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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lit in the Time of War: Becker and Dragomán

Hello! I hope you are all well. I’ve read two books this week (one shortish and one longish). I’ve also included a list of organizations you could donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

Jakob the Liar, by Jurek Becker, Translated by Leila Vennewitz

“[Kowalski is] worried because such attacks of melancholy are completely foreign to Jacob; he can be grouchy and quarrelsome at times, but that’s different. He’s never been known to moan; moaning is what all the others do, whereas Jacob has been something of a spiritual comforter. Quite often, whether consciously or not, Kowalski went to him for his own weaknesses to be exorcised. Even before the days of the radio, actually even before the days of the ghetto. At the end of a particularly foul day […] where did he go that evening? To Jacob’s shop, but not because his schnapps tasted any better [….] He went there because afterward the world looked just a little bit rosier, because Jacob could say something like ‘Chin up!’ or ‘Things are going to be all right,’ with just a bit more conviction than other people. But also because among his scanty acquaintances only Jacob made the effort to say such things.

This is a book about a man named Jacob (who for some reason is named “Jakob” in the title) who lives in a Jewish ghetto during WWII and overhears a guard’s radio report saying that Russians are coming closer to their ghetto. Jacob lets others in on the news, lying about its origins and saying he has a radio. Unfortunately, this means that everyone starts constantly coming to him for hope, solace, and more radio reports. What does Jacob do? He lies, of course, and makes up more news reports. But what happens when Jacob realizes his lies give people the hope they need to endure? And how long can he go on like this in the face of the awful reality that only he knows?

The story was wonderfully told. Becker (who survived the Holocaust) had a very vivid and warm way of writing, which made this book a striking read. Its plot was engrossing, its characters were very sympathetic and alive (without being sentimental), it had philosophical depth, and it had a strong emotional impact (I literally cried).

Books with these qualities are the best kind, in my opinion. I would highly recommend Jakob the Liar.

The Bone Fire by György Dragomán,
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet

“[…] I draw the face of Father in the flour; he looks angry, but I know he’s not angry at me, he’s angry at the others, he loves me. I know that behind the anger there is a smile; I know I could also scratch that into the flour, but I don’t […] and next to Father I scratch Mother’s face as well […]  Mother’s face is sad, but I know that’s it’s not because of me, I know that behind her sadness there is joy somewhere [….] Grandmother says that I’ve understood the most important thing [….] Pain helps us to remember, but in such a way that we not only remember the part that hurts, but everything, because we must remember everything, because there is only that—what we remember—because what we forget is no more, it disappears from the past, it vanishes from the world.”

When thirteen-year-old Emma gets adopted by her grandmother, she learns that her grandmother is magical and that she is, too. At the same time, she also comes to learn about the repressive Eastern European regime she and her family lived under, the role that her parents played resisting it, and the role that her grandmother might have played being complicit in it.

This book also had that terrific “quadrifecta” of character, philosophical depth (it’s described as a political gothic for a reason), good plotting, and emotional impact.

The characters (like Emma) were not as deep as they could have been, I felt, but they were still deep enough to get the job done. Meanwhile Emma’s grandmother came across as the deepest character. She told her own story in snippets throughout the book, and it was one of the most compelling parts of the book.

There was also a great deal of discussion about the dictatorship, its fall, and its aftermath—now that the dictator is gone, what do the people do with all the collaborators (or supposed collaborators?) How much does this decision say about the collaborators’ guilt? How much does it say about the prosecutors’ own pain?

My only complaint about the book is that it was too long—it probably could have been shorter. Parts of it felt like the author was just filling up space with cool ideas he had for magic. This is a very minor complaint though. The book still worked very well, and the magic played a very important role in the end of the book, so it might have been justified.

Ultimately, if you want to start with a Dragomán book, I’d recommend The White King over this book, but if you loved The White King and just want more (especially if you are in the mood for a Halloween-y book), you definitely can’t go wrong with The Bone Fire.

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

Now, as promised, here’s a list of organizations supporting Ukrainians in need.

Razom For Ukraine—Provides medical relief for soldiers and doctors on the front line. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

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

Amnesty International—Investigates human rights violations in Ukraine to hold those responsible accountable, defends journalists and other people at risk. Donate here: https://www.amnestyusa.org/

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 War: Molnar, Pushkin, and Birmingham

Hello! Happy Rosh Hashanah to those who celebrate. I’ve read three books this week and have reviewed them all for your enjoyment. I’ve 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 Paul Street Boys, by Ferenc Molnar,
Translated by Louis Rittenberg

“The only human being in the street at that moment was János Boka—the general. And, as General János Boka gazed about him and realized that he was all alone, his heart was so tightly gripped by a strange feeling that János Boka, general, leaned against the gate-post and burst into genuinely bitter, heartfelt tears.”

This is a book about bunch of kids (the Paul Street boys) who get into fights with a bunch of other kids. Some of the kids from the Paul Street boys seem to be traitors—but are they really? And who will win? Read the book and find out.

 The book was very well written and had a lot of heart. It had very funny parts (the kids telling an adult that they’re part of a putty club which involves them chewing on balls of putty so as not to tell the adult about their other Paul Street boys club), and it had sad parts (which I won’t spoil). It also had interesting subplots about some of the boys which made the book even more enjoyable.

Parts of The Paul Street Boys reminded me of another Hungarian book, György Dragomán’s The White King. That book also involved boys fighting, but in that book the fights were much darker (since the story itself was much darker). In The Paul Street Boys, it was refreshing to see the kids have such strong senses of honor. Sometimes it felt a bit too idealistic (considering that some of the kids may have very well grown up into real military commanders who may or may not have been forced to give up their honor for the sake of victory). Even so, the book steered clear of preaching blind idealism (“Rah, rah, fighting is amazing!”) through its terrific twist-ending (which I won’t spoil).

Overall, if you’re looking for a warm adventuresome book that makes some very good points about war and life and the meaning of fighting, I would recommend The Paul Street Boys.

Ruslan & Ludmila, by Alexander Pushkin,
Translated by D.M. Thomas

“Events described in ancient pages
By some long-perished Russian dreamer.”

This is a story about Ruslan and Ludmila, two lovers who are supposed to get married. Only just before they do, an evil wizard teleports into their midst and kidnaps Ludmila. So the king (Ludmila’s father) decides to make his daughter’s rescue into a contest—whoever rescues her will actually marry her. Ruslan and two other guys set out to rescue her. Along the way, they try to kill each other and try to avoid getting killed themselves by the various magical creatures they meet.

The story was fun and well-told. Pushkin made good observations about nature and got me firmly on Ruslan’s side. Even so, I felt a bit let-down. As someone who’s been studying Russian, I found myself imagining the Russian version of some of the lines I was reading, and found myself realizing how much better the poem likely would have been in Russian (there would likely have been a lot of beautiful assonance that got lost in the English translation, for instance).

This is obviously my own fault for not studying Russian enough to be able to read the book in the original. And in any case, for those of you who don’t know any Russian, Thomas’s translation still did a very good job of capturing whatever poetic rhythm and sound it could, so I would definitely recommend.

However, if you DO know Russian (or are learning it like I am), I’d probably recommend reading it in the original (or getting a bilingual version!)

The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoyevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece, by Kevin Birmingham, Read by Robert Petkoff

“To earn money, he [Dostoyevsky] devised various translation schemes to serve Russia’s interest in western fiction. Mikhail [his brother] translated German texts, and Fyodor translated French. He believed translations were a sure path to fortune. ‘Why is Strugovshchikov already famous?’ he asked Mikhail. All of his calculations had optimistic bottom lines, sometimes several thousand rubles. ‘Just wait and see. They’ll come flying at us in swarms when they see the translations in our hands. There will be plenty of offers from booksellers and publishers. They are dogs.’”

This book is about Dostoyevsky, the writing of his book Crime and Punishment, and the French murderer who inspired it.

The book alternated between telling Dostoyevsky’s story, the story of his book, and the story of Francois Lacenaire, a Frenchman who murdered people out of nihilism. So the book was part-biography, part In Cold Blood, and part literary scholarship. Even though it alternated among these three “plotlines,” the book had a terrific sense of narrative drive (I’d find myself wondering “How will Dostoyevsky get out of this problem?”).

Interestingly, since the author wrote about Dostoyevsky’s life, some parts of his biography read like summarized versions of Dostoyevsky’s books. The author wrote about the exact same details in Dostoyevsky’s Siberian imprisonment that made their way into his book Notes From a Dead House for instance, and it felt like I was reading a miniature version of Dead House nestled within a bigger biography of Dostoyevsky.

The author also explained the origins of various characters in Dostoyevsky’s book—ever wonder where Porfiry Petrovich came from? This book will tell you, along with how Petrovich evolved over the course of Dostoyevsky’s revisions.

At the same time, the author gave very good psychological and philosophical insights into nihilism, its causes, and the brutal lengths some people went for it. He did this by telling Lacenaire’s story and the story of Russia’s unrest as Dostoyevsky was writing Crime and Punishment. Ultimately, these three “plotlines” made the book’s scope bigger than just a literary analysis, and the book was much richer for it.

So if you’re looking for a book about Dostoyevsky that takes a different approach than a standard biography/literary analysis, I’d recommend this book. And I’d especially recommend it in audiobook form, since the narrator was terrific.

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

Jewish National Fund—Helps Ukrainian refugees find shelter while providing them with food, toys, and psychological assistance. Donate here: https://my.jnf.org/donate-ukraine-relief/Donate

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

Global Empowerment Mission—Gives plane tickets to Ukrainian refugees so they can reach friends and family they have in Europe. Donate here: https://www.globalempowermentmission.org/

Razom For Ukraine—Provides medical relief for soldiers and doctors on the front line. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

Lit in the Time of War: McAllister, Maupassant, and Maupassant

In which I review a book by Bruce McAllister and finally finish reading Maupassant’s Complete Short Stories!

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe. I have read three books this week, and have reviewed them below. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

Stealing God and Other Stories, by Bruce McAllister

“It is well known now the role the Arcturians played during the Cuban Missile Crisis in averting global nuclear disaster—specifically, by whispering telepathically and remotely simple phrases like “Trust!” and “This can be fixed!” and “This is definitely worth fixing!” in the sleeping ears of both John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev.”

Disclaimer: I know the author of this book, but chose to review it due to its own merits only.

This is a collection of speculative fiction short stories, some about magical Italian seaside villages, others about benevolent aliens, others about wisecracking vampire-slayers, and others about genetically-engineered animals (among other things). Most of the stories had a very human and psychological focus. For instance, even though one story had vampires, it was actually about the main character coming to terms with grief. This was very refreshing.

Some of the short stories took place in the same universe (there were multiple stories set in the magical Italian seaside village for instance), which made me feel like I was returning to a familiar world.

At the same time, the stories were interesting for their range—some were hilarious (like “Stamps” which is excerpted above), others were very sad (“The Witch Moth” was probably the saddest story in the whole collection), but they all worked pretty well. Yes, there were a few that I felt the author could have done more with (one could have been developed further, and another could have had a better thought-out ending), but that didn’t take away from the satisfaction they gave.

Overall, if you’re looking for a thought-provoking and emotionally-moving speculative fiction short story collection, and if you prefer stories with rich concepts and even richer character-depth/humanity, I would definitely recommend this book.

The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Volume 9, Translated by M. Walter Dunne

“Then he visited the farms, picking his way across ground made moist by the rains, so spent he that he could scarcely raise his crutches. They chased him away, everywhere. It was one of those cold, sad days when the heart shrivels, the mind is irritated, the soul is somber, and the hand does not open to give or to aid.”

(Volumes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 here)

In this ninth volume of Maupassant’s stories, he writes about women who get back at their cruel dog-owning husbands by training the dogs to attack their husbands, hungry men driven to theft due to others’ indifference, families who go on pleasurable outings only to accidentally run over other people, and women who throw their dogs into ditches because they would rather save their money than pay to feed a pet.

In other words, these topics are very different from his earlier stories about love. Also, unlike in earlier volumes, Maupassant doesn’t really have anybody telling other people stories about what happened to them.

Interestingly, he’s able to make his characters sympathetic while also showing how wrong they are to be greedy (like in the story about the woman who threw her dog into a ditch). However, unlike in previous volumes I got the sense that he was somewhat more judgmental of these characters.

Overall, I would recommend that you read this, but just so you can get to Volume 10.

The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Volume 10, by Guy de Maupassant, Translated by M. Walter Dunne

“All at once, at the foot of the tall column of wood there was a shudder which seemed to run to the top, like a painful shiver; it [the tree] bent slightly, ready to fall, but still resisted. The men, in a state of excitement, stiffened their arms, renewed their efforts with greater vigor, and, just as the tree, breaking, came crashing down, Renardet suddenly made a forward step, then stopped, his shoulders raised to receive the irresistible shock, the mortal blow which would crush him to the earth. But, the beech-tree, having deviated a little, only grazed against his loins, throwing him on his face five metres away.”

(Note: this review mentions rape)

This is the final volume of Maupassant’s complete short works. Originally, I thought that the stories were published in chronological order, but this volume ends with a story that was published halfway through Maupassant’s career. But before I get to that one, let me tell you about the others.

Continuing with the dog-theme from Volume 9, there are stories about a woman who trains a dog to kill a man who wronged her, and a servant who is forced to kill his beloved dog only to be haunted by its death. There are also stories about a man who gets stuck on a lake, a man who goes to a spa and meets women, and a hilarious story (“A Lucky Burglar”) about some friends who dress up as soldiers, get drunk, and fire unloaded pistols at a terrified (and very lucky) old burglar who visits them.

The last story in this volume is called “Little Louise Roque” and is the darkest story in the whole collection. It’s about the rape and murder of a young girl by the town’s mayor, who goes on to experience guilt while abusing his power to avoid suspicion. This story had beautiful descriptions of nature that didn’t get boring, very insightful psychological descriptions of the mayor, and a very sad ending (which I won’t spoil). It is just as good as “Ball of Fat” from Volume 1 of this collection. It may even be better due to its richer psychological insights.

Taking all 10 volumes into consideration, I would DEFINITELY recommend Maupassant’s complete works. He’s a great writer—very empathetic, insightful, warm, and human. Even though some of his stories hinge on plot-twists or aren’t that memorable, a large amount of his stories are terrific. He looks at people more closely than many of us, and so comes up with fresh realizations about how and why they act the way they do. At the same time, he rarely judges them for what they do, and so lets readers come up with their own perspectives and insights. Usually, there’s also the sense that he’s having fun with what he writes, so even if he’s writing about a greedy person, he’s less intent on shoving their greed in the reader’s face and more intent on showing the reader why that person’s so interesting. Finally, what makes him better than Chekhov (in my very strong but subjective view) is that he treats many of his female character just as humanly as his male characters. He rarely reduces them to roles or stereotypes, and never creates a subtle sense of distance between them and the reader like Chekhov tends to do. As a result, we’re able to experience the realities of Maupassant’s female characters just as richly as we’re able to experience the realities of his male characters.

Overall, I have two words of advice for you: read it. And once you do, I’d love to hear about your thoughts in the comments below.

As promised, here are some organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need:

Razom For Ukraine—Provides medical relief for soldiers and doctors on the front line. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

United Help Ukraine—Provides medical supplies to soldiers, and ships goods to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://unitedhelpukraine.org/

World Central Kitchen—Feeds Ukrainians in cities like Odessa, Kharkiv, and Kyiv. Donate here: https://wck.org/relief/activation-chefs-for-ukraine

24,000 Friends of Ukraine—Subscription donation campaign started by the Ukrainian president to provide medical aid to Ukrainians in need. Subscribe here: https://donorbox.org/24-000-friends-of-ukraine

Lit in the Time of War: Hauptmann, Spragins, and Maupassant

Hello! I hope you are well and that you had a happy 4th of July yesterday if you live in America. I have read three books this week and have reviewed them below for your pleasure. I have also provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support people in Ukraine. Please do so if you are able.

The Weavers,” “Hannele,” and “The Beaver Coat,” by Gerhart Hauptmann, Translated by Horst Frenz and Miles Waggoner

DR. FLEISCHER enters with his five-year-old son. FLEISCHER is 27 years old, wears a hunting suit, has coal black hair, mustache and goatee. His eyes are deep-set, his voice is soft. He continually shows an almost pathetic anxiety for his child.

MRS WOLFF. (Shouting joyfully.) My! Philipp’s come to visit us! […] (She takes hold of the child and pulls off his overcoat.)

FLEISCHER. (Anxiously.)  Mrs. Wolff, there’s a draft. I think there’s a draft.

MRS WOLFF. He ain’t that frail [….]

FLEISCHER. No, no. Be careful. What do you think? The child takes cold in a minute. Move about, Philipp. Keep moving about.

(Philipp refuses to move and screams.)”

This is a collection of plays including “The Weavers” which I have already reviewed and two others which I haven’t.

“Hannele” is about an abused girl who has hallucinations of angels. “The Beaver Coat” is about an upstanding woman who decides to steal a beaver coat from someone else.

“Hannele” had a lot of elements of fantasy in it and not much characterization. Yes, there were some interesting characters at the beginning, but they didn’t play much of a role in the rest of the story.

“The Beaver Coat” had more characterization (see excerpt above), but also had a somewhat anticlimactic (though still good and somewhat surprising) ending. The ending was probably much more surprising back in the late 1800s-early 1900s when this play was written. However, after reading plays like Ibsen’s “The Pillars of the Community,” it wasn’t as surprising to me.

The play that stood out the most to me was “The Weavers.” There were interesting characters who had thought-provoking interactions, and the play’s ending was striking. For me, the ending scene that Hauptmann probably intended to have the most impact felt somewhat less impactful than one line just before it. The ending scene felt a bit too “look at how sad this situation is!” while the line I’m referring to was more subtle but somehow filled with dread and significance.

Overall, I would recommend.

What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self,
Edited by Ellyn Spragins

“What could also ease your stress is a different way of thinking about how we travel through this world. There’s no ladder to success. The rhythm of life runs in cycles. There are times in the darkness and times in the light. The energy of life is like the rainforest in Borneo. Things live, grow, die, fall to the forest floor, rot, and then they are born again.”
(From a letter by Olympia Dukakis)

This is a book of letters written by accomplished women, filled with advice they wished they’d had when they were young.

Authors inside include Madeleine Albright, Nora Roberts, and Maya Angelou. In a way it reminded me of A Hand to Guide Me, which had a similar conceit.

It was interesting to read the editor’s introductions to each woman. They helped me better appreciate each woman’s life and background. However, for some reason the editor kept writing lines like “I was prepared to encounter a shrill, angry woman” only to be surprised when the woman she encountered turned out to be a very nice person. All of the women turned out to be very nice people, and they all had great perspectives on life. Topics in their letters included growing up, making it in life, getting married (or not), and being a mother.

Interestingly, the most famous letter-writers didn’t necessarily give the most insight (similar to what happened in A Hand to Guide Me). Some standout letters from What I Know Now were the ones by Olympia Dukakis (actress), Joyce Tenneson (photographer), and Ingrid Newkirk (founder of PETA).

If you’re looking to be inspired, I would definitely recommend this book.

The Complete Short Stories of Maupassant, Ten Volumes in One, Volume 4, by Guy de Maupassant

Two Quotes:

“And he extended his great rude hand, into which the priest let fell his own, heartily. The smack of this hand-shake ran along under the arches and died away back in the organ pipes.”

“Simon Bombard often found life very bad! He was born with an unbelievable aptitude for doing nothing and with an immoderate desire to follow this vocation.”

(Volumes 1, 2, 3 here)

The more I read Maupassant, the more I figure out his formula: he starts out with a situation, has his characters get into an affair, and then gets the characters into some kind of situation in which they show a surprising side of themselves. At least, that was the way it felt in this volume, where 99% of the stories seemed to include a love affair.

This made for somewhat less interesting reading than usual–how many times can you read about an affair? Even so, it wasn’t that boring, because Maupassant has the ability to make anything interesting, even if he’s written about it so much that it should have become completely uninteresting.

He also tells compassionate stories of the downtrodden (prostitutes, orphans, etc.), which made for good reading (even though in this volume they usually wound up getting into affairs).

In any case, if you have decided to take the plunge and read all ten volumes along with me, I applaud you. If you haven’t yet decided to take that plunge, take it as soon as you can, because it will be much well worth your time. At least read one of his stories, and make that story be “Ball-of-Fat” (Volume One). From there, you won’t be able to stop reading Maupassant, and you’ll wish you had all ten volumes of his short stories in front of you so you could keep reading.

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

Razom For Ukraine—Provides medical relief for soldiers and doctors on the front line. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

CNN Public Good: Provides money to organizations working in Ukraine such as Americares, Catholic Relief Services, and Oxfam America. Donate here: http://cnn.com/2022/02/24/us/iyw-how-to-help-ukraine/index.html

USA Ukraine Foundation: Provides grants and on-the-ground humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://usukraine.org/

Mercy Corps: Funds grassroots humanitarian organizations in Ukraine and provides food assistance to countries impacted by the war. Donate here: https://www.mercycorps.org/donate/war-ukraine-has-impacts-around-world-give-now

Lit in the Time of War: Saroyan, Gogol, and Nabokov

Hello! I hope you are well. I’ve read three books this week. Below are my (sometimes controversial) reviews of them. Also below is a list of places you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need. Please do if you are able.

The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze
and Other Stories
, by William Saroyan

“Horizontally wakeful amid universal widths, practising laughter and mirth, satire, the end of all, of Rome and yes of Babylon, clenched teeth, remembrance, much warmth volcanic, the streets of Paris, the plains of Jericho, much gliding as of reptile in abstraction, a gallery of watercolors, the sea and the fish with eyes, symphony, a table in the corner of the Eiffel Tower, jazz at the opera house, alarm clock and the tap-dancing of doom, conversation with a tree, the river Nile, Cadillac coupe to Kansas, the roar of Dostoyevsky, and the dark sun.”

This book has a bunch of short stories in it by the writer William Saroyan.

It had me of two minds. There were some stories in it I loved, like “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “Seventy Thousand Assyrians,” “Aspirin is a Member of the N.R.A”, “Seventeen,” “Laughter,” “Harry,” and “War.” Then there were some that I thought were trying too hard to be poetic or weren’t really saying anything meaningful, and I found myself getting annoyed with them (a very subjective response).

In any case this author reminded me of a cross between Thomas Wolfe (for the streams of consciousness) and Isaac Babel (for some of the very concise writing). Interestingly, someone said that Saroyan was one of the first minimalists. I wouldn’t call him a minimalist (considering his streams of consciousness) but I would call him a very good writer in any case that would be interesting to read.

The Overcoat and Other Tales of Good and Evil,
by Nikolai Gogol, Translated by David Magarshack

“On entering the hall, he saw his valet Ivan lying on his back on the dirty leather sofa and spitting on the ceiling and rather successfully aiming at the same spot. Such an indifference on the part of his servant maddened him; he hit him on the forehead with his hat, saying: ‘You pig, you’re always doing something stupid!’”

I previously reviewed Gogol’s “The Overcoat” here. Now I’m reviewing more of his stories.

This collection in particular is a very interesting book because it shows Gogol going from writing semi-cliché (and very sexist) stories of revenge to writing more original and funny stories like “The Overcoat” and “The Nose.”

Another good story in this collection was “Nevsky Avenue,” which had very funny parts to it as well, even if it lacked the depth and insight that made “The Overcoat” and “The Nose” such masterpieces. Finally, there was a story called “The Portrait” which gave a great summarization of Gogol’s artistic values (it’s about painters).

Overall, if you’re looking to journey along with a great writer as he develops, this would be a very good book to read.

Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov

“‘I have always had the impression that his entomology was merely a pose.’  ‘Oh no,’ said Chateau. ‘You will lose it some day,’ he added, pointing to the Greek Catholic cross on a golden chainlet that Pnin had removed from his neck and hung on a twig. Its glint perplexed a cruising dragonfly.”

This book is about a professor from Russia who teaches Russian at an American university. His name is Pnin. I don’t know what else to say about this book because nothing much else really happens.

My thoughts about this book are controversial. I did not enjoy it, unlike everyone else I know who read it. I guess for me it was the fact that Pnin had previously risked his life fleeing from Soviet Russia to America, but then in America the most that he risks is potentially losing his tenure. Considering how the stakes went from super-high to nonexistent, I didn’t feel that engaged with the story.

I know that Nabokov isn’t known for gripping and suspenseful plot-driven works but is known for his style. Even so, I didn’t really care that much about his style (other than the first chapter which was hilarious). For some reason I found the book got less funny as it went on. At certain points his style felt like he was trying too hard to be witty, to the point where I stopped really caring about his attempts.

Even so, I saw that Nabokov was a good writer. His language was good, some of his observations were interesting, and so on. I just didn’t feel that Pnin was as fulfilling (or as funny) as other books I’ve read.

In the end, I know this is a very subjective opinion. I wouldn’t let my judgement of it turn you off from reading it. I’d recommend you read it and see what you think. Maybe we’ll wind up agreeing, but maybe we won’t and you’ll find yourself a new favorite author.

Now, as promised, a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need:

UN Ukraine Humanitarian Fund: Helps give money to humanitarian non-governmental organizations who give food to Ukrainians. Donate here: https://crisisrelief.un.org/t/ukraine

Revived Soldiers Ukraine: Provides medical support to soldiers and civilians. Donate here: https://www.rsukraine.org/

Razom For Ukraine: Provides medical relief for soldiers and doctors on the front line. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

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

Lit in the Time of (Ongoing) War: Let The Right One In

Read John Ajvide Lindqvist and Stop the War!

Hello. I hope you are all well, and that the war in Ukraine stops soon. Meanwhile, I’ll keep titling my posts “Lit in the Time of War,” and hope that it’ll end soon. Also included at the end of this post is a brief list of places you can donate to in order to support Ukraine.

Let Me In (AKA Let The Right One In), by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Translated by Ebba Segerberg, Read by Steve Pacey

“The fact that the [murderer who had disfigured his face with acid to avoid being recognized] had not been recaptured during the day made the news more sensational, and a British journalist gave the best analysis of why the whole thing had attracted such attention: ‘It’s a search for the archetypal monster, this man’s appearance, what he’s done, he is the monster, the evil at the heart of all fairy-tales, and every time we catch it, we like to pretend it’s over for good.’”

This book is about a mysterious girl, Eli, who comes to Sweden and befriends a bullied boy named Oskar. Eli’s strange. She only comes out at night, and she lives with a man who kills people so she could live on their blood. In other words, she’s a vampire (but a much better vampire than Edward Cullen ever could be!)

This is a story of their friendship, along with the story of a bunch of other irrelevant side-characters who somehow become relevant only in the last quarter of the book.

The book was fun to read. It took a while (it was very long), but it was entertaining, and its ending was good. The narrator was fantastic, as well, so if you can get it on audiobook I’d highly recommend it. My only real gripe with it was that it felt like there was too much buildup with the side characters—they were important but they weren’t that important.

In any case, I’d definitely recommend this book. It’s very good horror, with humanity mixed in.

Some organizations supporting Ukrainians that you can donate to:

Razom For Ukraine—Provides medical relief for soldiers and doctors on the front line. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

United Help Ukraine—Provides medical supplies to soldiers, and ships goods to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://unitedhelpukraine.org/

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/

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

Red Cross—Provides first aid, food, medicine, and evacuation help to Ukrainians. Donate here: https://www.redcross.org/donate/cm/abc.html/?subcode=abc-pub

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

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

Save the Children—Provides food, water, money, hygiene kits, and psychosocial support to children. Donate here: https://www.savethechildren.org/us/where-we-work/ukraine

Amnesty International—Investigates human rights violations in Ukraine to hold those responsible accountable, defends journalists and other people at risk. Donate here: https://www.amnestyusa.org/

Have you read Let Me In? Have you donated to any of these organizations (or know of anywhere else someone can donate to support Ukraine?) Let me know in the comments below!

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: Smith, Abe, and Lukyanenko

Hello! I hope you are healthy and safe. I’ve read three more books this week:

Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, Read by Henry Strozier

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“Arkady [a prisoner of Pribluda] got to his feet and stretched. ‘Want to get back to your seeds, Major?’ […] ‘you know I do.’ ‘Say you’re human.’ ‘What?’ ‘We’ll go back,’ Arkady said. ‘All you have to do is say you’re human.’ ‘I don’t have to do anything. What kind of game is this? You’re so crazy Renko it makes me sick.’ ‘It shouldn’t be so hard to say you’re human.’ Pribluda walked in a tight circle as if screwing himself into the ground. ‘You know I am.’ ‘Say it.’ ‘I’ll kill you for this! For this alone,’ Pribluda promised. ‘To get it over with,’ his voice fell to a monotone. ‘I’m human.’ ‘Very good. Now we can go.’ Arkady started toward the house.”

Gorky Park is about Moscow’s Chief Inspector, a guy named Arkady Renko. He’s called in to investigate the death of three people in a Moscow park. Along the way, he gets embroiled in international intrigue, falls in love, and almost dies. Will he actually survive? Will he sell himself out to corruption?  Read the book and find out.

This book was very entertaining. Arkady Renko was a very astute inspector who always came up with these precise theories. I was always left wondering how he figured them out. Not that it was illogical, just that it was impressive. There was good action, there was good adventure, there was good (slow-burning) romance, and there were a lot of twists that sometimes felt like they came out of nowhere (How did Arkady figure them out again?)

What was also impressive was that Arkady became a three-dimensional character. He started out very two-dimensional (“Gotta solve the mystery! Oh no, my wife’s cheating on me! But gotta solve the mystery!”) He spent about half the book being two-dimensional, but then in the second half he developed.

The narrator was also very good (though he kept mispronouncing Arkady’s name which, as a Russian learner, was hilarious). Still, he brought a lot of emotion and life to this story, so kudos to him.

Overall, I would recommend this book if you were looking for something entertaining to read. It doesn’t really have philosophical depth, but it’s interesting anyway.

The Woman in the Dunes, by Kobo Abe,
Translated by E. Dale Saunders

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“Someday he would tell her the story of the guard who protected the imaginary castle. There was a castle. No. It wasn’t necessarily a castle, it could be anything: a factory, a bank, a gambling house [….] Now the guard, always prepared for the enemy attack, never failed in his vigilance. One day the long-expected enemy finally came. This was the moment, and he rang the alarm signal. Strangely enough, however, there was no response from the troops. Needless to say, the enemy easily overpowered the guard in one fell swoop [….] No, it was the castle, not the enemy, that was really like the wind. The single guard, like a withered tree in the wilderness, had stud guarding an illusion.”

In this book, a man goes missing. He basically gets captured and put into a hole where he has to dig sand with a woman, because for some reason if he and the woman stop digging sand, the village above them will get crushed by the sand. That makes absolutely no sense, but let’s just pretend it does.

Moving on, we get a philosophical exploration of sand, water, escape, imprisonment, meaning, and delusion.

It’s entertaining and I’m sure it will provoke thought. However, I found it wasn’t really that interesting–I felt like I knew what was going to happen at the end before it actually did happen, so when the end came, it wasn’t as surprising as the author seemed to want it to be. Maybe it’s because I’ve read a lot of books. Maybe it’s because it felt like the author was just trying to manipulate his characters to achieve this outcome without it organically coming from the characters themselves. Maybe it’s just me.

This book is one of the most celebrated books in Japan, so I’d still recommend reading it. I’m just not sure if it’ll be the best book you will ever read (though I could be wrong, since lit is very subjective!)

Night Watch, by Sergei Lukyanenko,
Translated by Andrew Bromfield

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“I’ve seen all of you. Road sweepers and presidents, robbers and cops. Seen mothers killing their children [….] Seen sons throwing their mothers out of the house and daughters putting arsenic in their fathers’ food. Seen a husband smiling as he sees the guest out and closes the door, then punches his pregnant wife in the face. Seen a smiling wife send her drunken husband out for another bottle and turn to his best friend for a passionate embrace. It’s very simple to see all this. All you have to do is look. That’s why they teach us not to look before they teach us to look through the Twilight. But we still look anyway.”

This book is about a guy named Anton Gorodetsky. He’s a member of the Night Watch, a group of people assigned to preserve good in the world. Fortunately it’s more complicated than that. Night Watch members can’t go around doing good indiscriminately, because they have a treaty with the Day Watch (the powers of evil), that if they start doing good, the Day Watch can start doing evil back. This treaty leads to morally-questionable acts by Night Watch members in the name of good. Are you actually good just because you call yourself good? Do the ends justify the means? Do the means justify the ends?

And here we have Anton, who is questioning the ethics of the Night Watch while trying to avoid getting killed, while trying to find out about a powerful woman who could save them all. It makes for good reading.

The back cover describes it as being, “Like Tolkien getting mugged in a Moscow back alley by John Le Carré,” but I’d describe it as, “like Tolkien getting mugged in a Moscow back alley by John Le Carré and Dostoyevsky’s ghost.”

Because, unlike Gorky Park, Night Watch incorporated philosophy. It was also well-paced philosophy (unlike Dostoyevsky). And unlike in The Woman in the Dunes, the philosophy and the story felt fresh.

So if you’re looking for something that is both entertaining and philosophical, I’d recommend Night Watch.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Ende, King, and LeGuin

Hello! I hope you are healthy and safe. I’m back at school after a terrific break. This week, I’ve read three books about wishes, reality, fiction, and dreams.

The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende,
Read by Gerard Doyle, Translated by Ralph Manheim

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“‘When it comes to controlling human beings, there is no better instrument than lies, because you see, humans live by beliefs, and beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts.’”

This is a book about a kid named Bastian who reads a book called The Neverending Story. In the book, the queen of the realm is sick, and if she dies the realm will die too. A hero is needed to find a cure, and that hero is another kid named Atreyu. As Bastian reads about Atreyu’s quest, he realizes that he may have a part to play in saving the realm, too.

This was a very good book. I enjoyed the self-referential nature of the plot, and how Bastian became a character in the book. I also liked how he was given the power to grant wishes, but whenever he granted a wish, he lost some of his memories of his life in the real world.

Interestingly, the author experienced World War II in Germany, which also seemed to inform some of the things he wrote about in this book (like his thoughts about memory and self-knowledge).

You could be very literary in analyzing this book, but you could also just read it and have fun. It’s good for kids, and it’s even better for adults. I would recommend.

On Writing, by Stephen King

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“At times like that I’m sure all writers feel pretty much the same no matter what their skill and success level. ‘God, if only I were in the right writing environment with the right understanding people, I just know I could be penning my masterpiece!’ In truth, I found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress, and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.”

I read this book in high school and it was fun to reread it now (especially since I was listening to Stephen King himself read it on audio).

Its writerly advice still holds true, but I found I was able to appreciate some of his insights that I had glossed over before, and understand some of what he said better than I had in the past. For instance, his advice about reading and writing a lot, or his discussions about needing to understand his characters well in order to write about them truthfully, or putting his characters in situations and then seeing how they would react to them rather than relying on plot formulas.

One note: when reading the print version, I seem to remember a section where he wrote a passage about some guy called Mr. Ostermeyer, and then demonstrated how he would revise that. This version didn’t include that section.

Instead, it included a conversation between King and his son. In it, they read a scene from The Institute in which the main character tears off his own ear to remove a tracking device. This was interesting because Stephen King himself had experienced a lot of ear-pain in his life (as previously described in On Writing), so it demonstrated how drawing from life could sometimes be the best source for horror.

Anyway, I would recommend reading this book. I’d even recommend re-reading it later on, because your new writerly experiences will make it more insightful and enriching.

The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin

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“‘You can’t go on changing things, trying to run things.’ ‘You speak as if there were some kind of general moral imperative.’ He looked at [George] Orr with his genial reflective smile, stroking his beard. ‘But in fact, isn’t that man’s very purpose on earth? To do things, change things, run things, make a better world?’ ‘No.’ ‘What is his purpose then?’ ‘I don’t know. Things don’t have purposes as if the universe were a machine where every part has a useful function.’”

This book is about a guy named George Orr who does drugs. He does them to suppress his dreams, because his dreams sometimes change reality. For instance, if he dreams he has green eyes instead of blue eyes, he might wake up and have green eyes.

Anyway, he gets caught doing drugs and is sent to a psychiatrist named William Haber, who learns about Orr’s powers and tries to use them to build a better world.

In sum, this book could have been called “Be Careful What You Wish Someone Else to Dream,” or “Enough is Enough,” or “Let It Be.”

It was very thought-provoking from a philosophical point of view. Is it even possible to build a utopia? Obviously not, because you wish for world peace and you get galactic war.

Even so, the terms of your wish are somehow conveniently unspecific, even though you were previously characterized as a very smart and astute character who would likely have foreseen these loopholes. This made the situation feel a bit too easy, because it took the blame off people and put it on their unspecific language. If Character A had wished for peace in all the universe, then these complications wouldn’t have arisen (if we extend LeGuin’s interpretation).

Meanwhile in reality, we have very specifically-worded laws that are still circumvented/interpreted in a way that enables loopholes, and it has nothing to do with their language and everything to do with the people interpreting them.

In any case, this book makes you think, and it’s definitely worth reading for that.

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