Lit in the Time of War: Stevenson and Aswany

Hello! I wasn’t able to post my usual book review yesterday, so I’m posting it today instead. I’m also including a list of places you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you are able.

Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson,
Read by Frederick Davidson

“[…] and taking a knife from the table, [Alan] cut me off one of the silver buttons from his coat. ‘I had them,’ says he, ‘for my father’s Duncan Stuart, and now give you one of them to be a keepsake for last night’s work, and wherever you go and show that button, the friends of Alan Breck will come around you.’ He said this as if he had been a Charlemagne and commanded armies, and indeed, much as I admired his courage, I was always in danger of smiling at his vanity.”

This is a book about a plucky kid named David Balfour whose father dies and who goes to live with his mysterious uncle Ebenezer. David is supposed to inherit a lot of money from his father, but Uncle Ebenezer wants the money for himself, so he gets his friends to kidnap David and ship him off to become a slave. However, David isn’t willing to let himself be kidnapped without a fight. He teams up with a Scotsman named Alan Breck to escape back home and get revenge on his uncle.

If Charles Dickens wrote adventure novels, they likely would’ve been very similar to this book. There’s a great deal of warmth in Kidnapped (like in Dickens’s books), along with some interesting character observations (see the passage above).

One of Stevenson’s contemporaries said that he wasn’t that great at psychological insights. While there weren’t any long passages where Stevenson’s characters contemplated their inner psyches, the characters felt surprisingly realistic. They were fleshed out enough to be sympathetic, and most of them were nuanced enough to feel believable. The only exceptions were the female characters—every single one of them wound up sobbing or weeping over the protagonist’s plight.

In any case, if you’re looking for an adventurous and entertaining book, I would recommend Kidnapped.

The Republic of False Truths, by Alaa Al Aswany,
Translated by S.R. Fellowes

“Everything really has changed. The dictator was stifling Egypt. When he was overthrown, all Egyptians were liberated. I’m writing to you from home, having just come back from the school, and I have lots of questions begging for an answer. How could the headmaster’s and Mrs. Manal’s attitude towards me have changed so amazingly? Is the revolution changing people’s natures? Is it giving them back their confidence in themselves and causing them to review their mistakes?”

Note: this book was written by a professor I once had in school.

This book is about the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt. It’s told from multiple points of view, including state generals, media stars, protestors, and sympathetic bystanders. There were enough perspectives to get a broad sense of Egyptian society, but not too many to be confusing.

The book had a lot of important insights about dictatorship and disinformation (there was a character who worked for a state-sponsored news agency running smear campaigns against the Tahrir Square protestors). The book also showed how the protestors tried to combat the disinformation, which was very interesting to read about.

It was also powerfully-written. The author was able to get across dramatic incidents in a sober, non-melodramatic way (which made them more impactful). Also, since the book avoided preaching (“dictatorship is bad!” etc.), it made a much better case against dictatorship than if it had preached.

The characters were rich due to the author’s depiction of their inner lives (especially the antagonists and morally-nuanced characters). Overall, I’d say that the depth of characterization was what ultimately made the book a very good read. I would definitely recommend.

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

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

International Committee of the Red Cross: Provides medical support for wounded Ukrainians. Donate here: https://www.icrc.org/en/donate/ukraine

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/

Lit in the Time of a War That Should End Right Now

Stop The War and Read Vasily Grossman and Michaela DePrince

Hello. As we enter the third week of the Ukrainian war (and the third week of Women’s History Month), I’ll be reviewing two books, both having to do with war. Also at the bottom of this post, you’ll find more organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukraine.

A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army,
1941-1945,
by Vasily Grossman, Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova

“It is infinitely hard even to read this. The reader must believe me, it is as hard to write it. Someone might ask, ‘Why write about this, why remember all that?’ It is the writer’s duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it. Everyone who would turn away, who would shut his eyes and walk past would insult the memory of the dead. Everyone who does not know the truth about this would never be able to understand with what sort of enemy, with what sort of monster, our Red Army started on its own mortal combat.”

Vasily Grossman was a Jewish-Ukrainian writer who witnessed World War II as fought in the Soviet Union. A Writer at War consists of entries from his journal, along with excerpts from articles he wrote, and excerpts from other peoples’ observations of him. It describes battles and events such as the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, and the discovery of the Nazi death-camp at Treblinka.

The book was interesting for its depiction of humans during wartime (they rise to great heights of magnanimity but they also sink to petty depths of selfishness).

The best part of the book was the part on Treblinka–you have to read it. The book’s considered one of the best volumes of war-reporting, and the part on Treblinka basically shows why that’s the case.

Grossman also used a lot of notes from this book in his epic novel, Life and Fate. I’m reading it now and some passages of it come directly from his journals.

Other striking parts of A Writer at War were about the immediate aftermath of the war, where people somehow went on with their lives (“A huge foyer, in which a young Kazakh […] is learning to ride a bicycle, falling off it now and then”/“On the bench, a wounded German soldier is hugging girl, a nurse. They see no one. When I pass them again an hour later, they’re still sitting in the same position. The world does not exist for them. They are happy”).

Overall, I recommend this book for its revealing depiction of war. It really gets across how awful war is and how much it should just end.

Taking Flight: From War-Orphan to Star Ballerina,
by Michaela and Elaine DePrince

I peered through the wrought-iron [orphanage] gate, hoping that someone would come to take me away. Just then, I was slapped in the face. ‘Trash!’ I exclaimed. But it wasn’t trash at all. I had been attacked by the pages of a magazine. The magazine was stuck in the gate, exactly where my face had been. I reached my hand through and grabbed it [….] I looked at the cover. A white lady was wearing a very short, glittering pink skirt that stuck out all around her. She also wore pink shoes that looked like the silk fabric I had once seen in the marketplace, and she was standing on the very tips of her toes. ‘Isn’t that a funny way to walk?’ Mabinty Suma asked. ‘I think that she might be…dancing.’”

This book is about Mabinty Bangura, a girl who was born in Sierra Leone during the civil war. She loses her parents and lives in an orphanage, where she finds a magazine with a picture of a ballerina on it. This inspires her to want to become a ballerina. However, the orphanage is then attacked by RUF members. Bangura lives in a refugee camp, and then gets adopted by an American family. From there, Bangura, now Michaela DePrince, becomes a professional ballerina.

DePrince is a remarkable person, showing a lot of resilience, compassion, and hope. That alone makes this book worth reading.

Her description of life in America was also interesting. DePrince encountered a lot of racism (classical ballet is a white-dominated field), but was determined to show that “Black girls can dance ballet too,” which she definitely did.

I also didn’t know a lot about the world of ballet (there’s apparently a super-fancy contest that takes place called the YAGP, for instance, and entire schools dedicated to teaching ballet). DePrince also was featured in a documentary called First Position, and this book provided some interesting insights into her experience during its filming.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book.

Now, as promised, here’s a list of more organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need:

Ukrainian National Women’s League of America—Provides humanitarian support to civilians and military hospitals. Donate here: https://unwla.org/top-news/call-for-humanitarian-aid/

International Medical Corps—Increases access to medical, mental health, and protection services to civilians in Ukraine and works with refugees in surrounding areas. Donate here: https://internationalmedicalcorps.org/

International Rescue Committee—Provides food, medical care, and emergency support services to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://www.rescue.org/

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

Hillel International Emergency Relief Fund—Provides humanitarian support to Ukraine’s Jewish communities. Donate here: https://donate.hillel.org/EmergencyRelief

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Dorfman, Al Aswany, and Wiesel

In Which I Review “Death and the Maiden” by Ariel Dorfman, “Friendly Fire” by Alaa Al Aswany, and “Dawn” by Elie Wisel

Hello! Happy almost New Year. I hope you are having a healthy and safe holiday season so far. I’ve reviewed three books. They’re definitely not cheerful, but they do make you think.

“Death and the Maiden,” by Ariel Dorfman

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They let me sit in on sessions where my role was to determine whether the prisoners could take that much torture [….] At first I told myself that it was a way of saving people’s lives, and I did because many times I told them without it being true simply to help the person who was being tortured. I ordered them to stop or the prisoner would die. But afterwards I began to… bit by bit, the virtue I was feeling turned into excitement.

This is a play about a husband and a wife who are living in the aftermath of a dictatorship. They have both suffered trauma, especially the woman, who was blindfolded and tortured by a man who liked to pay Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. One day, a man arrives, having helped her husband fix his tire. The woman recognizes the man’s voice, learns he has a tape of Death and the Maiden in his car, and comes to believe that he was her torturer. So she ties him up and puts him on trial.

This was a fascinating play. Is the man really guilty, or is it all just an unlucky coincidence? What will happen during the trial? What will be its result? Will the woman come to terms with her past?

This isn’t a spoiler but it’s something to keep in mind: if you don’t like ambiguous endings, you probably won’t like this play. Even so, I would still recommend it, because it contains a lot of important truths about the lengths people will go to prove things to themselves, and to others.

Friendly Fire, by Alaa Al Aswany, Translated by Humphrey Davies

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From my first day in the department, I had determined to despise and look down on [my coworkers]. Without saying anything, I knew how to let them feel their insignificance. It happened at this period that I needed glasses and I picked out round frames made of thin plastic. I felt that these gave my face a superior cast that was somehow provocative.”

Disclaimer: I took a class with Al Aswany and read some of the stories in this book, so I have to hope that my review isn’t biased.

This is a book of short stories about Egypt. One of them is a novella.

The stories had a kind of humor about them, even though it wasn’t comedic. It seemed more like the author was looking at his characters with an understanding grin. So, even somewhat-unsympathetic characters in the book didn’t feel very unsympathetic because I understood where they were coming from.

Also, the use of details was good. Sometimes I had to re-read a story to get at its subtleties (there was a lot that was subtextual). The insights gained made it worthwhile, though.

Overall,  I really enjoyed this book, especially “The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers,” “The Kitchen Boy,” “Dearest Sister Makarim,” “The Sorrows of Hagg Ahmad,” “Waiting for the Leader,” and “Boxer Puppies, All Colors.” My favorite story was “Izzat Amin Iskandar.” I can’t say why, exactly, but if you could only read one story from this collection, that one should be it.

Dawn, by Elie Wiesel, Translated by Frances Frenaye

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“‘I have a son your age,’ [the British prisoner] began, ‘but he’s not at all like you. He’s fair-haired, strong, and healthy. He likes to eat, drink, go to the pictures, laugh sing, and go out with the girls. He has none of your anxiety, your unhappiness.’ And he went on to tell me more about this son, who was studying at Cambridge. Every sentence was a tongue of flame which burned my body [….] I mustn’t listen to him, I told myself. He’s my enemy, and the enemy has no story.”

This book is set in British-controlled Palestine, and is about Elisha, a young Israeli freedom fighter who previously survived a Nazi concentration camp. Now, he’s been assigned to execute an Englishman, in retaliation for the British executing an Israeli prisoner, only he doesn’t want to kill the man. This book is about him waiting for dawn, when he has to carry out the act.

Previously, I had only read Night, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Dawn. It turned out to be very good.

I appreciated how well it portrayed Elisha’s moral conflict. His guilt was really well-examined, and it was interesting to see Wiesel go into both rationalizations for and condemnations of the act Elisha was going to have to take. Also, Wiesel didn’t judge the protagonist, but just showed him like he was, which somehow made the book’s ultimate condemnation of murder much stronger.

Some of the other characters in the book were the people who ordered the protagonist to carry out the execution. They were well-characterized too, which I appreciated. Wiesel could have easily shown them as heartless and cruel, but that wouldn’t have given any insight into anything, and would have weakened the book. Instead, Wiesel showed that they were just as confused as Elisha, only that they were better at hiding it.

Overall, this book was very good because the author portrayed the characters as humans instead of as heroes and villains. It’s an intense read, but one that I would definitely recommend (especially on audiobook).

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Salih, Yakhina, and Cortázar

In Which I Review Books by Tayeb Salih, Guzel Yakhina, and Julio Cortázar

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you’re all healthy and safe and vaccinated (or soon-to-be-vaccinated!) I’ve read three more books for this week…

The Wedding of Zein And Other Stories, by Tayeb Salih,
translated by Denys Johnson-Davies,

illustrated by Ibrahim Salahi

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“Zein was first slain by love when he had still not attained manhood. He was thirteen or fourteen at the time and was as thin and emaciated as a dried-up stalk.”

Tayeb Salih is known as one of Sudan’s greatest writers. The Wedding of Zein helps to explain why.

Zein is a book about a guy named Zein who gets married in Sudan. It’s short, and the version I read has two stories that come with it (“The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid” and “A Handful of Dates.”)

I personally enjoyed the stories more than I enjoyed Zein, but that’s only because I thought the stories were great while I thought Zein was just very good.

In Zein, Salih was good at evoking characters with nuances and quirks. The story’s plot was also intriguing. For some reason though, I found the ending to be much more interesting than the book’s beginning or middle. It left me with a lot more to think about, maybe. Had the beginning and middle been more interesting (which is super-subjective anyway), I would have probably enjoyed Zein as much as the two stories that went along with it.

Even so, I would still recommend reading this book.

Zuleikha, by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden

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“The egg was almost transparent, with a touch of light iridescence. Through its shining walls, which reached to chin level, Leibe saw the square in front of the university gleaming with cleanliness under golden sunbeams, leisurely students smiling deferentially at him, and absolutely smooth columns glimmering with unsullied whitewash. There was no bloodstain.”

This PEN award-winning book is about a Tatar woman named Zuleikha whose husband is killed by Soviet Union officials. Then Zuleikha gets sent to Siberia where she encounters the man who killed her husband. She also encounters a bunch of other people…

The first two-thirds of this book felt to me like a better-written version of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Both authors are screenwriters, and their writing styles were similar– the books zipped along vividly and energetically. Even so, there was more interiority in Zuleikha than in the Tattooist, so I found myself sympathizing a lot more with Zuleikha’s protagonists.

Then there were some really good scenes where the protagonists had to survive the harsh winter climate of Siberia, which reminded me of scenes from another book (by Gary Paulsen) called Hatchet. Yes, Zuleikha was turning out to be a very good read…

Then came the last third of Zuleikha. Up till now, the characters had been fleshed-out people whose logical and grounded actions caused reactions which drove the plot forward.

Suddenly, they became victims of coincidences and actions that had no grounding in their previous characterization. What was really frustrating was that the author could have gotten to the same point without these coincidences. The book would have been stronger as a result.

Well, except for the anticlimactic end. The ending felt like the author was just going for the most convenient resolution rather than the one that best fit the characters’ arcs. As a result, characters wound up not really developing, and the book wound up seeming like it had lost its way.

So if you’re looking for a good book to read I probably wouldn’t recommend Zuleikha. I would recommend Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet instead, because the entirety of that book was well-written, unlike the entirety of this book (in my super-subjective opinion).

Literature Class, by Julio Cortázar,
translated by Katherine Silver

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“Having a message isn’t enough to create a novel or a short story, because that message, when it’s ideological or political, can be much better communicated in a pamphlet, an essay, or a news report. That’s not what literature is good for. Literature has other ways of conveying those messages, and can maybe even convey them with a lot more force than an article, but to do that, to have more force, it has to be great, it has to be elevated.”

This book by Julio Cortázar is a compilation of a bunch of lectures he gave at UC Berkeley in 1980. They were good, short, and not very substantial.

Compare them with Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist. Llosa had a lot more substance in terms of his discussion of fiction and craft. Cortázar just seemed to talk in generalities before reading from his short stories.

Even so, they were interesting to read for his perspective on writing and its purpose. That being said, his short stories might be a more worthwhile (and substantial) read…

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