Lit in the Time of War: Hillenbrand, Maupassant, and Gladwell

Hello. I hope you are well. I’ve read three books this week. Here they are, along with a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help people in Ukraine.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, Read by Edward Hermann

“For these men [POWs] the central struggle of post-war life was to restore their dignity and find a way to see the world as something other than menacing blackness. There was no one right way to peace. Every man had to find his own path, according to his own history. Some succeeded. For others, the war would never really end.”

This is a nonfiction account of a man named Louis Zamperini, who was a troublemaker in his childhood, an Olympic track-star in his youth, a WWII pilot-turned-prisoner of war in his manhood, and a PTSD-battling survivor in his older age. You may have seen the Angelina Jolie movie about him. This is the book it was based on.

The book was very good. It had a great blend of wisdom, humanity, warmth, tragedy, suffering, and (tasteful) comic relief. What stood out most was this blend, along with the author’s keen insights into the sources of resilience (of the prisoners) and malice (of their captors).

I would definitely recommend.

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

“Then he went on a few steps, and stopped again to look about him, and the utter misery of his existence seemed to be brought out into full relief by the intense light which inundated the country. He saw his twenty years of café-life, dull, monotonous, heart-breaking. He might have traveled like others did, have gone among foreigners, to unknown countries beyond the sea, have interested himself somewhat in everything which other men are passionately devoted to, in arts and sciences, he might have enjoyed life in a thousand forms, that mysterious life which is either charming or painful, constantly changing, always inexplicable and strange. Now, however, it was too late.”

It’s so gooood. Unlike Chekhov, Maupassant was able to write female characters without being so sexist about it (so far, anyway). This made for a terrifically refreshing read.

Along with that, he was able to get at the humanity of everyone in his stories, even as they commit foul deeds (deceiving their spouse, etc.) I would say that there was one story that I felt that could have had a greater contrast to strengthen its effect.

Even so, if you’re looking for a short story writer who’s BETTER than Chekhov, I would recommend Maupassant without hesitation.

Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon,
by Malcom Gladwell, Read by Malcom Gladwell

“[Paul Simon:] In order for a problem to be something that you want to solve, it means it has to be interesting, which means you don’t know the answer to the problem. That’s why you’re interested, and you wonder, What’s the answer to that? What does that mean? How do you get there? How do you make yourself feel that chemical high that you feel when you make something that you like? [….] It’s the mystery of why that happens, but when that [chemical high] does occur to you the reward is so great you want that for your whole life.

This is a series of interviews with Paul Simon (of Simon & Garfunkel), interlaced with insights from other musicians about Paul Simon’s music, and excerpts from the music itself. It was very interesting to listen to.

What made it more interesting, in my subjective opinion, was to see the contrast between Paul Simon and Malcom Gladwell (whose comments framed everything Simon said). Paul Simon is a musician who doesn’t think too much about what’s going on in his music in terms of the source of his genius. Malcom Gladwell is a man who seems keen to create theories about everything. He seems to want the formula for genius, and he seems like he wants to dissect Paul Simon to get at that formula. As a result, the interview could sometimes read like Paul Simon talking about whatever he wants and Malcom Gladwell trying to shove him into a box labeled “Malcom Gladwell’s Theory of Musical Genius.”

In other words, it felt like Malcom Gladwell was less interested in Paul Simon as a person, and more interested in him as a specimen of genius. This made the book less enjoyable than it could have been, but it also gave interesting, semi-enjoyable insights (due to the contrast between Gladwell and Simon’s approaches to life and music and genius).

This book also had good music (obviously, it’s Paul Simon), it had good insights into his music by other musicians, and it even had good insights into him by Malcom Gladwell (though sometimes Gladwell would just go off on random theories that had no real basis in the reality that Paul Simon was trying to tell him).

So overall, I’d recommend, but I’d keep in mind the interesting dynamics underpinning this book.

As promised, here’s a list of places to donate in order to help Ukrainians in need:

Corus World Health: Gives needed medicines to Ukrainians, and supports the work of health care workers in Ukraine. Donate here: https://donate.corusworldhealth.org/

Voices of Children: Gives emergency psychological support to children in need, along with evacuation assistance. Donate here: https://voices.org.ua/en/

Humanity and Inclusion: Gives support to disabled people in Ukraine, including at-home rehabilitation, mine risk education, and emergency health services. Donate here: https://www.hi-us.org/ukraine

International Medical Corps: Expands access to medical and mental health services in Ukraine, and helps refugees. Donate here: https://give.internationalmedicalcorps.org/page/99837/donate/

Lit in the Time of War: Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky

In which I review books by Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky.

Hello! I hope you are well. Today at Princeton is officially Dean’s Date—when all essays are due. As a result, I’ll keep my reviews shorter than usual. Also, there’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need.

Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir, by Shahrnush Parsipur, Translated by Sara Khalili

“Although this madness [PTSD from prison] was my own, I wonder if society can be struck by a similar sort of collective insanity when pressure mounts beyond the peoples’ tolerance. Do they abandon all beliefs and begin to exist in an illusory world of their own creation? In that state, will they believe everything they are told?”

This book is about an Iranian writer who gets imprisoned. She experiences traumatic events in Evin Prison along with in other prisons. She gets released, then re-arrested, then released, then re-arrested again. Through it all, we see her remarkable character (she is very resilient and spirited), and learn about the horrors of incarceration.

I would recommend.

The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin,
Read by Eugene Yelchin

“‘‘Turn that thing [the radio] off, Yevgeny.’ ‘I can’t, Grandma,’ I said. ‘I’m in attitude.’ I was trying to balance on one leg in attitude, which Vaganova described as a pose on one leg with the other lifted at an angle of ninety degrees and carried back, bent at the knee. ‘You hurt your leg, Yevgeny?’ ‘No, Grandma. It’s…nothing.’ ‘He stands on one leg for nothing. You a stork?’ ‘I’m practicing ballet.’ ‘With a bad leg?’”

This book is a memoir about Yelchin’s experiences growing up during the Cold War. His mom’s obsessed with the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, his dad’s obsessed with poetry, and his brother’s obsessed with his newfound talent for ice-skating. Yelchin’s parents say he needs a talent, too—talent gets you a luxurious apartment and other such privileges. Yelchin’s brother is all set, but no matter what he does, Yelchin turns out to have no talent at anything. The only enjoyment he gets is from the drawings he makes at night under the table.

This book is funny, heartwarming, and extremely well-crafted. I would recommend.

Selected Poems, by Joseph Brodsky,
Translated by George L. Kline

“People and things crowd in.
Eyes can be bruised and hurt
by people as well as things.
Better to live in the dark.”

This is a book of poems by Brodsky translated into English and with a foreword by W.H. Auden, who says that Brodsky is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. This is also back when Brodsky was an unknown (1973, before his 1987 Nobel Prize).

In any case, I found the poems to be good but not as good as I’d hoped (I’d read some poems by Brodsky here and they were terrific).

Even so, there were some very good poems in this collection, and I’d recommend it. Also, while I never mention footnotes, I do have to say that Brodsky’s book has great footnotes about untranslatable nuances of the Russian original which were very helpful and insightful. I’d recommend.

As promised, a list of places to donate and help Ukrainians in need:

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

Nova Ukraine: Supports Ukrainians by evacuating refugees, serving meals, and providing aid packages. Also the first volunteer group to enter Bucha and provide food and reconstruction assistance there. Donate here: https://novaukraine.org/

WithUkraine: The official fundraising effort by the Embassy of Ukraine to the UK. Provides food and medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://www.withukraine.org/

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

Lit in the Time of War: Brady, Blok, and Yelchin

Study for exams! Read books! Stop the war!

Hello! I hope you are as well as can be hoped for during these awful times. I have reviewed three books this week, and have included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukraine:

Profile of a Prodigy: The Life and Games of Bobby Fischer,
by Frank Brady

“Psychologically, he seems trapped by his own temperament, unable to realize that a sensitivity to the rights and interests of others is a condition of social being. He has backed himself into such a small cultural corner that his ideational mobility suffers every time it is tried, as is shown by the almost pathetic lack of sophistication in his statements since Curaçao. Indeed, he is scarcely able to communicate with the world of larger interests except through the medium of the chessboard. Mikhail Tal one said in an interview that Bobby should read more outside of chess or else his game would eventually  suffer from the thinness of his education. Bobby replied by slighting his critic’s chess ability and adding a series of sneers at intellectual pretensions on the part of certain chess masters.”

This book is about the famous chess player Bobby Fischer, who was a prodigy as a kid and who went on to become the world champion of chess.

What makes this book more interesting is that the author knew Fischer personally. Also, this book was written and published in the 1960s, when Fischer was on hiatus from chess and before he returned to win his famous matches in the 1970s. So here we only have a partial profile of a prodigy rather than the whole story (which is what most standard biographies would give you). So think of this book as being more of a snapshot than a comprehensive biography.

The book was good. It was interesting to learn about the world of chess. Fischer was a very good chess player at a very young age, but he was also very immature. At the time this book was written, his immaturity was limiting him by causing him to decline to participate in chess. He had wanted to compete in the world championship, for instance, but, after convincing himself that the game was rigged against him in favor of his Soviet rivals (which he only complained about when they beat him), he also convinced himself to take a hiatus from the game.

 The book also contains annotated diagrams of Fischer’s greatest games (up to the 1960s). Though it was mildly interesting to flip through these (“14 RxB!!”), it was more interesting to read the biography portion of the book. What made it stand out the most to me was its chapter trying to dissect Fischer’s psychology. He apparently tied his sense of self-worth to chess to the point where he wound up sabotaging his chances at the world title in the 1960s to preserve his sense of superiority over other players.

So, if you’re interested in a psychological portrait of a (sometimes comically-whiny) prodigy, I’d recommend this book.

Poems by Alexander Blok, Translated by Yevgeny Bonver

“Years that burned everything to ashes!
Do you bring madness or grace?
The war’s and freedom’s fire flashes
Left bloody light on every face.”

After reading Pasternak’s poems on a website and reviewing them on this blog, I have found another website with a lot of poems by Alexander Blok.

The poems were good. They made me think about the world in a different way. Some were particularly striking, like “All perished, All!” and “He, who was born…” All in all, it was a very good compilation.

The only thing I would say about these poems is that the English translation loses out on nuances in the original. For instance, in “Night, Streets, the Lantern…” the original’s last line has to do with ice flowing (or something that shows that in spite of the frozenness of ice, it still contains a glimmer of motion). This nuance was completely lost in the translation, which mentioned something about a swelling canal in the night. Obviously not all translations can be perfect, but it has made me wonder how much nuance has been lost in the other poems translated here.

In any case, I would recommend just to get exposure to Blok. If you can read the originals, I would recommend them even more.

The Haunting of Falcon House, by Eugene Yelchin,
Read by Michael Bakkensen and George Guidall

“I hesitated, deciding which book to open first. Not that it mattered. It shouldn’t be too hard for me to pass what was required. French I didn’t need to study. I already knew it. Of course, en garde, prêts, allez were the only words I knew, but they were the most important words in French. You couldn’t start fencing without saying them. I didn’t have to bother with the Russian grammar, either. Russian is my mother tongue, and besides, I write in cursive neatly. Well, almost neatly. As for arithmetic…true, numbers had always troubled me a little, but I could draw them well. Zeros in particular.”

This book is about a prince, Lev Lvovich, who is sent to live with his aunt Olga in a house called Falcon House, which just so happens to be haunted. As he tries to live up to his grandfather’s legacy (his grandfather was apparently a fancy general in the Russian army), he meets a mysterious boy named Vanyusha who has mysterious secrets, studies half-heartedly for admittance into a fancy Russian military academy, and finds himself drawing pictures better than he ever had drawn them before.

The book started slow but gets really good at the end. Was it worthwhile? I found it to be so. It was fun to read, with humor, action, and heart. I felt like some aspects could have been developed more (we learn about the protagonist’s grandfather but not so much about his father, for instance), but there was enough to keep the read entertaining.

So, if you’re looking for a book with some humor and a terrific ending, read this. And if you just so happen to be cramming for final exams and writing essays for final assignments, I’d recommend this book even more for its inspirational take on academics (see excerpt above!)

As promised, here’s a list of Ukrainian organizations to donate to. In case you missed out on previous lists, some entries are repeated here:

UN Refugees: Supports Ukrainian refugees by giving them supplies and assistance. Gifts are being matched up to 1 million dollars. Donate here: https://www.unrefugees.org/

World Central Kitchen: Provides food to displaced Ukrainian refugees and to civilians still in Ukrainian cities. Donate here: https://wck.org/

Razom for Ukraine: Provides medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

Plan USA: Gives resources and psychological support to girls and women in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/

Lit in the Time of War: Sergey, Marina, Ilf, Petrov, and Yelchin

Hello! I hope you had a happy Easter/Passover/Ramadan. This week I’ve reviewed three books, and, as usual, provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukraine during this awful war.

The Scar, by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko,
Translated by Elinor Huntington

“The world is preserved by the mother of all roads. She looks after the faithful traveler, relieving his solitude. The dust of the road covers the hem of a cloak, the dust of the constellations covers the curtain of the night sky, and the wind blows both the clouds toward first light and sheets hung up the dry with the same eagerness. It is no misfortune if the soul is scorched by the sun; it is far more disastrous if a raging fire devastates the soul. It is no misfortune if you do not know where you are going; it is far worse when there is no longer anywhere to go. He who stands on the path of experience cannot step away from it, even when it has come to its end. For the path is without end.”

This is a book about a guy named Egert who starts out being a self-absorbed jerk and a member of the royal guard. He’s very brave, but he bullies his friends, chases after other men’s loved ones, and so on. But one time, he winds up killing a woman’s fiancé in a duel, and gets cursed by a mysterious man called the Wanderer. The curse rids Egert of his bravery and sets him fleeing from everything. Now he needs to figure out how to break the curse before it’s too late.

This was a fun read. The protagonist was initially very unsympathetic, but wound up becoming more sympathetic as the book went on and he learned how to be compassionate towards others instead of just thinking about himself. What also made this book good is that even though nothing seems to happen and there are no real big battles or anything (except at the beginning and the end) it still feels as though a lot is happening (even though the characters just walking around living life). I guess that’s a testament to their authors’ skills with characterization.

It’s also a compelling read—I found myself prioritizing this book over my schoolwork. So if you’re in the throes of studying for final exams, etc, be warned.

In any case, I’d recommend this book.

The Twelve Chairs, by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov,
Translated by John Richardson

(So funny I had to include 2 excerpts)

Excerpt 1:

“The same old story of Gavrila was begun again [by Nikifor Lapis], but this time with a hunting twist to it. The work went under the title of ‘The Poacher’s Prayer.’

‘Gavrila lay in wait for rabbits.
Gavrila shot and winged a doe…’

‘Very good,’ said the kindly Napernikov. ‘You have surpassed Entich himself in this poem, Trubetskoi. Only there are one or two things to be changed. The first thing is to get rid of the word “prayer.” ‘And “rabbit,”’ said the rival. ‘Why rabbit?’ asked Nikifor [Lapis] in surprise. ‘It’s the wrong season.’”

Excerpt 2 (Also about Lapis):

“‘Well, how have you been making out?’ asked Persidsky. ‘I’ve written a marvelous poem!’ ‘About Gavrila? Something peasanty? “Gavrila ploughed the fields early. Gavrila just adored his plough?”’ ‘Not about Gavrila. That’s a pot-boiler,’ said Lapis defensively. ‘I’ve written about the Caucasus.’ ‘Have you ever been to the Caucasus?’ ‘I’m going in two weeks.’ ‘Aren’t you afraid, Lapis? There are jackals there.’ ‘Takes more than that to frighten me. Anyway, the ones in the Caucasus aren’t poisonous.’ They all pricked up their ears at this reply. ‘Tell me, Lapis,’ said Persidsky, ‘What do you think jackals are?’ ‘I know what they are. Leave me alone.’ ‘All right, tell us then if you know.’ ‘Well, they’re sort of… like… snakes.’”

This is a very funny book. it stars con-man Ostap Bender, the “smooth operator” (or “великий комбинатор” in the Russian original) and his guileless acquaintance Ippolit Matveyevich, who’s much less smooth of an operator. Ippolit Matveyevich has just gotten an inheritance of 12 chairs from his mom, and one of the chairs contains a fortune sewn within it. The only problem is that Ippolit Matveyevich does not have the chairs—they have started to be dispersed around Russia. When Ostap Bender learns about this, he insists on getting into the chair-hunting business. Thus begins an epic and funny chase around Russia.

This book reminded me a lot of Gogol’s Dead Souls in that there are different episodes that the characters go through to swindle others of their money, and each episode is pretty funny. While not as funny as Ivan Chonkin by Voinovich, it’s still very funny (and some episodes are absolutely hilarious). Not to mention that this book has a very surprising and exciting twist ending that somehow gets cancelled out in the second book of the series which you should also lie in wait for (like Gavrila with the doe that he intends to wing).

In any case, I would recommend.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose, by Eugene Yelchin,
Illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, Read by Mark Turetsky

“‘Why is “The Nose” still so important to us?’ No hands go up, and I’m not surprised. He’s talking about a crazy old story they always make us read called “The Nose.” It’s really stupid. Some guy’s nose is dressed up in uniform, imagine that, and it starts putting on airs as though it’s an important government official. It takes place way before Stalin was our leader and teacher, of course. Could something like this happen now? No way. So why should Soviet children read such lies? I don’t know. I’m in no hurry, so I keep listening. ‘What “The Nose” so vividly demonstrates to us today,’ says Lushko, ‘is that when we blindly believe in someone else’s idea of what is right or wrong for us as individuals, sooner or later, our refusal to make our own choices could lead to the collapse of the entire political system. An entire country. The world, even.’”

This book is about a kid named Sasha Zaichik whose father is an official in Stalin’s government. Sasha is a model Soviet student, and he wants to become a Young Pioneer (the Soviet equivalent of Boy Scouts) at an upcoming ceremony at his school. The only problem is that his father is arrested by the Soviet government, and now Sasha has to go to school and hope that his father comes back in time for the ceremony (spoiler alert: he doesn’t).

Along the way, he meets friendly enemies of the people (classmates whose parents had also been arrested), breaks the nose off a bust of Stalin (which could get him arrested), and is lectured to by a life-sized version of Stalin’s nose smoking a pipe (see drawing above).

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Who cares that it’s for kids? the author is terrific at dramatic irony (Sasha remains in denial about his dad’s arrest, but we know too well what’s probably happened to him), and at drawing through-lines through the story (Character A does something mysterious, we wonder about it for a while and then forget about it, only for it to pop back up again at the end of the book).

The author is also great at humanizing the characters. I found myself sympathizing with even the least sympathetic of them (Sasha’s classmates). It also goes without saying that Sasha himself is also very sympathetic.

The book is also apparently illustrated. I didn’t get to see that, as I read the audiobook version, but the illustrations look pretty good based on what I could find online…

In any case, I definitely recommend this book. Who cares if you’re an adult? Read it anyway. You won’t regret it.

As promised, here are some places you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need:

The American Jewish Distribution Committee: Supports those in Ukraine, those fleeing Ukraine, and Ukrainians residing in Hungary, Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.jdc.org/

Muslim Hands: UK-based organization supporting Ukrainian refugees in Poland (can choose to donate in dollars). Donate here: https://muslimhands.org.uk/donate/ukraine-refugee-crisis/ukraine-refugee-crisis

Jeremiah’s Hope: Christian organization that provides evacuation assistance, relief, and long-term rebuilding support. Specifically focuses on helping orphans. Donate here: https://www.jeremiahshope.org/

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

Lit in the Time of War: Ming-Yi, Tokarczuk, and Slezkine

Stop the war!

Hello! I’ve read three books this week. One’s puny, one’s medium-sized, and one’s probably the biggest book I’ve ever read…

Also, since the war is STILL happening, I’ve compiled yet another list of places you can donate to in order to support Ukraine. Please do so if you are able.

The Man With the Compound Eyes, by Wu Ming-Yi,
Translated by Darryl Sterk

“Leaving the animal hospital, she saw a follow up on the earthquake on the TV news. As Dahu had said, seismologists suspected this was not simply an energy release. The next report was news to Alice, though: a huge Trash Vortex in the Pacific Ocean was breaking up, and a big chunk of it was headed for the coast right near where she lived. Watching aerial footage of the vortex, Alice could not believe her eyes. She could not believe her ears, either, when the report, drawing on an international news media source, adopted a tragicomic tone, declaring that, in the vortex, almost everyone would be able to find almost everything he’d ever thrown away in his entire life.”

This is a very cool book. the main plot is basically that a tsunami sends a huge trash vortex into Taiwan’s coast, and as a result a boy from a mythical island and a woman who is grieving her dead husband and son come together and form a friendship.

The book is much more than that though. Other peoples’ stories are told in it as well. Most of the stories involve loss, but some of them also involve regaining joy in life. All of them involve the changing climate, and at the center of it is a mysterious man with compound eyes…

What makes the book so good is that people are at its center (in terms of exploring the human condition) instead of having less-developed characters and revolving around the premise of “Oh no! A giant trash-vortex is coming for us! What do we do!”

In other words, I’d recommend.

The Lost Soul, by Olga Tokarczuk, Illustrated by Joanna Concejo,
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

“Finally, during one of his many journeys, the man awoke in the middle of the night in his hotel room and felt as if he couldn’t breathe. He looked out the window, but he wasn’t sure what city he was in—all cities look the same through hotel windows. Nor was he sure how he came to be there or why. And unfortunately he had forgotten his own name too. It was a strange feeling—he had no idea how he was going to find himself again.”

Come for Tokarczuk’s words, stay for Concejo’s great illustrations.

This book is very short and is basically a bunch of illustrations with some text in between (kind of like Hugo Cabret). It’s about a man who loses his soul and has to find it again. How does he do it? Does he even do it? Read the book to find out!

The illustrations are terrific, like I already said. The book also has a lot of wisdom in it, even though it’s very short (in contrast to her much longer book, The Books of Jacob which is humongous and may or may not have as much wisdom as this book has in it).

In any case, I’d recommend.

The House of Government, Part 1, by Yuri Slezkine,
Read by Stefan Rudnicki

“[About the Bolsheviks:] But the radical abandonment of most conventional [family] attachments, the continual sacrifice of the present for the sake of the future, and the violent casting-out of money-changers came, as all heroic commitments do, at the cost of recurring doubt. What if the discarded attachments were the true ones? What if the future came too late for there ever to have been a present? What if the philistines were only human? What if all the years in prison and exile were in vain? What is my strength that I should wait, and what is my end that I should endure?”

This is a huge book (45 hours long, or over a thousand pages in book-form). Given that, I expected it to be kind of a slog to get through. Imagine my delight when, instead of being a slog, the book turned out to be surprisingly entertaining.

The author’s very good at getting across dense ideas in a very engaging way (mainly through humor/wit/wordplay). So while the first several pages are devoted to a description of Moscow (which, in lesser hands, would be absolutely boring), Slezkine makes it absolutely fun.

He also makes some interesting comparisons between the rise of religion and the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia, though I felt that it wasn’t fully developed (yet!)

All that to say, read this book.

As promised, a list of organizations to donate to in order to help Ukraine:

Stand Up For Ukraine—Provides food, shelter, education, and healthcare to those displaced by the crisis in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.globalgiving.org/global-citizen-ukraine/

Islamic Relief USA—Works with NGOs on the ground in Ukraine to provide support to those in need. Donate here: https://irusa.org/europe/

World Food Program—Provides food to people in Ukraine. Donate here: https://donatenow.wfp.org/ukraine-appeal/~my-donation

World Health Organization—Helps support those in Ukraine affected by health problems during the war. Donate here: https://www.ukraine.who.foundation/?form=FUNNSJTYKVD

Lit in the Time of War: Sepetys, Miri, Grossman

STOP THE WAR.

Hello. I hope you are as well as can be hoped for. As the war in Ukraine continues, I’ve read three more books (one of them being the third and final part of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate). I’ve reviewed them here, as well as providing a list of ways you can support Ukraine at the end of this post.

Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys

She curled her finger toward me, beckoning me closer. ‘Want to know a big secret?’ she asked. ‘What’s that?’ She leaned over and whispered in my ear. ‘Mama says the NKVD [Stalinist secret police] are going to Hell.’ She leaned back. ‘But you can’t tell anyone. It’s a secret, okay?’”

This book is about a Lithuanian girl named Lina who gets deported with her family to Siberia. It reminded me of Zuleikha, which I reviewed in the past, only this book was better.

Unlike that book, this book didn’t have contrived characters. Also, “Gray’s” characters were more compassionately portrayed. The author did a very good job of humanizing everyone, which added a lot of power to this book.

One thing I will say is that its beginning is a bit slow. Not in terms of action—the action gets started right away, but in terms of development (though this is likely just a subjective comment—it was still a wonderful book).

I’d recommend.

Tokyo Ueno Station, by Yu Miri, Translated by Morgan Giles

“If I can’t exist I can’t disappear either.”

This book is about a dead, grief-stricken man in Japan who reflects on the tragedies in his life, and how societal inequity caused him to become a ghost.

History and the present-day coexist in this book, from the American firebombing of Tokyo during WWII to the Fukushima nuclear disaster to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

I found this book important to read—it talks about a lot of significant events and displaced populations—but I didn’t find it to be that interesting. The protagonist just meandered around the whole time. Also, it reminded me a lot of Chingiz Aitmatov’s much-better The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, and I found myself wanting to re-read Aitmatov’s book instead of reading this one.

That’s not to say Yu Miri isn’t a good writer—she definitely is, and I think I’m going to wind up recommending her other books (I’m currently reading her Gold Rush and am enjoying it a lot!) It’s just that Tokyo Ueno Station didn’t do it for me personally.

Doesn’t mean the same will be true for you.

Life and Fate, Part Three, by Vasily Grossman,
Translated by Raymond Chandler

“Somehow you could sense spring more vividly in this cool forest than on the sunlit plain. And there was a deeper sadness in this silence than in the silence of autumn. In it you could hear both a lament for the dead and the furious joy of life itself. It was still cold and dark, but soon the doors and shutters would be flung open. Soon the house would be filled with the tears and laughter of children, with the hurried steps of a loved woman and the measured gait of the master of the house. They stood there, holding their bags, in silence.”

(Part One, Part Two)

Here we are. The final part of Grossman’s epic 900-pager.

It was very good.

A physicist struggles to maintain his integrity in the face of Soviet terror, the battle of Stalingrad draws to a close, and some other guy randomly gets arrested for no reason he knows of.

Another name for this section of the book could have been “All the World’s a Prison,” because in it, we see that even those who are free are technically prisoners of the Stalinist state.

Something else: we previously saw Grossman going from being super-sexist to being more feminist. Now, we see him return to a middle position. One female character who had previously seemed to be very developed turns out just to have been developed that way for the sake of becoming a last-minute love-interest. Oh yeah, and did I mention the love-triangles? Yes, love-triangles. There are two of them in this section, which resolve rather boringly.

Two of the more interesting scenes in this section focused on Stalin and Hitler. They didn’t seem that realistic, though. Grossman apparently thought these dictators were, in their moments of weakness, capable of longing for their mothers (Hitler) and feeling overwhelming bouts of love for their daughters (Stalin).

Even so, Grossman was great at getting at his (other) characters’ psychologies. Rationalizations abound. So do subverted expectations and betrayals. Through it all, though, Grossman never loses compassion for the people he portrays, which is impressive.

Overall, this behemoth of a book was worth it. It made me think a lot about prisons, love-triangles, and the human condition.

As promised, here are some Ukrainian aid organizations you can donate to. Please do, especially in light of the news of the horrible massacre in Bucha:

Mercy Corps: Provides humanitarian aid and emergency cash assistance to refugees in Ukraine, Poland, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.mercycorps.org/

Direct Relief: Works with Ukraine’s Ministry of Health to provide medical aid like emergency response packs and critical care medicine. Donate here: https://www.directrelief.org/place/ukraine/

International Relief Teams: Works to provide food, water, and shelter to refugees in Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, and Poland. Donate here: https://www.irteams.org/

Human Rights Watch: Works to defend human rights in Ukraine. Donate here: https://donate.hrw.org/page/100202/donate/1

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 War: Jemisin, Brecht, and Zhadan

“Woe to you who defies the advice of the wise!
If you wade in the water, it will drown you!
Don’t ignore what I say or you’ll rue it one day,
Said the wise woman to the soldier.”

Hello. I’ve changed the title for today’s post. As you know, there is a horrible war in Ukraine that should not have to be fought, and this post’s title tries to honor that fact.

Now. On to the reviews.

The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin

(Warning: Profanity)
“I sing the city. Fucking city. I stand on the rooftop of a building I don’t live in and spread my arms and tighten my middle and yell nonsense ululations at the construction site that blocks my view. I’m really singing to the cityscape beyond. The city’ll figure it out.”

This book is about a bunch of people who embody the soul of New York City, which for some reason has just been born in the 2020s. There’s Manny (Manhattan), Queens (Queens!), Bronca (the Bronx), Brooklyn (Guess), and Aislyn (Staten Island). There’s also a sleeping embodiment of the city itself. Now, the avatars of the boroughs have to get together and wake the city.

This book was action-packed (literally), while also having a lot of moments for reflection. I really enjoyed the humor and the points it made, but sometimes it felt a bit like “Action scene! Reaction/reflection scene! Action scene! Reaction/reflection scene!” which, although it was entertaining, sometimes felt like Jemisin had heard that books worked well if they had this structure and decided to go with it no matter what.

In any case, this is a good book and I would definitely recommend it. It’s also the first in a trilogy so 🙂

Mother Courage and Her Children,”
by Bertolt Brecht, Translated by Eric Bentley

“For marching never could hurt him!
From the north to the south he will march through the land
With his knife at his side and his gun in his hand:
That’s what the soldiers told the wise woman.

Woe to you who defies the advice of the wise!
If you wade in the water, it will drown you!
Don’t ignore what I say or you’ll rue it one day,
Said the wise woman to the soldier.”

Called one of the greatest anti-war plays of our time, this is the story of a woman who’s trying to get her kids out of the war alive. However in the process she starts profiteering off the war, and finds herself sacrificing humanity and human lives for the sake of material gain. Will this catch up to her? Read the book, and reflect on how awful war is, to find out.

This play was really good. None of the characters were that sympathetic, but they got across the horror of war and that’s what seemed to matter the most to Brecht.

Also, there was a particularly striking scene near the end which involved someone playing a drum on a rooftop which got to me. I won’t spoil it, but I’ll probably keep thinking about that scene for a while.

In any case, I would definitely recommend this play, especially nowadays.

The Orphanage, by Serhiy Zhadan,
Translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes

and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler

“[…] an incredibly young rifleman tugs on his sleeve [….] While the woman’s pouring their drinks, he roots around in his pockets, takes out a handful of small bills, scrutinizes them discontentedly, reaches into his pockets again without letting go of Pasha’s arm, and then suddenly produces a hand grenade. The woman freezes; the rifleman places the grenade on the counter and keeps rummaging through his pockets as the grenade starts rolling down the counter, rolling and rolling, very slowly. The woman can’t take her eyes off it, the cup runs over, and the other people standing around also notice the grenade, but they can’t get anything out. All they can do is watch it roll slowly, very slowly, toward the edge, pause, roll over the edge, and plunge to the floor.”

This book is set in Ukraine, and is about a guy named Pasha who needs to get his nephew Sasha out of an orphanage during the war. During the story, he meets a bunch of people and learns that trying to stay out of politics is never a good idea because politics and war eventually catch up to you anyway and force you to choose a side.

The book was very poetic. Sometimes it felt overly poetic. Sometimes, every other line felt like a comparison of one thing to another thing.

And sometimes, the author seemed to overuse certain kinds of dialogue tags—“asked skeptically” and “said, surprised” seemed to be favorites. This doesn’t really matter much in the grand scheme of things, but it did kind of make me feel like his characters were being restricted to just following a path the author laid down before them, being confined to embody what the author wanted them to embody rather than turning into fully fleshed out human beings.

In spite of this, I would still recommend this book. It’s a very good (and sometimes moving) depiction of war and its impact on civilians, and how you can’t escape it, and how bad it is, and how much wars in Ukraine (and wars in general) should just end as soon as humanly possible.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Hong

Hello! Last time, I mentioned Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings but didn’t get a chance to review it. Now, I am.

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,
by Cathy Park Hong

“Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, ‘Things are so much better,’ while you think,  Things  are  the  same.  You  are  told,  ‘Asian  Americans  are  so successful,’ while  you  feel  like  a  failure.  This  optimism  sets  up  false expectations that increase these feelings of dysphoria. A 2017 study found that the ideology of America as a fair meritocracy led to more self-doubt and behavioral  problems  among  low-income  black  and  brown  sixth  graders because, as one teacher said, ‘they blame themselves for problems they can’t control.'”

Minor Feelings is a series of essays written about the Asian American experience. It’s very insightful, though in my opinion, the essays near the beginning were more insightful than the essays near the end (though there were some near the end that were just as insightful).

Hong really gets at the existence of “minor feelings”—feelings that come about when your reality is challenged so many times that you start doubting yourself, and start feeling paranoid, unhappy, and anxious. Then you have to suppress those feelings because they don’t fit the white paradigm, and if you finally do express them, they tend to be perceived as challenging and difficult, even though they’re just the truth.

This book was written with a great amount of hope, anger, and compassion. It’s a terrific read. No matter who you are, it will make you think deeply, and I definitely recommend it.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Durang, Kuznetsov, and Duras

Hello! Happy post-Valentine’s Day! I hope you are all healthy and safe and warm.

I’ve read three books. One has to do with translation, another with the internet, and the last one with love.

“The Idiots Karamazov,” by Christopher Durang

Dostoyevsky GIF - Dostoyevsky - Discover & Share GIFs

“(Enter Mary Tyrone Karamazov, the Karamazov family mother. She wears a high-necked, long dress and carries as carpetbag.)

MRS. KARAMAZOV. Is the Blessed Mother here? (To Grushenka.) Are you the Blessed Virgin? (Smerdyakov humps her leg). Not now, dear.

IVAN. Mother, why aren’t you at Father’s funeral?

MRS. KARAMAZOV. No one else was there. I got lonely. Oh, my nose is stopped up. (Sniffs something.)

IVAN (Bitterly.) I see you’ve got your trusty bag, Mother.

MRS. KARAMAZOV. I need it to carry my needles, Ivan.

IVAN. Have you then resumed your… ‘knitting?’

Mrs. Karamazov laughs jovially.

MRS. KARAMAZOV. James, it’s Edmund you ought to scold for not eating enough. He hardly touched anything except coffee. (Mrs. Karamazov goes rifling through her carpet bag, finds a hypodermic, and shoots up.)

IVAN. (To Grushenka.) It’s Alyosha that did this to mother. She nearly died giving birth to him, and cheap quack doctors got her on the stuff.

in this play, the translator Constance Garnett and her trusty servant Ernest (who likes to go into the African wilderness and hunt elephants and write very terse stories) translate The Brothers Karamazov into English without knowing what they’re doing. What ensues is an interesting mash-up of The Brothers Karamazov, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Anaïs Nin’s diaries, World War II, and the Russian Revolution. People get cut in half, brothers turn into Venus flytraps, and a lot “gets lost in translation.”

Basically, “The Idiots Karamazov” is a very funny play (but only if you get the references–otherwise you’ll be confused like I was during all the Anaïs Nin parts, for instance).

So, if you know about “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Anaïs Nin, World War II, the Russian Revolution, The Brothers Karamazov, Constance Garnett, and Ernest Hemingway, I would recommend you read this play. If you don’t know all of these, learn about them first and then come back. Or just skip this play (it’s funny but it won’t change your life).

Butterfly Skin, by Sergey Kuznetsov,
Translated by Andrew Bromfield

Butterfly Gif by karishma Thakur | Contra

“[As she tries to get two rival businessmen to settle their differences and keep investing in her company instead of bailing on her] And then Olga introduces a new piece into the game, a piece for which there is no term in traditional chess. An Outsider, a king from a different board. ‘I have a buyer,’ she says. ‘And what’s his price?’ asks Kostya. ‘Does he want to buy our shares or the entire company?’ asks Grisha. ‘He only wants to buy one of your shares,’ says Olga. ‘and my share to go with it.’ [….] The two kings say nothing.”

This thriller is about a woman named Ksenia who is editor of an online Moscow newspaper. There’s a murderer who’s committing gristly crimes. She’s fascinated by him, and secretly fascinated by her own dark desires. Meanwhile, the murderer becomes fascinated by her. Terror ensues..

This book is very dark, and it talks about a lot of controversial/explicit/possibly-triggering subjects (abortion, sex, drugs, murder, etc.) It’s also extremely well-written from a technical standpoint.

But for all its well-writtenness, it didn’t really have an emotional impact. I don’t know why. It’s as if the author thought that the dark things he wrote about would be enough to make the reader feel emotional about his characters. That wasn’t the case, though.

In any case, I would recommend this book if you really like really dark thrillers (darker than The Silence of the Lambs) that are technically well-written and have some psychological depth.

The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, Translated by Barbara Bray

L'amant | Still love her, Jane march, Lovers

“One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said, ‘I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.’”

So begins Duras’ The Lover.

This book is about a racist French family that goes to Indochina, and the girl who falls in love with a man from China, uses him for his money, and lets herself be turned against him by her family’s racist thoughts about him.

This is also the story of how dysfunctional her family is. Her mother’s described as crazy, her older brother is very violent and selfish, and her younger brother’s angry but at least somewhat nice. That was interesting to read about.

I found that Duras did a good job humanizing the family in the book, but did not do as good of a job humanizing the lover. He was just there to fall in love with the protagonist and be rich and to let her make comments on society and her own family. He wasn’t treated as a human being in and of himself (for instance, after the female protag leaves him, he’s depicted as spending all his time pining away for his “white lover,” which is a very problematic depiction).

So overall, this book seems pretty racist. It’s the first Duras I’ve read, and I wouldn’t recommend it. it’s very well written from a technical standpoint but from a racial standpoint it’s not good. Maybe her other books are better (but then again, maybe not.)

If you’re looking for a great book that’s very good at humanizing the Asian experience, try Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. THAT’S a book I’d recommend.

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Comment below!