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,
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