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: Wright

Hello! I hope you all had a very happy New Year. I’m kicking it off by reviewing the second part of Richard Wright’s autobiography, and including my usual list of places you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. May 2023 be the year there’s finally peace.

Black Boy, Part 2, by Richard Wright,
Read by Peter Francis James

Favorite quotes:

“The artist and the politician stand at opposite poles. The artist enhances life by his prolonged concentration upon it, while the politician emphasizes the impersonal aspects of life by his attempts to fit men into groups. The artist’s enhancement of life may emphasize, at certain times, those aspects that a politician can use, but the politician at other times, eager to do good for man, may sneer at the artist, because the art product cannot be used by them. Hence the two groups of men, driving in the same direction, committed to the same vision, often find themselves locked in a struggle, more desperate than either of them wanted, while their mutual enemies gape at the spectacle in amazement.”

“Somehow man had been sundered from man, and in his search for a new unity, for a new wholeness, for oneness again, he would have to blunder into a million walls to find merely that he could not go in certain directions. No one could tell him. He would have to learn, by marching down history’s bloody road. He would have to purchase his wisdom of life with sacred death. He would have to pay dearly to learn just a little. But perhaps, that is the way it has always been with man.”

“I headed toward home alone, really alone now, telling myself that in all the sprawling immensity of our mighty continent, the least-known factor of living was the human heart. The least-sought goal of being was a way to live a human life. Perhaps, I thought, out of my tortured feelings I could fling a spark into the darkness. I would try, not because I wanted to, but because I felt that I had to, if I were to live at all.”

(First part here).

The second part of Wright’s autobiography tells of his adventures in Chicago, which, while not as brutally racist as the South he’d come from, is still horribly racist. Wright also starts writing stories, and describes writing three stories that would form part of his short story collection, Uncle Tom’s Children. He also joins the Communist Party.

This second part was just as good as the first part, but I was surprised by Wright’s naivety about Russian colonialism. He seemed to think that the Soviets had successfully turned “backwards” people into civilized ones while preserving their culture—little did he know about the atrocities of the Holodomor, forced collectivization, and the Kazakh Famine.

But Wright was smart enough to eventually become disillusioned with the Communist Party, and his reflections on its internal dysfunction were fascinating to read. It seemed to me that Wright was searching for a sense of purpose in life, as were many people during the Great Depression. Some turned to Communism as a utopian ideal, but as Wright showed, Communism became self-destructive. And so Wright had to find a new source of purpose in life, one that wouldn’t become self-destructive. His book left me wondering, when people lose a sense of meaning in life, how do they reclaim it without becoming self-destructive?

Ultimately, his book had terrific insights into humanity, race, politics, and art. Reading it also left me even more impressed by Wright’s powerful determination to stay true to himself in spite of everyone else trying to force him to conform to their standards and ideologies. I would strongly recommend.

A quick note: These next two weeks I’ll be traveling, and so likely won’t be able to post my usual book reviews until the 23rd. However, when I return, I’ll most likely be reviewing another book by Wright and what many claim was one of Dickens’ greatest epic novels, among others. So stay tuned.

And if you have any recommendations for other books I might enjoy throughout the rest of 2023, let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need:

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 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/

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

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: Frankl

Hello. Welcome to December. I hope you’re healthy, safe, and as warm as could be expected during these cold times. I’ve reviewed one book this week (due to it being a busy last week of classes). It’s a very meaningful book, though. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

(Note: This review mentions suicide.)

Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, by Viktor Frankl,
Narrated by David Rintoul

“What we create, experience, and suffer in this time, we create, experience, and suffer for all eternity. As far as we bear responsibility for an event, as far as it is ‘history,’ our responsibility, it is overwhelmingly burdened by the fact that something that has happened cannot be taken out of the world. However, at the same time, an appeal is made to our responsibility precisely to bring what has not yet happened into the world.”

Victor Frankl is famous for his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, and for creating Logotherapy (existentialist therapy). Yes To Life: in Spite of Everything contains lectures he gave that became the foundation for Man’s Search for Meaning. Surprisingly, these lectures were only published in English in 2020.

The lectures are about the pointlessness of suicide, the unethical nature of euthanasia, Frankl’s own experiences in a concentration camp, and the ultimate power people have to create meaning in spite of everything that may seem to strip life of any meaning it may have had.

The book was terrific in getting this last (and main) point across. Some people may lose heart in the face of adversity (of any kind), but others can see it as a call to meaning and come to approach life with more determination and intention.

Overall, if you’re looking for a convincing case for life’s enduring meaningfulness, or are interested in tracing the development of Frankl’s philosophy, I would strongly recommend Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything.

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.

The Salvation Army–Provides food, warm bedding, stoves, and hygiene kits to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://sawso.org/sawso/ukraine-disaster-and-refugee-relief

Direct Relief–Gives medical aid to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://www.directrelief.org/emergency/ukraine-crisis/

Project HOPE–Gives medical and mental health support to refugees in Ukraine, Moldova, Poland, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.projecthope.org/crisis-in-ukraine-how-to-help/04/2022/

Core–Provides medical, food, cash, and long-term support to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://www.coreresponse.org/ukraine/

Lit in the Time of War: Dillon

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

Suppose a Sentence, by Brian Dillon

“What did I think I was seeing in these other sentences? Or hearing, or hoping to emulate? With the first three, it’s obvious: an epigrammatic snap, some truth at odds with received wisdom, a relevance to writing, a degree of portability: as a critic, I can imagine insinuating any one of them into an essay or review. Maybe not without a little pomp and satisfaction. But the others? How to say, because this must be the word, what I love there?”

This is a book recommended to me by a professor. It’s about sentences. Namely, it surveys different sentences across time, from Shakespeare to Anne Carson, and comments on them. The author seems keen to get at what makes the sentences work for him, which is interesting to read about. It’s also cool to see the evolution of the sentence throughout time, and how what makes such sentences good throughout time change.

That’s what I got in terms of content. What my professor really wanted me to pay particular attention to was how the author used sentences himself to effectively convey his scholarly argument. It was fascinating to see this, given that he started out the entire book with a super long sentence, included fragments throughout, and seemed more like he was having a conversation about a very interesting topic than he was trying to stiffly contrive his words into an academic-ish mold. There’s room for playfulness, in other words, and that’s inspiring.

Overall, if you like style, sentences, or are looking for a way to give your academic writing more panache (like myself), this book is a terrific and valuable read, and I’d definitely recommend.

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

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

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/

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

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: 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: 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: Yong and Suk-Young

Hello! Happy Banned Books Week! I’ve read one book this week and gave up on two others. The one I read was very good. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you’re able.

Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor, By Kim Yong and Kim Suk-Young

“[After seeing loyalists being taken to his camp for stealing food]: I shook with pain and anger at what I had witnessed that day. Loyalists to the state were rotting in this hellish place where death would be far more desirable. I thought of how utterly deceived the newly arrived from Songrim had been. In fact, everyone in this country was deceived, made to believe the false promise of a better life. and when a person simply wished to survive, they had to pay with their life. That night I lay straight on the floor, clenched my teeth, and felt warm sweat moistening my tight fists as I thought, I will survive. I have to survive. I will, I will, I will, I will! I will!!! Survive and tell the world about what I have witnessed. Otherwise, this insurmountable tragedy will be forgotten, never known to the rest of the world. I will survive to tell it myself. I will.”

This memoir is by Kim Yong, a survivor and escapee of a North Korean prison camp. He starts life as an orphan who’s fiercely loyal to North Korea’s then-leader, Kim Il-Sung. Then he gets adopted by wealthy parents, wonders about his birth-parents, grows up, learns harrowing secrets about his birth-parents, and gets arrested. The rest of the book is about his experiences suffering in North Korea’s camps (being separated from his wife and children, starving, being tortured, witnessing several executions), his escape, and his life afterwards.

The book was striking for Yong’s resilience. He spent years in Camp #14, one of North Korea’s most brutal camps. According to Yong, Camp #14 was where people went to die, since there was no hope of release and the conditions were so deadly. Yet while people around him were dying, Yong resolved not to.

Yong conveyed both peoples’ suffering and their nuances. He himself went from feeling extremely loyal to the North Korean government to feeling disillusioned and betrayed by them. At the same time, he observed that while many of his captors treated him inhumanely, not all of them did. He also described fellow prisoners assisting him in his escape, and the immense guilt and gratitude he felt as a result. At one point during his escape, he stayed with a woman in South Korea. A part of him worried that she’d betray him, but another part of him believed in her, since he observed her genuinely trying to assist him at various times.

At the end, Yong says that his story has no real ending. He has escaped, yes, but he still misses his family. And even though it’s unreachable to him now, he still misses his home-country because of the memories it holds of the people he loves.

Overall, this book is terrific. It’s short, but very well-written and human. It gives insight into North Korean society (from its orphanages to its inner-circles), its camps, and the inner life of an escapee. I would strongly recommend.

As promised, here’s a list of organizations you can 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/

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/

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

Red Cross—Provides first aid, food, medicine, and evacuation help to Ukrainians. Donate here: https://www.redcross.org/donate/cm/abc.html/?subcode=abc-pub