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

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

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins, Read by Carolyn McCormick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Boy, Part 1, by Richard Wright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

El General en Su Laberinto, por Gabriel García Márquez

En Español:

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

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

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

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

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

In English:

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

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

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

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

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

Legends of Our Time, by Elie Wiesel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would highly recommend.

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s one more way to help:

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

Thank you for reading.

Lit in the Time of War: Holm, Peralta, and Wiesel

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you are all healthy and safe (and dry, if applicable). If you’re observing Yom Kippur tonight, I hope your reflections are deep and enriching.

I’ve read three books this week (one that hasn’t come out yet and two that have), and have reviewed them below. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you are able.

Strega, by Johanne Lykke Holm, Translated by Saskia Vogel

“I knew a woman’s life could at any point be turned into a crime scene. I had yet to understand that I was already living inside the crime scene, that the crime scene was not the bed but the body, that the crime had already taken place.”

NOTE: I know the translator of the book but decided to review this book on its own merits.

This is a book about a girl who’s sent to an old hotel (called the Olympic Hotel) to be a seasonal worker with other girls. There, she’s exposed to suffocating rituals and sexist lies. Even worse, one of the girls suddenly goes missing (and may have been murdered). Will the protagonist and her friends figure out a better and more empowering way to live before it’s too late?

This book was well-written. It’s one of those books that relies mostly on language and atmosphere to get across its effect, as opposed to plot or characterization, and it got across its effect well. However, at times I felt like the book was hitting the same tonal note so much that I was eager for new and more varied tones.

Even so, it had interesting ideas about women, the lies they get taught, and some genuinely hopeful possibilities for escape. I’d recommend.

Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey From a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, by Dan-El Padilla Peralta

“On the walk back to Holder [Hall in Princeton], I got heated with myself for not confronting her [a person who’d said illegal immigrants shouldn’t be allowed in America] with my own story. I knew I was scared to open up, and I hated myself for being afraid. But even as a voice told me that invoking my own story would be the socially responsible thing to do, another voice told me that it had been fine of me not to make it so personal. Better to move in the world of disembodied arguments. And why did I have to enlighten D.C. blanquita by reintroducing myself to her as an undocumented immigrant? Like she would care.”

This is a memoir about a kid (Dan-El Padilla Peralta) who grows up as an undocumented immigrant and becomes a Princeton student. The book describes his family’s troubles—without documentation they can’t get steady jobs, and eventually wind up homeless in Harlem. At the same time, Peralta’s mom does everything she can to keep him and his brother on the straight and narrow. Peralta’s also naturally smart, which causes many people to want to support him. One person tells him of a test he could take to get a merit scholarship to a preparatory school, for instance. As he grows up and goes to Princeton, he leads a kind of double life—nobody knows that he’s secretly an undocumented immigrant. What will happen if he tells them all?

This book was very well-written. Peralta was terrific at humanizing himself and his family, telling an engaging story, and including thought-provoking (but not preachy) ideas about immigration.

What I also appreciated was that he wrote a lot about the other people in his life—it wasn’t “look at me! I got into Princeton!” but “look at all these amazing people I met in my life along the way!” Peralta’s compassion for the people he wrote about made this book much better than a standard “rags-to-riches” story.

Overall, I would recommend.

Open Heart, by Elie Wiesel

“Should one therefore turn away from humanity? The answer, of course, is up to each of us. We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children, between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it. Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him the solidarity and hope he deserves. Or not. I know—I speak from experience—that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. That it is possible to feel free inside a prison. That even in exile, friendship exists and can become an anchor. That one instant before dying, man is still immortal. There it is: I believe in man in spite of man.”

This is the last book Elie Wiesel wrote before he died. It describes his experience having open heart surgery and contains his reflections on mortality. Has he done the greatest possible good in his life? He also talks about teaching, writing, religion, and family.

The book was very short but was very worth reading. Even when he’s writing about his own death, Wiesel is like a good friend offering the reader hope. If you’re looking for a good reflective book to read (either for Yom Kippur or just for your own purposes), this would be a great choice.

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

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

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

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

World Central Kitchen—Feeds Ukrainian refugees as they cross the border into other countries. Donate here: https://wck.org/

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 Coronavirus: Dorfman, Al Aswany, and Wiesel

In Which I Review “Death and the Maiden” by Ariel Dorfman, “Friendly Fire” by Alaa Al Aswany, and “Dawn” by Elie Wisel

Hello! Happy almost New Year. I hope you are having a healthy and safe holiday season so far. I’ve reviewed three books. They’re definitely not cheerful, but they do make you think.

“Death and the Maiden,” by Ariel Dorfman

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They let me sit in on sessions where my role was to determine whether the prisoners could take that much torture [….] At first I told myself that it was a way of saving people’s lives, and I did because many times I told them without it being true simply to help the person who was being tortured. I ordered them to stop or the prisoner would die. But afterwards I began to… bit by bit, the virtue I was feeling turned into excitement.

This is a play about a husband and a wife who are living in the aftermath of a dictatorship. They have both suffered trauma, especially the woman, who was blindfolded and tortured by a man who liked to pay Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. One day, a man arrives, having helped her husband fix his tire. The woman recognizes the man’s voice, learns he has a tape of Death and the Maiden in his car, and comes to believe that he was her torturer. So she ties him up and puts him on trial.

This was a fascinating play. Is the man really guilty, or is it all just an unlucky coincidence? What will happen during the trial? What will be its result? Will the woman come to terms with her past?

This isn’t a spoiler but it’s something to keep in mind: if you don’t like ambiguous endings, you probably won’t like this play. Even so, I would still recommend it, because it contains a lot of important truths about the lengths people will go to prove things to themselves, and to others.

Friendly Fire, by Alaa Al Aswany, Translated by Humphrey Davies

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From my first day in the department, I had determined to despise and look down on [my coworkers]. Without saying anything, I knew how to let them feel their insignificance. It happened at this period that I needed glasses and I picked out round frames made of thin plastic. I felt that these gave my face a superior cast that was somehow provocative.”

Disclaimer: I took a class with Al Aswany and read some of the stories in this book, so I have to hope that my review isn’t biased.

This is a book of short stories about Egypt. One of them is a novella.

The stories had a kind of humor about them, even though it wasn’t comedic. It seemed more like the author was looking at his characters with an understanding grin. So, even somewhat-unsympathetic characters in the book didn’t feel very unsympathetic because I understood where they were coming from.

Also, the use of details was good. Sometimes I had to re-read a story to get at its subtleties (there was a lot that was subtextual). The insights gained made it worthwhile, though.

Overall,  I really enjoyed this book, especially “The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers,” “The Kitchen Boy,” “Dearest Sister Makarim,” “The Sorrows of Hagg Ahmad,” “Waiting for the Leader,” and “Boxer Puppies, All Colors.” My favorite story was “Izzat Amin Iskandar.” I can’t say why, exactly, but if you could only read one story from this collection, that one should be it.

Dawn, by Elie Wiesel, Translated by Frances Frenaye

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“‘I have a son your age,’ [the British prisoner] began, ‘but he’s not at all like you. He’s fair-haired, strong, and healthy. He likes to eat, drink, go to the pictures, laugh sing, and go out with the girls. He has none of your anxiety, your unhappiness.’ And he went on to tell me more about this son, who was studying at Cambridge. Every sentence was a tongue of flame which burned my body [….] I mustn’t listen to him, I told myself. He’s my enemy, and the enemy has no story.”

This book is set in British-controlled Palestine, and is about Elisha, a young Israeli freedom fighter who previously survived a Nazi concentration camp. Now, he’s been assigned to execute an Englishman, in retaliation for the British executing an Israeli prisoner, only he doesn’t want to kill the man. This book is about him waiting for dawn, when he has to carry out the act.

Previously, I had only read Night, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Dawn. It turned out to be very good.

I appreciated how well it portrayed Elisha’s moral conflict. His guilt was really well-examined, and it was interesting to see Wiesel go into both rationalizations for and condemnations of the act Elisha was going to have to take. Also, Wiesel didn’t judge the protagonist, but just showed him like he was, which somehow made the book’s ultimate condemnation of murder much stronger.

Some of the other characters in the book were the people who ordered the protagonist to carry out the execution. They were well-characterized too, which I appreciated. Wiesel could have easily shown them as heartless and cruel, but that wouldn’t have given any insight into anything, and would have weakened the book. Instead, Wiesel showed that they were just as confused as Elisha, only that they were better at hiding it.

Overall, this book was very good because the author portrayed the characters as humans instead of as heroes and villains. It’s an intense read, but one that I would definitely recommend (especially on audiobook).

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Borges and Nagibin

In Which I Read “Ficciones” by Jorge Luis Borges and “Arise and Walk” by Yuri Nagibin

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Happy Hanukkah! I have been reading four books, but I’ve only managed to finish two so far. The other two will be kept a secret until next week. Meanwhile, I’ve reviewed the two books that I have read…

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges

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“When it was proclaimed that the Library comprised all books, the first impression was one of extravagant joy. All men felt themselves lords of a secret, intact treasure. There was no personal or universal problem whose eloquent solution did not exist — in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly expanded to the limitless dimensions of hope.”

That was basically me when I discovered the library for the first time in my life.

Seriously though, Borges’s book was a very interesting read from an intellectual standpoint. He’s one of those authors who asks cool questions like, “What if we construct a fake society that actually starts feeling more real than the society we’re in?” and then rolls with it. All of his stories are basically like that, and you wind up thinking about them long after you’ve read them, which makes them entertaining to read as a result.

Ficciones also has the benefit of containing a lot of his great stories. You have the “Library of Babel,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Circular Ruins,” and “Death and the Compass.” What more could you want?

So if you’ve never read Borges before, and if you love intellectual speculation, Ficciones is a perfect place to start.

Arise and Walk, by Yuri Nagibin,
Translated by Catherine Porter

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“[About a prisoner calling his wife from Siberia] The operator wound the handle of the receiver, and wound it again. The receiver filled with rustling, crackling sounds, like wind stirring along an autumn forest path […] The voice of space is plaintive and troubled, and fills the heart with fear. Then suddenly, from far, far away, at the other end of the world, he clearly heard the voice of his former wife: ‘Yes?’ The tiny line had finally reached out to him, and tiny though it was, he suddenly felt terribly close to this long-lost family from which he was probably excluded now for ever. ‘Hello there Katya!’ he yelled. ‘How are you all?’ ‘All right.’ The voice was stiff and cold–but maybe it was just the distance that made it sound so.”

While Borges’s book was filled with intellectualism, Nagibin’s book is filled with emotion, which made them good to read in the same week.

Arise and Walk is about a boy whose father gets sent to prison in Siberia. As he grows up, the boy preserves a relationship with him, visiting him and sending him packages. At the same time, the Stalinist state penalizes people whose relatives are prisoners, so we see how the protagonist has to hide his father’s existence from his friends, co-workers, and acquaintances.

This book was very good. It had something of Chingiz Aitmatov in it, so I can’t say exactly what. Maybe in the way they both felt sincere and were thus able to elicit emotions in the reader (at their best, anyway).

Even though this book was good, something felt like it was missing. We learned a lot about the father (who was a very good character), but less about the son (other than that he had conflicting feelings about his father). He never went through an arc of his own, even though he was the protagonist. Contrast this with Chingiz Aitmatov’s Jamila, where the protagonist tells a story about other people, but is changed by it himself. Maybe that’s what was missing from Arise and Walk.

After reading the book, I was surprised by two things. First of all, that Nagibin’s own father had been arrested. Maybe this would explain the sincerity of his story. Second of all (and less relevantly), that he wrote an Oscar-winning screenplay for a Kurosawa film. Yes. You can read more here.

Until next week! Have a happy Hanukkah (if you celebrate), and read books, because they justify the universe and expand it to the limitless dimensions of hope.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Salih, Yakhina, and Cortázar

In Which I Review Books by Tayeb Salih, Guzel Yakhina, and Julio Cortázar

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you’re all healthy and safe and vaccinated (or soon-to-be-vaccinated!) I’ve read three more books for this week…

The Wedding of Zein And Other Stories, by Tayeb Salih,
translated by Denys Johnson-Davies,

illustrated by Ibrahim Salahi

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“Zein was first slain by love when he had still not attained manhood. He was thirteen or fourteen at the time and was as thin and emaciated as a dried-up stalk.”

Tayeb Salih is known as one of Sudan’s greatest writers. The Wedding of Zein helps to explain why.

Zein is a book about a guy named Zein who gets married in Sudan. It’s short, and the version I read has two stories that come with it (“The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid” and “A Handful of Dates.”)

I personally enjoyed the stories more than I enjoyed Zein, but that’s only because I thought the stories were great while I thought Zein was just very good.

In Zein, Salih was good at evoking characters with nuances and quirks. The story’s plot was also intriguing. For some reason though, I found the ending to be much more interesting than the book’s beginning or middle. It left me with a lot more to think about, maybe. Had the beginning and middle been more interesting (which is super-subjective anyway), I would have probably enjoyed Zein as much as the two stories that went along with it.

Even so, I would still recommend reading this book.

Zuleikha, by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden

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“The egg was almost transparent, with a touch of light iridescence. Through its shining walls, which reached to chin level, Leibe saw the square in front of the university gleaming with cleanliness under golden sunbeams, leisurely students smiling deferentially at him, and absolutely smooth columns glimmering with unsullied whitewash. There was no bloodstain.”

This PEN award-winning book is about a Tatar woman named Zuleikha whose husband is killed by Soviet Union officials. Then Zuleikha gets sent to Siberia where she encounters the man who killed her husband. She also encounters a bunch of other people…

The first two-thirds of this book felt to me like a better-written version of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Both authors are screenwriters, and their writing styles were similar– the books zipped along vividly and energetically. Even so, there was more interiority in Zuleikha than in the Tattooist, so I found myself sympathizing a lot more with Zuleikha’s protagonists.

Then there were some really good scenes where the protagonists had to survive the harsh winter climate of Siberia, which reminded me of scenes from another book (by Gary Paulsen) called Hatchet. Yes, Zuleikha was turning out to be a very good read…

Then came the last third of Zuleikha. Up till now, the characters had been fleshed-out people whose logical and grounded actions caused reactions which drove the plot forward.

Suddenly, they became victims of coincidences and actions that had no grounding in their previous characterization. What was really frustrating was that the author could have gotten to the same point without these coincidences. The book would have been stronger as a result.

Well, except for the anticlimactic end. The ending felt like the author was just going for the most convenient resolution rather than the one that best fit the characters’ arcs. As a result, characters wound up not really developing, and the book wound up seeming like it had lost its way.

So if you’re looking for a good book to read I probably wouldn’t recommend Zuleikha. I would recommend Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet instead, because the entirety of that book was well-written, unlike the entirety of this book (in my super-subjective opinion).

Literature Class, by Julio Cortázar,
translated by Katherine Silver

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“Having a message isn’t enough to create a novel or a short story, because that message, when it’s ideological or political, can be much better communicated in a pamphlet, an essay, or a news report. That’s not what literature is good for. Literature has other ways of conveying those messages, and can maybe even convey them with a lot more force than an article, but to do that, to have more force, it has to be great, it has to be elevated.”

This book by Julio Cortázar is a compilation of a bunch of lectures he gave at UC Berkeley in 1980. They were good, short, and not very substantial.

Compare them with Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist. Llosa had a lot more substance in terms of his discussion of fiction and craft. Cortázar just seemed to talk in generalities before reading from his short stories.

Even so, they were interesting to read for his perspective on writing and its purpose. That being said, his short stories might be a more worthwhile (and substantial) read…

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