Hello! Happy Tuesday (and almost Purim–one more week to go!) In celebration, I’ve read and reviewed one book having to do with Purim, very broadly. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.
Tevye The Milkman, by Sholem Aleichem, Read by Neville Jason, Translated by Frances and Julius Butwin
“I don’t know if you’ll believe my story. You’re almost the first person I’ve ever told it to. But I’m afraid I’ve said too much already. If so, forgive me. I forgot that we all have work to do. As the Bible says, ‘let the shoemaker stick to his last.’ You to your books, Mister Sholem Aleichem, and I to my jugs and milk cans. One thing I beg of you: don’t put me into one of your books. And if you do put me in, at least, don’t tell them my real name. Be well and happy always.”
If the name “Tevye” sounds familiar to you, then you must have at least an inkling of what this book is about. At least, you must’ve had an inkling that the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” exists—and that’s because said musical is inspired very much by the stories in “Tevye The Milkman.”
Here’s the general plot: Tevye is a Jewish milkman in Tsarist Russia who’s trying to marry off his daughters. But his daughters have different ideas from him. Where he wants them to marry rich butchers, they want to marry poor tailors. Where he wants them to marry fine upstanding gentlemen, they want to marry revolutionaries. And so on.
I had once tried reading this book a few years ago, but gave up. For some reason, this is a book that must be listened to on audiobook. Maybe because it’s so strongly driven by Tevye’s voice that it reads almost like a monologue. And so, listening to someone (especially Neville Jason!) tell the story to you makes it feel more alive and satisfying of an experience than just reading the words on paper.
In terms of the story itself—it’s very good. It started out as one of the funnier stories I’ve read (Tevye is hilarious) and ended as one of the saddest. Of course, I won’t spoil what happens, but I will say that it’s a truly powerful work that’s well worth your time to read.
Hello! Happy November, and happy National Adoption Month. I’ve read three books this week, all having to do with adoption in some form or another, and have reviewed them below. I’d recommend all of them, but would likely recommend the third one the most. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.
Stories of A Life: A Novel, by Natalya Meshchaninova, Translated by Fiona Bell
(Note: This review mentions sexual abuse)
“The diary should start in a mysterious tone, I thought. On a new page I wrote something like: ‘I am Natalie. I’m 14 years old, but already mature enough…’ I liked what I’d written, about how I was already mature enough. It wasn’t clear what I was mature enough for, but it was good. A promising start. I continued: ‘My love overwhelms me’ (no need to mention that it was unrequited). ‘My beloved is a handsome man with sensual lips. Yesterday, as I walked through the park on my way home from practice’ (no need to say what sport, it lent some mystery) ‘my heart began pounding. I sensed that he was gaining on me, my demon, my dark angel’ [….] Now satisfied with the first page of my diary, I moved on. Although, of course, none of it bore any relation to reality.”
This is a book about a girl named Natalie who grows up in Russia after the fall of Soviet Union, is sexually abused by her uncle Sasha, and tries to come to terms with her suffering.
While the book was very sad, it also had some unexpectedly humorous parts (such as the excerpt above). I found that its humor made the sad parts even sadder.
The book also had some very good observations about neglect’s impact on peoples’ growth. Natalie had an adoptive sister who her parents somehow despised. The sister went on to steal and do drugs. Natalie’s sister then had a son who also went on to steal and get in trouble with the law. According to Natalie’s observations, both were doing this to get attention, even if it was bad attention, in the hopes that such attention might somehow turn into the affection they’d never had.
Overall, this was a short but excellent read that I would definitely recommend.
Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng, Read by Jennifer Lim
“‘How about other books, Mrs. McCullough? [Did she buy] Any other books with Chinese characters [for her adopted Chinese daughter]?’ Mrs. McCullough bit her lip. ‘I haven’t really looked for them,’ she admitted. ‘I hadn’t thought about it.’ ‘I can save you some time,’ said Ed Lan. ‘There really aren’t very many. So May Ling [the daughter] has no dolls that look like her, and no books with pictures of people that look like her.’ Ed Lan paced a few steps. Nearly two decades later, others would raise this question, would talk about books as mirrors and windows, and Ed Lan, tired by then, would find himself as frustrated as he was grateful. ‘We’ve always known,’ he would think. ‘What took you so long?’”
This is a book about a girl named Pearl and her nonconformist mother named Mia, who move into a development called Shaker Heights in Ohio. Pearl becomes infatuated with the lifestyle of their conformist and rich landlord, Elena Richardson, and befriends the Richardson children. However, when Mia and Elena find themselves taking opposite sides of an adoption scandal, Pearl and Mia’s newfound stability (and past secrets) are threatened.
I have controversial thoughts about this book. I felt as though the author did not care about the characters as people. Instead, she seemed to care about them only as much as they were useful for her to convey the ideas she wanted to.
This came across in various ways. For instance, the Richardsons were not sincerely humanized—yes, the author tossed them a few bits of sympathy, but for some reason they rang false, making me feel like the author was just including superficially-sympathetic details out of a kind of halfhearted obligation. The unsympathetic portrayal of these characters contrasted strikingly with the author’s idealized portrayal of Mia—many characters suddenly loved her (some people loving her to the point of being willing to commit crimes for her sake), and whoever didn’t love her was portrayed as irrationally entrenched in mean-spirited ways.
Contrast this with a book like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—neither book truly humanized their antagonists, but while Ng’s book sincerely idealized its protagonist, Kesey’s book took its protagonist somewhat less seriously (and portrayed him with flaws that made him seem real). Kesey’s book definitely has its own problems, but overly-idealizing its protagonist wasn’t one of them.
For me, the only part of this book that truly felt sincere was the adoption case and its proceedings. The lawyer Ed Lan (mentioned in the excerpt above) felt like one of the only genuinely sympathetic characters in the book. I felt that the author seemed to have put more thought into his viewpoint, emotions, and ideas than she did for many of the main protagonists, and I was hoping for more of this thoughtfulness to show up throughout the rest of the book.
Overall, I would say that Little Fires Everywhere was very readable (and if you listen to the audiobook, you’ll find that its narrator’s terrific). However, in my very subjective opinion, the book wasn’t very open and sincere towards many of its characters, and thus wasn’t as strong as it could have been.
I’d still recommend that you read it for yourself though—you may disagree entirely with my thoughts. You might even find a new favorite book.
The Time of the Uprooted, by Elie Wiesel, Translated by David Hapgood
“‘[…] Your mother tells me she has found a wonderful charitable woman who will look after you. You must be respectful to her. And obedient. And grateful. You will use the Christian name that she gives you, but never forget that you carry the name of my own father: Gamaliel. Try not to dishonor it. You’ll take it back as yours when this ordeal is over. Promise me you won’t disown your name. Every name has its story. Promise me, my child Gamaliel, that one day you will tell that story.’ And the child promised.”
This is a book about a Jewish kid named Gamaliel whose parents have a Hungarian Christian woman take him in so he can escape persecution during the Holocaust. He takes on a false name and never sees his parents again. Many years later, Gamaliel is an old man in America, feeling dispossessed and disconnected. His only friends are a group of other exiles who have suffered persecution under various regimes. When Gamaliel is asked to communicate with a disfigured Hungarian woman in a hospital, he wonders if she might be the Christian woman who had adopted him so long ago.
This book was terrific. It had a lot of good thoughts about life. It also had tremendous emotional impact (I literally cried at the end, and I don’t cry easily). It was clear that the author truly cared about his characters, and this made all the difference in how he saw them and portrayed them.
What I also found fascinating about this book was how self-concerned Gamaliel was. At the same time, though, his self-concern didn’t come off as narcissistic, since it was also evident that he truly cared about the other characters. You got to hear about the other exiles’ stories, and one of these stories in particular was one of the most impactful parts of the book.
Overall, if you’re looking for a terrific book about refugees, meaning, compassion, and reconnection, I would wholeheartedly recommend Wiesel’s The Time of the Uprooted.
If you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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.
Voices of Children—Provides psychological counseling for children and helps refugee evacuations. Donate here: https://voices.org.ua/en/
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:
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/
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:
Hello! I hope you are well and are enjoying the September weather. I’ve read a big book this week and have reviewed it below so you can read it too. I’ve also included a list of organizations you could donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.
The Adolescent, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Translated by Dora O’Brien
(Note: second quote mentions suicide.)
“’What I like about you, Kraft, is that you’re such a courteous person,’ I said all of a sudden. ‘Yes?’ ‘It’s because I seldom manage to be courteous, though I would like to be… Still, it might be better when people insult you: at least it saves you from the misfortune of loving them.’ ‘What time of day do you like best?’ he asked, obviously not listening to me. ‘What time? I don’t know. I don’t like sunset.’ ‘Really?’ He said this with particular interest, but then instantly withdrew once more.”
“And as I’m fully convinced to this day that in gambling it’s impossible not to overcome the brutality of blind luck and not to win, given complete composure and a subtlety of mind and calculation—I must naturally have felt more and more frustrated seeing that I was constantly unable to show strength of character and got carried away like a complete brat. ‘I’ve been able to withstand hunger, but not this foolishness!’ That’s what plagued me. Added to this was the awareness that there was in me, however foolish or abject I might appear, a wealth of strength which would one day force everyone to change their opinion of me; this awareness—very nearly going back to my humiliating childhood—was then my only real source of life, my light and my dignity, my weapon and my comfort, or I might have killed myself while still a child.”
This book is about an illegitimate youth named Arkady Makarovich who tries to win his birth-father’s love, subtly falls in love with a girl, unsubtly shouts at anyone who insults her, gambles, shouts at his father, gets embroiled in a conspiracy, shouts at anyone who frustrates him, and tries to pursue his “idea” of detaching from the world and becoming a millionaire.
I’m so glad I did. It was unexpectedly terrific. It had the most dramatic power out of any of Dostoyevsky’s works I’d read (AKA Notes From the Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and his short stories). Best of all, unlike in most of Dostoyevsky’s books, the philosophy in The Adolescent was well-paced and didn’t get in the way of the action! That alone helped the story a lot. Add to that actually-dramatic and non-melodramatic scenes (subtly-menacing encounters, outright brawls, and reconciliations), and you could see how the story worked very well.
Yes, there were parts of it where Arkady just started shouting at people for no real reason, and there was a ridiculously convoluted scamming-plot going on during the last third of the book, but I was able to forgive these weaknesses due to the book’s dramatic effect. I actually found them funny instead of annoying or off-putting.
Aside from its dramatic impact, The Adolescent also had terrific characters. Since Dostoyevsky was writing in the first-person, he got to show the specific psychological nuances motivating Arkady’s actions (unlike in The Brothers Karamazov where the characters mostly seemed to rush around unfathomably). Arkady’s subconscious motives were also fascinating to pick apart, especially since Dostoyevsky had him explain his actions with motives that were different from what his true ones seemed to be (repressing his affection for that girl but clearly being driven by it, for instance).
Finally, I have to say that this book had great minor characters. There’s Tatyana Pavlovna who starts out as a grumpy woman who insults Arkady but who eventually proves to be a staunch ally. Her characterization is done with just the right amount of subtlety—she embodies a type (like a Dickens character would) but unlike some Dickens characters, she’s never quite fully reduced to that type, so you never dismiss her as one. There’s also Trishatov, a kid who aligns himself with bad people only to unexpectedly help the protagonist (which reminded me of a character from Chingiz Aitmatov’s The Place of the Skull). These characters were very well-written, and made the story much more compelling than it would have been had Dostoyevsky not depicted them so much care.
Overall, if you’re looking for an unexpectedly entertaining, insightful, and well-paced story, I’d recommend The Adolescent (especially the Dora O’Brien translation). In spite of its sometimes-convoluted plot and random fits of shouting, I’d say it’s my favorite Dostoyevsky novel so far.
Have you read it? What were your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below!
As promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need:
Plan USA: Gives resources and psychological support to girls and women in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/
The American Jewish Distribution Committee: Supports those in Ukraine, those fleeing Ukraine, and Ukrainians residing in Hungary, Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.jdc.org/
Hello. I hope you are all healthy and safe and that you are enjoying whatever books you are reading. I’ve read three books this week and have reviewed them below in case you wanted any inspiration for your summer reading. I’ve also included a list of organizations to donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.
Fatelessness, by Imre Kertész, Translated by Tim Wilkinson
“’Would you care to give an account of your experiences, young fellow?’ I was somewhat dumbfounded, and replied that there was not a whole lot I could tell to him that would be of much interest. He smiled a little and said, ‘Not me—the whole world.’ Even more amazed, I asked, ‘But what about?’ ‘The hell of the camps,’ he replied, to which I remarked that I had nothing at all to say about that as I was not acquainted with hell and couldn’t even imagine what that was like. He assured me, however, that it was just a matter of speaking: ‘Can we imagine the concentration camp as anything but a hell?’ he asked, and I replied, as I scratched a few circles with my heel in the dust under my feet, that everyone could think what they liked about it, but as far as I was concerned I could only imagine a concentration camp, since I was somewhat acquainted with what that was, but not hell.”
This is a book about fourteen year-old Georg who is taken to Auschwitz. Georg goes on to recount his experiences of starvation, torture and sickness with a kind of intellectualized detachment. His attempts to rationalize his experiences made for fascinating and horrifying reading.
I don’t know what else to say about this book other than that you have to read it yourself to understand what I mean. I would recommend.
A Red Boyhood: Growing Up Under Stalin, by Anatole Konstantin
”As I discovered many years later, there actually was no need for us to go hungry. The desert was literally crawling with food: desert turtles and snakes were there just for the taking. The fact that people starved to death rather than eat them is another proof that materialism, dialectical or of any other kind, does not prevail in real life and that ideas and taboos are more powerful than even the instinct to survive.”
This is a memoir written by the Ukrainian Anatole Konstantin about his boyhood in the USSR. It begins with the arrest of his father, describes his life as a son of an enemy of the people, goes on to tell about his family’s experience during World War II (where they had to go work on a collective farm in Kazakhstan), described their return home, their journey through Poland, and ultimately, their emigration to America.
It was fascinating to read, especially since in my experience, history is usually depicted in somewhat-separated sections: Stalin’s purges are depicted as being separate from World War II, which is then shown as being separate from the Cold War. This is the way I learned about history in school at any rate. While dividing history into chapters/units may help students learn, this division destroys the sense of continuity that actually existed in reality. A Red Boyhood put all these sections of history together into one coherent whole, which enabled me to better see the causes and effects of various events.
The author apparently wrote this book “without any literary pretensions,” and in some places he makes subtle grammar errors/awkward word-choices which shows that English was not his native language. These did not really detract from his memoir. In any case, he more than compensated with the amount of rich detail he provided about his experiences. I was in awe of his memory. It felt like he was able to give very detailed descriptions of small events throughout his life, people he met once or twice, and even rooms in which he stayed in for like a night. His memory reminded me of the richness of detail in Maxim Gorky’s memoirs.
Anatole also had an excellent way of observing people. There would be several times where he would tell his mom not to trust Mr. So-and-So, and his mom would ignore him, only for Mr. So-and-So to wind up trying to steal their grain. This was very interesting to read about, and these nuances of their family relationship really brought history to life in a way that history textbooks never do.
In school, I remember a teacher giving me a bunch of memoirs to read written by historical figures in order to bring the dry-seeming facts we were learning to life. It seems to me that history can’t be taught effectively without humanizing the people involved—even if we do learn the dry facts in our textbooks to try and prevent history from repeating, history may repeat itself anyway unless we care enough about those who suffered before us to want to stop it from repeating. A Red Boyhood did a terrific job of making me care.
I would definitely recommend.
The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Translated by David Magarshack
“And so when I got off the bunk and looked round, I suddenly felt I remember, that I could look at these unhappy creatures with quite different eyes, and that suddenly by some miracle all hatred and anger had vanished from my heart. I walked round the prison peering into the faces I came across. That rascal of a peasant with his shaven head and branded face, yelling his horse drunken song at the top of his voice—why, he, too, might be the same sort of peasant as [the kindly] Marey: I cannot possibly look into his heart, can I?”
This book contains stories by Dostoyevsky written in his youth and in his old age. It’s interesting to track his writerly development across them. It starts out with “White Nights,” and goes on to other stories including “Notes from the Underground” and “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”
In the beginning, it seemed to me that Dostoyevsky was drawing mostly from the books he had read as a kid, because in “White Nights” the protagonist really just seems to want to assume a role similar to those of the literary heroes he worships, to the point of deluding himself about a romantic encounter. Not much more nuance exists to the story other than that.
As the book continues, there is more and more nuance to the stories. A rich man becomes jealous of a peasant boy who seems to have caught the eye of a rich girl who he eventually wants to marry for himself. Later on in Dostoyevsky’s writings, another man wants to feel so much in control of his reputation that he drives his wife to suicide.
As these dynamics become more nuanced, so does his observations related to them. While in the earlier stories, you could pretty quickly understand where characters were coming from all along (the rich man just wants the rich girl’s money! That’s it!), later stories had more unexpected revelations. At the same time, it didn’t feel like Dostoyevsky was doing any psychological acrobatics or contriving anything, which was exciting to see.
Finally, it’s interesting to compare Dostoyevsky’s first-person writings to his third-person ones. This book is entirely made up of his first-person writings, which all seem to be very rich, intriguing, and entertaining. Also, his characters all made sense, even when they got seemingly hysterical or irrational.
Meanwhile, whenever I read his third-person works (The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, or The Idiot), there were still rich psychological nuances and really good moments, but it seemed to me that his stories were less interesting, more convoluted, and that some of his characters suddenly acted very strangely and unrealistically. Now, you could apply the inner thought process of the Underground Man to Dmitri Karamazov, for instance, and his hysterical outbursts would make perfect sense. However, just reading about them in third person made them somehow seem unrealistic.
In any case this was just an observation I had. I would be interested to know if you had any thoughts about it.
As promised, here’s a list of organizations to donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need:
Hello! I hope you are all well and have had a happy Juneteenth and Father’s Day. I’ve read three books this week and have reviewed them below, as well as providing my usual list of organizations you could donate to in order to help those in Ukraine. Please donate if you’re able.
Diary, 1942, by Vladimir Gelfand, Translated by Google Translate
“The sun rises tender and good, the roosters sing in the farm. All is well in nature. Only people who invented wars, who kill each other, are bad. We do not know how to use life, which is so beautiful, we do not know how to enjoy it and love it.”
This is a diary of a Russian-Jewish soldier fighting in Stalingrad during World War II. I heard from other sources that it provided fascinating background on the war, as well as some unexpected insights, so I was interested enough to read one of the volumes. In this volume, the writer gets drafted into the war, and fights all the way to Stalingrad. There, he gets a finger-wound and passes out, and we are left in suspense until the next volume whether he has survived (don’t worry, he does).
My sources were right about this book giving unexpected insights into war. Based on what I had read in the past, I had thought that all the Soviet troops were drunk on the juice of Stalinist propaganda and were thus fearlessly throwing themselves into battle for the sake of Stalin. However, this book showed a different reality. Apparently, a lot of soldiers actually fled as soon as they could. They didn’t get enough food. They were also antisemitic (which actually was expected given Stalin’s antisemitism).
Less expectedly, the soldiers refused to follow orders. There was one part where Vladimir was trying to get his subordinates to dig a trench and they just flat-out refused because they were tired. There was also another part where his subordinate Khaustov made up all these reasons why he should get some sleep while Vladimir should stand guard. When Vladimir woke Khaustov up and said he wanted a chance to sleep, Khaustov just ignored him and went back to sleep.
Interestingly, Vladimir still drank the Stalinist juice in spite of this. He also wrote these clumsy descriptions of nature (“Steppe, steppe, steppe … Smooth as a table, quiet, as if dumb, grassy, like a freshly baked gingerbread, fragrantly smelling of its steppe flowers”).
Overall, if you’re looking for an unexpected view of World War II and aren’t afraid of Google Translating it, I would recommend this book.
Leaf Storm and Other Stories, by Gabriel García Márquez, Translated by Gregory Rabassa
“Suddenly, as if a whirlwind had set down roots in the center of the town, the banana company arrived, pursued by the leaf storm.”
This is a short story collection including the longer story “Leaf Storm” and shorter stories, including “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.”
I have an unpopular opinion about this book. I think that Márquez is extremely skilled at describing potentially-interesting events (Murder! Betrayal! Etc.!) in a very flat and uninteresting way. This was especially the case with “Leaf Storm”—characters have affairs, characters betray each other, characters commit suicide, but it’s all told in a detached, distant way. To me it felt more like he was describing something that happened to someone else he didn’t really care about instead of actually telling it while having an investment in it.
Interestingly, I also found a lot of similarities between his writing and Ray Bradbury’s—they were both poetic and descriptive, but for some reason I felt Ray Bradbury was able to bring an emotional keenness to his work that I didn’t feel as strongly in Márquez’s book. His characters felt more vivid, perhaps.
As you can see, my thoughts are all very subjective—I doubt Márquez really didn’t feel anything about the characters he wrote about, for instance. Also, I had previously read his Chronicle of a Death Foretold and vaguely enjoyed it, along with some of his other stories (“Tuesday Siesta” and even “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.”) So in this case, I think my review says more about my reading tastes than the quality of Márquez’s writing, which is very high, in spite of my thoughts about its emotional impact.
In the end, I would recommend you read this book so you could form your own opinion about it separate from what I say. You may actually enjoy it a lot. If you do, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,by Loung Ung, Read by Tavia Gilbert
“The next evening while sitting with Kim outside on the steps of our hut, I think how the world is still somehow beautiful, even when I feel no joy at being alive within it. It is still dark, and the shimmering sunset of red, gold, and purple over the horizon makes the sky look magical.”
This is a memoir about a young girl’s experience during the Cambodian genocide. It describes her experience in Cambodia’s capitol Phnom Penh beforehand, when her family lived in financial comfort. It describes her experience when the Khmer Rouge took over the country and she and her family had to work in forced labor camps for years. It describes her joys and her sorrows and her losses (the Khmer Rouge killed over a million people), and it conveys her emotions and thoughts with incredible honesty.
She described how she blamed herself for some of the tragedy her family went through (she stole food from them when they were all starving for instance), as well as the destructive thoughts she had about herself and the Khmer Rouge (she fantasized about violent revenge, for instance). At the same time she showed great humanity (sharing food with her siblings at other times). Overall, her book showed the remarkable strength of family bonds, but also how a brutal regime could turn people against each other and subvert their highest ideals.
It all sounds somewhat intellectualized when I write about it, so the best I could say is read the book for yourself. You will come away with a greater understanding of humanity, as well as the horrors of war and genocide.
I would highly recommend.
As promised, a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need:
World Central Kitchen—Feeds Ukrainian refugees as they cross into Poland. Donate here: https://wck.org/
Amnesty International—Investigates human rights violations in Ukraine to hold those responsible accountable, defends journalists and other people at risk. Donate here: https://www.amnestyusa.org/
UNCHR Refugee Agency—Provides refugees with food, water, health support, and assistance in rebuilding damaged houses. Donate here: https://give.unrefugees.org/
Hello. I hope you’re well. If you’re in America, happy Flag Day! I
‘ve read three books this past week, and have reviewed them below for your enjoyment. I’ve also included links to organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.
Slumdog Millionaire, by Vikas Swarup, Read by Christopher Simpson
“Mimicking the serious tone of the [Taj Mahal] guide, I begin to tell him what I remember. ‘The Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Kuram for his wife Nur Jaham, also known as Mumtaz Begam, in 1531. He met her while she was selling bangles in a garden, and fell in love with her, but married her only after 19 years. She then fought with him in all his battles and gave him 18 kids in 14 years.’ The Japanese interrupts me. ‘18 kids in only 14 years? You’re sure?’ he asks diffidently. ‘Of course,’ I rebuke him. ‘Some must have been twins, you see.’”
This is the book that the 2008 movie was based on. Both involve a poor Indian boy winning a fortune in a game show based on pure luck, but otherwise the book was very different from the movie. For one thing, the best friend didn’t really play that big of a role in the book, whereas in the movie where he did. Also, Latika (the protagonist’s love-interest in the movie) didn’t exist. He fell in love with another person instead.
While the movie was one ongoing story, the book felt more like a series of short stories put together, kind of like The White King. However, while The White King was focused around a main plot through-line, Slumdog Millionaire felt more like it was based around a thematic through-line.
Slumdog Millionaire was one of the more dramatic books I’ve read lately (Plot twists! Murder! Daring escapes! Etc.!) while also containing a strong human element (you get to learn a lot about certain characters’ psychologies). The only thing I will say about this book is that there were some coincidences that felt a little contrived, and some of the plot elements felt unrealistic, but who cares? The book was so much fun that 100% realism shouldn’t be an issue.
The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant: Ten Volumes in One, Volume Two, by Guy de Maupassant
“They were taking care of his life, so they said. His life? How many days? Ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred? Why? For his own sake? Or to preserve for some time longer the spectacle of his impotent greediness in the family.”
Maupassant is back with another collection of short stories! In them, he continues to portray women as people in and of themselves instead of just beautiful objects, which is always much appreciated. He also continues to write about illegitimate kids, or kids whose parents are dead and have to find new parents. He also writes about marginalized people in society, and he continues to show compassion for everyone he writes about.
Some stories in this collection reminded me a lot of Chingiz Aitmatov’s work (such as his book, The Place of the Skull or his other book, The White Ship). This made me wonder how much was he inspired by Maupassant.
In any case, Maupassant’s works continue to be more enjoyable than Chekhov’s works because he’s able to keep his female characters nuanced and realistic. Some of his stories read more like sketches than stories, but that was okay. They got across what they seemed intended to get across. Yes, one of the stories felt like it could have been developed in a more interesting way than it was, but that’s just my own opinion.
Overall, I’ll say that there are 10 volumes in this edition, that I’ve read two so far, and that I hope that you get your own copy of this huge book and read the rest of them along with me. They’re so worth it.
Notes of a Russian Sniper, by Vasily Zaitsev, Translated by Elena Yakokleva
“I believe the life of every soldier—if he wants to be worthy of that title—depends not only upon regulations and orders, but also upon each man’s own conscience. And losing your conscience in wartime is the most heinous of crimes.”
This memoir is by Vasily Zaitsev, Soviet sniper extraordinaire during the Battle of Stalingrad. It was the inspiration for the book The War of the Rats, which (if I’m not mistaken) went on to inspire the movie Enemy at the Gates.
Zaitsev was a very interesting person. He was incredibly sexist (proudly describing how he kept making moves on a female nurse even after she had repeatedly insisted she wasn’t interested, and writing about how attractive she looked, etc.), entertaining at other times (describing pranks he played), very shrewd (in descriptions of his battle-tactics), and very good at seeing the humanity in other (non-female) people. So he was able to create a memoir filled with pathos, humor, wisdom, insight, and of course, sexism.
Interestingly, some historians think his memoir was filled with nonsense. For instance, he described a sniper duel he had with the head of a German sniper school, only that person’s name was never recorded anywhere other than in Zaitsev’s memoir. Perhaps he never even existed, or Zaitsev inflated the other sniper’s importance to make the book more entertaining and to make himself look more impressive.
At the same time, it was interesting that he made a big point of saying that he never recorded any kills (the Soviet snipers had to keep track of the number of Germans they killed) unless he was sure they were dead (in contrast to other snipers who counted every shot they fired as a kill). Maybe when writing these memoirs he was trying to make himself out to be more impressive while also pretending to be modest.
In any case, this book was entertainingly-written. It had interesting incidents and good characterization, so I would recommend. To be clear though, war itself can never be anything other than tragic for all involved.
Now as promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need:
Hello! I hope you are well. I’ve read three books this week. Below are my (sometimes controversial) reviews of them. Also below is a list of places you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need. Please do if you are able.
The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, by William Saroyan
“Horizontally wakeful amid universal widths, practising laughter and mirth, satire, the end of all, of Rome and yes of Babylon, clenched teeth, remembrance, much warmth volcanic, the streets of Paris, the plains of Jericho, much gliding as of reptile in abstraction, a gallery of watercolors, the sea and the fish with eyes, symphony, a table in the corner of the Eiffel Tower, jazz at the opera house, alarm clock and the tap-dancing of doom, conversation with a tree, the river Nile, Cadillac coupe to Kansas, the roar of Dostoyevsky, and the dark sun.”
This book has a bunch of short stories in it by the writer William Saroyan.
It had me of two minds. There were some stories in it I loved, like “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “Seventy Thousand Assyrians,” “Aspirin is a Member of the N.R.A”, “Seventeen,” “Laughter,” “Harry,” and “War.” Then there were some that I thought were trying too hard to be poetic or weren’t really saying anything meaningful, and I found myself getting annoyed with them (a very subjective response).
In any case this author reminded me of a cross between Thomas Wolfe (for the streams of consciousness) and Isaac Babel (for some of the very concise writing). Interestingly, someone said that Saroyan was one of the first minimalists. I wouldn’t call him a minimalist (considering his streams of consciousness) but I would call him a very good writer in any case that would be interesting to read.
The Overcoat and Other Tales of Good and Evil, by Nikolai Gogol, Translated by David Magarshack
“On entering the hall, he saw his valet Ivan lying on his back on the dirty leather sofa and spitting on the ceiling and rather successfully aiming at the same spot. Such an indifference on the part of his servant maddened him; he hit him on the forehead with his hat, saying: ‘You pig, you’re always doing something stupid!’”
I previously reviewed Gogol’s “The Overcoat” here. Now I’m reviewing more of his stories.
This collection in particular is a very interesting book because it shows Gogol going from writing semi-cliché (and very sexist) stories of revenge to writing more original and funny stories like “The Overcoat” and “The Nose.”
Another good story in this collection was “Nevsky Avenue,” which had very funny parts to it as well, even if it lacked the depth and insight that made “The Overcoat” and “The Nose” such masterpieces. Finally, there was a story called “The Portrait” which gave a great summarization of Gogol’s artistic values (it’s about painters).
Overall, if you’re looking to journey along with a great writer as he develops, this would be a very good book to read.
Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov
“‘I have always had the impression that his entomology was merely a pose.’ ‘Oh no,’ said Chateau. ‘You will lose it some day,’ he added, pointing to the Greek Catholic cross on a golden chainlet that Pnin had removed from his neck and hung on a twig. Its glint perplexed a cruising dragonfly.”
This book is about a professor from Russia who teaches Russian at an American university. His name is Pnin. I don’t know what else to say about this book because nothing much else really happens.
My thoughts about this book are controversial. I did not enjoy it, unlike everyone else I know who read it. I guess for me it was the fact that Pnin had previously risked his life fleeing from Soviet Russia to America, but then in America the most that he risks is potentially losing his tenure. Considering how the stakes went from super-high to nonexistent, I didn’t feel that engaged with the story.
I know that Nabokov isn’t known for gripping and suspenseful plot-driven works but is known for his style. Even so, I didn’t really care that much about his style (other than the first chapter which was hilarious). For some reason I found the book got less funny as it went on. At certain points his style felt like he was trying too hard to be witty, to the point where I stopped really caring about his attempts.
Even so, I saw that Nabokov was a good writer. His language was good, some of his observations were interesting, and so on. I just didn’t feel that Pnin was as fulfilling (or as funny) as other books I’ve read.
In the end, I know this is a very subjective opinion. I wouldn’t let my judgement of it turn you off from reading it. I’d recommend you read it and see what you think. Maybe we’ll wind up agreeing, but maybe we won’t and you’ll find yourself a new favorite author.
Now, as promised, a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need:
Hello! I hope you are all well. I’ve read three-ish books this week (one I’ve only read half of thanks to final exams). I’ll be back to reading three books next week. At the end of this post, I’ve also given a list of places you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need. Please do.
The White King, by György Dragomán, Translated by Paul Olchváry
“By then we’ve been without Father for more than half a year, though he was supposed to have gone away for only a week, to a research station by the sea, on some urgent business, and when he said goodbye to me he said how sorry he was that he couldn’t take me with him, because at that time of year, in late autumn, the sea is a truly unforgettable sight, a lot fiercer than in summer, stirring up huge yellow waves and white foam as far as the eye can see; but no matter, he said, and he promised that once he got home he’d take me, too, so I could have a look for myself. He just couldn’t understand how it could be that I was already past ten years old and still had never seen the sea, but that’s OK, he said, we’d make up for that along with everything else we’d make up for, no sense rushing things, there would be plenty of time and more for everything, because we had a whole life ahead of us. This was one of Father’s favorite sayings, and although I never did quite get it, when he didn’t come home, after all, I thought about it a lot, and that farewell came to my mind a lot, too, how it was when I saw Father for the last time, when his colleagues came to get him with a grey van.”
This book is about Djata, an eleven-year-old boy who’s waiting for his disappeared father to return home. The problem is that his father has been arrested by the totalitarian state. Meanwhile Djata deals with the regime, his grief, and other kids.
This book takes the form of a bunch of loosely-connected short stories, but unlike some books of loosely-connected short stories, this one works very well. There’s a main through-line (Djata’s father) that ties it all together. It’s actually so unified that it sometimes feels more like a novel than a bunch of short stories.
The book itself is very good and very moving (it may make you cry a lot). The good news is that while it can be very sad, it also has hilarious parts, which makes for a good balance, and its ending is very satisfying (from a craft-based point of view).
The book’s style is interesting (but I didn’t realize until late into it). The author uses a lot of run-on sentences, and he doesn’t include quotation marks around dialogue. The good news is that this stylistic stuff doesn’t get in the way of the story’s substance. It actually augments the narrative, since it makes Djata out to be a super-talkative kid (who may even be trying to cover up his grief by being super-talkative).
So if you want to be emotionally devastated by a book, I recommend The White King.
Boris Godunov, by Modest Mussorgsky, Based on the Play by Alexander Pushkin
“GRIGORI: Boris, Boris—you make the country tremble, and no one ever dares remember the fate you meted out to the Tsarevich. Yet in this quiet cell a monk recorded all that he knew of this most heinous murder. You will be called before your earthly judges, nor can you flee the judgment of the Lord.”
This is an opera libretto based on a historical play by Alexander Pushkin. In it, the Macbeth-like Boris Godunov murders his way to tsardom and then guilts about it while other people try to stir up rebellion against him. I’d previously seen Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera, and so was curious to read Mussorgsky’s libretto.
Interestingly, there are different versions of the opera—Mussorgsky originally wrote a version about Boris, with a few scenes focusing on some other character called Dmitri the Pretender. Later, Mussorgsky was told that the opera couldn’t be performed unless he included a more prominent female character in the opera. So he created a second version (which I read for today) which included a love-interest for Dmitri.
The version I saw at the Met didn’t include this love-interest. In that version, the plot flowed better. In the version that I read, the love-interest seemed to be there for no real reason other than to be there (she didn’t even really contribute to the plot). However, the version that I read had a good scene in it that was cut from the Met. You just can’t win.
Overall, I wouldn’t really recommend this libretto. It’s not that good (though there are some good parts), but it has made me very interested in reading the actual play by Pushkin.
An Essay in Autobiography, by Boris Pasternak, Translated by Manya Harari
“It was only later, when an attempt was made to establish a resemblance between Mayakovsky and myself, that I was credited with a gift for tonal and rhetorical effects. This is quite untrue—I have no more of this gift than anyone who uses words. On the contrary, my concern has always been for meaning, and my dream [is] that every poem should have content in itself—a new thought or a new image.”
This book contains both Pasternak’s autobiographical essay and his poems. I’ve only read his essay so far. The poems are written in both Russian and English, and I’ve been spending more time than I should comparing the Russian to the English, which has taken up more time than allows for in my week. So I’ll probably review the poems next week. For now, I’ll review the essay.
This essay is basically about Pasternak’s youth and the people he met who inspired the approach he developed towards writing. Among others, he talks about Marina Tsvetaeva, Rainer Marie Rilke, Alexander Scriabin, and Paolo Yashvili.
If you’re looking for a definitive autobiography of Pasternak (something like Gorky’s 3-volume autobiography), it doesn’t exist. There’s only this essay and another essay he wrote earlier on. He thinks this essay is better and less pretentious than his earlier one. I haven’t read the other essay, so I can’t say for sure, but I agree that this essay is not pretentious. Pasternak has a lot of sensible ideas about art, and is very grounded in what he says (he cares for meaning over rhetorical flourishes, for instance).
Also, a fun fact about Pasternak: he wanted to be a composer when he was a boy because Alexander Scriabin was his neighbor and Pasternak once walked through the woods between their houses, heard Scriabin play, and got obsessed. Pasternak even became a good composer, but stopped, because though he was able to compose sophisticated and rich music, “I played wretchedly and I read music like a child learning to spell” and, “The discrepancy between my musical themes, new and difficult in themselves, and my lack of practical skill turned the natural gift which should have been a joy to me into a torment, and in the end I found it unendurable.”
What was also interesting was that as a youth, Pasternak didn’t see the need for hard work. He thought genius would just flow out of him like carbon dioxide flows out of someone’s nostrils. He obviously got wiser afterwards (see the rest of his autobiographical essay), but it’s interesting to get a sense of what he used to believe (art is the result of effortless genius) and what he went on to realize (art is the result of a lot of hard work).
Overall, if you’re looking for very insightful portrait of someone’s artistic development, I would definitely recommend this essay. It’s wise without being condescending, and thought-provoking without being pretentious.
Now, as promised, here’s a list of places you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need:
Urgent Action Fund Ukraine: Supports evacuation efforts, provides disaster survival training, provides access to alternate communication methods for Ukrainians and more. Donate here: https://urgentactionfund.org/