Lit in the Time of War: Jemisin, Brecht, and Zhadan

“Woe to you who defies the advice of the wise!
If you wade in the water, it will drown you!
Don’t ignore what I say or you’ll rue it one day,
Said the wise woman to the soldier.”

Hello. I’ve changed the title for today’s post. As you know, there is a horrible war in Ukraine that should not have to be fought, and this post’s title tries to honor that fact.

Now. On to the reviews.

The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin

(Warning: Profanity)
“I sing the city. Fucking city. I stand on the rooftop of a building I don’t live in and spread my arms and tighten my middle and yell nonsense ululations at the construction site that blocks my view. I’m really singing to the cityscape beyond. The city’ll figure it out.”

This book is about a bunch of people who embody the soul of New York City, which for some reason has just been born in the 2020s. There’s Manny (Manhattan), Queens (Queens!), Bronca (the Bronx), Brooklyn (Guess), and Aislyn (Staten Island). There’s also a sleeping embodiment of the city itself. Now, the avatars of the boroughs have to get together and wake the city.

This book was action-packed (literally), while also having a lot of moments for reflection. I really enjoyed the humor and the points it made, but sometimes it felt a bit like “Action scene! Reaction/reflection scene! Action scene! Reaction/reflection scene!” which, although it was entertaining, sometimes felt like Jemisin had heard that books worked well if they had this structure and decided to go with it no matter what.

In any case, this is a good book and I would definitely recommend it. It’s also the first in a trilogy so 🙂

Mother Courage and Her Children,”
by Bertolt Brecht, Translated by Eric Bentley

“For marching never could hurt him!
From the north to the south he will march through the land
With his knife at his side and his gun in his hand:
That’s what the soldiers told the wise woman.

Woe to you who defies the advice of the wise!
If you wade in the water, it will drown you!
Don’t ignore what I say or you’ll rue it one day,
Said the wise woman to the soldier.”

Called one of the greatest anti-war plays of our time, this is the story of a woman who’s trying to get her kids out of the war alive. However in the process she starts profiteering off the war, and finds herself sacrificing humanity and human lives for the sake of material gain. Will this catch up to her? Read the book, and reflect on how awful war is, to find out.

This play was really good. None of the characters were that sympathetic, but they got across the horror of war and that’s what seemed to matter the most to Brecht.

Also, there was a particularly striking scene near the end which involved someone playing a drum on a rooftop which got to me. I won’t spoil it, but I’ll probably keep thinking about that scene for a while.

In any case, I would definitely recommend this play, especially nowadays.

The Orphanage, by Serhiy Zhadan,
Translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes

and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler

“[…] an incredibly young rifleman tugs on his sleeve [….] While the woman’s pouring their drinks, he roots around in his pockets, takes out a handful of small bills, scrutinizes them discontentedly, reaches into his pockets again without letting go of Pasha’s arm, and then suddenly produces a hand grenade. The woman freezes; the rifleman places the grenade on the counter and keeps rummaging through his pockets as the grenade starts rolling down the counter, rolling and rolling, very slowly. The woman can’t take her eyes off it, the cup runs over, and the other people standing around also notice the grenade, but they can’t get anything out. All they can do is watch it roll slowly, very slowly, toward the edge, pause, roll over the edge, and plunge to the floor.”

This book is set in Ukraine, and is about a guy named Pasha who needs to get his nephew Sasha out of an orphanage during the war. During the story, he meets a bunch of people and learns that trying to stay out of politics is never a good idea because politics and war eventually catch up to you anyway and force you to choose a side.

The book was very poetic. Sometimes it felt overly poetic. Sometimes, every other line felt like a comparison of one thing to another thing.

And sometimes, the author seemed to overuse certain kinds of dialogue tags—“asked skeptically” and “said, surprised” seemed to be favorites. This doesn’t really matter much in the grand scheme of things, but it did kind of make me feel like his characters were being restricted to just following a path the author laid down before them, being confined to embody what the author wanted them to embody rather than turning into fully fleshed out human beings.

In spite of this, I would still recommend this book. It’s a very good (and sometimes moving) depiction of war and its impact on civilians, and how you can’t escape it, and how bad it is, and how much wars in Ukraine (and wars in general) should just end as soon as humanly possible.

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: Smith, Abe, and Lukyanenko

Hello! I hope you are healthy and safe. I’ve read three more books this week:

Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, Read by Henry Strozier

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“Arkady [a prisoner of Pribluda] got to his feet and stretched. ‘Want to get back to your seeds, Major?’ […] ‘you know I do.’ ‘Say you’re human.’ ‘What?’ ‘We’ll go back,’ Arkady said. ‘All you have to do is say you’re human.’ ‘I don’t have to do anything. What kind of game is this? You’re so crazy Renko it makes me sick.’ ‘It shouldn’t be so hard to say you’re human.’ Pribluda walked in a tight circle as if screwing himself into the ground. ‘You know I am.’ ‘Say it.’ ‘I’ll kill you for this! For this alone,’ Pribluda promised. ‘To get it over with,’ his voice fell to a monotone. ‘I’m human.’ ‘Very good. Now we can go.’ Arkady started toward the house.”

Gorky Park is about Moscow’s Chief Inspector, a guy named Arkady Renko. He’s called in to investigate the death of three people in a Moscow park. Along the way, he gets embroiled in international intrigue, falls in love, and almost dies. Will he actually survive? Will he sell himself out to corruption?  Read the book and find out.

This book was very entertaining. Arkady Renko was a very astute inspector who always came up with these precise theories. I was always left wondering how he figured them out. Not that it was illogical, just that it was impressive. There was good action, there was good adventure, there was good (slow-burning) romance, and there were a lot of twists that sometimes felt like they came out of nowhere (How did Arkady figure them out again?)

What was also impressive was that Arkady became a three-dimensional character. He started out very two-dimensional (“Gotta solve the mystery! Oh no, my wife’s cheating on me! But gotta solve the mystery!”) He spent about half the book being two-dimensional, but then in the second half he developed.

The narrator was also very good (though he kept mispronouncing Arkady’s name which, as a Russian learner, was hilarious). Still, he brought a lot of emotion and life to this story, so kudos to him.

Overall, I would recommend this book if you were looking for something entertaining to read. It doesn’t really have philosophical depth, but it’s interesting anyway.

The Woman in the Dunes, by Kobo Abe,
Translated by E. Dale Saunders

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“Someday he would tell her the story of the guard who protected the imaginary castle. There was a castle. No. It wasn’t necessarily a castle, it could be anything: a factory, a bank, a gambling house [….] Now the guard, always prepared for the enemy attack, never failed in his vigilance. One day the long-expected enemy finally came. This was the moment, and he rang the alarm signal. Strangely enough, however, there was no response from the troops. Needless to say, the enemy easily overpowered the guard in one fell swoop [….] No, it was the castle, not the enemy, that was really like the wind. The single guard, like a withered tree in the wilderness, had stud guarding an illusion.”

In this book, a man goes missing. He basically gets captured and put into a hole where he has to dig sand with a woman, because for some reason if he and the woman stop digging sand, the village above them will get crushed by the sand. That makes absolutely no sense, but let’s just pretend it does.

Moving on, we get a philosophical exploration of sand, water, escape, imprisonment, meaning, and delusion.

It’s entertaining and I’m sure it will provoke thought. However, I found it wasn’t really that interesting–I felt like I knew what was going to happen at the end before it actually did happen, so when the end came, it wasn’t as surprising as the author seemed to want it to be. Maybe it’s because I’ve read a lot of books. Maybe it’s because it felt like the author was just trying to manipulate his characters to achieve this outcome without it organically coming from the characters themselves. Maybe it’s just me.

This book is one of the most celebrated books in Japan, so I’d still recommend reading it. I’m just not sure if it’ll be the best book you will ever read (though I could be wrong, since lit is very subjective!)

Night Watch, by Sergei Lukyanenko,
Translated by Andrew Bromfield

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“I’ve seen all of you. Road sweepers and presidents, robbers and cops. Seen mothers killing their children [….] Seen sons throwing their mothers out of the house and daughters putting arsenic in their fathers’ food. Seen a husband smiling as he sees the guest out and closes the door, then punches his pregnant wife in the face. Seen a smiling wife send her drunken husband out for another bottle and turn to his best friend for a passionate embrace. It’s very simple to see all this. All you have to do is look. That’s why they teach us not to look before they teach us to look through the Twilight. But we still look anyway.”

This book is about a guy named Anton Gorodetsky. He’s a member of the Night Watch, a group of people assigned to preserve good in the world. Fortunately it’s more complicated than that. Night Watch members can’t go around doing good indiscriminately, because they have a treaty with the Day Watch (the powers of evil), that if they start doing good, the Day Watch can start doing evil back. This treaty leads to morally-questionable acts by Night Watch members in the name of good. Are you actually good just because you call yourself good? Do the ends justify the means? Do the means justify the ends?

And here we have Anton, who is questioning the ethics of the Night Watch while trying to avoid getting killed, while trying to find out about a powerful woman who could save them all. It makes for good reading.

The back cover describes it as being, “Like Tolkien getting mugged in a Moscow back alley by John Le Carré,” but I’d describe it as, “like Tolkien getting mugged in a Moscow back alley by John Le Carré and Dostoyevsky’s ghost.”

Because, unlike Gorky Park, Night Watch incorporated philosophy. It was also well-paced philosophy (unlike Dostoyevsky). And unlike in The Woman in the Dunes, the philosophy and the story felt fresh.

So if you’re looking for something that is both entertaining and philosophical, I’d recommend Night Watch.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Three (?) Thrillers by Thomas Harris

Hello! Happy Lunar New Year! I hope you’re all healthy, safe, and reading your hearts out. I’ve read three thrillers, all by Thomas Harris—well actually… it’s complicated. Read on to see what I mean.

The Silence of the Lambs: Abridged, by Thomas Harris,
Read by Katy Bates

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“‘Goodbye officer Starling.’ ‘And the study?’ ‘A census-taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big amarone. Go back to school, little Starling.’”

In last week’s reading, Stephen King explicitly said, “Don’t listen to abridged audiobooks.” This week, the first book I read turned out to be an abridged audiobook, but I only learned that fact after listening to the whole thing. Funny how things turn out, right?

In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarise Starling is a student at the FBI academy who is assigned the task of interviewing Hannibal Lecter for a psychological survey. Hannibal is a genius cannibal who drives people insane and then eats them. Clarise forms some kind of bond with him, and with his (not-so-reliable?) guidance, tries to solve the murders committed by a guy called Buffalo Bill.

The abridged version was interesting for its cinematic cuts. Its scenes flowed very nicely, and it was only 3 hours long. Even so, it felt very well put together. Other than that I don’t have much to say about it—it’s abridged, after all, so I don’t recommend.

The Silence of the Lambs: Unabridged, by Thomas Harris,
Read by Frank Muller

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Warning: Profanity

“She didn’t let the room affect her. Starling walked up and down gesturing to the air. ‘Hold on girl,’ she said aloud. She said it to Catherine Martin, and she said it to herself. ‘We’re better than this room, we’re better than this fucking place,’ she said aloud. ‘We are better than wherever he’s got you. Help me, help me, help me.’ She thought for an instant of her late parents. She wondered if they would be ashamed of her now, just that question, not its pertinence, no qualifications, the way we always ask it. The answer was no, they would not be ashamed of her.”

So after listening to the abridged version I had no choice but to not listen to the whole thing again in the unabridged version.

The unabridged enchilada is about 11 hours long. What did they cut out in the abridged version? They missed moments of great characterization, like the one above. They didn’t explain things well enough in certain moments, which only became clear when listening to the unabridged version’s explanation. They also cut out entire subplots—Jack Crawford, senior investigator, has a wife who’s dying, for instance.

Overall, the original unabridged version is much better than the abridged version. It has great twists, great characters, and exciting subplots that actually add to the story. The only thing I will say is that Hannibal Lecter doesn’t actually seem that dangerous in it. He literally just asks Clarise questions about her life. There are moments when he does become dangerous, but it’s never towards her. That made me wonder why the author made that choice.

In any case, I would highly recommend the unabridged version, and not the abridged version.

Red Dragon: Unabridged, by Thomas Harris, Read by Alan Sklar

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“He sat in the jury box to read his letter. He wanted some relief. The letter was from Dr. Hannibal Lecter. ‘Dear Will, a brief note of congratulations for the job you did on Mr. Lounds [….] You know Will, you worry too much. You’d be so much more comfortable if you relaxed with yourself. We don’t invent our natures, Will, they’re issued to us, along with our lungs and pancreas and everything else. Why fight it? I want to help you Will, and I’d like to start by asking you this: When you were so depressed after you shot Mr. Garret Jacob Hobbs to death, it wasn’t the act that got you down, was it? Really, didn’t you feel so bad because killing him felt so good?’”

Red Dragon is another book by Thomas Harris. I read the unabridged 12-hour version.

It’s about an FBI member called Will Graham who is in retirement because he got Hannibal Lecter in jail, but in the process Hannibal attacked him. Now he’s brought out of retirement to find the Tooth Fairy, the legendary creature that leaves money under childrens’ beds when they lose a tooth a murderer who would rather be called “The Red Dragon.”

This book was interesting because Will Graham is much less heroic than Clarise Starling. As you can see from the excerpt, he even killed a man.

Will’s anti-heroism is complemented by Hannibal Lecter’s more villainous side. He actually tries to hurt Will (unlike with Clarise), which made this book more interesting.

However, most of Red Dragon was spent giving the backstory of the villain, which was really cool, but left me wondering about Will, because his conflict was never fully explored. At the end, there was just this convenient-seeming wrap-up of him philosophizing. He never actually dealt with his problems, which I felt was a wasted opportunity. Maybe Harris could have made the book a little longer to compensate, or cut the villain’s part down a bit to make space for Will, if that wasn’t possible.

In any case, this book was still good—not as good as The Silence of the Lambs, but still good, and I would recommend it if you are looking for a good thriller.

As for me, I’m on a thriller kick, so if you have any recommendations or thoughts, let me know in the comments below!

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: Moore

Hello! I hope you are well. As for me, I’ve somehow read a huge book this week without noticing:

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal
By Christopher Moore, Read by Fisher Stevens*

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Funniest Excerpts:

‘Poison,’ Joy said [….] ‘Ah,’ I said, and I tasted the tea. [….] ‘Can you guess what your lesson is today?’ Joy asked. ‘I thought you would tell me what’s in that House of Doom room.’ ‘No that is not the lesson today [….] Guess again!’ My fingers and toes had begun to tingle [….] ‘You’re going to teach me how to make the fire powder that Balthazar used the day we arrived?’ ‘No, silly.’ [….] She pushed me lightly on the chest, and I fell over backward, unable to move. ‘Today’s lesson is… are you ready? [….] Today’s lesson is, if someone puts poison in your tea, don’t drink it!’”

“[As Biff and Jesus AKA Joshua prepare a sermon] ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the whiners, the meek, the—’ ‘Wait, what are we giving the meek?’ ‘Let’s see…uh… here! Blessed are the meek, for to them we shall say…”attaboy!”’ ‘A little weak.’ ‘Yeah. Let’s let the meek… inherit the earth.’ ‘Can’t you give the earth to the whiners?’ ‘Well then, cut the whiners and give the earth to the meek.’”

“Meanwhile, the chief priest droned on. ‘A man dies and leaves no sons, but his wife marries his brother, who has three sons by his first wife.’ And on. ‘The three of them leave Jericho and head south, going 3.3 furlongs per hour, but they are leading two donkeys, which can carry two…’ And on. ‘So the Sabbath ends, and they are able to resume, adding on the thousand steps allowed under law. And the wind is blowing southwest at two furlongs per hour.’ And on. ‘How much water will be required for the journey? Give your answer in firkins.’ ‘Five,’ Joshua said as soon as they stopped speaking [….] ‘You didn’t show your work! You didn’t show your work!’ chanted the youngest of the priests.”

This hilarious book is about Jesus and Levi, only for some reason Jesus is called Joshua and Levi is called Biff. Apparently, Biff was Joshua’s childhood friend. Cut to present-day: an angel resurrects Biff to write about his life with Joshua.

According to Biff, the Bible left out a lot. What about the trips he and Joshua made to Asia for Joshua to learn how to become the messiah, for instance? Lamb covers their childhood, their journey along the Silk Road, and everything else that was in the original Bible.

No wonder Lamb was was more than 400 pages.

However, I had no idea about that until I finished the audiobook and checked. That’s a good sign in terms of pacing. Looking back on it, while I knew this book was supposed to be funny, I’m impressed that it was able to stay consistently funny for 400+ pages. I mean, it’s ridiculously hard just to write 400+ pages of well-written story.

Also, I had previously thought of comedic writing as being just about making the reader laugh (Three Men in a Boat, for instance). I haven’t really seen an instance where someone set out to write a mainly-comedic story while also being able to suddenly become dramatic and still keep the reader engaged.

In the case of Lamb, the story was mainly comedic, but somehow the ending became very dramatic, and unlike some comedic works where the end loses power because it tries to take itself too seriously (see Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat), Lamb‘s ending actually gained strength.

So why was Tortilla Flat not able to pull this off while Lamb was? Maybe it’s because Lamb had more space to develop the characters (what with all those pages). However, I also think the change worked because the book included some serious moments throughout. So instead of becoming dramatic out of nowhere (like Steinbeck), there was some seriousness in Lamb all along, which prepared the reader to take the book seriously at its end.

The one huge drawback of Lamb was that every female character in was basically there just to be a love-interest to the male characters (such as “Maggy,” AKA Mary of Magdala). If you’re looking for a comedy with well-developed female characters, this would not be your book (but if you do want that book, try Karolina Pavlova).

Otherwise, if you’re looking for a hilarious and unexpectedly fast read, this is your book.

*If you’ve watched Succession, you may recognize that Fisher Stevens plays Hugh Baker—he makes for a great audiobook narrator, too.

Until next week!

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!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Żeromski, Korelitz, and London

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe.

I’ve read four books, but will only be reviewing three of them. Two of them could be seen as escapism, while the third probably can’t…

The Faithful River, by Stefan Żeromski,
Translated by Bill Johnston

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“[As one character tries to convince a woman named Ryfka to give her a sleigh to go to a doctor]: ‘Do you have a sleigh?’ ‘There’s one here but it’s just a little one that belongs to some of the tenants.’ ‘Let it be the tenants’. Come on! Fetch the keys and climb out of the hole here.’ Ryfka gave a quiet, desperate sob. She stood on the other side of the window, crying. ‘You won’t do it?’ ‘They’ll murder me. They’ll knock my block off!’ ‘You’ll live.’ This argument she somehow found convincing.

This book is set during a conflict between Polish rebels and Russian soldiers, and is about a wounded Polish rebel who is being sheltered by a woman in a manor-house. Obviously, bad things will happen if the rebel is discovered by the Russians, and so the woman has to use all her wits to conceal him. In the meantime, they fall in love.

For a book that was originally published in 1912, it was surprisingly great. The dialogue was surprisingly snappy, the plot was surprisingly compelling, and the characters were surprisingly deep.

Something I also didn’t expect was that the romance was delayed until later on. This made sense (the rebel was too wounded to fall in love at first). This also made the romance more convincing– by the time the characters fell in love, they knew each other well enough to have something to be attracted to. They became two developed characters that I found myself wanting to get together, instead of two cardboard cutouts falling in love over nothing.

So, this book has a lot of action, it’s well-paced, and it’s well-written. I would recommend.

The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

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“These particular students, these ardent apprentices, would be utterly indistinguishable from their earlier Ripley counterparts: mid-career professionals convinced they could churn out Clive Cussler adventures, or moms who blogged about their kids and didn’t see why that shouldn’t entitle them to a regular gig on Good Morning America, or newly retired people ‘returning to fiction’ (secure in the knowledge that fiction had been waiting for them?)”

This book is about a writer named Jake who wrote one best-seller and then wrote a second not best-seller, and went on to sink into obscurity. We find him teaching creative writing at a college program called Ripley. There, he encounters a student who tells him about a plot for a novel, a plot so good it’ll obviously become a best-seller… Later, the student dies, and Jake sees his chance to rip off the other guy’s story and reclaim his fame in the process. Jake does become famous, but then starts getting threats in the mail about someone who knows that he stole his student’s story…

This book was entertaining to read because it was about someone who went into writing for all the wrong reasons– for the fame, for the ego-boost, and for the admiration, rather than because he actually loved to write.

It was also fun to see all the twists in the book (which I’m not giving away). Basically, if you like mystery stories (and novels-within-novels), you would probably like this book.

I did feel that the protagonist wasn’t really characterized much beyond the fact that he was a writer (and all his backstory relating to being a “failed” writer). I also felt that parts of the book could have been shortened (there was a huge buildup to something that didn’t need to be that big). And finally, the protagonist was narcissistic to the point of being a little annoying.

In spite of that, I’d still recommend the book. It’s fun to read, and everything does come together satisfyingly in the end.

The Scarlet Plague, by Jack London

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“The old man shook his head sadly, and said: ‘The gunpowder will come. Nothing can stop it—the same old story over and over. Man will increase, and men will fight. The gunpowder will enable men to kill millions of men, and in this way only, by fire and blood, will a new civilization, in some remote day, be evolved. And of what profit will it be? Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. It may take fifty thousand years to build, but it will pass. All things pass.'”

This sci-fi book is about a global pandemic, only this one is called the Scarlet Plague, it breaks out in 2012 instead of in 2020, and the world of 2012 has wireless communications while also somehow still having telegraphs.

No wonder. The book was written in 1915.

In any case, the Scarlet Plague is super-deadly, to the point where it kills its victims within hours. It acts so fast that it instantly wipes out all the government infrastructure and leaves only a few survivors who go on to form “tribes.” Oh, and the whole story is basically an old man telling his grand-kids about the plague while they sit around in the ruins of California.

It’s interesting to compare London’s imaginings of a pandemic with the reality of one, which basically hammers home the fact that only so much can be imagined, and that some things in reality are much more complicated than in the imagining of them.

On a somewhat unrelated note, parts of this book reminded me of Anna Kavan’s Ice— there’s a guy who wants a girl, but the girl is being held captive by an brutal tribe-leader called the Chauffeur. Replace the Scarlet Plague with the ice-ification of the planet, call the Chauffer the Warden, and you basically have the general gist of Ice.

In any case, I would recommend this book, but only if you feel like reading about another pandemic. If you don’t feel like it, I would recommend the other two books instead.

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!