Lit in the Time of War: Szalowski, Collins, and Wiesel

Hello! I hope you are all healthy, safe, and warm. To those who celebrate, happy (not quite) third night of Hanukkah. I’ve read three books this week and have reviewed them below. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

Fish Change Direction in Cold Weather, by Pierre Szalowski, Translated by Alison Anderson

“‘It looks as if they’re swimming closer to each other.’ Boris quickly sat back down by the aquarium. Julie still had something to say. ‘That’s it! When it’s cold, they get close to each other’ [….] ‘And they’re swimming two by two, in pairs. They’re no longer plotting their course individually, avoiding the others. They’re doing it together. And it’s just since they got cold that they’ve been like this. Look! Now they’re making double knots.’”

In this book, a Canadian boy’s parents get divorced and he wishes for the sky to help bring them back together. Instead, the sky brings forth a blizzard that causes a bunch of other people to come together: his homophobic neighbor and the male couple that lives across the street, and a Russian mathematician and a dancer. But will the storm bring his parents back together too?

This book was a fun read. The author had a great, unforced sense of humor that shone through in nearly every sentence. It also wasn’t overly self-conscious, which made the book even funnier–as opposed to writers whose books clearly were constructed to try and come off as funny, it was obvious to me that the author himself must have had a blast writing this book. This last point meant that Fish Change Direction in Cold Water had a lot of heart, making it a terrific feel-good story about the power of connection in hard times.

One thing I will say is that the book’s ending felt a little bit too neat and happy. I won’t spoil it other than that, though, and this shouldn’t dissuade you from reading the book, especially given how funny it was to read. I would recommend.

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins, Read by Carolyn McCormick

“It’s interesting though, when I think of what Peeta said about the attendant on the train being unhappy about the Victors having to fight again, about people in the Capitol not liking it. I still think all of that will be forgotten once the gong sounds, but it’s something of a revelation that those in the Capitol feel anything at all about us. They certainly don’t have a problem watching children murdered every year, but maybe they know too much about the Victors, especially the ones who’ve been celebrities for ages, to forget we’re human beings.”

The second book in The Hunger Games trilogy involves Katniss and Peeta trying to prevent a rebellion from breaking out as a result of Katniss’s actions at the end of their first Hunger Games. But Katniss and Peeta fail, and so the Capitol throws them and past years’ Victors into a new arena for them to fight to the death again.

This book wasn’t as good as the first book, especially given the slow middle where Katniss just spent time back home in District 12. That’s fine though, since the book picked up once the new Hunger Games starts again.

Something I noticed in this read-through was Collins’ use of humor—she puts her characters through horrible things, but always gives readers a chance to catch their breath with a moment or two of comic relief.

This helps the books be good in two ways—first, it’s (obviously) comic relief. Second, it highlights the characters’ resilience. In spite of what they go through, they’re still able to retain their humanity and connection with each other through laughter, even in the arena when the Capitol is trying to turn them against each other. That dynamic is interesting, and might be another reason to read the second book, in addition to just having to read it to get to Book 3.

Day, by Elie Wiesel, Translated by Anne Borchardt

“‘You must forget [the dead]. You must chase them from your memory. With a whip if necessary.’ ‘Chase them, Gyula? With a whip, you said? To chase my father with a whip? And Grandmother? Grandmother too, chase her with a whip?’ ‘Yes, yes, and yes. The dead have no place down here. They must leave us in peace. If they refuse, use a whip’ [….] ‘I can’t, Gyula. I can’t.’”

This book is the conclusion to Elie Wiesel’s Night trilogy. In it, the main character suffers an automobile accident that leaves him barely alive. As his broken bones slowly heal, he has to come to terms with his past trauma, his present situation, and his relationship with both life and death.

This book was terrific, but its ending felt less focused than Night or Dawn. It wasn’t because Wiesel didn’t know what he was saying– he did. But this book’s setup made me anticipate a certain ending that didn’t happen. Instead, the book’s ending opened up a bunch of other questions.

Maybe this was the point. There’s an expectation that people would be able to resolve the pain from their pasts, but suffering can’t really fully be resolved and it’s wrong to act as though it can. In terms of fiction-writing though, this also meant that Day didn’t end in a way that created a sense of completion. Even though Night and Dawn certainly didn’t have happy endings, their stories ended with a sense of resolution.

Ultimately, I think Day is worth reading, especially if you’ve also read Night and Dawn. Just know that instead of a neat ending, Day will leave you thinking and questioning.

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books yourself. Let me know in the comments below.

Now, 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.

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/

Save the Children—Provides food, water, money, hygiene kits, and psychosocial support to children. Donate here: https://www.savethechildren.org/us/where-we-work/ukraine

Writers in Odesa—A fundraiser started by Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky and Rob Lipton seeking to support writers in Odesa who suffer as a result of Russia’s unjust war. Donate here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/writers-and-newspapers-in-odessa

United Jewish Appeal—Provides food, shelter, transport, and emergency medical supplies to Ukrainians in need and in neighboring countries. Donate here: https://www.ujafedny.org/crisis-donate

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Lit in the Time of Human Rights Abuses: Collins, Márquez, and Wiesel

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I’ve read three books this week and have reviewed them below. Also, in honor of National Human Rights Day which happened this past Saturday, I’ve included a list of human rights/humanitarian causes you can donate to (instead of my usual list about ways to support Ukrainians in need).

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins,
Read by Carolyn McCormick

“It’s funny, because even though [the stylists are] rattling on about the Games, it’s all about where they were and what they were doing or how they felt when a specific event occurred. ‘I was still in bed.’ ‘I just had my eyebrows dyed!’ ‘I swear I nearly fainted.’ Everything is about them, not the dying boys and girls in the arena.”

I read this for the nostalgia and found many more nuances to it than I had previously thought it would have.

I’m sure you know about The Hunger Games, but if you’ve been living under a rock for the past few decades, here’s a quick summary: In the future dystopia of Panem, the “Capitol” controls the 12 “Districts.” To remind the Districts of the consequences of rebelling, the Capitol forces each district to send one boy and one girl into an arena to fight to the death every year. This is called the Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is in District 12. She’s great with a bow and arrows, but it’s her beloved younger sister Prim who’s called to be in the Games. Katniss volunteers in her place. Now will she survive? Or will she die?

The book was very well-paced. What made it interesting for me wasn’t rereading the romance or the action though. It was seeing how Collins made a point of humanizing the other characters who died. Even super-minor characters who got only a few sentences were treated with respect. They each got their own “this boy from District 8 shouldn’t have died. He must have had a family and a dog…” etc. And when describing Katniss killing other fighters in the arena, Collins always makes a point to describe Katniss’s guilt and inner-conflict about it.

I feel that this important angle is easily ignored when reading The Hunger Games, so I wanted to highlight it here, and recommend that you read this book, especially if you’ve been living under a rock for the past few decades and have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.

El General en Su Laberinto, por Gabriel García Márquez

En Español:

“No son los sistemas sino sus excesos los que deshumanizan la historia.”

El General en Su Laberinto se trata de Simon Bolívar cuando él es viejo y muriendo, exiliado en Jamaica.

En el pasado, cuando he leído los libros de Márquez (como La Hojarasca y Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada), siempre me parecían aburridos. No entiendo la razón. Sin embargo, me interesaba mucho el diálogo en El General en Su Laberinto, especialmente una escena en que el General discutió la repetición de la historia (sobre Napoleon Bonaparte), y otra escena en que discutió la cantidad de las estrellas.

Para mi, estas escenas tenían una calidad muy alta literaria en que presentaron ideas muy interesantes sin ser dogmáticos o intrusivos (en la manera de Madre por Gorky, por ejemplo). También, estas escenas tenían un aspecto emocional–cuando leía estas escenas, me sentía triste y nostálgica. En contraste, muchas escenas de Márquez no tienen este aspecto emocional para mí (¡personalmente!) Puede ser que necesito leer más de sus obras (como Cien Años de Soledad y Amor en el Tiempo de Cólera’).

Yo recomiendo este libro, pero basado en la subjectividad de mi punto de vista, no estoy cierto si estoy la mejor persona para recomendarlo.

In English:

“It is not systems but their excesses that dehumanize history.”

The General in His Labyrinth is about Simon Bolívar when he is old and dying, exiled in Jamaica.

In the past, when I have read Márquez’s books (such as Leaf Storm and Chronicle of a Death Foretold), they always seemed boring to me. I don’t understand the reason. However, I was very interested in the dialogue in The General in His Labyrinth, especially a scene where the General discussed the repetition of history (about Napoleon Bonaparte), and another scene where he discussed the number of stars in the sky.

For me, these scenes have a very high literary quality because they presented very interesting ideas without being dogmatic or intrusive (in the manner of Gorky’s Mother, for example). Also, these scenes had an emotional aspect–when I read them, I felt sad and nostalgic. In contrast, many of Márquez’s scenes in other books don’t have this emotional aspect to me (personally!) Maybe I need to read more of his works (like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera).

I recommend this book, but based on the subjectivity of my tastes, I’m not sure if I’m the best person to recommend it.

Legends of Our Time, by Elie Wiesel

“The victims [in the concentration camps] suffered more, and more profoundly, from the indifference of the onlookers than from the brutality of the executioner. The cruelty of the enemy would have been incapable of breaking the prisoner; it was the silence of those he believed to be his friends—cruelty more cowardly, more subtle—which broke his heart.”

This is a book of essays and recollections by Elie Wiesel, some about his experience during the Holocaust, some about his experience trying to find answers in its aftermath, and some about his attempts to advocate for others.

In the introduction, Wiesel talks about how some of the stories in the book were invented, and so I went into the book not knowing which stories were true and which weren’t. Was it really so that Wiesel met one of his persecutors from the concentration camp on a bus many, many years later in Tel Aviv? Did he really meet a wise professor who knew everything about every topic on earth?

Parts of the book reminded me of Ariel Burger’s Witness, and when I looked back at that memoir, I read about Wiesel referencing certain events that he wrote about in this book—like meeting one of his persecutors on a bus in Tel Aviv. That wasn’t invented then. And it stood to reason that the rest of the essays and stories weren’t invented, either.

In any case, what was invented and what was real is irrelevant. What is relevant is Wiesel’s powerful writing. Especially the last piece, “A Plea for the Dead.” In this essay, Wiesel shares many important thoughts. One is his entreaty to remember the victims of the Holocaust and not try to explain their actions, or to create intellectual theories about the mechanisms of hate that drove the Holocaust. He said it was much too easy to oversimplify matters, and in the process, trivialize them and strip them of the true depth of their tragedy.

I may not rank this as the absolute best of Wiesel’s books (especially given that he wrote the amazing From the Kingdom of Memory), but that does not mean at all that this book isn’t good. It’s terrific in its own way, as are all the books I’ve read by Wiesel.

Ultimately, Wiesel is one of those rare authors I’ve encountered where I’ve been so impacted by one of his books that I’ve had no choice but to read all of the books he’s written.

I would highly recommend.

As promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support human rights around the world. Please donate if you are able, especially since many of these causes get much less attention than the scale of suffering needs. If you can’t donate, please share with your friends. Getting the word out is just as essential.

Uyghur Human Rights Project—at least 2 million Uyghur Muslims are unjustly imprisoned in industrial-scale concentration camps that have not been seen since the Holocaust. 800,000 children have been separated from their families and Uyghur women are being forcibly sterilized. The Uyghur Human Rights Project seeks to provide emergency humanitarian relief for Uyghur refugees, interviews survivors to spread their story to the world, and campaigns against businesses’ indifference and complicity in the Uyghurs’ plight.
Donate here: https://uhrp.org/take-action/

The International Rescue Committee—6 million Afghans are at extreme risk of famine. 18 million don’t have a reliable source of food. Afghanistan has the greatest number of people experiencing this level of hunger in the world. Afghans rely heavily on foreign aid, but after the Taliban took over, large-scale aid has stopped, so humanitarian aid is especially needed now. The International Rescue Committee provides food, clean water, and health support. Until January 2, all gifts up to $2,500,000 will be matched.
Donate here: https://help.rescue.org/donate/afghanistan-winter?ms=gs_ppc_fy23_afghanistan

The UN Refugee Agency—More than 6.8 million Syrian refugees have been forced to flee their homes since 2011, making it the largest refugee crisis in the world. More than 70% of Syrians live in poverty, and many have become victims to awful human rights abuses like child labor. The UN Refugee Agency provides cash assistance to families in need, which helps pay for food, shelter, and medical costs.
Donate here: https://giving.unhcr.org/en/sy/

The World Food Program—Due to war, 20 million Yemenis are suffering from malnutrition and extreme hunger. This is one of the worst humanitarian crises on earth. One of the World Food Program’s largest humanitarian focuses is Yemen, aiming to give 13 million people emergency food assistance. Donate here: https://www.wfp.org/emergencies/yemen-emergency

And here’s one more way to help:

Free Rice (play trivia games and provide free food to people in the process): https://freerice.com/

Thank you for reading.

Lit in the Time of War: Meshchaninova, Ng, and Wiesel

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/

Save the Children—Provides food, water, money, hygiene kits, and psychosocial support to children. Donate here: https://www.savethechildren.org/us/where-we-work/ukraine

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

American Red Cross—Provides medicine, food, and hygiene items to Ukrainians. Also helps refugees reconnect with missing family-members. Donate here: https://www.redcross.org/about-us/our-work/international-services/ukraine-crisis.html

Lit in the Time of War: Wiesel, Lahiri, and Erofeev

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:

Razom For Ukraine—Provides medical relief for soldiers and doctors on the front line. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

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/

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

Lit in the Time of War: Holm, Peralta, and Wiesel

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you are all healthy and safe (and dry, if applicable). If you’re observing Yom Kippur tonight, I hope your reflections are deep and enriching.

I’ve read three books this week (one that hasn’t come out yet and two that have), and have reviewed them below. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you are able.

Strega, by Johanne Lykke Holm, Translated by Saskia Vogel

“I knew a woman’s life could at any point be turned into a crime scene. I had yet to understand that I was already living inside the crime scene, that the crime scene was not the bed but the body, that the crime had already taken place.”

NOTE: I know the translator of the book but decided to review this book on its own merits.

This is a book about a girl who’s sent to an old hotel (called the Olympic Hotel) to be a seasonal worker with other girls. There, she’s exposed to suffocating rituals and sexist lies. Even worse, one of the girls suddenly goes missing (and may have been murdered). Will the protagonist and her friends figure out a better and more empowering way to live before it’s too late?

This book was well-written. It’s one of those books that relies mostly on language and atmosphere to get across its effect, as opposed to plot or characterization, and it got across its effect well. However, at times I felt like the book was hitting the same tonal note so much that I was eager for new and more varied tones.

Even so, it had interesting ideas about women, the lies they get taught, and some genuinely hopeful possibilities for escape. I’d recommend.

Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey From a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, by Dan-El Padilla Peralta

“On the walk back to Holder [Hall in Princeton], I got heated with myself for not confronting her [a person who’d said illegal immigrants shouldn’t be allowed in America] with my own story. I knew I was scared to open up, and I hated myself for being afraid. But even as a voice told me that invoking my own story would be the socially responsible thing to do, another voice told me that it had been fine of me not to make it so personal. Better to move in the world of disembodied arguments. And why did I have to enlighten D.C. blanquita by reintroducing myself to her as an undocumented immigrant? Like she would care.”

This is a memoir about a kid (Dan-El Padilla Peralta) who grows up as an undocumented immigrant and becomes a Princeton student. The book describes his family’s troubles—without documentation they can’t get steady jobs, and eventually wind up homeless in Harlem. At the same time, Peralta’s mom does everything she can to keep him and his brother on the straight and narrow. Peralta’s also naturally smart, which causes many people to want to support him. One person tells him of a test he could take to get a merit scholarship to a preparatory school, for instance. As he grows up and goes to Princeton, he leads a kind of double life—nobody knows that he’s secretly an undocumented immigrant. What will happen if he tells them all?

This book was very well-written. Peralta was terrific at humanizing himself and his family, telling an engaging story, and including thought-provoking (but not preachy) ideas about immigration.

What I also appreciated was that he wrote a lot about the other people in his life—it wasn’t “look at me! I got into Princeton!” but “look at all these amazing people I met in my life along the way!” Peralta’s compassion for the people he wrote about made this book much better than a standard “rags-to-riches” story.

Overall, I would recommend.

Open Heart, by Elie Wiesel

“Should one therefore turn away from humanity? The answer, of course, is up to each of us. We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children, between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it. Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him the solidarity and hope he deserves. Or not. I know—I speak from experience—that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. That it is possible to feel free inside a prison. That even in exile, friendship exists and can become an anchor. That one instant before dying, man is still immortal. There it is: I believe in man in spite of man.”

This is the last book Elie Wiesel wrote before he died. It describes his experience having open heart surgery and contains his reflections on mortality. Has he done the greatest possible good in his life? He also talks about teaching, writing, religion, and family.

The book was very short but was very worth reading. Even when he’s writing about his own death, Wiesel is like a good friend offering the reader hope. If you’re looking for a good reflective book to read (either for Yom Kippur or just for your own purposes), this would be a great choice.

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

Voices of Children—Provides psychological counseling for children and helps refugee evacuations. Donate here: https://voices.org.ua/en/

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/

World Central Kitchen—Feeds Ukrainian refugees as they cross the border into other countries. Donate here: https://wck.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!