Lit in the Time of War: Brierley

Hello! I’m back. I hope you’re all well, healthy, and safe, and that you had a happy Chinese New Year (if you celebrate it). I’ve read one book this week, and have reviewed it below, along with including my usual list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

Lion, by Saroo Brierly, with Larry Buttrose, Read by Vikas Adam

“Occasionally she’d pass me a snack between one of the bars, and one day, she gave me a necklace with a pendant of the elephant-headed god Ganesh. I was astonished. It was the first present I’d ever received from anyone [….] I later learned that Ganesh is often called the remover of obstacles and lord of beginnings. I wonder whether that was why the girl chose to give it to me. Ganesh is also a patron of letters, and so in a way is the patron of this book. The necklace was more than just a beautiful object to call my own. For me, it was a concrete demonstration that there were good people in the world who were trying to help me.”

This is a memoir about a kid named Saroo who’s born in India, gets separated from his family, gets adopted by an Australian family, grows up, and reconnects with his birth-family with the power of Google Earth.

You may have heard of Saroo if you saw the 2016 movie starring Dev Patel. Fortunately, the book has more detail than the movie. It describes Saroo’s time in India much more extensively, for instance. It gives a thorough account of the night he was separated from his family, talks about his life on the streets of Calcutta (now Kolkata), and his experiences in an abusive orphanage. The movie doesn’t really go into any of these experiences in the same level of detail.

The book describes Saroo’s upbringing in Australia, which the movie also doesn’t really show, either. It was very interesting to learn the story of Saroo’s adoptive-parents and what led them to want to adopt. Finally, the book gives an in-depth look at how Saroo found his birth-family by pure luck and persistence. For me, this was the most moving part of the book to read, as was Saroo’s discovery of how his birth-family family had gotten on since his disappearance.

The book has some interesting psychological insights as well, but it’s more about Saroo’s journey than his interiority, and so might not be the best book to read for deep psychological content. Even so, if you’re interested in learning more about his story, or if you just want to read a book that inspires hope, I would definitely recommend Lion.

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.

Renew Democracy Initiative—Provides meals, sleeping bags, and water filtration units to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://rdi.org/warmth/

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

Books Without Borders—Provides Ukrainian-language books to European Union cities where Ukrainian refugees are temporarily living. Donate here: https://bookwithoutborders.com/

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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: 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: 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 Coronavirus: Shanbhag, Kadohata, and Kertész

Hello! Happy Tuesday. It’s the end of the semester here, so I have several papers I’m writing. Somehow, I’ve also read several books. Here they are:

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag,
Translated by Srinath Perur

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“In the middle room of the old house […] [the protagonist’s sister Malati] told me about her college, her classmate Vandana, whose step-mother served her leftovers, and who was in love with a boy they called Koli Ramesh. It was Malati who carried letters between them. In the new house, we were locked in the cells of individual rooms, and there was no opportunity to exchange casual confidences. Lying alone in my room, I sometimes wondered if Malati’s happiness would have been better served had Sona Masala not existed at all.”

This book is about a family in Bangalore who runs a mysterious business called Sona Masala. Before they started the business they were happy but poor. After they start the business they become miserable and greedy.

This book has been compared with Chekhov. I do not see it. Yes, it has good brevity, but Chekhov still gives a lot more meaning in one short story than this author does in his entire book.

There’s also another difference– Chekov actually has warmth, even when he’s describing unsympathetic characters and cynical situations. This book doesn’t, or if there is warmth, it’s not really that warm. For instance, the protagonist’s father is supposed to be the moral compass of the book. However he never really gets a chance to say anything other than paltry things along the lines of, “Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this,” or, “In the old days, people actually respected each other,” which rob him and his role of their weight. He’s never really given a chance to speak and be taken seriously, so he doesn’t really provide as convincing of a counterweight as he seems like he’s there to do.

Any moments of happiness are fleeting and not taken seriously, either. They’re treated like, “Oh, we were only happy then because that was before we moved into the new house, don’t mind that nonsense.” A book absolutely doesn’t have to be unicorns and butterflies, but the lack of real happiness in this book means that any contrasts made between the family’s old life and their new life don’t really work as well as they could have.

Going back to a point I made at the beginning, the book doesn’t really say as much as it could have. The protagonist is complicit in the family’s dysfunction, sure, but I found myself really wondering why he acted that way, and not receiving an answer. For me, it’s not enough just to say and show that characters act differently because they’re in a new house and have new wealth. There needs to be more of a sense of why (even if it’s a very subtle implication). There’s definitely room for this kind of implication, but it’s never really made. Instead, this book seems to treat the characters as if greed just sprang upon them and took them unawares, and as a result, it doesn’t really say as much as it could have.

Contrast this with Chekhov, where even in his less-hopeful stories, he includes a measure of warmth as an effective contrast (which actually winds up heightening the level of cynicism), he says all that he could say within the space (making the most of his characters and their conflicts), and really gets at why the characters are acting the way they do.

I may sound harsh, and I don’t mean to. This book was still good, and I would still recommend it to read. But I would definitely not say that it was Chekhov-level good.

Half a World Away, by Cynthia Kadohata

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“No, the future was not bright for Dimash if he didn’t learn to walk differently. Walking was important. Jaden knelt down in front of him […] Dimash gazed at him intently, his shoulder scrunched, his stance geeky. Jaden pulled the boy’s shoulder up until both sides were even. ‘Here, stand like this. Good! Now watch.’ Jaden walked evenly, with a little bit of swagger. ‘That’s how you walk. Come on, walk to me.’ Dimash pushed his shoulder down and walked to Jaden even geekier than usual. ‘No,’ Jaden said, patiently but firmly. ‘When you walk, you must be cool. Then maybe nobody will bother you.'”

This book is about a boy named Jaden who was adopted from Romania at the age of eight. Angry at having been given up by his birth-mother and unable to form emotional attachments, Jaden grew up stealing, lying, and setting fire to the toys given to him by his adoptive parents. When he’s eleven, his parents take him with them as they adopt someone from Kazakhstan. Jaden thinks they’re adopting again because he’s a bad son. However, once they reach Kazakhstan, he forms connections with a toddler at the orphanage (Dimash) and the man who drives them around (Sam), and eventually realizes he loves his adoptive parents.

This book is interesting because it involves two adoptions (instead of just one), and describes the mindset of someone who was adopted as an older child. It’s also an enjoyable read.

While Jaden’s psychology is well-conveyed, he seems too emotionally-aware considering his circumstances. He grew up in an environment where he never knew love and had to suppress his emotions, so he likely wouldn’t be able to understand his feelings as well as he seems to in this book (“he felt sad” “he felt happy” “he felt angry” etc.).

This discrepancy makes this book read less like the character is actually experiencing life, and more like the author is writing down her guesses about what it would be like to experience life through the character’s perspective.

In any case, this is a good book, and even though it’s for middle-grade readers, it’s still a good read for adults, too.

Dossier K., by Imre Kertész, Translated by Tim Wilkinson

Pin by Israa Shamlawi on Anlamlı Sözler İçin | Fly gif, Bird gif, Aesthetic  gif

“[Interviewer:] What would be of more interest to me right now is the difference between fiction and autobiography, as critics and readers alike commonly refer to Fatelessness as an autobiographical novel.

[IK:] Incorrectly, I have to say, because no such genre exists. A book is either autobiography or a novel. If it’s autobiography you evoke the past, you try as scrupulously as possible to stick to your recollections [….] A good autobiography is like a document: A mirror of the age on which people can ‘depend.’ In a novel, by contrast, it’s not the facts that matter, but precisely what you add to the facts.

This book is the autobiography/memoir of Imre Kertész, who won a Nobel Prize. It’s written in an interview format, and talks about his life in Nazi-era Hungary, his experiences in Birkenau as a teenager, his return to Hungary after the war, and the discovery that Hungary has become a dictatorship too.

I have never read any of his books. After having learned about his experiences and his thoughts on life, I want to.

This memoir was also somewhat entertaining because Kertész was pretending to be two people. The “interviewer” would ask some question, and the “interviewee” would answer something along the lines of, “no, you don’t understand, it wasn’t like that at all,” or, “that’s a very interesting observation. I never thought of that myself.” This interplay made the story feel less like a cut-and-dry interview and more like a conversation between two real people. In the end, this didn’t detract from the book’s subject matter but somehow made it more powerful.

In any case I would recommend this book. Now I need to read more by him.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Ibsen, Markandaya, and De Lint

In Which I Review Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck,” Kamala Markandaya’s “Nectar in a Sieve,” and Charles De Lint’s “The Onion Girl.”

Hello! Happy Tuesday. There are so many books and so little time (until the end of the summer!) Hopefully I can get in a few more to review before that point. Here’s three, at any rate…

“The Wild Duck,” by Henrik Ibsen,
Translated by Una Ellis-Fermor

Courtesy of The Duck Song

“RELLING: Well, I’ll tell you Mrs. Ekdal. He’s suffering from acute inflammation of the conscience.”

“The Wild Duck” is not about a duck. It’s about a happily-married family…or so it seems. There’s a huge secret at the heart of the marriage, and the husband’s friend is trying to expose it. Frankness will make everything better, right? Ibsen thinks otherwise…

The first few acts felt very confusing. It wasn’t clear to me what was going on until the last few acts. With that being said, the rest of the play was good. Ibsen was great at dramatically revealing characters’ secrets and ulterior motives.

However, he wasn’t so great at making sure the play’s theme was actually supported by the story’s events. Ibsen seemed to want to say that idealism was destructive. But in the play, things seemed to be destroyed not because of idealism, but because of unyielding self-delusion. Or at least, idealism wasn’t the only culprit. That disconnect between the stated theme and the illustrated theme made for a very interesting reading-experience.

Also, parts of this play reminded me a lot of plays written later. A lampshade symbolized concealment in “The Wild Duck,” and a paper lantern symbolized concealment in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Aside from that, the two plays were very different, but it was cool to see how influential Ibsen was.

Anyway, I’d definitely recommend this play.

Nectar in a Sieve, by Kamala Markandaya

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“Then as happens even in the brightest moment, I remembered Janaki. Last year she had come with us, she and her children. This year who knew– or cared? The black thought momentarily doused the glow within me; then, angered and indignant, I thrust the Intruder away, chasing it, banishing it… tired of gloom, reaching desperately for perfection of delight, which can surely never be.”

This is a story about Rukmani, a child-bride in a changing India. She and her husband live in a village, cultivate the land, endure hardship, and experience joy.

Reading this book made me realize how rare it was to read about a sympathetic husband in literature. It felt very refreshing.

Also, the story itself was very engaging. The author clearly cared a lot about her characters, and the story’s ending was beautiful. When rereading its beginning, the story’s ending became even better.

What’s also impressive is that Markandaya wrote this book based on research rather than on any experience of poverty (she came from a wealthy family), but it still felt very realistic. It read a little like Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, only better, since Markandaya’s characters were more engaging.

So this book has great characters and a great story. It’s also very short. Definitely read it.

The Onion Girl, by Charles De Lint

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“‘I suppose the other thing too many forget is that we were all stories once, each and every one of us. And we remain stories. But too often we allow those stories to grow banal, or cruel, or unconnected to each other. We allow the stories to continue, but they no longer have a heart. They no longer sustain us.”

This is a book about Jilly Coppercorn, a woman in her thirties who likes to paint magical beings. She gets into a car-accident, figures out how to enter a magical land called the Dreamworld, and has to confront the trauma of her past to heal from the trauma in her present.

The story was very psychological, which was cool to read about, especially in a fantasy book. A warning: it does contain very dark themes. Even so, the dark themes were handled well, and the book felt more hopeful than nihilistic.

The world-building was also very interesting. The Dreamworld felt fresh and immersive. It didn’t outweigh the characters, though, which made the story even more enjoyable.

Even so, parts of The Onion Girl‘s plot felt formulaic and predictable, which took away a little from its overall impact. Same with some of the descriptions of places and characters. I’d find myself guessing how sentences would end (“The room looked dark… but cozy anyway?”) and then read something very close to that guess. This is probably subjective, though.

The book also could have been much shorter than its actual length of 600ish pages. A lot of the sentences in the book just repeated what previous sentences said, which reminded me of a similar thing that once happened to Dostoyevsky. Finally, entire chapters of The Onion Girl were devoted to explaining the moral of the story. This was entertaining up to a point. Then it felt a little preachy.

Overall, this book had very interesting psychology and world-building, but it was also formulaic and repetitive. If you’re looking for the greatest speculative fiction ever, you might want to consider reading other books (like Anna Kavan’s Ice or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast), but if you’re looking for something that’s still pretty good, you might enjoy this.

Until next week!