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

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

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

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

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

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

I would definitely recommend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of War: Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky

In which I review books by Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky.

Hello! I hope you are well. Today at Princeton is officially Dean’s Date—when all essays are due. As a result, I’ll keep my reviews shorter than usual. Also, there’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need.

Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir, by Shahrnush Parsipur, Translated by Sara Khalili

“Although this madness [PTSD from prison] was my own, I wonder if society can be struck by a similar sort of collective insanity when pressure mounts beyond the peoples’ tolerance. Do they abandon all beliefs and begin to exist in an illusory world of their own creation? In that state, will they believe everything they are told?”

This book is about an Iranian writer who gets imprisoned. She experiences traumatic events in Evin Prison along with in other prisons. She gets released, then re-arrested, then released, then re-arrested again. Through it all, we see her remarkable character (she is very resilient and spirited), and learn about the horrors of incarceration.

I would recommend.

The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin,
Read by Eugene Yelchin

“‘‘Turn that thing [the radio] off, Yevgeny.’ ‘I can’t, Grandma,’ I said. ‘I’m in attitude.’ I was trying to balance on one leg in attitude, which Vaganova described as a pose on one leg with the other lifted at an angle of ninety degrees and carried back, bent at the knee. ‘You hurt your leg, Yevgeny?’ ‘No, Grandma. It’s…nothing.’ ‘He stands on one leg for nothing. You a stork?’ ‘I’m practicing ballet.’ ‘With a bad leg?’”

This book is a memoir about Yelchin’s experiences growing up during the Cold War. His mom’s obsessed with the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, his dad’s obsessed with poetry, and his brother’s obsessed with his newfound talent for ice-skating. Yelchin’s parents say he needs a talent, too—talent gets you a luxurious apartment and other such privileges. Yelchin’s brother is all set, but no matter what he does, Yelchin turns out to have no talent at anything. The only enjoyment he gets is from the drawings he makes at night under the table.

This book is funny, heartwarming, and extremely well-crafted. I would recommend.

Selected Poems, by Joseph Brodsky,
Translated by George L. Kline

“People and things crowd in.
Eyes can be bruised and hurt
by people as well as things.
Better to live in the dark.”

This is a book of poems by Brodsky translated into English and with a foreword by W.H. Auden, who says that Brodsky is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. This is also back when Brodsky was an unknown (1973, before his 1987 Nobel Prize).

In any case, I found the poems to be good but not as good as I’d hoped (I’d read some poems by Brodsky here and they were terrific).

Even so, there were some very good poems in this collection, and I’d recommend it. Also, while I never mention footnotes, I do have to say that Brodsky’s book has great footnotes about untranslatable nuances of the Russian original which were very helpful and insightful. I’d recommend.

As promised, a list of places to donate and help Ukrainians in need:

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

Nova Ukraine: Supports Ukrainians by evacuating refugees, serving meals, and providing aid packages. Also the first volunteer group to enter Bucha and provide food and reconstruction assistance there. Donate here: https://novaukraine.org/

WithUkraine: The official fundraising effort by the Embassy of Ukraine to the UK. Provides food and medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://www.withukraine.org/

Plan USA: Gives aid focusing on refugee children in Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/humanitarian-response-ukraine-plan-usa/

Lit in the Time of War: Brady, Blok, and Yelchin

Study for exams! Read books! Stop the war!

Hello! I hope you are as well as can be hoped for during these awful times. I have reviewed three books this week, and have included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukraine:

Profile of a Prodigy: The Life and Games of Bobby Fischer,
by Frank Brady

“Psychologically, he seems trapped by his own temperament, unable to realize that a sensitivity to the rights and interests of others is a condition of social being. He has backed himself into such a small cultural corner that his ideational mobility suffers every time it is tried, as is shown by the almost pathetic lack of sophistication in his statements since Curaçao. Indeed, he is scarcely able to communicate with the world of larger interests except through the medium of the chessboard. Mikhail Tal one said in an interview that Bobby should read more outside of chess or else his game would eventually  suffer from the thinness of his education. Bobby replied by slighting his critic’s chess ability and adding a series of sneers at intellectual pretensions on the part of certain chess masters.”

This book is about the famous chess player Bobby Fischer, who was a prodigy as a kid and who went on to become the world champion of chess.

What makes this book more interesting is that the author knew Fischer personally. Also, this book was written and published in the 1960s, when Fischer was on hiatus from chess and before he returned to win his famous matches in the 1970s. So here we only have a partial profile of a prodigy rather than the whole story (which is what most standard biographies would give you). So think of this book as being more of a snapshot than a comprehensive biography.

The book was good. It was interesting to learn about the world of chess. Fischer was a very good chess player at a very young age, but he was also very immature. At the time this book was written, his immaturity was limiting him by causing him to decline to participate in chess. He had wanted to compete in the world championship, for instance, but, after convincing himself that the game was rigged against him in favor of his Soviet rivals (which he only complained about when they beat him), he also convinced himself to take a hiatus from the game.

 The book also contains annotated diagrams of Fischer’s greatest games (up to the 1960s). Though it was mildly interesting to flip through these (“14 RxB!!”), it was more interesting to read the biography portion of the book. What made it stand out the most to me was its chapter trying to dissect Fischer’s psychology. He apparently tied his sense of self-worth to chess to the point where he wound up sabotaging his chances at the world title in the 1960s to preserve his sense of superiority over other players.

So, if you’re interested in a psychological portrait of a (sometimes comically-whiny) prodigy, I’d recommend this book.

Poems by Alexander Blok, Translated by Yevgeny Bonver

“Years that burned everything to ashes!
Do you bring madness or grace?
The war’s and freedom’s fire flashes
Left bloody light on every face.”

After reading Pasternak’s poems on a website and reviewing them on this blog, I have found another website with a lot of poems by Alexander Blok.

The poems were good. They made me think about the world in a different way. Some were particularly striking, like “All perished, All!” and “He, who was born…” All in all, it was a very good compilation.

The only thing I would say about these poems is that the English translation loses out on nuances in the original. For instance, in “Night, Streets, the Lantern…” the original’s last line has to do with ice flowing (or something that shows that in spite of the frozenness of ice, it still contains a glimmer of motion). This nuance was completely lost in the translation, which mentioned something about a swelling canal in the night. Obviously not all translations can be perfect, but it has made me wonder how much nuance has been lost in the other poems translated here.

In any case, I would recommend just to get exposure to Blok. If you can read the originals, I would recommend them even more.

The Haunting of Falcon House, by Eugene Yelchin,
Read by Michael Bakkensen and George Guidall

“I hesitated, deciding which book to open first. Not that it mattered. It shouldn’t be too hard for me to pass what was required. French I didn’t need to study. I already knew it. Of course, en garde, prêts, allez were the only words I knew, but they were the most important words in French. You couldn’t start fencing without saying them. I didn’t have to bother with the Russian grammar, either. Russian is my mother tongue, and besides, I write in cursive neatly. Well, almost neatly. As for arithmetic…true, numbers had always troubled me a little, but I could draw them well. Zeros in particular.”

This book is about a prince, Lev Lvovich, who is sent to live with his aunt Olga in a house called Falcon House, which just so happens to be haunted. As he tries to live up to his grandfather’s legacy (his grandfather was apparently a fancy general in the Russian army), he meets a mysterious boy named Vanyusha who has mysterious secrets, studies half-heartedly for admittance into a fancy Russian military academy, and finds himself drawing pictures better than he ever had drawn them before.

The book started slow but gets really good at the end. Was it worthwhile? I found it to be so. It was fun to read, with humor, action, and heart. I felt like some aspects could have been developed more (we learn about the protagonist’s grandfather but not so much about his father, for instance), but there was enough to keep the read entertaining.

So, if you’re looking for a book with some humor and a terrific ending, read this. And if you just so happen to be cramming for final exams and writing essays for final assignments, I’d recommend this book even more for its inspirational take on academics (see excerpt above!)

As promised, here’s a list of Ukrainian organizations to donate to. In case you missed out on previous lists, some entries are repeated here:

UN Refugees: Supports Ukrainian refugees by giving them supplies and assistance. Gifts are being matched up to 1 million dollars. Donate here: https://www.unrefugees.org/

World Central Kitchen: Provides food to displaced Ukrainian refugees and to civilians still in Ukrainian cities. Donate here: https://wck.org/

Razom for Ukraine: Provides medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

Plan USA: Gives resources and psychological support to girls and women in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/

Lit in the Time of War: Ming-Yi, Tokarczuk, and Slezkine

Stop the war!

Hello! I’ve read three books this week. One’s puny, one’s medium-sized, and one’s probably the biggest book I’ve ever read…

Also, since the war is STILL happening, I’ve compiled yet another list of places you can donate to in order to support Ukraine. Please do so if you are able.

The Man With the Compound Eyes, by Wu Ming-Yi,
Translated by Darryl Sterk

“Leaving the animal hospital, she saw a follow up on the earthquake on the TV news. As Dahu had said, seismologists suspected this was not simply an energy release. The next report was news to Alice, though: a huge Trash Vortex in the Pacific Ocean was breaking up, and a big chunk of it was headed for the coast right near where she lived. Watching aerial footage of the vortex, Alice could not believe her eyes. She could not believe her ears, either, when the report, drawing on an international news media source, adopted a tragicomic tone, declaring that, in the vortex, almost everyone would be able to find almost everything he’d ever thrown away in his entire life.”

This is a very cool book. the main plot is basically that a tsunami sends a huge trash vortex into Taiwan’s coast, and as a result a boy from a mythical island and a woman who is grieving her dead husband and son come together and form a friendship.

The book is much more than that though. Other peoples’ stories are told in it as well. Most of the stories involve loss, but some of them also involve regaining joy in life. All of them involve the changing climate, and at the center of it is a mysterious man with compound eyes…

What makes the book so good is that people are at its center (in terms of exploring the human condition) instead of having less-developed characters and revolving around the premise of “Oh no! A giant trash-vortex is coming for us! What do we do!”

In other words, I’d recommend.

The Lost Soul, by Olga Tokarczuk, Illustrated by Joanna Concejo,
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

“Finally, during one of his many journeys, the man awoke in the middle of the night in his hotel room and felt as if he couldn’t breathe. He looked out the window, but he wasn’t sure what city he was in—all cities look the same through hotel windows. Nor was he sure how he came to be there or why. And unfortunately he had forgotten his own name too. It was a strange feeling—he had no idea how he was going to find himself again.”

Come for Tokarczuk’s words, stay for Concejo’s great illustrations.

This book is very short and is basically a bunch of illustrations with some text in between (kind of like Hugo Cabret). It’s about a man who loses his soul and has to find it again. How does he do it? Does he even do it? Read the book to find out!

The illustrations are terrific, like I already said. The book also has a lot of wisdom in it, even though it’s very short (in contrast to her much longer book, The Books of Jacob which is humongous and may or may not have as much wisdom as this book has in it).

In any case, I’d recommend.

The House of Government, Part 1, by Yuri Slezkine,
Read by Stefan Rudnicki

“[About the Bolsheviks:] But the radical abandonment of most conventional [family] attachments, the continual sacrifice of the present for the sake of the future, and the violent casting-out of money-changers came, as all heroic commitments do, at the cost of recurring doubt. What if the discarded attachments were the true ones? What if the future came too late for there ever to have been a present? What if the philistines were only human? What if all the years in prison and exile were in vain? What is my strength that I should wait, and what is my end that I should endure?”

This is a huge book (45 hours long, or over a thousand pages in book-form). Given that, I expected it to be kind of a slog to get through. Imagine my delight when, instead of being a slog, the book turned out to be surprisingly entertaining.

The author’s very good at getting across dense ideas in a very engaging way (mainly through humor/wit/wordplay). So while the first several pages are devoted to a description of Moscow (which, in lesser hands, would be absolutely boring), Slezkine makes it absolutely fun.

He also makes some interesting comparisons between the rise of religion and the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia, though I felt that it wasn’t fully developed (yet!)

All that to say, read this book.

As promised, a list of organizations to donate to in order to help Ukraine:

Stand Up For Ukraine—Provides food, shelter, education, and healthcare to those displaced by the crisis in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.globalgiving.org/global-citizen-ukraine/

Islamic Relief USA—Works with NGOs on the ground in Ukraine to provide support to those in need. Donate here: https://irusa.org/europe/

World Food Program—Provides food to people in Ukraine. Donate here: https://donatenow.wfp.org/ukraine-appeal/~my-donation

World Health Organization—Helps support those in Ukraine affected by health problems during the war. Donate here: https://www.ukraine.who.foundation/?form=FUNNSJTYKVD

Lit in the Time of a War That Should End Right Now

Stop The War and Read Vasily Grossman and Michaela DePrince

Hello. As we enter the third week of the Ukrainian war (and the third week of Women’s History Month), I’ll be reviewing two books, both having to do with war. Also at the bottom of this post, you’ll find more organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukraine.

A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army,
1941-1945,
by Vasily Grossman, Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova

“It is infinitely hard even to read this. The reader must believe me, it is as hard to write it. Someone might ask, ‘Why write about this, why remember all that?’ It is the writer’s duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it. Everyone who would turn away, who would shut his eyes and walk past would insult the memory of the dead. Everyone who does not know the truth about this would never be able to understand with what sort of enemy, with what sort of monster, our Red Army started on its own mortal combat.”

Vasily Grossman was a Jewish-Ukrainian writer who witnessed World War II as fought in the Soviet Union. A Writer at War consists of entries from his journal, along with excerpts from articles he wrote, and excerpts from other peoples’ observations of him. It describes battles and events such as the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, and the discovery of the Nazi death-camp at Treblinka.

The book was interesting for its depiction of humans during wartime (they rise to great heights of magnanimity but they also sink to petty depths of selfishness).

The best part of the book was the part on Treblinka–you have to read it. The book’s considered one of the best volumes of war-reporting, and the part on Treblinka basically shows why that’s the case.

Grossman also used a lot of notes from this book in his epic novel, Life and Fate. I’m reading it now and some passages of it come directly from his journals.

Other striking parts of A Writer at War were about the immediate aftermath of the war, where people somehow went on with their lives (“A huge foyer, in which a young Kazakh […] is learning to ride a bicycle, falling off it now and then”/“On the bench, a wounded German soldier is hugging girl, a nurse. They see no one. When I pass them again an hour later, they’re still sitting in the same position. The world does not exist for them. They are happy”).

Overall, I recommend this book for its revealing depiction of war. It really gets across how awful war is and how much it should just end.

Taking Flight: From War-Orphan to Star Ballerina,
by Michaela and Elaine DePrince

I peered through the wrought-iron [orphanage] gate, hoping that someone would come to take me away. Just then, I was slapped in the face. ‘Trash!’ I exclaimed. But it wasn’t trash at all. I had been attacked by the pages of a magazine. The magazine was stuck in the gate, exactly where my face had been. I reached my hand through and grabbed it [….] I looked at the cover. A white lady was wearing a very short, glittering pink skirt that stuck out all around her. She also wore pink shoes that looked like the silk fabric I had once seen in the marketplace, and she was standing on the very tips of her toes. ‘Isn’t that a funny way to walk?’ Mabinty Suma asked. ‘I think that she might be…dancing.’”

This book is about Mabinty Bangura, a girl who was born in Sierra Leone during the civil war. She loses her parents and lives in an orphanage, where she finds a magazine with a picture of a ballerina on it. This inspires her to want to become a ballerina. However, the orphanage is then attacked by RUF members. Bangura lives in a refugee camp, and then gets adopted by an American family. From there, Bangura, now Michaela DePrince, becomes a professional ballerina.

DePrince is a remarkable person, showing a lot of resilience, compassion, and hope. That alone makes this book worth reading.

Her description of life in America was also interesting. DePrince encountered a lot of racism (classical ballet is a white-dominated field), but was determined to show that “Black girls can dance ballet too,” which she definitely did.

I also didn’t know a lot about the world of ballet (there’s apparently a super-fancy contest that takes place called the YAGP, for instance, and entire schools dedicated to teaching ballet). DePrince also was featured in a documentary called First Position, and this book provided some interesting insights into her experience during its filming.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book.

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

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

International Medical Corps—Increases access to medical, mental health, and protection services to civilians in Ukraine and works with refugees in surrounding areas. Donate here: https://internationalmedicalcorps.org/

International Rescue Committee—Provides food, medical care, and emergency support services to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://www.rescue.org/

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

Hillel International Emergency Relief Fund—Provides humanitarian support to Ukraine’s Jewish communities. Donate here: https://donate.hillel.org/EmergencyRelief

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Hong

Hello! Last time, I mentioned Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings but didn’t get a chance to review it. Now, I am.

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,
by Cathy Park Hong

“Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, ‘Things are so much better,’ while you think,  Things  are  the  same.  You  are  told,  ‘Asian  Americans  are  so successful,’ while  you  feel  like  a  failure.  This  optimism  sets  up  false expectations that increase these feelings of dysphoria. A 2017 study found that the ideology of America as a fair meritocracy led to more self-doubt and behavioral  problems  among  low-income  black  and  brown  sixth  graders because, as one teacher said, ‘they blame themselves for problems they can’t control.'”

Minor Feelings is a series of essays written about the Asian American experience. It’s very insightful, though in my opinion, the essays near the beginning were more insightful than the essays near the end (though there were some near the end that were just as insightful).

Hong really gets at the existence of “minor feelings”—feelings that come about when your reality is challenged so many times that you start doubting yourself, and start feeling paranoid, unhappy, and anxious. Then you have to suppress those feelings because they don’t fit the white paradigm, and if you finally do express them, they tend to be perceived as challenging and difficult, even though they’re just the truth.

This book was written with a great amount of hope, anger, and compassion. It’s a terrific read. No matter who you are, it will make you think deeply, and I definitely recommend it.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Ende, King, and LeGuin

Hello! I hope you are healthy and safe. I’m back at school after a terrific break. This week, I’ve read three books about wishes, reality, fiction, and dreams.

The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende,
Read by Gerard Doyle, Translated by Ralph Manheim

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“‘When it comes to controlling human beings, there is no better instrument than lies, because you see, humans live by beliefs, and beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts.’”

This is a book about a kid named Bastian who reads a book called The Neverending Story. In the book, the queen of the realm is sick, and if she dies the realm will die too. A hero is needed to find a cure, and that hero is another kid named Atreyu. As Bastian reads about Atreyu’s quest, he realizes that he may have a part to play in saving the realm, too.

This was a very good book. I enjoyed the self-referential nature of the plot, and how Bastian became a character in the book. I also liked how he was given the power to grant wishes, but whenever he granted a wish, he lost some of his memories of his life in the real world.

Interestingly, the author experienced World War II in Germany, which also seemed to inform some of the things he wrote about in this book (like his thoughts about memory and self-knowledge).

You could be very literary in analyzing this book, but you could also just read it and have fun. It’s good for kids, and it’s even better for adults. I would recommend.

On Writing, by Stephen King

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“At times like that I’m sure all writers feel pretty much the same no matter what their skill and success level. ‘God, if only I were in the right writing environment with the right understanding people, I just know I could be penning my masterpiece!’ In truth, I found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress, and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.”

I read this book in high school and it was fun to reread it now (especially since I was listening to Stephen King himself read it on audio).

Its writerly advice still holds true, but I found I was able to appreciate some of his insights that I had glossed over before, and understand some of what he said better than I had in the past. For instance, his advice about reading and writing a lot, or his discussions about needing to understand his characters well in order to write about them truthfully, or putting his characters in situations and then seeing how they would react to them rather than relying on plot formulas.

One note: when reading the print version, I seem to remember a section where he wrote a passage about some guy called Mr. Ostermeyer, and then demonstrated how he would revise that. This version didn’t include that section.

Instead, it included a conversation between King and his son. In it, they read a scene from The Institute in which the main character tears off his own ear to remove a tracking device. This was interesting because Stephen King himself had experienced a lot of ear-pain in his life (as previously described in On Writing), so it demonstrated how drawing from life could sometimes be the best source for horror.

Anyway, I would recommend reading this book. I’d even recommend re-reading it later on, because your new writerly experiences will make it more insightful and enriching.

The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin

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“‘You can’t go on changing things, trying to run things.’ ‘You speak as if there were some kind of general moral imperative.’ He looked at [George] Orr with his genial reflective smile, stroking his beard. ‘But in fact, isn’t that man’s very purpose on earth? To do things, change things, run things, make a better world?’ ‘No.’ ‘What is his purpose then?’ ‘I don’t know. Things don’t have purposes as if the universe were a machine where every part has a useful function.’”

This book is about a guy named George Orr who does drugs. He does them to suppress his dreams, because his dreams sometimes change reality. For instance, if he dreams he has green eyes instead of blue eyes, he might wake up and have green eyes.

Anyway, he gets caught doing drugs and is sent to a psychiatrist named William Haber, who learns about Orr’s powers and tries to use them to build a better world.

In sum, this book could have been called “Be Careful What You Wish Someone Else to Dream,” or “Enough is Enough,” or “Let It Be.”

It was very thought-provoking from a philosophical point of view. Is it even possible to build a utopia? Obviously not, because you wish for world peace and you get galactic war.

Even so, the terms of your wish are somehow conveniently unspecific, even though you were previously characterized as a very smart and astute character who would likely have foreseen these loopholes. This made the situation feel a bit too easy, because it took the blame off people and put it on their unspecific language. If Character A had wished for peace in all the universe, then these complications wouldn’t have arisen (if we extend LeGuin’s interpretation).

Meanwhile in reality, we have very specifically-worded laws that are still circumvented/interpreted in a way that enables loopholes, and it has nothing to do with their language and everything to do with the people interpreting them.

In any case, this book makes you think, and it’s definitely worth reading for that.

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Grossman, Burger, and Gorchakov

Hello! Happy Tuesday, and I hope you had a good MLK day.

Here are three books I’ve read. All of them (for some reason) let you live vicariously…

An Armenian Sketchbook, by Vasily Grossman,
Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler

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“Here we have Hemingway’s world. And here—Gleb Uspenksy’s. It goes without saying that these worlds are different. Hemingway describes people who adore bullfights and hunting for big game; he writes Spanish dynamiters in the Civil War and fishermen off the coast of Cuba. Uspensky, on the other hand, describes drunken craftsmen in Tula, junior policemen, provincial bourgeoisie, and peasant women. But these two very different worlds are not created in the image of a Russian peasant woman or a handsome and dangerous toreador. These worlds are created in the image and likeness of Uspensky and Hemingway. And even if Hemingway were to populate his world with Russian policemen and drunken Tula locksmiths, it would still be the same world, Hemingway’s.”

This book was very interesting. It was written after Grossman’s masterpiece Life and Fate was “arrested” by the Soviet authorities. Now he’s traveling through Armenia so he can translate someone else’s book.

Funnily enough, my favorite part was when he described how badly he had to relieve himself without embarrassing himself. I hope that gives you the sense that this book isn’t all about the meaning of life (because it isn’t).

On a more serious note, the book was good and very thoughtful. It just felt as if Grossman was trying too hard to contrive everybody into fitting his super idealistic idea of humanity’s wonderfulness. It felt like he was shouting, “LIFE LIFE LIFE! LOOK AT HOW WONDERFUL IT IS!” and then shoving life into my face and insisting, “Look at how WONDERFUL it is! It absolutely is wonderful can’t you see that?” And because of how fervently he insisted on his wonderfulness, I found myself doubting it. if it really was that wonderful, why did he have to be so zealous about it?

Yes, there were parts that were wonderful, especially near the end, but not everything in the book was that wonderful. I guess it’s not enough to be able to look at the world through a hopeful lens—you also have to observe enough wonderfulness for it to really be convincing.

In any case, this was a good book. If you want to read about cool ideas, read this book. If you want to read about the literary giant Vasily Grossman needing to relieve himself, definitely read this book (it happens twice, very dramatically). But if you want to read about the wonderfulness of life, maybe don’t read this book, because he tried too hard to make it seem wonderful.

Witness: Lessons From Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, by Ariel Burger, Read by Jason Culp

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“As I sit in the sun by [Wiesel’s] grave, a sense of peace comes over me. I decide that it’s time to renounce heroics. I want to be a human being, tasked with the slow work of becoming a little bit better, a little more sensitive, a little more open each day.”

This wise book is by Ariel Burger, who became Elie Wiesel’s teaching assistant at Boston. It consists of a mix of memoir-sections and lecture-sections. You learn about Burger’s story of how he tries to bridge the different beliefs he got from his more secular father and his more religious mother. You also learn about Elie Wiesel’s classes and how Wiesel impacts his students. Finally, you see how Wiesel impacts Burger.

The memoir sections were interesting, even though they weren’t about Wiesel. Burger was very thoughtful, and his sections of the book kind of reminded me of Tolstoy’s Confessions, in how he was seeking for spiritual enlightenment and burnt himself out in the process.

These sections were also very well-written. In some nonfiction books I’ve read about an author reminiscing about another person’s life, the author only wants to use the other person’s story as an excuse to talk about the author. The other person never really gets his or her dues, and the book suffers from the author’s narcissism.

In Burger’s case, this story was clearly a Wiesel-centered story, and any parts of it that were about Burger were clearly there to emphasize the huge impact Wiesel made on his life. So in the end, even these parts were really about Wiesel.

In the Wiesel-focused lecture sections, I felt like I was taking a Zoom class with Wiesel and listening to him talk from my phone (I listened to it on audiobook). He was very wise and inspiring, and if this review doesn’t talk as much about Wiesel as it does about Burger, it’s only because you can’t really understand how impactful Wiesel is unless you read the book itself.

I’d highly recommend.

Stanislavsky Directs, by Nikolai Gorchakov,
Translated by Miriam Goldina

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“Never betray the theater as the most sacred conception in your life. Then you will not have the desire to dress it up in velvet and brocade.”

This book also felt like another class I was taking, only this time I was living vicariously in Stanislavsky’s acting studio. Later in his life, the Russian director wanted to assemble a group of younger actors and pass on his method to them so that they could go on and further the craft.

In any case, this book was very good. In particular, the ending was interesting. Stanislavski was producing one of Mikhail Bulgakov’s plays, but he wanted Bulgakov to change some things in it, and Bulgakov didn’t want to (even though he seemed to agree that the changes would make it a better play).

It’s up to Gorchakov, the writer of this book, to convince Bulgakov to make the changes. Did he do it? Did he not do it? Read the book and find out!

But seriously, read this book for its acting insights, and insights into life in general.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Shanbhag, Kadohata, and Kertész

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

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag,
Translated by Srinath Perur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half a World Away, by Cynthia Kadohata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Figes

Hello. The usual introductions won’t do this book much service, so I’ll just get straight to my review.

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes

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“In 1958, after his release from the labour camps, Igor was visited by an old acquaintance of the family, a woman called Zina, who had seen his mother [Julia] in the Karaganda camp, where she, too, was a prisoner. Zina told Igor that Julia had died in the camp hospital and that she was buried in a mass grave. In 1986 Igor received another visit from Zina, by this time a woman of 80. She told him that on the previous occasion she had lied about his mother because Julia, before she died, had made her promise to spare Igor the awful details of her death [….] Julia had not died in hospital […] No one wanted to tell [Zina] where [Julia] was, but then one woman pointed to a sheep-pen on the steppe and said that she could be found there.”

This book is the greatest epic that was never written about Russia and communism. It covers everything from the start of communism to ~2006, and contains an incredible range of humanity (and inhumanity). I never expected such an experience from this book. The only thing comparable is William Craig’s Enemy at the Gates.

I mean this book has everything. It starts at the very beginning of Communism, and describes how children were so indoctrinated and distanced from their families (who prioritized working for the Soviet Union over bonding with their own kids) that the Soviet Union became their surrogate parents.

It goes on to describe collectivization, the Holodomor, and the great Terror. What struck me about this section was that, in some cases, even though people knew their relatives were being arrested, they would still rationalize that their relatives were arrested for a good reason. Some of them would even become informers and get other people arrested prove their loyalty to the Soviet Union. Later on after Stalin’s death, some of these informers would seek out the people they had betrayed and somehow try to make amends.

From there, the book goes on to describe World War II, the massive amount of people sent to prison camps, and then the war’s aftermath, when those people were released, and sometimes still held fond memories of their time in prison (as a coping mechanism).

Overall, this book was great. Most of all, it was great at showing peoples’ kindness and cruelty, and how humanity and inhumanity could sometimes even live within the same person.

In other words, read this book.