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

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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: McAllister, Maupassant, and Maupassant

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

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

Stealing God and Other Stories, by Bruce McAllister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Note: this review mentions rape)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of War: Vogt, Maupassant, and Afremow

Hello! I hope you are well. I have read three books this week. Below are my reviews, along with a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

Slan, by A.E. van Vogt

“Her words were harsh, her tone icy. But far more menacing than her tone, Jommy realized, was the fact that neither right nor wrong, truth nor untruth, mattered to this slan woman. His world was shattering before the thought that if this immorality was slan justice, then slans had nothing to offer the world that could begin to match the sympathy, kindliness and pervading gentleness of spirit that he had seen so often in the minds of the lowly human beings.”

This is a book about a super-strong, super-smart, and super-telepathic boy named Jommy, and a super-strong, super-smart, and super-telepathic girl named Kathleen. Both are “slans”—supposed descendants from a scientific experiment conducted by a non-telepathic/smart/strong guy named Samuel Lan. Since then, the slans were ostracized, persecuted, and attacked by the humans.

Now, Jommy has to grow up, find a secret weapon left him by his slan father, and find the other slans, while Kathleen has to figure out the mysterious motives of a human benefactor while avoiding being killed by the slan-hating head of secret police.

All that to say, this book was very entertaining and thought-provoking. It’s hard to find really good books that are really readable. This was one of them.

Slan had interesting ideas about science. I don’t know how accurate they were, but they sure felt accurate, and the way that Vogt made his scientific mumbo-jumbo very important to the plot (“Character X can slip past security because he has this special device!”) made the book even more exciting to read.

This book also had great ideas about war (when two opposing sides can’t trust each other, it makes peace very hard—and Vogt literally came up with this in the 1940s, years before the super-influential theorist Kenneth Waltz basically came up with the same theory).

I will say that the female protagonist felt somewhat underused (though remarkably developed, considering she was written in 1940). Also, the plot seemed logical, but if you looked too closely at it, parts would have fallen apart.

Overall, if you like surprisingly well-developed female characters that are somewhat underused, and are okay with not looking too closely at your plots, I would definitely recommend this very-readable book.

The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Volume 8,
by Guy de Maupassant

“And she lay huddled up in bed, crying and heaving great sobs, feeling that there was an end of her happiness, and that it was all her own fault.”

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

This volume had much better stories than the other two volumes I reviewed last week. There were a lot more interesting observations about people (a man falls accidentally in love with a woman, for instance). These stories felt like they were written more carefully, and relied less on plot twists and more on character insights to have an effect.

Some highlights were “The Avenger” (a guy marries his dead friend’s wife and gets jealous and insecure and tries to get his wife to put his dead friend down while pretending to be grief-stricken at his death), “The Conservatory” (quoted above), “My Uncle Sosthenes” (more funny than insightful, but still extremely relevant to today), “My Landlady” (about a youth who befriends his landlady and tries taking a woman home), “The First Snowfall” (about a couple that’s happy until it gets cold), and “Selfishness” (what happens when a man has to choose between saving his brother from a wound and saving his own money? Read this story and find out!)

Also interesting were the parallels I saw between these stories and Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog.” A love-affair that is described as more honest and more transcendent than staying married to one’s own spouse? Check! A guy looking into a mirror, seeing he’s aged, and plunging into profound contemplation? Check! Spa resorts? Check! I’ve read that Chekhov was influenced strongly by Maupassant. It was interesting to speculate about whether the stories in this volume influenced him as well.

Overall, I would recommend.

The Champion’s Comeback: How Great Athletes Recover, Reflect, and Reignite, by Jim Afremow, PhD

“How do you explain defeats, missteps, and setbacks to yourself? Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, describes how pessimists explain negative events to themselves as personal, permanent, and pervasive. Optimists are the opposite. They explain negative events to themselves as situational, short-lived, and specific.”

I had previously read Afremow’s The Champion’s Mind, and enjoyed it a lot, so I decided to read this book, too.

The Champion’s Comeback is about coming back from defeat and growing in the process. It includes a lot of inspirational anecdotes about athletes who have suffered defeat and have grown through it (Michael Jordan was kicked off his high school basketball team, for instance).

It also includes some good principles for dealing with defeat (like letting it inspire you to find a deeper intrinsic source of motivation instead of just “winning a medal”), and visualization exercises.

This book felt less substantial than his previous book, but it was still a good read, and I would recommend it.

Have you read any of these books? 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:

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

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

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

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: Maupassant, Maupassant, and the Bhagavadgita

Hello! I hope you are well. I’ve read three books this week. I’ve also provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Volume 6

“They heard from the next room the voice of agony, living, without doubt, in this last hour, the life she had expected, living her dreams at the very moment when all would be finished for her. Cimme, in the garden, played with the little Joseph and the dog, amusing himself much, with the gaiety of a great man in the country, without thought of the dying woman.”

If there’s only one story you can read from Volume 6 of Maupassant, make it “An Old Maid.” It has profound contrasts and juxtapositions, and it makes a great point about people confronted with mortality without judging them. Actually, it basically seems to judge them anyway by showing their actions as they truly are (but somehow getting away with not judging them by not framing their actions as bad, just as the actions of human beings like us all). For these reasons, I found this to be the most impressive story in this volume.

This volume had a lot of other interesting stories. Maupassant liked using the plot-twist more than ever, so a lot of stories in this volume hinged on that. There were two duels in this book: one that was tragic, and one that was actually kind of funny. There was a ghost story, and there were more stories of people telling others of stories that they themselves had heard or experienced.

In this volume, it sometimes felt like Maupassant was losing steam/energy to tell really good stories. You could gloss over a lot of stories in this volume without missing much. Every now and then though, Maupassant would surface from his lethargy to write a really good story, like “An Old Maid,” or some other stories about doctors helping others conceal their love affairs from their husbands, and about people pretending to steal relics to impress their girlfriends.

So while I found these stories to be a mixed bag in terms of being the highest quality possible, they were still all good and entertaining, and I’d strongly recommend reading “An Old Maid” at least.

The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Volume 7

“These private [Latin] lessons were given in the little room looking out on the street. It so happened that Pére Piquedent, instead of talking Latin to me, as he did when teaching publicly in the Institution, kept telling about his troubles in French. Without relations, without friends, the poor man conceived an attachment for me, and poured out into my heart his own misery. He had never for the last ten or fifteen years chatted confidentially with anyone.”

This next volume of Maupassant stories kind of redeemed the previous volume. There were some very good observations about blind people in one story (which started off in such a way that I worried it would turn into a “oh, they’re so miserable because they’re blind!” but thankfully avoided this). Maupassant also told more ghost stories, which were interesting for his focus on his characters’ psychologies. Finally, the last story in this volume apparently indicated the “onset of Maupassant’s madness” according to a footnote. The story in question was about a man hallucinating others in his bedroom, and dreading his hallucinations so much that he wanted to marry to get rid of them.

What strikes me about Maupassant’s stories is that he was writing these in the 1800s but was able to have such a broad view of people. Did he want to write about a murderer? He wrote about the murderer with such empathy that the man could’ve been his brother. Did he want to write about a townsman desperately trying to convince himself and others that his obscure town was actually a big deal? He wrote about this man with humor and warmth. Did he want to write about a woman who was forced to marry someone she didn’t want to marry? He wrote about her without condescension and with sympathy. Here’s a writer who always gives dignity to whoever he writes about. Even when he was practically judging those people back in Volume 6, he somehow did so without actually judging them in such a way that diminished their own inherent humanity. That’s impressive.

There were also times when Maupassant’s characters acted a lot like people in real life today (such as the Latin teacher quoted above). Even though the world may have changed a lot since Maupassant’s 1800s, people certainly haven’t!

So overall, I would recommend this volume, more than the previous one.

The Bhagavadgita, Translated by Sir Edwin Arnold

“Better to live on beggar’s bread
With those we love alive,
Than taste their blood in rich feasts spread
And guiltily survive!”

This is a part of the Mahabharata, which I reviewed previously and thought was one of the best books I ever read. The version I reviewed didn’t include this book, though, so it was good to read now.

In the Bhagavadgita, Krishna the god tries to convince his (hearteningly compassionate) human friend Arjuna to kill his relatives in war. Krishna basically does this by saying all of reality is a delusion, that people never truly die, that fighting this war would guarantee Arjuna heaven, that the gods would go on to rationalize Arjuna’s sins and make like they never existed, and by insisting that Arjuna worship him.

For me, the most compelling part of this book was Arjuna’s reasons against killing others. I wasn’t at all swayed by Krishna’s reasoning. Since Krishna’s reasoning wasn’t convincing to me, I felt like Arjuna’s own sudden acceptance of Krishna’s perspective came off as contrived (from a narrative/writerly point of view).

Still, this book had a lot of good wisdom about how to live life well (don’t be greedy), but I didn’t understand other wisdom in it (such as why it would be desirable to detach from other humans and meditate all day).

I’m clearly not the best person to review this book. I disagreed with its main premise, and spent the majority of the book disagreeing with a lot of what Krishna was saying to justify it. Given all of this, I would strongly encourage you to read this book for yourself and see what you get out of it (I’m sure you’ll get more out of it than I did).

If you’ve read this book (or Maupassant), I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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

UN Women: Works in Moldova to help Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://donate.unwomen.org/en/ukraine

Save The Children: Gives emergency aid to children in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.savethechildren.org/us/where-we-work/ukraine

The Association for Legal Intervention: Does pro bono work to empower Ukrainian civilians who have fled to Poland. Donate here: https://interwencjaprawna.pl/en/get-involved/donate/

Urgent Action Fund Ukraine: Supports evacuation, gives disaster survival training, provides access to alternate communication methods for Ukrainians and more. Donate here: https://urgentactionfund.org/

Lit in the Time of War: Goethe, Butler, and Maupassant

Hello! I hope you are all well, (and not overheated!) I’ve read three books this week, about death, life, and France (Note: The first book review mentions suicide). I have also included list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do if you are able.

The Sorrows of Young Werther and Novella,
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,
Translated by Elizabeth Mayer, Louise Bogan, and W.H. Auden

“‘They are loaded.—The clock strikes twelve. —So be it! Lotte! Lotte! Farewell! Farewell!’ A neighbor saw the flash of the powder and heard the shot; but as everything remained quiet, he did not pay further attention to it.”

This is a book about a man named Werther who falls in love with a woman named Lotte, gets rejected by her, and kills himself. It’s also basically a Hamlet rip-off (Werther is Hamlet, Lotte is Ophelia, and Wilhelm, who Werther writes long and emotional letters to, is Horatio).

This book was said to have plunged a lot of people into existential angst. I was curious to see what would happen upon reading it.

Instead of being plunged into existential angst, I was distracted by all the unresolved plot-lines. For one thing this translation didn’t make it clear what happened to Lotte (it just had a mysterious sentence that “[her] life was in danger,” which could be interpreted however you want it to be, but didn’t really give concrete resolution).

Then there was the matter of Werther’s friend Wilhelm. Werther had been writing these long angsty letters to Wilhelm, and at first Wilhelm had seemed to just nod along sympathetically (Goethe didn’t include his responses but based on Werther’s letters we could assume this). Then, when Werther started despairing of life, Wilhelm apparently planned to come see him and reassure him. This was very intriguing, and I was expecting to read something about Wilhelm arriving, finding out about Werther’s death, and grieving. However, the book didn’t mention Wilhelm reacting at all. It would be as if Hamlet spent the entire play confiding in Horatio only for Horatio to suddenly disappear when Hamlet died (instead of giving a sad and cathartic eulogy like he actually did). This felt like a huge cliffhanger, and it ultimately left me feeling disappointed.

At the same time, I could see that this book was very influential in literature. It referenced paper lanterns and delusions, for instance, which made me think of Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” for instance. So if you’re looking to see how books influence each other, Werther would be a good book to read.

The characterization was also interesting. At the beginning, Werther made a big speech about how people were totally rational and able to control their emotions, and that anyone who gave in to emotions was weak. Then, when he succumbed to emotions, he made a big speech about how others were telling him to just be rational, and that they obviously couldn’t understand him. This piece of characterization was well-done. At the same time, there were some melodramatic moments that felt unintentionally funny (“Oh, this void, this terrifying void I feel in my breast!” for instance).

Overall, this book was interesting, but ultimately felt like a let-down due to its unresolved characters.

The novella was interesting, too. It’s about a princess who goes on a walk and encounters a lion. Now, only some kid with a pipe might be able to save her from certain death. Will she survive? Read the novella and find out.

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

“The wordless message was the same for both child and woman: In spite of your loss and pain, you aren’t alone. You still have people who care about you and want you to be all right. You still have family.

This is a book (written in the 1990s) about a girl named Lauren who is living in California in the early 2020s. Climate change is causing crises and societal instability, people are trying to rob her walled-in neighborhood, and she has hyperempathy, which causes her to experience others’ pain—if someone is shot, she collapses as if she’s shot. She’s also trying to start a new religion called Earthseed.

This book had very interesting ideas about change, adaptation, and hope in the face of crises. It also had a powerful/ominous/important vision of the future (a country destroyed by climate-change). The Earthseed religion, which involved restarting civilization in space, was interesting, too. Also, in spite of the grim situations they were in, the characters had strong moments of humanity and compassion. This made for terrific reading.

At the same time, I felt that Butler could have added more nuance. First, the characters felt like they were all being over-explained/overly-defined by Lauren’s perception of them—one character would say something, and then Lauren would think something like, “[the other character] was too bright to take anything but the most superficial comfort from her denial.”

This explanation (“she’s in denial”) seems to me to reduce the other character’s complexity, since it never lets the readers figure out for themselves that this character was in denial/the specific nuances of this denial. It also seems to judge the other character—the reader gets that this character is in denial because of “X, Y, and Z,” and that there’s nothing more worth understanding beyond this intellectualized explanation. While people can never be fully explained, this kind of explanation seems to artificially boil them down into a completely understandable formula/dynamic, which is not true in reality—there’s more to humanity than rationality.

Also, I feel like Butler could have gone deeper into Earthseed. Why should it be guaranteed that once they go into space, people will be super moral and not corrupt this new system as they’ve always corrupted everything throughout history? There is a character who vaguely brings up a similar point, but the author never really engages with this argument. However, this was probably because Sower is the first book in a series. If so, I hope that this point gets developed in the next book.

Overall Parable of the Sower was very thought-provoking. I would definitely recommend it for its terrific ideas and emotional impact.

The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Volume 5, by Guy de Maupassant

“Monsieur Savel, who was called in Mantes ‘Father Savel,’ had just risen from bed. He wept. It was a dull autumn day; the leaves were falling. They fell slowly in the rain, resembling another rain, but heavier and slower.”

(Reviews of Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4)

In this volume, Maupassant continues to write amazing stories. He starts off with some sketch-like stories, and then goes on to write more developed pieces. A lot of them have to do with affairs again, but others have to do with graveyard hijinks, and some have to do with deathbed confessions. Almost all of them involve one character telling a story to another character. Two stories that were particularly good were “Regret,” and “Two Little Soldiers.”

Maupassant has great opening lines that are very exciting to read. There are characters who fall madly in love with other characters right away, there are characters who give in to the sin of love for the first time, and there are people who are drunk. Basically, Maupassant’s openings never disappoint.

Also, while he sometimes explains characters’ dynamics (sometimes intellectualizedly), he then goes on to let the reader see them happening for themselves without framing them in such a way that insists that there is nothing important left to Character XYZ but Maupassant’s explanations about him/her. I guess this is what I meant earlier by someone who doesn’t judge or overexplain their characters. The characters just are, and even if they’re wrong, the author lets the reader figure this out for themselves, and arrive at unexpected insights that might very well have been lost had the author tried to explain the characters himself.

I would recommend. Also, if you’ve read any of these books yourself, I would love to hear your thoughts!

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

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

Save The Children: Gives emergency aid to children in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.savethechildren.org/us/where-we-work/ukraine

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

World Health Organization: Helps treat injured Ukrainians and provides life-saving medicines. Donate here: https://www.ukraine.who.foundation/

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

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

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

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

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

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

MRS WOLFF. He ain’t that frail [….]

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

(Philipp refuses to move and screams.)”

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

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

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

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

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

Overall, I would recommend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Quotes:

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

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

(Volumes 1, 2, 3 here)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of War: Maupassant, Ali, and McCulley

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I have read three books this week and have reviewed them below. I have also provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant: Ten Volumes in One, Volume 3, by Guy de Maupassant

“The Academician was silent. And his companion, the political man, murmured: ‘Yes, indeed; we ought to occupy ourselves a little more with the children who have no father.’”

(Reviews of Volumes 1, 2, 4 here)

We’re back with the third volume of Guy de Maupassant’s complete short stories. They continue to be amazing, they continue to treat women as real people, and this time their plots actually become somewhat more interesting than in the past.

In a previous review, I mentioned that some of the stories he’d written were like sketches. This version also had some sketch-like stories, but they were more interesting than in previous volumes because they were set in countries other than France, and thus enabled Maupassant to make different and more intriguing observations than in the sketch-like stories he’d set in France.

I probably sound like a broken record already, but we’re only up to volume three of ten, so expect me to keep repeating to you: read this book. It’s terrifically worth it.

I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, by Nujood Ali, Ghostwritten by Delphine Minoui

“Compared to dreams, reality can be truly cruel. But it can also come up with beautiful surprises.”

This book was very interesting. It’s about a 10-year-old girl named Nujood who lives in Yemen, and whose father arranges for her to marry a man. She suffers abuse at his hands and finally runs away and becomes the first woman in Yemen to ever successfully divorce from her husband. She then goes on to inspire other child-brides to get divorces from their abusive husbands.

While the story was terrific, the person who ghostwrote this memoir didn’t write it very well. She made certain decisions that made this story unintentionally less powerful, like italicizing he when referring to Nujood’s husband—think things like “he was coming, he was here, he walked in, I couldn’t stand the sight of him.” Also, a lot of the story felt like a sketch instead of an actual story (compare it with First They Killed My Father and Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina).

Finally, I Am Nujood was strangely non-chronological—it jumped between the present of her seeking a divorce to the past of her becoming married back to the present of her seeking a divorce and back to the past. While there are a lot of books that do this amazingly (like practically everything Chingiz Aitmatov wrote), in this book it didn’t work because there didn’t seem to be any real justification for why the author was choosing to make these time jumps. It wasn’t like Nujood’s character developed in a very specific way that could only be seen by telling her story in this non chronological way, for instance. As a result, it came off more as distracting than helpful.

Overall, I would recommend this book for the terrific story it tells, but not for the way it was written. If you want to read terrific memoirs that are also terrifically-written, I would recommend another book.

The Mark of Zorro, by Johnston McCulley,
Read by Bill Homewood

Best Quotes:

“‘A maiden likes to be wooed of course, even though she has made up her mind [to marry].’ ‘I have a servant who is a wonder at the guitar,’ Don Diego said. ‘Tonight I shall order him to come out and play beneath the señorita’s window. ‘And not come yourself?’ Doña Catalina gasped. ‘Ride out here again tonight, when the chill wind blows in from the sea?’ gasped Don Diego. ‘It would kill me!’”

[Don Diego said] ‘Perhaps I may come out again to see you within a few days, if I survive this night. Buenos noches, Señorita. I suppose I should…ah… kiss your hand.’ ‘You need not take the trouble,’ Señorita Lolita replied. ‘It might fatigue you.’ ‘Ah, thank you. You are thoughtful, I see.’”

[Zorro said] ‘It would be an insult to my sword to run you through.’”

“‘You have about as much knowledge of a Franciscan’s principles and duties as has the horse you ride.’ [said the insulted man]. ‘I ride a wise horse, a noble animal! He comes when I call, and gallops when I command. Do not deride him until you ride him. Ha! An excellent jest!’ [said Sergeant Gonzalez].”

This book was so good. It’s about a woman, Señorita Lolita, who is being reluctantly wooed by the wealthy but boring Don Diego. Then she meets the masked bandit Zorro who everyone is chasing and trying to kill. Who does she fall in love with? You guessed it. Hijinks and fighting ensue.

It’s clear that the author had a terrific amount of fun writing this book, in the same way that Tolstoy had a terrific amount of fun writing War and Peace. The author of Zorro also made these keen observations of people and their nuances, which was unexpected. For instance, there were a bunch of vigilantes who were chasing down Zorro, only they weren’t doing it for glory or money justice as might be expected, but just because it gave them an excuse to have fun together and get drunk afterwards.

In terms of the adventure, it was very well-plotted and paced, the characters were very entertaining due to the author’s ability to observe them, and the story in general was very good.

Two things I would say: the book was very hypocritical and old-fashioned. Zorro puts a woman at gunpoint and forces her to kiss his hand. Then when he sees another man making unwanted advances on her, he gets all feminist, fights him off, and insists that women should never be forced to do things they don’t want to do.

There’s another part of the book where he forces some innocent people to take part in whipping a judge (which was framed as being a very heroic and noble act, totally uncorrupt and totally not like the corrupt governor forcing his troops to be complicit in oppressing the nobility by throwing some of them in jail for no real reason). So that was interesting.

The book was old-fashioned in that the author took for granted that Native Americans could only be servants, and that all women were unable to use swords. On the second point, it was interesting to see that even though the author could have gone the route of making the women all completely-helpless damsels in distress, there were some scenes where the women made daring escapes and rode horses better than the men who chased them. That was unexpected, and a bit refreshing, but the old-fashioned-ness of the book still stands.

Overall, if you’re looking for a very good action-adventure story with terrific twists and some sharply-observed (though sometimes old-fashioned and hypocritical) characters, I would definitely recommend this book. I’d especially recommend the audiobook version—the narrator took it to a whole new level of exciting.

Here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support people in Ukraine:

UN Women—Provides food, water, and other essential resources to women and refugees. Donate here: https://unwomenusa.org/civicrm/contribute/transact?reset=1&id=188

Care.org—Provides cash support, food, water, and other needed relief to Ukrainians, prioritizing women, children, and the elderly. Donate here: https://www.care.org/

The International Rescue Committee—Supports Ukrainian families in Poland by giving them food, water, and other vital supplies. Donate here: https://help.rescue.org/donate/ukraine-web

Plan USA—Provides psychological support to Ukrainian refugees and helps their children attend school. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/humanitarian-response-ukraine-plan-usa/