially given the slow middle where Katniss just spent time back home in District 12. That’s fine though, since the book picked up once the new Hunger Games starts again.

Something I noticed in this read-through was Collins’ use of humor—she puts her characters through horrible things, but always gives readers a chance to catch their breath with a moment or two of comic relief.

This helps the books be good in two ways—first, it’s (obviously) comic relief. Second, it highlights the characters’ resilience. In spite of what they go through, they’re still able to retain their humanity and connection with each other through laughter, even in the arena when the Capitol is trying to turn them against each other. That dynamic is interesting, and might be another reason to read the second book, in addition to just having to read it to get to Book 3.

Day, by Elie Wiesel, Translated by Anne Borchardt

“‘You must forget [the dead]. You must chase them from your memory. With a whip if necessary.’ ‘Chase them, Gyula? With a whip, you said? To chase my father with a whip? And Grandmother? Grandmother too, chase her with a whip?’ ‘Yes, yes, and yes. The dead have no place down here. They must leave us in peace. If they refuse, use a whip’ [….] ‘I can’t, Gyula. I can’t.’”

This book is the conclusion to Elie Wiesel’s Night trilogy. In it, the main character suffers an automobile accident that leaves him barely alive. As his broken bones slowly heal, he has to come to terms with his past trauma, his present situation, and his relationship with both life and death.

This book was terrific, but its ending felt less focused than Night or Dawn. It wasn’t because Wiesel didn’t know what he was saying– he did. But this book’s setup made me anticipate a certain ending that didn’t happen. Instead, the book’s ending opened up a bunch of other questions.

Maybe this was the point. There’s an expectation that people would be able to resolve the pain from their pasts, but suffering can’t really fully be resolved and it’s wrong to act as though it can. In terms of fiction-writing though, this also meant that Day didn’t end in a way that created a sense of completion. Even though Night and Dawn certainly didn’t have happy endings, their stories ended with a sense of resolution.

Ultimately, I think Day is worth reading, especially if you’ve also read Night and Dawn. Just know that instead of a neat ending, Day will leave you thinking and questioning.

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books yourself. Let me know in the comments below.

Now, 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.

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/

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

Writers in Odesa—A fundraiser started by Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky and Rob Lipton seeking to support writers in Odesa who suffer as a result of Russia’s unjust war. Donate here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/writers-and-newspapers-in-odessa

United Jewish Appeal—Provides food, shelter, transport, and emergency medical supplies to Ukrainians in need and in neighboring countries. Donate here: https://www.ujafedny.org/crisis-donate

Lit in the Time of Human Rights Abuses: Collins, Márquez, and Wiesel

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I’ve read three books this week and have reviewed them below. Also, in honor of National Human Rights Day which happened this past Saturday, I’ve included a list of human rights/humanitarian causes you can donate to (instead of my usual list about ways to support Ukrainians in need).

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins,
Read by Carolyn McCormick

“It’s funny, because even though [the stylists are] rattling on about the Games, it’s all about where they were and what they were doing or how they felt when a specific event occurred. ‘I was still in bed.’ ‘I just had my eyebrows dyed!’ ‘I swear I nearly fainted.’ Everything is about them, not the dying boys and girls in the arena.”

I read this for the nostalgia and found many more nuances to it than I had previously thought it would have.

I’m sure you know about The Hunger Games, but if you’ve been living under a rock for the past few decades, here’s a quick summary: In the future dystopia of Panem, the “Capitol” controls the 12 “Districts.” To remind the Districts of the consequences of rebelling, the Capitol forces each district to send one boy and one girl into an arena to fight to the death every year. This is called the Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is in District 12. She’s great with a bow and arrows, but it’s her beloved younger sister Prim who’s called to be in the Games. Katniss volunteers in her place. Now will she survive? Or will she die?

The book was very well-paced. What made it interesting for me wasn’t rereading the romance or the action though. It was seeing how Collins made a point of humanizing the other characters who died. Even super-minor characters who got only a few sentences were treated with respect. They each got their own “this boy from District 8 shouldn’t have died. He must have had a family and a dog…” etc. And when describing Katniss killing other fighters in the arena, Collins always makes a point to describe Katniss’s guilt and inner-conflict about it.

I feel that this important angle is easily ignored when reading The Hunger Games, so I wanted to highlight it here, and recommend that you read this book, especially if you’ve been living under a rock for the past few decades and have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.

El General en Su Laberinto, por Gabriel García Márquez

En Español:

“No son los sistemas sino sus excesos los que deshumanizan la historia.”

El General en Su Laberinto se trata de Simon Bolívar cuando él es viejo y muriendo, exiliado en Jamaica.

En el pasado, cuando he leído los libros de Márquez (como La Hojarasca y Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada), siempre me parecían aburridos. No entiendo la razón. Sin embargo, me interesaba mucho el diálogo en El General en Su Laberinto, especialmente una escena en que el General discutió la repetición de la historia (sobre Napoleon Bonaparte), y otra escena en que discutió la cantidad de las estrellas.

Para mi, estas escenas tenían una calidad muy alta literaria en que presentaron ideas muy interesantes sin ser dogmáticos o intrusivos (en la manera de Madre por Gorky, por ejemplo). También, estas escenas tenían un aspecto emocional–cuando leía estas escenas, me sentía triste y nostálgica. En contraste, muchas escenas de Márquez no tienen este aspecto emocional para mí (¡personalmente!) Puede ser que necesito leer más de sus obras (como Cien Años de Soledad y Amor en el Tiempo de Cólera’).

Yo recomiendo este libro, pero basado en la subjectividad de mi punto de vista, no estoy cierto si estoy la mejor persona para recomendarlo.

In English:

“It is not systems but their excesses that dehumanize history.”

The General in His Labyrinth is about Simon Bolívar when he is old and dying, exiled in Jamaica.

In the past, when I have read Márquez’s books (such as Leaf Storm and Chronicle of a Death Foretold), they always seemed boring to me. I don’t understand the reason. However, I was very interested in the dialogue in The General in His Labyrinth, especially a scene where the General discussed the repetition of history (about Napoleon Bonaparte), and another scene where he discussed the number of stars in the sky.

For me, these scenes have a very high literary quality because they presented very interesting ideas without being dogmatic or intrusive (in the manner of Gorky’s Mother, for example). Also, these scenes had an emotional aspect–when I read them, I felt sad and nostalgic. In contrast, many of Márquez’s scenes in other books don’t have this emotional aspect to me (personally!) Maybe I need to read more of his works (like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera).

I recommend this book, but based on the subjectivity of my tastes, I’m not sure if I’m the best person to recommend it.

Legends of Our Time, by Elie Wiesel

“The victims [in the concentration camps] suffered more, and more profoundly, from the indifference of the onlookers than from the brutality of the executioner. The cruelty of the enemy would have been incapable of breaking the prisoner; it was the silence of those he believed to be his friends—cruelty more cowardly, more subtle—which broke his heart.”

This is a book of essays and recollections by Elie Wiesel, some about his experience during the Holocaust, some about his experience trying to find answers in its aftermath, and some about his attempts to advocate for others.

In the introduction, Wiesel talks about how some of the stories in the book were invented, and so I went into the book not knowing which stories were true and which weren’t. Was it really so that Wiesel met one of his persecutors from the concentration camp on a bus many, many years later in Tel Aviv? Did he really meet a wise professor who knew everything about every topic on earth?

Parts of the book reminded me of Ariel Burger’s Witness, and when I looked back at that memoir, I read about Wiesel referencing certain events that he wrote about in this book—like meeting one of his persecutors on a bus in Tel Aviv. That wasn’t invented then. And it stood to reason that the rest of the essays and stories weren’t invented, either.

In any case, what was invented and what was real is irrelevant. What is relevant is Wiesel’s powerful writing. Especially the last piece, “A Plea for the Dead.” In this essay, Wiesel shares many important thoughts. One is his entreaty to remember the victims of the Holocaust and not try to explain their actions, or to create intellectual theories about the mechanisms of hate that drove the Holocaust. He said it was much too easy to oversimplify matters, and in the process, trivialize them and strip them of the true depth of their tragedy.

I may not rank this as the absolute best of Wiesel’s books (especially given that he wrote the amazing From the Kingdom of Memory), but that does not mean at all that this book isn’t good. It’s terrific in its own way, as are all the books I’ve read by Wiesel.

Ultimately, Wiesel is one of those rare authors I’ve encountered where I’ve been so impacted by one of his books that I’ve had no choice but to read all of the books he’s written.

I would highly recommend.

As promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support human rights around the world. Please donate if you are able, especially since many of these causes get much less attention than the scale of suffering needs. If you can’t donate, please share with your friends. Getting the word out is just as essential.

Uyghur Human Rights Project—at least 2 million Uyghur Muslims are unjustly imprisoned in industrial-scale concentration camps that have not been seen since the Holocaust. 800,000 children have been separated from their families and Uyghur women are being forcibly sterilized. The Uyghur Human Rights Project seeks to provide emergency humanitarian relief for Uyghur refugees, interviews survivors to spread their story to the world, and campaigns against businesses’ indifference and complicity in the Uyghurs’ plight.
Donate here: https://uhrp.org/take-action/

The International Rescue Committee—6 million Afghans are at extreme risk of famine. 18 million don’t have a reliable source of food. Afghanistan has the greatest number of people experiencing this level of hunger in the world. Afghans rely heavily on foreign aid, but after the Taliban took over, large-scale aid has stopped, so humanitarian aid is especially needed now. The International Rescue Committee provides food, clean water, and health support. Until January 2, all gifts up to $2,500,000 will be matched.
Donate here: https://help.rescue.org/donate/afghanistan-winter?ms=gs_ppc_fy23_afghanistan

The UN Refugee Agency—More than 6.8 million Syrian refugees have been forced to flee their homes since 2011, making it the largest refugee crisis in the world. More than 70% of Syrians live in poverty, and many have become victims to awful human rights abuses like child labor. The UN Refugee Agency provides cash assistance to families in need, which helps pay for food, shelter, and medical costs.
Donate here: https://giving.unhcr.org/en/sy/

The World Food Program—Due to war, 20 million Yemenis are suffering from malnutrition and extreme hunger. This is one of the worst humanitarian crises on earth. One of the World Food Program’s largest humanitarian focuses is Yemen, aiming to give 13 million people emergency food assistance. Donate here: https://www.wfp.org/emergencies/yemen-emergency

And here’s one more way to help:

Free Rice (play trivia games and provide free food to people in the process): https://freerice.com/

Thank you for reading.

More Publication News…

I’m thrilled to say that I’ve just been published in J Journal‘s Fall 2022 issue!

J Journal is a nationally-recognized literary magazine that publishes fiction and poetry about justice. This story is particularly special to me, as Fall 2022 is J Journal‘s last print issue before moving entirely online! I am so thankful to the editors for their hard work and belief in my piece.

My short story, called “My Name is Marya,” seeks to shed light on the suffering and humanity of orphans in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Read it here:

https://www.jjournal.org/post/my-name-is-marya

Want to learn more about the story? Read here:

https://spo.princeton.edu/news/undergraduate-spanish-certificate-student-danielle-ranucci-interns-translation-and-publishes

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/

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/