Lit in the Time of War: Aswany

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I’ve read another book, and have reviewed it below for your enjoyment. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help refugees fleeing the war in South Sudan. Please do so if you are able.

Chicago, by Alaa Al Aswany, Translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab

“‘I haven’t told this story to anyone, but you should know it because yesterday you accused me of fleeing from Egypt.’ ‘I apologize again.’ He bowed his head and said in a soft voice, as if talking to himself, ‘Please stop apologizing. I just want you to know me as I really am. For the last thirty years that I’ve lived in America, I haven’t forgotten Egypt for a single day.’ ‘Aren’t you happy with your life here?’ He looked at me as if trying to find the right words, and then he smiled and said, ‘Have you had any American fruits?’ ‘Not yet.’ ‘Here they use genetic engineering to make the fruit much larger and yet it doesn’t taste so good. Life in America, Nagi, is like American fruit: shiny and appetizing on the outside, but tasteless.’”

(NOTE: I know the author of this book, but have reviewed it solely based on its merits)

This is a book set in Chicago, at the University of Illinois, in its histology department, after 9/11. It follows the lives of Egyptian and American students and professors. Some have their sense of tradition shaken, others face persecution, and others plan conspiracies against the soon-to-visit Egyptian president. What will happen? Read the book to find out.

It’s a very good read, too. The author is very observant of people, and a lot of his details are wonderful to read. It’s easier to write sharp-eyed details than it is to actually make the reader feel emotions, but the author manages to do both. There’s a lot of sadness in the book, but also moments of comedy, and the occasional moment of joy. The reader feels it all.

As promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support people fleeing Sudan:

Save the Children: Helps reunify children with their families, provides educational support, and basic needs like food and water. Donate here:

CARE: Helps people restore their livelihoods while providing them food, water, and shelter. Donate here:

UNHCR: Provides shelter, access to healthcare facilities, and waterproofing abilities for Sudanese refugees. Donate here:

Islamic Relief Fund: Provides humanitarian aid for refugees and orphans, helps people access healthcare, and increase families’ income. Donate here:


Lit in the Time of War: Rymer, Balzac, and Memmi

Hello! Happy Tuesday (and happy almost Passover/Easter). I’ve read three books this week and have reviewed them below. I’ve also included links to organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. 

Genie: A Scientific Tragedy, by Russ Rymer

“What makes us special as a species? What art of our essential humanity is expressed in our ability to communicate with language? It is in that light that Psamtik’s [an ancient Egyptian king] scientific sin—his experimentation on childrentakes on the import that continues to so subtly trouble the science. For his sin was the essence: in investigating one piece of the human charter, Psamtik, by his lack of compassion, did violence to another.”

This is a book about greedy scientists ruining lives. More specifically, it’s about a girl named Genie, who suffered horrendous abuse as a child to the point that she didn’t know how to speak. After her mother brought her to social services, Genie fell under the care of scientists who were so excited to test Noam Chomsky’s theory of linguistic development that they fought against each other for control and guardianship of Genie, leading to disastrous results for her.

This book was very interesting for its exploration of language-development theories and the nefarious depths of human egoism and greed. Unfortunately, it was also one of those books where its beginning was much more compellingly-written than its end

Would I still recommend? Yes, just because the story is so important.

Eugénie Grandet, by Honoré de Balzac,
Translated by Sylvia Raphael

“[About Eugénie’s mother:] An angelic gentleness, the submissiveness of an insect tortured by children, exceptional religious feeling, an unfailing evenness of temper, and a good heart made her universally pitied and respected.

This is the first book by Balzac to become considered a classic. I had very high expectations as a result.

It’s about a provincial girl named Eugénie whose father is filthy rich (though he hides it from his family and subjects them to a life of poverty). Because Old Man Grandet’s so wealthy, everyone wants to marry Eugénie. Eugénie also has a handsome cousin named Charles, whose father ends his own life because Old Man Grandet wouldn’t help him out of financial troubles, and now the grief-stricken Charles is left under the care of the Grandet household.

What does Charles do? He falls in love with Eugénie. And Eugénie falls in love with him.

Thus commences this wonderfully-observed book.

The book is definitely well-written (just look at that quotation!) It also shows a lot of features of what we’d go on to call realism.

However the female characters have NO SENSE OF SELF. They’re either talking about marrying guys, sneaking away to prepare breakfast for guys, or looking at things left behind by guys. But the world is much more than guys, and by failing to develop his female characters in recognition of this irrefutable axiom of existence, Balzac greatly weakens the power of his novel.

I would still recommend this book, if only for Balzac’s perceptive eye when it comes to his male characters (and occasionally his female ones).

The Colonizer and the Colonized, by Albert Memmi

“Having become aware of the unjust relationship which ties him to the colonized, [the colonizer] must continually attempt to absolve himself. He never forgets to make a public show of his own virtues, and will argue with vehemence to appear heroic and great. At the same time his privileges arise just as much from his glory as from degrading the colonized. He will persist in degrading them, using the darkest colors to depict them. If need be, he will act to devalue them, annihilate them. But he can never escape from this circle.”

I had to read this book for my senior thesis. It was very interesting and clarified a lot of things I’d been perpetually confused about. It keenly outlines the mentality of people who colonize and people who are colonized, and how they view and interact with each other.

The book was very insightful. I would say that some things could have been developed more nuancedly than they were, such as the outline of how colonized people came to perceive themselves through the eyes of the colonizers. But then again we have people like Frantz Fanon to elaborate further. As it is, this book was incredible for its time (being an early book on colonialism), and a very important introduction to colonialism as we know it. I would 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:

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

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

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:

Ukrainian National Women’s League of America—Provides humanitarian support to civilians and military hospitals. Donate here:

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:—Provides cash support, food, water, and other needed relief to Ukrainians, prioritizing women, children, and the elderly. Donate here:

The International Rescue Committee—Supports Ukrainian families in Poland by giving them food, water, and other vital supplies. Donate here:

Plan USA—Provides psychological support to Ukrainian refugees and helps their children attend school. Donate here:

Lit in the Time of War: Thiong’o

Stop the war and read this terrific book by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Hello! I hope you’re well. I’ve read one book this week (and drafted an entire novel manuscript!) I’ve also included a list of organizations you could donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you are able.

Weep Not, Child, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

“‘I learnt [English] during the big war.’ ‘And was it all that big?’ (The barber lets his clippers go flick—lick—lick—lick. Everyone stands expectantly by waiting to hear about the big war. The barber takes his time.) ‘My man, you would not ask that if you had been there. What with bombs and machine guns that went boom-crunch! Boom-crunch! Troo! Troo! And grenades and people crying and dying! Aha, I wish you had been there’ [….] ‘You don’t mean to say that there’s such a place as Jerusalem?’ ‘Ha, ha, ha! You don’t know. You don’t know. We have seen things and places. There now, you’re ready. No! Wait a minute (flick—lick). That’s all right now. You look smart. Had you been to Jerusalem—’”

This is a book about a Kenyan boy named Njoroge as he comes of age, goes to school, and experiences the effects of the Mau Mau uprising.

The book was very good. It had a lot of very powerful scenes in it (which I won’t spoil).

Sometimes an author tries too hard to tell a story fancily and that ruins the story’s effect. Other writers avoid this pitfall and just tell a story plainly and clearly, which makes it even more emotionally impactful. “Weep Not, Child” was told in this second way.

The book also included a great discussion of the awful impacts of colonialism. It explored how Kenyans could work against it. Is there hope in education? Is there hope in revolution? Is there hope in anything?

Read the book and find out.

Finally, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has always been touted as a Nobel Prize favorite. For some reason, he has never won. Reading this book makes it clear that he absolutely should.

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

Global Giving: Provides food, shelter, and psychosocial support to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here:

US Ukraine Foundation: Gives humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians in need and secures air transport for key medical supplies to Ukraine. Donate here:

United Provides hot food and shelter to Ukrainian refugees, helps prevent human trafficking at the border, and provides needed medical supplies. Donate here:

Ukrainian Congress Committee of America: Provides life-saving first-aid kits to the Ukrainian military and gives free meals to injured Ukrainian soldiers. Donate here:

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:

International Committee of the Red Cross: Provides medical support for wounded Ukrainians. Donate here:

Doctors Without Borders—Ships emergency supplies to Ukrainian hospitals. Donate here: 

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

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,
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:

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:

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

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

Hillel International Emergency Relief Fund—Provides humanitarian support to Ukraine’s Jewish communities. Donate here:

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

Best Cairo City Town Village GIFs | Gfycat

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

Dawn GIFs | Tenor

“‘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

flower blooming gif - Ancient Oaks Foundation

“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!