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 

Advertisement

Lit in the Time of War: Friel, Rulfo, and Mumcu

Hello! Happy Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and November 1st. I hope you are staying warm, healthy, and safe. I’ve reviewed three books this week, and have included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need.

“Translations,” by Brian Friel

“And it can happen—to use an image you’ll understand—it can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of…fact.”

In this play, English military cartographers Lancey and Yolland have come to the Irish town Baile Beag, to Anglicize the place-names for military purposes. A local man named Owen helps them by serving as a translator (to others’ chagrin). The play goes on to talk about language-based colonialism and its awful effects.

For me, I thought the play was interesting but flawed. There was one character who went on and on about the importance of learning Irish only to have an abrupt change of heart for no real reason. If someone were to have such a deep understanding of Irish’s importance, it would seem to me that he or she would need a strong and clearly-defined reason to change his or her view, but in this play there didn’t seem to be any such reason.

Also, Owen was framed as being the cause of troubles that the town suffered. Though it was absolutely true that his translation played an important role in enabling these troubles to happen, it didn’t directly cause them (there was an unrelated subplot that wound up being the main cause of them). To me, this break in causality seemed to weaken the play’s theme.

If you are interested in learning something about language-based colonialism, I would definitely recommend Translations—it does a very good job of intellectually sketching out this dynamic. However, just know that its characters and plot don’t embody the theme as well as they could have (in my subjective view).

Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo

En español:

“Muchos años antes, cuando ella era una niña, él [su padre] le había dicho: ‘Baja, Susana, y dime lo que ves.’ Estaba colgada de aquella soga que le lastimaba la cintura, que le sangraba sus manos; pero que no quería soltar: era como el único hilo que la sostenía al mundo de afuera. ‘No veo nada, papa.’ [….] La lámpara circulaba y la luz pasaba de largo junto a ella. Y el grito de allá arriba la estremecía [….] ‘Es una calavera de muerto’ [….] ‘Busca algo más, Susana. Dinero. Ruedas redondas de oro. Búscalas, Susana.’”

Este libro es sobre un hombre que viaja a un pueblo llamado Comala para conocer la historia de su padre a quien nunca conoció. Al principio de libro, el pueblo parece desierto, pero luego el protagonista encuentra algunos habitantes. Habla con ellos y descubre que son fantasmas que hablan con los vivos. El libro sigue contando la historia de Pedro Páramo, el padre del protagonista, quien fue un dictador del pueblo que ordenaba la muerte de las personas y buscaba el amor inalcanzable.

Este libro fue muy bien escrito. Se sentía un poco como una obra de teatro, porque se contaba principalmente a través de monólogos y diálogos con muy poca reflexión interna. Aun así, funcionó muy bien. Su diálogo significó que su “pacing” fue excelente. También exploró ideas de la Revolución mexicana, la negación de las emociones, el machísmo, y el perdón (o la falta de perdón). Gabriel García Márquez había dicho que Pedro Páramo le inspiró mucho, y que este libro fue lo que le permitió escribir Cien Años de Soledad. Yo pude ver por qué. Fue un libro muy bueno, y yo definitivamente recomendaría que lo leyeran (¡en español o en inglés!)

In English:

“Many years before, when she was a girl, he [her father] had told her: ‘Go down, Susana, and tell me what you see.’ She was hanging from that rope that hurt her waist, that made her hands bleed; but she didn’t want to let go: it was practically the only thread that connected her to the outside world. ‘I don’t see anything, papa.’ [….] The lamp circled and the light passed by her. And the scream from there shook her up [….] ‘It’s a dead man’s skull’ [….] ‘Look for something else, Susana. Money. Round gold discs. Look for them, Susana.’”

This book is about a guy who goes to a town called Comala to learn the story of his father who he never knew. At first the town seems deserted, but then he finds some inhabitants. He speaks with them only to find out that they are ghosts speaking to the living. He goes on to learn the story of Pedro Páramo, his father, who was a dictator of the town who ordered peoples’ deaths and sought unattainable love.

This book was very well written. It felt a little bit like a play in that it was mostly told through monologues and dialogues with very little internal reflection. Even so, it worked very well. The dialogue-ness of it meant its pace was terrific, and it explored ideas of the Mexican Revolution, denial of emotions, machísmo, and forgiveness (or unforgiveness). Gabriel García Márquez had said that he was very inspired by Pedro Páramo, and that it was what enabled him to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. I could see why. It was a very good book and I would definitely recommend that you read it (either in Spanish or in English!)

The Peace Machine, by Özgür Mumcu,
Translated by Mark David Wyers

“They were human and they didn’t know why they were there. They were human and they would go on destroying each other. Because they didn’t know why they were there, they despised one another. Even if they measured the size of the world with compasses and angle rules, even if they created anthologies of the work of all the poets written in dead languages, even if glaciologists measured the age of ice stalactites, even if oceanographers plumbed the deepest oceans, even if uranium glowed, cogs and gears followed every order, and trees were pruned and trained to fit in the palm of one’s hand, they would go on destroying each other. Though they solved the how, they couldn’t work out the why. And so they despised each other.”

In a world where electricity has just been invented and our protagonist Celal has no choice but to run from authorities and say tongue-twisters that enable him to run (read the book and this will make sense!), a friend of Celal’s father comes up with an idea for a machine that will put an end to all war forever and bring peace to the land. Warmongerers make war machines. Why can’t peacemongerers make peace machines?

Celal gets caught up in these plans. In the process, he sticks his head in a lion’s mouth (literally and metaphorically), travels around the world, and gets embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrow the Serbian monarchs.

The book was very, very funny at points (such as the first chapter), very, very insightful at others (such as the excerpt I quoted), and less funny and insightful at others. It seems to me that the author had some truly terrific ideas, but that this book had a lower density of them than it could have had (if that makes sense). Look at a book like Pedro Páramo, and you see that the ideas are rich all the way through. Look at a book like The Peace Machine and you find a few terrific gems scattered here and there. This isn’t to say that the book isn’t worth reading—it absolutely is. Just that it felt like the author could have done even more with his ideas than he wound up doing in the book.

Still, it’s funny and has very good insights about war and peace, so I would recommend.

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

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

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

Action Against Hunger—Provides nutritious food, cash, hygiene kits, and mental health support to Ukrainian refugees.
Donate here: https://www.actionagainsthunger.org/donate/ukraine-emergency-response

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

Insight—Provides food, permanent shelter, and medicine/hormones to LGBTQI+ Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://www.insight-ukraine.org/en/join-donate/

Lit in the Time of War: Becker and Dragomán

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bone Fire by György Dragomán,
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of War: Molnar, Pushkin, and Birmingham

Hello! Happy Rosh Hashanah to those who celebrate. I’ve read three books this week and have reviewed them all for your enjoyment. I’ve also provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

The Paul Street Boys, by Ferenc Molnar,
Translated by Louis Rittenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of War: Kertész, Konstantin, and Dostoyevsky

Hello. I hope you are all healthy and safe and that you are enjoying whatever books you are reading. I’ve read three books this week and have reviewed them below in case you wanted any inspiration for your summer reading. I’ve also included a list of organizations to donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

Fatelessness, by Imre Kertész, Translated by Tim Wilkinson

“’Would you care to give an account of your experiences, young fellow?’ I was somewhat dumbfounded, and replied that there was not a whole lot I could tell to him that would be of much interest. He smiled a little and said, ‘Not me—the whole world.’ Even more amazed, I asked, ‘But what about?’ ‘The hell of the camps,’ he replied, to which I remarked that I had nothing at all to say about that as I was not acquainted with hell and couldn’t even imagine what that was like. He assured me, however, that it was just a matter of speaking: ‘Can we imagine the concentration camp as anything but a hell?’ he asked, and I replied, as I scratched a few circles with my heel in the dust under my feet, that everyone could think what they liked about it, but as far as I was concerned I could only imagine a concentration camp, since I was somewhat acquainted with what that was, but not hell.”

This is a book about fourteen year-old Georg who is taken to Auschwitz. Georg goes on to recount his experiences of starvation, torture and sickness with a kind of intellectualized detachment. His attempts to rationalize his experiences made for fascinating and horrifying reading.

I don’t know what else to say about this book other than that you have to read it yourself to understand what I mean. I would recommend.

A Red Boyhood: Growing Up Under Stalin,
by Anatole Konstantin

”As I discovered many years later, there actually was no need for us to go hungry. The desert was literally crawling with food: desert turtles and snakes were there just for the taking. The fact that people starved to death rather than eat them is another proof that materialism, dialectical or of any other kind, does not prevail in real life and that ideas and taboos are more powerful than even the instinct to survive.”

This is a memoir written by the Ukrainian Anatole Konstantin about his boyhood in the USSR. It begins with the arrest of his father, describes his life as a son of an enemy of the people, goes on to tell about his family’s experience during World War II (where they had to go work on a collective farm in Kazakhstan), described their return home, their journey through Poland, and ultimately, their emigration to America.

It was fascinating to read, especially since in my experience, history is usually depicted in somewhat-separated sections: Stalin’s purges are depicted as being separate from World War II, which is then shown as being separate from the Cold War. This is the way I learned about history in school at any rate. While dividing history into chapters/units may help students learn, this division destroys the sense of continuity that actually existed in reality. A Red Boyhood put all these sections of history together into one coherent whole, which enabled me to better see the causes and effects of various events.

The author apparently wrote this book “without any literary pretensions,” and in some places he makes subtle grammar errors/awkward word-choices which shows that English was not his native language. These did not really detract from his memoir. In any case, he more than compensated with the amount of rich detail he provided about his experiences. I was in awe of his memory. It felt like he was able to give very detailed descriptions of small events throughout his life, people he met once or twice, and even rooms in which he stayed in for like a night. His memory reminded me of the richness of detail in Maxim Gorky’s memoirs.

Anatole also had an excellent way of observing people. There would be several times where he would tell his mom not to trust Mr. So-and-So, and his mom would ignore him, only for Mr. So-and-So to wind up trying to steal their grain. This was very interesting to read about, and these nuances of their family relationship really brought history to life in a way that history textbooks never do.

In school, I remember a teacher giving me a bunch of memoirs to read written by historical figures in order to bring the dry-seeming facts we were learning to life. It seems to me that history can’t be taught effectively without humanizing the people involved—even if we do learn the dry facts in our textbooks to try and prevent history from repeating, history may repeat itself anyway unless we care enough about those who suffered before us to want to stop it from repeating. A Red Boyhood did a terrific job of making me care.

I would definitely recommend.

The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoyevsky,
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Translated by David Magarshack

“And so when I got off the bunk and looked round, I suddenly felt I remember, that I could look at these unhappy creatures with quite different eyes, and that suddenly by some miracle all hatred and anger had vanished from my heart. I walked round the prison peering into the faces I came across. That rascal of a peasant with his shaven head and branded face, yelling his horse drunken song at the top of his voice—why, he, too, might be the same sort of peasant as [the kindly] Marey: I cannot possibly look into his heart, can I?”

This book contains stories by Dostoyevsky written in his youth and in his old age. It’s interesting to track his writerly development across them. It starts out with “White Nights,” and goes on to other stories including “Notes from the Underground” and “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”

In the beginning, it seemed to me that Dostoyevsky was drawing mostly from the books he had read as a kid, because in “White Nights” the protagonist really just seems to want to assume a role similar to those of the literary heroes he worships, to the point of deluding himself about a romantic encounter. Not much more nuance exists to the story other than that.

As the book continues, there is more and more nuance to the stories. A rich man becomes jealous of a peasant boy who seems to have caught the eye of a rich girl who he eventually wants to marry for himself. Later on in Dostoyevsky’s writings, another man wants to feel so much in control of his reputation that he drives his wife to suicide.

As these dynamics become more nuanced, so does his observations related to them. While in the earlier stories, you could pretty quickly understand where characters were coming from all along (the rich man just wants the rich girl’s money! That’s it!), later stories had more unexpected revelations. At the same time, it didn’t feel like Dostoyevsky was doing any psychological acrobatics or contriving anything, which was exciting to see.

Finally, it’s interesting to compare Dostoyevsky’s first-person writings to his third-person ones. This book is entirely made up of his first-person writings, which all seem to be very rich, intriguing, and entertaining. Also, his characters all made sense, even when they got seemingly hysterical or irrational.

Meanwhile, whenever I read his third-person works (The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, or The Idiot), there were still rich psychological nuances and really good moments, but it seemed to me that his stories were less interesting, more convoluted, and that some of his characters suddenly acted very strangely and unrealistically. Now, you could apply the inner thought process of the Underground Man to Dmitri Karamazov, for instance, and his hysterical outbursts would make perfect sense. However, just reading about them in third person made them somehow seem unrealistic.

In any case this was just an observation I had. I would be interested to know if you had any thoughts about it.

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of War: Gelfand, Márquez, and Ung

Hello! I hope you are all well and have had a happy Juneteenth and Father’s Day. I’ve read three books this week and have reviewed them below, as well as providing my usual list of organizations you could donate to in order to help those in Ukraine. Please donate if you’re able.

Diary, 1942, by Vladimir Gelfand,
Translated by Google Translate

“The sun rises tender and good, the roosters sing in the farm. All is well in nature. Only people who invented wars, who kill each other, are bad. We do not know how to use life, which is so beautiful, we do not know how to enjoy it and love it.”

This is a diary of a Russian-Jewish soldier fighting in Stalingrad during World War II. I heard from other sources that it provided fascinating background on the war, as well as some unexpected insights, so I was interested enough to read one of the volumes. In this volume, the writer gets drafted into the war, and fights all the way to Stalingrad. There, he gets a finger-wound and passes out, and we are left in suspense until the next volume whether he has survived (don’t worry, he does).

My sources were right about this book giving unexpected insights into war. Based on what I had read in the past, I had thought that all the Soviet troops were drunk on the juice of Stalinist propaganda and were thus fearlessly throwing themselves into battle for the sake of Stalin. However, this book showed a different reality. Apparently, a lot of soldiers actually fled as soon as they could. They didn’t get enough food. They were also antisemitic (which actually was expected given Stalin’s antisemitism).

Less expectedly, the soldiers refused to follow orders. There was one part where Vladimir was trying to get his subordinates to dig a trench and they just flat-out refused because they were tired. There was also another part where his subordinate Khaustov made up all these reasons why he should get some sleep while Vladimir should stand guard. When Vladimir woke Khaustov up and said he wanted a chance to sleep, Khaustov just ignored him and went back to sleep.

Interestingly, Vladimir still drank the Stalinist juice in spite of this. He also wrote these clumsy descriptions of nature (“Steppe, steppe, steppe … Smooth as a table, quiet, as if dumb, grassy, like a freshly baked gingerbread, fragrantly smelling of its steppe flowers”).

Overall, if you’re looking for an unexpected view of World War II and aren’t afraid of Google Translating it, I would recommend this book.

Leaf Storm and Other Stories, by Gabriel García Márquez, Translated by Gregory Rabassa

“Suddenly, as if a whirlwind had set down roots in the center of the town, the banana company arrived, pursued by the leaf storm.”

This is a short story collection including the longer story “Leaf Storm” and shorter stories, including “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.”

I have an unpopular opinion about this book. I think that Márquez is extremely skilled at describing potentially-interesting events (Murder! Betrayal! Etc.!) in a very flat and uninteresting way. This was especially the case with “Leaf Storm”—characters have affairs, characters betray each other, characters commit suicide, but it’s all told in a detached, distant way. To me it felt more like he was describing something that happened to someone else he didn’t really care about instead of actually telling it while having an investment in it.

Interestingly, I also found a lot of similarities between his writing and Ray Bradbury’s—they were both poetic and descriptive, but for some reason I felt Ray Bradbury was able to bring an emotional keenness to his work that I didn’t feel as strongly in Márquez’s book. His characters felt more vivid, perhaps.

As you can see, my thoughts are all very subjective—I doubt Márquez really didn’t feel anything about the characters he wrote about, for instance. Also, I had previously read his Chronicle of a Death Foretold and vaguely enjoyed it, along with some of his other stories (“Tuesday Siesta” and even “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.”) So in this case, I think my review says more about my reading tastes than the quality of Márquez’s writing, which is very high, in spite of my thoughts about its emotional impact.

In the end, I would recommend you read this book so you could form your own opinion about it separate from what I say. You may actually enjoy it a lot. If you do, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, by Loung Ung, Read by Tavia Gilbert

“The next evening while sitting with Kim outside on the steps of our hut, I think how the world is still somehow beautiful, even when I feel no joy at being alive within it. It is still dark, and the shimmering sunset of red, gold, and purple over the horizon makes the sky look magical.”

This is a memoir about a young girl’s experience during the Cambodian genocide. It describes her experience in Cambodia’s capitol Phnom Penh beforehand, when her family lived in financial comfort. It describes her experience when the Khmer Rouge took over the country and she and her family had to work in forced labor camps for years. It describes her joys and her sorrows and her losses (the Khmer Rouge killed over a million people), and it conveys her emotions and thoughts with incredible honesty.

She described how she blamed herself for some of the tragedy her family went through (she stole food from them when they were all starving for instance), as well as the destructive thoughts she had about herself and the Khmer Rouge (she fantasized about violent revenge, for instance). At the same time she showed great humanity (sharing food with her siblings at other times). Overall, her book showed the remarkable strength of family bonds, but also how a brutal regime could turn people against each other and subvert their highest ideals.

It all sounds somewhat intellectualized when I write about it, so the best I could say is read the book for yourself. You will come away with a greater understanding of humanity, as well as the horrors of war and genocide.

I would highly recommend.

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

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

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

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

Human Rights Foundation Ukraine Solidarity Fund—Provides medicine, baby formula, food, and other urgently needed items to regions under attack. Donate here: https://hrf.org/hrf-launches-ukraine-solidarity-fund/

Lit in the Time of War: Swarup, Maupassant, and Zaitsev

Hello. I hope you’re well. If you’re in America, happy Flag Day! I

‘ve read three books this past week, and have reviewed them below for your enjoyment. I’ve also included links to organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

Slumdog Millionaire, by Vikas Swarup,
Read by Christopher Simpson

“Mimicking the serious tone of the [Taj Mahal] guide, I begin to tell him what I remember. ‘The Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Kuram for his wife Nur Jaham, also known as Mumtaz Begam, in 1531. He met her while she was selling bangles in a garden, and fell in love with her, but married her only after 19 years. She then fought with him in all his battles and gave him 18 kids in 14 years.’ The Japanese interrupts me. ‘18 kids in only 14 years? You’re sure?’ he asks diffidently. ‘Of course,’ I rebuke him. ‘Some must have been twins, you see.’”

This is the book that the 2008 movie was based on. Both involve a poor Indian boy winning a fortune in a game show based on pure luck, but otherwise the book was very different from the movie. For one thing, the best friend didn’t really play that big of a role in the book, whereas in the movie where he did. Also, Latika (the protagonist’s love-interest in the movie) didn’t exist. He fell in love with another person instead.

While the movie was one ongoing story, the book felt more like a series of short stories put together, kind of like The White King. However, while The White King was focused around a main plot through-line, Slumdog Millionaire felt more like it was based around a thematic through-line.

Slumdog Millionaire was one of the more dramatic books I’ve read lately (Plot twists! Murder! Daring escapes! Etc.!) while also containing a strong human element (you get to learn a lot about certain characters’ psychologies). The only  thing I will say about this book is that there were some coincidences that felt a little contrived, and some of the plot elements felt unrealistic, but who cares? The book was so much fun that 100% realism shouldn’t be an issue.

I’d recommend.

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

“They were taking care of his life, so they said. His life? How many days? Ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred? Why? For his own sake? Or to preserve for some time longer the spectacle of his impotent greediness in the family.”

(Reviews for Volumes 1, 3, 4)

Maupassant is back with another collection of short stories! In them, he continues to portray women as people in and of themselves instead of just beautiful objects, which is always much appreciated. He also continues to write about illegitimate kids, or kids whose parents are dead and have to find new parents. He also writes about marginalized people in society, and he continues to show compassion for everyone he writes about.

Some stories in this collection reminded me a lot of Chingiz Aitmatov’s work (such as his book, The Place of the Skull or his other book, The White Ship). This made me wonder how much was he inspired by Maupassant.

In any case, Maupassant’s works continue to be more enjoyable than Chekhov’s works because he’s able to keep his female characters nuanced and realistic. Some of his stories read more like sketches than stories, but that was okay. They got across what they seemed intended to get across. Yes, one of the stories felt like it could have been developed in a more interesting way than it was, but that’s just my own opinion.

Overall, I’ll say that there are 10 volumes in this edition, that I’ve read two so far, and that I hope that you get your own copy of this huge book and read the rest of them along with me. They’re so worth it.

Notes of a Russian Sniper, by Vasily Zaitsev,
Translated by Elena Yakokleva

“I believe the life of every soldier—if he wants to be worthy of that title—depends not only upon regulations and orders, but also upon each man’s own conscience. And losing your conscience in wartime is the most heinous of crimes.”

This memoir is by Vasily Zaitsev, Soviet sniper extraordinaire during the Battle of Stalingrad. It was the inspiration for the book The War of the Rats, which (if I’m not mistaken) went on to inspire the movie Enemy at the Gates.

Zaitsev was a very interesting person. He was incredibly sexist (proudly describing how he kept making moves on a female nurse even after she had repeatedly insisted she wasn’t interested, and writing about how attractive she looked, etc.), entertaining at other times (describing pranks he played), very shrewd (in descriptions of his battle-tactics), and very good at seeing the humanity in other (non-female) people. So he was able to create a memoir filled with pathos, humor, wisdom, insight, and of course, sexism.

Interestingly, some historians think his memoir was filled with nonsense. For instance, he described a sniper duel he had with the head of a German sniper school, only that person’s name was never recorded anywhere other than in Zaitsev’s memoir. Perhaps he never even existed, or Zaitsev inflated the other sniper’s importance to make the book more entertaining and to make himself look more impressive.

At the same time, it was interesting that he made a big point of saying that he never recorded any kills (the Soviet snipers had to keep track of the number of Germans they killed) unless he was sure they were dead (in contrast to other snipers who counted every shot they fired as a kill). Maybe when writing these memoirs he was trying to make himself out to be more impressive while also pretending to be modest.

In any case, this book was entertainingly-written. It had interesting incidents and good characterization, so I would recommend. To be clear though, war itself can never be anything other than tragic for all involved.

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

Ukrainian National Women’s League of America—Provides humanitarian support to civilians and military hospitals. Donate here: https://unwla.org/top-news/call-for-humanitarian-aid/

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

Nova Ukraine—Provides emergency medical relief, food, and first-aid to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://novaukraine.org/

UNICEF For Ukrainian Children—Gives medicine to Ukrainians in need and works to assist unaccompanied and separated child refugees. Donate here: https://www.unicefusa.org/war-ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of War: Thiong’o

Stop the war and read this terrific book by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Hello! I hope you’re well. I’ve read one book this week (and drafted an entire novel manuscript!) I’ve also included a list of organizations you could donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you are able.

Weep Not, Child, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

“‘I learnt [English] during the big war.’ ‘And was it all that big?’ (The barber lets his clippers go flick—lick—lick—lick. Everyone stands expectantly by waiting to hear about the big war. The barber takes his time.) ‘My man, you would not ask that if you had been there. What with bombs and machine guns that went boom-crunch! Boom-crunch! Troo! Troo! And grenades and people crying and dying! Aha, I wish you had been there’ [….] ‘You don’t mean to say that there’s such a place as Jerusalem?’ ‘Ha, ha, ha! You don’t know. You don’t know. We have seen things and places. There now, you’re ready. No! Wait a minute (flick—lick). That’s all right now. You look smart. Had you been to Jerusalem—’”

This is a book about a Kenyan boy named Njoroge as he comes of age, goes to school, and experiences the effects of the Mau Mau uprising.

The book was very good. It had a lot of very powerful scenes in it (which I won’t spoil).

Sometimes an author tries too hard to tell a story fancily and that ruins the story’s effect. Other writers avoid this pitfall and just tell a story plainly and clearly, which makes it even more emotionally impactful. “Weep Not, Child” was told in this second way.

The book also included a great discussion of the awful impacts of colonialism. It explored how Kenyans could work against it. Is there hope in education? Is there hope in revolution? Is there hope in anything?

Read the book and find out.

Finally, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has always been touted as a Nobel Prize favorite. For some reason, he has never won. Reading this book makes it clear that he absolutely should.

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

Global Giving: Provides food, shelter, and psychosocial support to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/ukraine-crisis-relief-fund/

US Ukraine Foundation: Gives humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians in need and secures air transport for key medical supplies to Ukraine. Donate here: https://usukraine.org/

United Sikhs.org: Provides hot food and shelter to Ukrainian refugees, helps prevent human trafficking at the border, and provides needed medical supplies. Donate here: https://unitedsikhs.org/ukraine-relief-fund/

Ukrainian Congress Committee of America: Provides life-saving first-aid kits to the Ukrainian military and gives free meals to injured Ukrainian soldiers. Donate here: https://ucca.org/

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would definitely recommend.

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

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

(Volumes 2, 3, 4 here)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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