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/

Advertisement

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

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

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins, Read by Carolyn McCormick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Boy, Part 1, by Richard Wright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins, Read by Carolyn McCormick

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

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

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

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

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

Day, by Elie Wiesel, Translated by Anne Borchardt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, as promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

El General en Su Laberinto, por Gabriel García Márquez

En Español:

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

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

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

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

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

In English:

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

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

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

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

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

Legends of Our Time, by Elie Wiesel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would highly recommend.

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s one more way to help:

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

Thank you for reading.

More Publication News…

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

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

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

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

Want to learn more about the story? Read here:

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

Lit in the Time of War: Meshchaninova, Ng, and Wiesel

Hello! Happy November, and happy National Adoption Month. I’ve read three books this week, all having to do with adoption in some form or another, and have reviewed them below. I’d recommend all of them, but would likely recommend the third one the most. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

Stories of A Life: A Novel, by Natalya Meshchaninova,
Translated by Fiona Bell

(Note: This review mentions sexual abuse)

“The diary should start in a mysterious tone, I thought. On a new page I wrote something like: ‘I am Natalie. I’m 14 years old, but already mature enough…’ I liked what I’d written, about how I was already mature enough. It wasn’t clear what I was mature enough for, but it was good. A promising start. I continued: ‘My love overwhelms me’ (no need to mention that it was unrequited). ‘My beloved is a handsome man with sensual lips. Yesterday, as I walked through the park on my way home from practice’ (no need to say what sport, it lent some mystery) ‘my heart began pounding. I sensed that he was gaining on me, my demon, my dark angel’ [….] Now satisfied with the first page of my diary, I moved on. Although, of course, none of it bore any relation to reality.”

This is a book about a girl named Natalie who grows up in Russia after the fall of Soviet Union, is sexually abused by her uncle Sasha, and tries to come to terms with her suffering.

While the book was very sad, it also had some unexpectedly humorous parts (such as the excerpt above). I found that its humor made the sad parts even sadder.

The book also had some very good observations about neglect’s impact on peoples’ growth. Natalie had an adoptive sister who her parents somehow despised. The sister went on to steal and do drugs. Natalie’s sister then had a son who also went on to steal and get in trouble with the law. According to Natalie’s observations, both were doing this to get attention, even if it was bad attention, in the hopes that such attention might somehow turn into the affection they’d never had.

Overall, this was a short but excellent read that I would definitely recommend.

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng, Read by Jennifer Lim

“‘How about other books, Mrs. McCullough? [Did she buy] Any other books with Chinese characters [for her adopted Chinese daughter]?’ Mrs. McCullough bit her lip. ‘I haven’t really looked for them,’ she admitted. ‘I hadn’t thought about it.’ ‘I can save you some time,’ said Ed Lan. ‘There really aren’t very many. So May Ling [the daughter] has no dolls that look like her, and no books with pictures of people that look like her.’ Ed Lan paced a few steps. Nearly two decades later, others would raise this question, would talk about books as mirrors and windows, and Ed Lan, tired by then, would find himself as frustrated as he was grateful. ‘We’ve always known,’ he would think. ‘What took you so long?’”

This is a book about a girl named Pearl and her nonconformist mother named Mia, who move into a development called Shaker Heights in Ohio. Pearl becomes infatuated with the lifestyle of their conformist and rich landlord, Elena Richardson, and befriends the Richardson children. However, when Mia and Elena find themselves taking opposite sides of an adoption scandal, Pearl and Mia’s newfound stability (and past secrets) are threatened.

I have controversial thoughts about this book. I felt as though the author did not care about the characters as people. Instead, she seemed to care about them only as much as they were useful for her to convey the ideas she wanted to.

This came across in various ways. For instance, the Richardsons were not sincerely humanized—yes, the author tossed them a few bits of sympathy, but for some reason they rang false, making me feel like the author was just including superficially-sympathetic details out of a kind of halfhearted obligation. The unsympathetic portrayal of these characters contrasted strikingly with the author’s idealized portrayal of Mia—many characters suddenly loved her (some people loving her to the point of being willing to commit crimes for her sake), and whoever didn’t love her was portrayed as irrationally entrenched in mean-spirited ways.

Contrast this with a book like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—neither book truly humanized their antagonists, but while Ng’s book sincerely idealized its protagonist, Kesey’s book took its protagonist somewhat less seriously (and portrayed him with flaws that made him seem real). Kesey’s book definitely has its own problems, but overly-idealizing its protagonist wasn’t one of them.

For me, the only part of this book that truly felt sincere was the adoption case and its proceedings. The lawyer Ed Lan (mentioned in the excerpt above) felt like one of the only genuinely sympathetic characters in the book. I felt that the author seemed to have put more thought into his viewpoint, emotions, and ideas than she did for many of the main protagonists, and I was hoping for more of this thoughtfulness to show up throughout the rest of the book.

Overall, I would say that Little Fires Everywhere was very readable (and if you listen to the audiobook, you’ll find that its narrator’s terrific). However, in my very subjective opinion, the book wasn’t very open and sincere towards many of its characters, and thus wasn’t as strong as it could have been.

I’d still recommend that you read it for yourself though—you may disagree entirely with my thoughts. You might even find a new favorite book.

The Time of the Uprooted, by Elie Wiesel,
Translated by David Hapgood

“‘[…] Your mother tells me she has found a wonderful charitable woman who will look after you. You must be respectful to her. And obedient. And grateful. You will use the Christian name that she gives you, but never forget that you carry the name of my own father: Gamaliel. Try not to dishonor it. You’ll take it back as yours when this ordeal is over. Promise me you won’t disown your name. Every name has its story. Promise me, my child Gamaliel, that one day you will tell that story.’ And the child promised.”

This is a book about a Jewish kid named Gamaliel whose parents have a Hungarian Christian woman take him in so he can escape persecution during the Holocaust. He takes on a false name and never sees his parents again. Many years later, Gamaliel is an old man in America, feeling dispossessed and disconnected. His only friends are a group of other exiles who have suffered persecution under various regimes. When Gamaliel is asked to communicate with a disfigured Hungarian woman in a hospital, he wonders if she might be the Christian woman who had adopted him so long ago.

This book was terrific. It had a lot of good thoughts about life. It also had tremendous emotional impact (I literally cried at the end, and I don’t cry easily). It was clear that the author truly cared about his characters, and this made all the difference in how he saw them and portrayed them.

What I also found fascinating about this book was how self-concerned Gamaliel was. At the same time, though, his self-concern didn’t come off as narcissistic, since it was also evident that he truly cared about the other characters. You got to hear about the other exiles’ stories, and one of these stories in particular was one of the most impactful parts of the book.

Overall, if you’re looking for a terrific book about refugees, meaning, compassion, and reconnection, I would wholeheartedly recommend Wiesel’s The Time of the Uprooted.

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

As promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

Voices of Children—Provides psychological counseling for children and helps refugee evacuations. Donate here: https://voices.org.ua/en/

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

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

American Red Cross—Provides medicine, food, and hygiene items to Ukrainians. Also helps refugees reconnect with missing family-members. Donate here: https://www.redcross.org/about-us/our-work/international-services/ukraine-crisis.html

Lit in the Time of War: Wiesel, Lahiri, and Erofeev

Hello! I hope you are all well. If you are in the US, I hope you are all voting!

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


From The Kingdom of Memory: Reminiscences by Elie Wiesel,
By Elie Wiesel

“What lessons can be learned from this? Two men can be brothers and yet wish to kill each other, and also whoever kills, kills his brother. But we only learn these lessons too late. In time of war, whoever is not our brother is our enemy; we are forbidden to be compassionate or give in to our imagination. If the soldier were to imagine the suffering he is about to inflict, he would be less eager to wage war. If he were to consider the enemy a potential victim—and therefore capable of weeping, of despairing, of dying—the relationship between them would change. Every effort is made, therefore, to limit, even stifle, his imagination, his humanitarian impulses, and his capacity to experience a feeling of brotherhood toward his fellow man.”

Elie Weisel is so wise. This book collects his wisest speeches and essays all in one place. In this book, he talks about his experiences during the Holocaust, literature’s power, the importance of remembering atrocities of the past instead of denying them, and his hopes for peace.

If you were to read only two books by Wiesel, I would recommend this book and Night. It’s hard to explain how important From The Kingdom of Memory is without reading it yourself, but I hope that you get a sense of it from the passage I have quoted, and that you are inspired to read it yourself.

In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, Translated by Ann Goldstein

“Credo che il mio nuovo linguaggio, piú limitato, piú acerbo, mi dia uno sguardo piú esteso, piú maturo. Ecco la ragione per cui continuo, per il momento, a scrivere in italiano.”

“I think that my new language, more limited, more immature, gives me a more extensive, more adult gaze. That’s the reason I continue, for now, to write in Italian.”

Once upon a time, the author Jhumpa Lahiri wrote in English. Then she moved to Italy and started writing only in Italian. This is a book about why she chose to write in Italian.

It has some interesting ideas about language and identity—Lahiri associated different languages with different emotions. She associated Bengali and English with insecurity and embarrassment, for instance, but associated Italian with escape and creating her own identity.

Given this focus, her book gave me a better understanding of language’s importance in creating identity. It also left me with a lot of questions. Why did Lahiri think that she could grow more as a writer in Italian than in English? She mentions that it gives her a new perspective, which makes sense, and how never really having a mastery of Italian would mean she’d always be growing in terms of language, but isn’t there much more to writing (like understanding other people) than perspective and language-mastery? Still, I admire her a lot for switching to Italian, and for writing this book in Italian after only a year or so in Italy.

Overall, if you’re curious about language and identity, I’d recommend this book.

Moscow to the End of the Line, by Venedikt Erofeev,
Translated by H.W. Tjalsma

“Now I’m almost in tears feeling sorry for myself [….]I’m sorry because I just calculated that from Chekhov Street to this hallway I drank up six rubles—but where and what and in what sequence, to good or evil purpose? This nobody knows and, now, nobody will ever know. Just as we don’t know to this day whether Tsar Boris killed the Tsarevich Dimitri or the other way around.”

“This [brew] is more than a beverage—it is the music of the spheres. What is the finest thing in the world? The struggle for the liberation of humanity. But even finer is this (write it down):
Zhiguli Beer: 100 g.
‘Sadko’ Shampoo: 30 g.
Dandruff Treatment: 70 g.
Athlete’s Foot Remedy: 30 g.
Small Bug Killer: 20 g.
The whole thing is steeped for a week in cigar tobacco and served at table.”

Moscow To The End of The Line stars a fictionalized version of Venedikt Erofeev as he drunkenly boards a train and tries to stay onboard long enough to reach the end of the line, his girlfriend, and his son. Along the way, he speaks (and drinks) with angels, sphinxes, devils, and ordinary passengers. He also makes a lot of references to Russian history, literature, and art, so if you know a lot of Russian history, have read a lot of Russian literature, and have seen a lot of Russian art, this is the book for you! If not, I would recommend holding off until you have done the above. The book is very funny already but it’s even funnier if you know what the author’s referencing.

Finally, I think that beyond the book’s humor, you could interpret it as saying a lot about how revolutions go awry—they can set off towards one destination only to wind up in a completely different place (like a drunken guy on a train).

So those are my thoughts about this terrific book. I would definitely recommend you read it sometime in your life, but you may want to read it sooner or later, depending on your knowledge of Erofeev’s references.

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books. Feel free to comment below!

Finally, as promised, here’s a list of 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/

Cash for Refugees—An organization founded by refugees for refugee. Gives cash to Ukrainian refugees so they can use the money for needs not covered by other humanitarian efforts (like SIM cards and clothes) and reclaim a sense of agency. Donate here: https://donorbox.org/cashforrefugees2

Mriya—An organization started by Boston University students to provide items like tourniquets and sleeping bags to Ukrainian soldiers. Donate here: https://mriya-ua.org/

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

Lit in the Time of War: Krasznahorkai and Zola

Stop the War and Read Krasnahorkai and Zola

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe, and that you had a happy Diwali if you celebrate. I’ve read the first parts of two massive novels this week, and have reviewed them below. 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.

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, Part 1, by László Krasznahorkai, Translated by Ottilie Mulzet

“…I see in advance what will be, I hear in advance what will be, and it shall be sans joy and sans solace, so that nothing like this will ever come about ever again, so when I step onto the stage with you, musical gentleman, I won’t be happy in the least, if this commission, predicated upon a possibility, comes to fruition—and I now wish to say this to you as a way of bidding farewell: I don’t like music, namely I don’t like at all what we are about to bring together here now, I confess, because I’m the one who is supervising everything here, I am the one—not creating anything—but who is simply present before every sound, because I am the one who, by the truth of God, is simply waiting for all of this to be over.”

This is a book that’s supposed to be about the homecoming of some baron, but this first part is only about a famous professor of mosses who gets visited by the daughter he’d abandoned and goes on to kill people. It also has a lot of run on sentences. The entire 100ish-page section is probably told in 10 huge sentences or less.

While the sentences are meant to be an experiment, I found they made the book harder to read. It was sometimes hard to keep track of what was going on, and when I had to take breaks from reading, I was never sure where to pause because the sentences just flowed so relentlessly. I was also struck by how long winded the author seemed (probably due to the massive sentences).

On the other hand, parts of the book were funny, and he seemed to be building up some kind of metaphor. So maybe he does have something to say that’ll make this book worth reading. I look forward to reading more and finding out (and of course if you’ve read it and have any thoughts, let me know).

Germinal, by Émile Zola, Narrated by Frederick Davidson

“A rebellion was germinating in this little corner.”

This is a book about a bunch of miners who get exploited all day and eventually stage an uprising. They rebel because a new miner named Etienne has arrived to inspire them.

The first part of this book is about Etienne’s arrival into their midst. Etienne comes, falls for a girl named Catherine, and has to make the decision—should he stay or should he go away to look for more work?

I had previously tried reading Zola’s The Masterpiece only to give up because of its lack of realistic-seeming characters. Meanwhile Germinal was surprisingly good. It had very interesting descriptions of the mines that made them seem evil from the start. Its characters were also well-written (Etienne’s penchant for rebellion is established by the fact that he’d gotten fired from his previous job because he’d slapped his exploitative manager). Sure, Etienne kind of objectified Catherine, but it wasn’t so blatant that it took that much away from the book.

Also, it was interesting to compare Zola’s book to Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Read the first chapters of each and you’ll see just how influenced Grossman was by Zola.

Overall, if you’re looking for a massive classic to read this Halloween, I’d recommend Germinal (at least based on the first part—and I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read the rest of it, as well!)

As promised, here’s a list of some organizations supporting Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you are able.

Art of Living Switzerland—Helps Ukrainian refugees evacuate, find shelter, and receive food, transportation, and trauma support. Donate here: https://www.artofliving.org/ch-en/donate-ukraine

International Medical Corps—Expands access to health and medical support to Ukrainians in embattled areas and helps refugees evacuate. Donate here: https://give.internationalmedicalcorps.org/page/99837/donate/1

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

Voices of Children—Provides psychological counseling for children and helps refugee evacuations. Donate here: https://voices.org.ua/en/

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: Cela

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you’re all well. As it is midterms week for me, I’ve reviewed only one book. It’s a good one. I’ve also provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians. Please donate if you are able.

The Family of Pascual Duarte, by Camilo José Cela,
Translated by Anthony Kerrigan

“I am not, sir, a bad person, though in all truth I am not lacking in reasons for being one. We are all born naked, and yet, as we begin to grow up, it pleases Destiny to vary us, as if we were made of wax. Then, we are all sent down various paths to the same end: death.”

The Family of Pascual Duarte is about a man named Pascual Duarte who comes from an abusive family, goes on to murder people, and tries and fails to escape his guilt.

The book was interesting, but its protagonist kept blaming God/Fate for his misfortune to the point where I started blaming Cela in my head (“oh no, Cela caused the protagonist’s dad/brother/Insert-Other-Person-Pascual-Kind-of-Cares-About to die!”). The protagonist then went on to blame God/Fate for why he wound up killing other people, even as Cela went on to make it clear that this was not the case at all, and that the protagonist had only himself to blame.

I thought it was interesting how Cela’s book read very much like Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Both books were framed by nameless editors/transcribers and included letters from other people at the end explaining the protagonists’ fates (as opposed to having the viewpoint characters describe their own ends).

The book also had some good insights into criminality. Cela’s very good at getting inside the mind of a murderer—there’s one part where the protagonist’s all “My mom is making me want to kill her with all her snide remarks!”, and even though this justification may come off as flimsy, Cela substantiates it to the point where I understood (while still disagreeing with) the protagonist’s decision to kill.

Ultimately, if you’re looking for a grisly murder book where the protagonist blames everything on Fate and God even as Cela makes it clear that the protagonist himself is the only one to blame, I’d recommend this book. And if you read it, let me know in the comments below!

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

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

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

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

The Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties—Works to document Russian war crimes to help hold them responsible. Recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. Donate here: https://ccl.org.ua/pidtrymaty-czgs/