Lit in the Time of War: Stevenson and Aswany

Hello! I wasn’t able to post my usual book review yesterday, so I’m posting it today instead. I’m also including a list of places you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you are able.

Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson,
Read by Frederick Davidson

“[…] and taking a knife from the table, [Alan] cut me off one of the silver buttons from his coat. ‘I had them,’ says he, ‘for my father’s Duncan Stuart, and now give you one of them to be a keepsake for last night’s work, and wherever you go and show that button, the friends of Alan Breck will come around you.’ He said this as if he had been a Charlemagne and commanded armies, and indeed, much as I admired his courage, I was always in danger of smiling at his vanity.”

This is a book about a plucky kid named David Balfour whose father dies and who goes to live with his mysterious uncle Ebenezer. David is supposed to inherit a lot of money from his father, but Uncle Ebenezer wants the money for himself, so he gets his friends to kidnap David and ship him off to become a slave. However, David isn’t willing to let himself be kidnapped without a fight. He teams up with a Scotsman named Alan Breck to escape back home and get revenge on his uncle.

If Charles Dickens wrote adventure novels, they likely would’ve been very similar to this book. There’s a great deal of warmth in Kidnapped (like in Dickens’s books), along with some interesting character observations (see the passage above).

One of Stevenson’s contemporaries said that he wasn’t that great at psychological insights. While there weren’t any long passages where Stevenson’s characters contemplated their inner psyches, the characters felt surprisingly realistic. They were fleshed out enough to be sympathetic, and most of them were nuanced enough to feel believable. The only exceptions were the female characters—every single one of them wound up sobbing or weeping over the protagonist’s plight.

In any case, if you’re looking for an adventurous and entertaining book, I would recommend Kidnapped.

The Republic of False Truths, by Alaa Al Aswany,
Translated by S.R. Fellowes

“Everything really has changed. The dictator was stifling Egypt. When he was overthrown, all Egyptians were liberated. I’m writing to you from home, having just come back from the school, and I have lots of questions begging for an answer. How could the headmaster’s and Mrs. Manal’s attitude towards me have changed so amazingly? Is the revolution changing people’s natures? Is it giving them back their confidence in themselves and causing them to review their mistakes?”

Note: this book was written by a professor I once had in school.

This book is about the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt. It’s told from multiple points of view, including state generals, media stars, protestors, and sympathetic bystanders. There were enough perspectives to get a broad sense of Egyptian society, but not too many to be confusing.

The book had a lot of important insights about dictatorship and disinformation (there was a character who worked for a state-sponsored news agency running smear campaigns against the Tahrir Square protestors). The book also showed how the protestors tried to combat the disinformation, which was very interesting to read about.

It was also powerfully-written. The author was able to get across dramatic incidents in a sober, non-melodramatic way (which made them more impactful). Also, since the book avoided preaching (“dictatorship is bad!” etc.), it made a much better case against dictatorship than if it had preached.

The characters were rich due to the author’s depiction of their inner lives (especially the antagonists and morally-nuanced characters). Overall, I’d say that the depth of characterization was what ultimately made the book a very good read. I would definitely recommend.

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

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

International Committee of the Red Cross: Provides medical support for wounded Ukrainians. Donate here: https://www.icrc.org/en/donate/ukraine

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

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

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Dorfman, Al Aswany, and Wiesel

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

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

“Death and the Maiden,” by Ariel Dorfman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn, by Elie Wiesel, Translated by Frances Frenaye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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