Lit in the Time of War: Zweig

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I have read one book this week (and part of another book which will be partly-reviewed in the coming weeks). I’ve also finished my last essays ever at Princeton, and am about to graduate. Yay!

In this post, 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.

The Royal Game and Other Stories, by Stefan Zweig,
Translated by Jill Sutcliffe

“Edgar learned much in that single hour he had been alone. He began to see many things from that narrow compartment with its windows to the outside world. And gradually something began to blossom out of his dark despair. It wasn’t exactly happiness, but rather astonishment at the diversity of life. He had run away because he had been a frightened coward for those few moments, but after all, he had acted on his own initiative, experienced something of the real world that hitherto had passed him by. Perhaps he had become a mystery to his parents now, too, as the world had been to him for a long time.”

This is a collection of short stories by Stefan Zweig. One’s about chess, one’s about colonialism, a third’s about youth, another’s about fear, and a fifth’s about unrequited love. They are all terrific.

Zweig has a way of giving his situations a lot of specificity, so that what should be a boring story about affairs becomes a fascinating look into the fear that a criminal faces before having confessed to wrongdoing. There’s also a lot of the psychological in these stories, and no wonder (Zweig has referenced Freud’s influence on his fiction a lot of times).

However, unlike Freud, Zweig is working in fiction, meaning that he’s able to keep the reader reading. Seriously. I sometimes started reading a story, telling myself “just ONE page,” only to read through the whole thing. This combination of psychological depth, situational specificity, and compelling writing is formidable, and makes Zweig an underrated classic worth reading.

Have you read Zweig? Let me know in the comments below!

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

Revived Soldiers Ukraine—Provides medical support to soldiers and civilians. Donate here:

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

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

Voices of Children—Provides psychological counseling for children and helps refugee evacuations. Donate here:


Lit in the Time of War: Lehane

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I’ve read one book this week and have reviewed it below for your enjoyment. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane, Read by Tom Stechshulte

“Teddy gave him another shrug. ‘In a pinch, if it came down to it and he started giving orders, you’d hop to.’ ‘I’d what?’ ‘Hop to, like a bunny.’ Trey ran a hand along his jaw, considered Teddy with a hard grin of disbelief. ‘I don’t mean any offense,’ Teddy said. ‘Oh, no, no.’ ‘It’s just I’ve noticed that people on this island have a way of creating their own truth. Figure they say it so enough times, then it must be so.’”

This is a book about Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal, who’s sent with his partner Chuck to investigate the disappearance of a patient from Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, on Shutter Island. In the process of gathering clues, he discovers big conspiracies afoot that will take all his skills and knowledge to unravel. Also, as is said in many a cliché book-blurb, all is not as it seems.

This book is the poster-child of a “well-crafted book.” There’s a lot of narrative techniques and craft decisions made that really help heighten the effectiveness of the story. I used to read a lot of those Writer’s Digest books about how to write a good story, and can easily imagine someone like Donald Maass going, “Now let’s look at Shutter Island for an example of this concept in action…”

Going into the book, I thought it would have been very, very dark. It was, but it also had an unexpected amount of comic relief that made it not as dark as I’d expected. The characters were also sympathetic and had a terrific amount of psychological depth. The book also had something to say (which I won’t spoil). It does make you think a lot though (and gives off some vaguely-Dostoyevskian vibes), which is very good for a book to do, though it does objectify its female characters…

With that in mind, I would recommend.

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

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

Art of Living Switzerland: Helps Ukrainian refugees evacuate, find shelter, and receive food, transportation, and trauma support. Donate here:

Direct Relief: Provides trauma kits, insulin, and other important medical supplies to Ukrainians. Donate here:

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

Lit in the Time of War: Aswany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genie: A Scientific Tragedy, by Russ Rymer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus commences this wonderfully-observed book.

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

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

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

The Colonizer and the Colonized, by Albert Memmi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of Tornadoes: La Vorágine

Hello. I hope you are all healthy and safe. I’ve read two books this week but am only reviewing one of them to keep you in suspense.

The news coming from Mississippi in the aftermath of the tornado is absolutely horrendous. Though we can’t bring back those who have perished, we can come together to support those who have survived. In this spirit, I’ve included a list of organizations that you can donate to in order to support those in need. Please consider doing so.


La Vorágine, por José Eustasio Rivera

“Entre tanto continuaba el silencio en las melancólicas soledades, y en mi
espíritu penetraba una sensación de infinito que fluía de las constelaciones

La Vorágine es una novela famosa sobre el “boom” del caucho en Colombia. El protagonista es un poeta que está siguiendo su amante en la selva Amazónica. Él encuentra un hombre llamado Silva, que habla sobre la explotación de los trabajadores de caucho, y desde allí, la trama se convierte en una secuencia de actos de violencia hacia a los maestros de los caucheros.

Tiene tres partes.

Me parecía que Parte 1 fue aburrido, tratando de mostrar la malicia de las ilusiones, pero usando el tropo de la mujer idealizado que fue usado en muchos libros, desde el Quijote hace Pedro Páramo—aunque muchos de estes libros, como Páramo fueron publicados después de La vorágine.

También incluyó esfuerzos del autor para manipular el lector a través de filosofo/sobre-enfatizando su tema central, un tratamiento que es intelectual pero no es efectivo (en mi opinión), porque destruye el sentido de la humanidad de sus personajes, que para mí es la fuente de toda la simpatía y cualidades efectivísimas de una novela.

Parte 2 fue mucho mejor. El personaje de Silva literalmente rescataba el cuento. Él está tratando de rescatar su hijo de la explotación, y fue muy conmovedora. El narrativo obtenía un sentido de realismo en que el escritor no estaba tratando de manipular el lector. Solamente describió lo que ocurría, y los detalles fueron suficientemente impactantes por sí mismos para funcionar bueno.

Mientras, Parte 3 contiene algunos de las peores frases escritos que había visto en mi vida. Mi favorito es este, sobre la matanza del antagonista de la novela:

“Bogábamos en el bongo furiosamente, y la cabeza desaparecía, rápida como pato zambullidor, para emerger en punto impensado, y Martel y Dólar seguían la ruta en la onda carmínea, aullando presurosos en pos de la presa, hasta que presenciamos sobre la costa el cuadro crispante: ¡uno de los perros cabestreaba el cadáver por el remanso, al extremo del intestino, que se desenrollaba como una cinta, larga, siniestra!”

La comparación de su intestino con una cinta es absolutamente lúdicra (pero tiene asonancia muy linda).

De todas maneras, pienso que Parte 2 es suficientemente bueno para leer por sí mismo (sin leer Parte 1 o Parte 3). Yo recomiendo.


The Vortex, by José Eustasio Rivera

“Meanwhile the silence continued in the melancholy solitudes, and into my spirit there penetrated a sensation of infinity that flowed from the constellations nearby.”

This is a book about the rubber boom in Colombia. The protagonist is a poet who is following his lover into the Amazon jungle. He meets a man named Silva, who talks about the exploitation of rubber workers, and from there, the plot devolves into a series of violent acts against the managers of the rubber tappers.

There are three parts. It seemed to me that Part 1 was boring, trying to show the harmfulness of illusions, but using the trope of the idealized woman that exists in many other books, from Don Quixote to Pedro Páramo—although many of these books, like Páramo, were published later. The Vortex also included efforts by the author to manipulate the reader through philosophizing/overemphasizing his central theme, an approach which is intellectual but ineffective (in my opinion), because it destroys his characters’ sense of humanity, which to me is the source of all the sympathy and effective qualities of a novel.

Part 2 was much better. Silva literally rescued the novel for me. He’s trying to save his son from exploitation, a subplot which was very moving. The narrative gained a sense of realism in that the writer was not trying to manipulate the reader. He just described what was going on, and the details were shocking enough on their own to work well.

Meanwhile, Part 3 contains some of the worst writing I’ve ever seen. My favorite is this sentence, about the killing of the novel’s antagonist:

“We rowed furiously in the bongo, and the head [of the villain] disappeared, fast as a diving duck, to emerge at an unexpected point, and Martel and Dólar followed the route in the crimson wave, howling hastily after the prey, until we witnessed on the coast the excruciating scene: one of the dogs was dragging the corpse through the pool, at the end of the intestine, which unrolled like a long, sinister ribbon!”

The comparison of the intestine to a ribbon is absolutely ridiculous (but it does have very nice assonance to it in the Spanish).

In any case, Part 2 is good enough to read on its own, without reading Parts 1 or 3. I’d recommend. You can find the novel’s English translation here:

As promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support people suffering in the wake of the Mississippi tornado:

The Red Cross: Mobilizes disaster workers, and gives money to people so they can buy what they need after the tornado. Donate here:

The Mississippi Center for Legal Services: Provides legal aid to low-income Mississippians, who will need legal help to get relief and file insurance claims. Donate here:

Mississippi Food Network: Provides nutritious food to Mississippians in need. Donate here:

Cooperation Jackson: The city of Jackson, Mississippi has been left without drinkable water. Donate here to help support their efforts to restore access to drinking water:

Lit in the Time of War: Llosa


To celebrate, I’ve read one big novel and have reviewed it here for your enjoyment.

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.

The Time of the Hero, by Mario Vargas Llosa,
Translated by Lysander Kemp

“The recoil jarred those young bodies, but although their shoulders hurt already, they would have to leap up, run forward, hit the ground and fire again, surrounded by an atmosphere of violence that was only a simulacrum. Capt. Garrido knew that war was not like that. A moment later he noticed a green silhouette, and he would have stepped on it if he had not swerved in time; he also saw a rifle with its muzzle buried in the ground, against all the instructions for the care of weapons. He could not guess the meaning of that fallen body and gun. He leaned over. The boy’s face was distorted with pain and his mouth and eyes were wide open. The bullet had struck him in the head. A little stream of blood ran down his neck.”

Mario Vargas Llosa attended the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in Peru, witnessed its corruption and culture of violent hazing, and went on to write this book about it. The book is about a young cadet named Alberto, his friends/enemies nicknamed “the Slave” and “the Jaguar” and the other boys in their section. There’s some kind of love-rhombus going on where they all love the same girl (I think). Someone also dies—either by murder or by accident, and now it’s up to the academy’s officers to cover up the scandal (or try to fight its own corrupt bureaucracies to try and bring the perpetrator to justice).

Parts of the book read like an action thriller, with terrific pacing and dramatic momentum. Other parts were sometimes-confusing first-person monologues that read like something out of Faulkner. Put these parts together and you get The Time of the Hero.

I know a professor who co-taught a course with Llosa at Princeton (and wrote a book about it). Before I read The Time of the Hero, this professor made me think that the ending of this book would be very ambiguous, only for me to find it ended much more straightforwardly than he led me to believe. I won’t spoil anything but this meant I went into the book having certain expectations that didn’t hold up, which distracted me somewhat from the reading experience. So a word to the wise: if your professors give you suggestions on how you should approach a book you’re reading, ignore them and try to approach it your own way, at least at first. Then you can always reread it with their suggestions in mind, and ask for clarification/their take on it.

Overall, I’d say The Time of the Hero is a terrific critique of Peruvian society and academy/prep-school life. I’d also say it has a lot of confusing parts that feel like they could be cut without missing much (though I’d want to reread it before saying anything for sure—I feel there’s a lot I haven’t yet understood about the book). Finally, it does a terrific job of humanizing its characters without coming across as schmaltzy. And yes, it’s 400 pages long, but they go by faster than you’d expect. If you have a night or two to yourself, I’d definitely recommend The Time of the Hero.

Have you read this book? What did you think about it? Is there something about the ending I’m not getting? I’d love to hear your thoughts (but please don’t spoil anything!)

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

The International Rescue Committee: Provides comfort kits, medical support, and mobile shelters for Ukrainians in need. Donations will be matched until March 31. Donate here:

The UN Ukraine Humanitarian Fund: Helps Ukrainians in need quickly receive food, water, shelter, and basic support. Donate here:

Nova Ukraine: Provides medical aid and winter support, while helping to evacuate Ukrainians deported to Russia. Donate here:

Human Rights Watch: Investigates and exposes violence against civilians in Ukraine to help promote their rights. Donate here:

Lit in the Time of War: Ammaniti, Bidpai, and Örkény

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you’re healthy, safe, and warm (though for some reason it’s snowing outside where I am!) I’ve read three books this week, and have reviewed them below. They’re all wise in their own ways, and are all worth reading.

I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

I’m Not Scared, by Niccoló Amaniti, Translated by Jonathan Hunt

“I woke up during the night. I had had a nightmare. Jesus was telling Lazarus to rise and walk. But Lazarus didn’t rise. Rise and walk, Jesus repeated. Lazarus just wouldn’t come back to life. Jesus, who looked like Severino, the man who drove the water tanker, lost his temper. He was being made to look a fool. When Jesus tells you to rise and walk, you have to do it, especially if you’re dead. But Lazarus just lay there, stiff as a board. So Jesus started shaking him like a doll and Lazarus finally rose up and bit him in the throat. Leave the dead alone, he said with blood-smeared lips. I opened my eyes wide. I was covered in sweat.”

This is the story of a boy, Michele, who really really really wants a new bicycle. Then he explores a dilapidated hut and makes a harrowing discovery that implicates his whole community in a dark secret. Now he must use all his humanity (and maybe the new bike he finally gets) to save the day.

The book is much darker than I anticipated. I thought it would be some kind of coming-of-age romp through the Italian countryside with some fake horror thrown in to make the reader feel slightly scared.

This is not the case. This is a book filled with sharp observations about the worst sides of people. It has a lot of philosophical depth, too, but the book isn’t didactic about it, which makes it even better. It’s also wonderfully-paced, with a lot of suspense and intriguing revelations, and has a terrific ending that makes the book absolutely worth reading.

I highly recommend.

Kalilah and Dimnah (The Complete Version), by Bidpai,
Translated by Thomas Ballantine Irving

“The jackal said: ‘How old are you?’ The lioness [whose cubs had just been killed by a hunter] said: ‘One hundred years.’ He said: ‘What do you live off and eat?’ The lioness said: ‘The meat of wild animals.’ The jackal said: ‘Have these wild animals fathers and mothers?’ The lioness said: ‘Of course.’ So the jackal said: ‘Why then don’t we hear these fathers and mothers making the same racket and groaning and crying like we see you doing? That only happened because you look at consequences wrongly and fail to consider them. You were ignorant of how harm would return to you.’”

After reading the “free trial” version of Kalilah and Dimnah (as translated by Ramsay Wood), I’ve decided to delve into the complete version to see what new wisdoms this version had to offer.

This version is less-interestingly translated than the Wood version, but it did have some good stories. Like Wood’s version, it contains the titular story about the two jackals named Kalilah and Dimnah, their lion ruler, and his trusted bull adviser, and the story about the group of animals that are each others’ best friends. But this version also includes the story of the war between the owls and the crows, and how the two groups of warring birds finally reach peace (spoiler alert: not without violence!) There are also a series of various other stories about various other animals that are much less memorable.

The stories are also pretty sexist. Women apparently cause all sorts of mischief—though the stories never show any examples of this (and even show examples of women saving their husbands from their own stupidity), the narrator still makes a point of repeatedly telling you to “beware of women because they cause mischief.” If you can stomach these kinds of things, go ahead and read this book. If not, you might want to consider reading Ramsay Wood’s translation (and its sequel, which I would absolutely love to get my hands on sometime!)

Minuten-Novellen/One-Minute Stories, by István Örkény,
Translated by L.T. András, Carl R. Erickson, and Vera Thies

One Story:

In Memoriam Professor G.H.K.

Professor G.H.K. was digging a hole in which to bury the carcass of a horse.

‘Hölderin ist ihnen unbekannt?’ he asked the German guard.

‘Who’s he?’

‘The author of Hyperion,’ explained the professor, who dearly loved to explain. ‘The greatest figure in German romanticism. How about Heine?’

‘Who are these guys?’ asked the guard.

‘Poets,’ said the professor. ‘Surely you’ve heard of Schiller.’

‘Sure I have,’ said the guard.

‘How about Rilke?’

‘Him too,’ said the guard. Reddening with rage, he shot the professor.”

If that story doesn’t convince you to read this outstanding collection, I don’t know what will. It’s one of the greatest short stories I’ve read, and THE greatest story I’ve read that’s under 100 words.

But seriously, more about this fascinating book. Its author, István Örkény, was a Jew from Hungary. He fought in WWII, survived forced labor in a gulag, and then went on to write very short stories he called “One-Minute Stories.” The rationale, according to him, was that a one-minute story could be read anywhere—whether while cooking a soft-boiled egg or while waiting for the operator to take you off hold. Not even depression and shattered nerves can get in the way of reading a one-minute story. Basically, they can be read in the rain, in the wind, on a boat or on a train.

As you might have noticed from the example story, Örkény knows how to write. The stories within are very much worth your minutes.

I’d strongly recommend.

Have you read any of these books? Do you want to? If so, 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:

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

Red Cross—Provides first aid, food, medicine, and evacuation help to Ukrainians. Donate here:

Save the Children—Provides food, water, money, hygiene kits, and psychosocial support to children. Donate here:

Revived Soldiers Ukraine—Provides medical support to soldiers and civilians. Donate here:

Lit in the Time of War: Amanat

Hello! Happy post-Valentine’s Day. I hope you are all healthy, safe, and warm. I’ve read one terrific collection of fiction this week, and have reviewed it below. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support people in Ukraine.

Amanat: Women’s Writing From Kazakhstan,
Translated by Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega

“Everyone played their role [in Romeo and Juliet]. Even those who forgot their parts did not pause for a second and instantly improvised, yelling, ‘Attan!’ even if it was irrelevant to the scene. But the audience did not seem to mind. sometimes the play’s lines were replaced by purely Kazakh words that had nothing to do with the play, especially in the feuding scenes. it was clear that no such interpretation of Romeo and Juliet had ever been delivered on any stage of the world.”
“Romeo and Juliet,” by Zhumagul Solty

“Even as a little boy, Rustik knew that, in his [Soviet] reading book, everything was always perfect and not like it was in real life. You get used to that. There, in big fonts and stupid dialogues, a girl named Sima is always helping her mother wash a windowframe, Vasya is forever reading a book, and even that naughty, lazy Petya always admits his mistakes in the end and becomes a better person, more like, let’s say, Vasya.”
“Black Snow of December,” by Asel Omar

This is a collection of short stories and one essay from Kazakhstan. The stories are wonderful. They range from joyful to sad, and have something very human about them. Reading this book gives you a much better understanding of Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet existence. You also get to think a lot more about life in ways you might not have thought about it before.

Some of the highlights in this collection for me were “Romeo and Juliet” by Zhumagul Solty, “Hunger” by Aigul Kemelbayeva, “Propiska” by Rauhan Baiguzhayeva, “The Beskempir” by Zira Naurzbayeva, “The Rival” also by Naurzbayeva, “Precedent” by Oral Arukenova, “A Woman Over Fifty” by Lilya Kalaus, “The Stairwell” also by Kalaus, “Operatic Drama” again by Kalaus, “Black Snow of December” by Asel Omar, “The French Beret” also by Omar, and “The Lighter” by Olga Mark.

These stories were funny, thought-provoking, poignant, observant, and emotionally-moving. It’s hard to convey this very well in a review, so I’d strongly recommend you read the collection to see for yourself!

And if you want to read more about the translators (and the importance of reading world lit for its own sake), I’d recommend this terrific interview:

If you get a chance to read this collection, let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

Also, 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. This Friday, February 24 marks one year of fighting since Russia’s horrendous invasion.

Mriya: Provides tourniquets, sleeping bags, and pickup trucks to help save Ukrainians and keep them warm. Donate here:

Muslim Hands: UK-based organization supporting Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Donate here:

Plan USA: Gives aid focusing on refugee children in Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here:

Art of Living Switzerland: Helps Ukrainian refugees evacuate, find shelter, and receive food, transportation, and trauma support. Donate here:

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:—Gives food, medical care, and emergency support services to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here:

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

United Way Ukraine—Provides food, water, and other emergency support for Ukrainian refugees and their children. Donate here:

Plan USA—Gives aid focusing on refugee children in Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here:

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:

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

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:

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: