Lit in the Time of War: Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky

In which I review books by Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky.

Hello! I hope you are well. Today at Princeton is officially Dean’s Date—when all essays are due. As a result, I’ll keep my reviews shorter than usual. Also, there’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need.

Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir, by Shahrnush Parsipur, Translated by Sara Khalili

“Although this madness [PTSD from prison] was my own, I wonder if society can be struck by a similar sort of collective insanity when pressure mounts beyond the peoples’ tolerance. Do they abandon all beliefs and begin to exist in an illusory world of their own creation? In that state, will they believe everything they are told?”

This book is about an Iranian writer who gets imprisoned. She experiences traumatic events in Evin Prison along with in other prisons. She gets released, then re-arrested, then released, then re-arrested again. Through it all, we see her remarkable character (she is very resilient and spirited), and learn about the horrors of incarceration.

I would recommend.

The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin,
Read by Eugene Yelchin

“‘‘Turn that thing [the radio] off, Yevgeny.’ ‘I can’t, Grandma,’ I said. ‘I’m in attitude.’ I was trying to balance on one leg in attitude, which Vaganova described as a pose on one leg with the other lifted at an angle of ninety degrees and carried back, bent at the knee. ‘You hurt your leg, Yevgeny?’ ‘No, Grandma. It’s…nothing.’ ‘He stands on one leg for nothing. You a stork?’ ‘I’m practicing ballet.’ ‘With a bad leg?’”

This book is a memoir about Yelchin’s experiences growing up during the Cold War. His mom’s obsessed with the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, his dad’s obsessed with poetry, and his brother’s obsessed with his newfound talent for ice-skating. Yelchin’s parents say he needs a talent, too—talent gets you a luxurious apartment and other such privileges. Yelchin’s brother is all set, but no matter what he does, Yelchin turns out to have no talent at anything. The only enjoyment he gets is from the drawings he makes at night under the table.

This book is funny, heartwarming, and extremely well-crafted. I would recommend.

Selected Poems, by Joseph Brodsky,
Translated by George L. Kline

“People and things crowd in.
Eyes can be bruised and hurt
by people as well as things.
Better to live in the dark.”

This is a book of poems by Brodsky translated into English and with a foreword by W.H. Auden, who says that Brodsky is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. This is also back when Brodsky was an unknown (1973, before his 1987 Nobel Prize).

In any case, I found the poems to be good but not as good as I’d hoped (I’d read some poems by Brodsky here and they were terrific).

Even so, there were some very good poems in this collection, and I’d recommend it. Also, while I never mention footnotes, I do have to say that Brodsky’s book has great footnotes about untranslatable nuances of the Russian original which were very helpful and insightful. I’d recommend.

As promised, a list of places to donate and help Ukrainians in need:

Direct Relief: Provides trauma kits, insulin, and other important medical supplies to Ukrainians. Donate here: https://www.directrelief.org/emergency/ukraine-crisis/

Nova Ukraine: Supports Ukrainians by evacuating refugees, serving meals, and providing aid packages. Also the first volunteer group to enter Bucha and provide food and reconstruction assistance there. Donate here: https://novaukraine.org/

WithUkraine: The official fundraising effort by the Embassy of Ukraine to the UK. Provides food and medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://www.withukraine.org/

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

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Lit in the Time of War: Brady, Blok, and Yelchin

Study for exams! Read books! Stop the war!

Hello! I hope you are as well as can be hoped for during these awful times. I have reviewed three books this week, and have included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukraine:

Profile of a Prodigy: The Life and Games of Bobby Fischer,
by Frank Brady

“Psychologically, he seems trapped by his own temperament, unable to realize that a sensitivity to the rights and interests of others is a condition of social being. He has backed himself into such a small cultural corner that his ideational mobility suffers every time it is tried, as is shown by the almost pathetic lack of sophistication in his statements since Curaçao. Indeed, he is scarcely able to communicate with the world of larger interests except through the medium of the chessboard. Mikhail Tal one said in an interview that Bobby should read more outside of chess or else his game would eventually  suffer from the thinness of his education. Bobby replied by slighting his critic’s chess ability and adding a series of sneers at intellectual pretensions on the part of certain chess masters.”

This book is about the famous chess player Bobby Fischer, who was a prodigy as a kid and who went on to become the world champion of chess.

What makes this book more interesting is that the author knew Fischer personally. Also, this book was written and published in the 1960s, when Fischer was on hiatus from chess and before he returned to win his famous matches in the 1970s. So here we only have a partial profile of a prodigy rather than the whole story (which is what most standard biographies would give you). So think of this book as being more of a snapshot than a comprehensive biography.

The book was good. It was interesting to learn about the world of chess. Fischer was a very good chess player at a very young age, but he was also very immature. At the time this book was written, his immaturity was limiting him by causing him to decline to participate in chess. He had wanted to compete in the world championship, for instance, but, after convincing himself that the game was rigged against him in favor of his Soviet rivals (which he only complained about when they beat him), he also convinced himself to take a hiatus from the game.

 The book also contains annotated diagrams of Fischer’s greatest games (up to the 1960s). Though it was mildly interesting to flip through these (“14 RxB!!”), it was more interesting to read the biography portion of the book. What made it stand out the most to me was its chapter trying to dissect Fischer’s psychology. He apparently tied his sense of self-worth to chess to the point where he wound up sabotaging his chances at the world title in the 1960s to preserve his sense of superiority over other players.

So, if you’re interested in a psychological portrait of a (sometimes comically-whiny) prodigy, I’d recommend this book.

Poems by Alexander Blok, Translated by Yevgeny Bonver

“Years that burned everything to ashes!
Do you bring madness or grace?
The war’s and freedom’s fire flashes
Left bloody light on every face.”

After reading Pasternak’s poems on a website and reviewing them on this blog, I have found another website with a lot of poems by Alexander Blok.

The poems were good. They made me think about the world in a different way. Some were particularly striking, like “All perished, All!” and “He, who was born…” All in all, it was a very good compilation.

The only thing I would say about these poems is that the English translation loses out on nuances in the original. For instance, in “Night, Streets, the Lantern…” the original’s last line has to do with ice flowing (or something that shows that in spite of the frozenness of ice, it still contains a glimmer of motion). This nuance was completely lost in the translation, which mentioned something about a swelling canal in the night. Obviously not all translations can be perfect, but it has made me wonder how much nuance has been lost in the other poems translated here.

In any case, I would recommend just to get exposure to Blok. If you can read the originals, I would recommend them even more.

The Haunting of Falcon House, by Eugene Yelchin,
Read by Michael Bakkensen and George Guidall

“I hesitated, deciding which book to open first. Not that it mattered. It shouldn’t be too hard for me to pass what was required. French I didn’t need to study. I already knew it. Of course, en garde, prêts, allez were the only words I knew, but they were the most important words in French. You couldn’t start fencing without saying them. I didn’t have to bother with the Russian grammar, either. Russian is my mother tongue, and besides, I write in cursive neatly. Well, almost neatly. As for arithmetic…true, numbers had always troubled me a little, but I could draw them well. Zeros in particular.”

This book is about a prince, Lev Lvovich, who is sent to live with his aunt Olga in a house called Falcon House, which just so happens to be haunted. As he tries to live up to his grandfather’s legacy (his grandfather was apparently a fancy general in the Russian army), he meets a mysterious boy named Vanyusha who has mysterious secrets, studies half-heartedly for admittance into a fancy Russian military academy, and finds himself drawing pictures better than he ever had drawn them before.

The book started slow but gets really good at the end. Was it worthwhile? I found it to be so. It was fun to read, with humor, action, and heart. I felt like some aspects could have been developed more (we learn about the protagonist’s grandfather but not so much about his father, for instance), but there was enough to keep the read entertaining.

So, if you’re looking for a book with some humor and a terrific ending, read this. And if you just so happen to be cramming for final exams and writing essays for final assignments, I’d recommend this book even more for its inspirational take on academics (see excerpt above!)

As promised, here’s a list of Ukrainian organizations to donate to. In case you missed out on previous lists, some entries are repeated here:

UN Refugees: Supports Ukrainian refugees by giving them supplies and assistance. Gifts are being matched up to 1 million dollars. Donate here: https://www.unrefugees.org/

World Central Kitchen: Provides food to displaced Ukrainian refugees and to civilians still in Ukrainian cities. Donate here: https://wck.org/

Razom for Ukraine: Provides medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

Plan USA: Gives resources and psychological support to girls and women in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/

Lit in the Time of War: Sergey, Marina, Ilf, Petrov, and Yelchin

Hello! I hope you had a happy Easter/Passover/Ramadan. This week I’ve reviewed three books, and, as usual, provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukraine during this awful war.

The Scar, by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko,
Translated by Elinor Huntington

“The world is preserved by the mother of all roads. She looks after the faithful traveler, relieving his solitude. The dust of the road covers the hem of a cloak, the dust of the constellations covers the curtain of the night sky, and the wind blows both the clouds toward first light and sheets hung up the dry with the same eagerness. It is no misfortune if the soul is scorched by the sun; it is far more disastrous if a raging fire devastates the soul. It is no misfortune if you do not know where you are going; it is far worse when there is no longer anywhere to go. He who stands on the path of experience cannot step away from it, even when it has come to its end. For the path is without end.”

This is a book about a guy named Egert who starts out being a self-absorbed jerk and a member of the royal guard. He’s very brave, but he bullies his friends, chases after other men’s loved ones, and so on. But one time, he winds up killing a woman’s fiancé in a duel, and gets cursed by a mysterious man called the Wanderer. The curse rids Egert of his bravery and sets him fleeing from everything. Now he needs to figure out how to break the curse before it’s too late.

This was a fun read. The protagonist was initially very unsympathetic, but wound up becoming more sympathetic as the book went on and he learned how to be compassionate towards others instead of just thinking about himself. What also made this book good is that even though nothing seems to happen and there are no real big battles or anything (except at the beginning and the end) it still feels as though a lot is happening (even though the characters just walking around living life). I guess that’s a testament to their authors’ skills with characterization.

It’s also a compelling read—I found myself prioritizing this book over my schoolwork. So if you’re in the throes of studying for final exams, etc, be warned.

In any case, I’d recommend this book.

The Twelve Chairs, by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov,
Translated by John Richardson

(So funny I had to include 2 excerpts)

Excerpt 1:

“The same old story of Gavrila was begun again [by Nikifor Lapis], but this time with a hunting twist to it. The work went under the title of ‘The Poacher’s Prayer.’

‘Gavrila lay in wait for rabbits.
Gavrila shot and winged a doe…’

‘Very good,’ said the kindly Napernikov. ‘You have surpassed Entich himself in this poem, Trubetskoi. Only there are one or two things to be changed. The first thing is to get rid of the word “prayer.” ‘And “rabbit,”’ said the rival. ‘Why rabbit?’ asked Nikifor [Lapis] in surprise. ‘It’s the wrong season.’”

Excerpt 2 (Also about Lapis):

“‘Well, how have you been making out?’ asked Persidsky. ‘I’ve written a marvelous poem!’ ‘About Gavrila? Something peasanty? “Gavrila ploughed the fields early. Gavrila just adored his plough?”’ ‘Not about Gavrila. That’s a pot-boiler,’ said Lapis defensively. ‘I’ve written about the Caucasus.’ ‘Have you ever been to the Caucasus?’ ‘I’m going in two weeks.’ ‘Aren’t you afraid, Lapis? There are jackals there.’ ‘Takes more than that to frighten me. Anyway, the ones in the Caucasus aren’t poisonous.’ They all pricked up their ears at this reply. ‘Tell me, Lapis,’ said Persidsky, ‘What do you think jackals are?’ ‘I know what they are. Leave me alone.’ ‘All right, tell us then if you know.’ ‘Well, they’re sort of… like… snakes.’”

This is a very funny book. it stars con-man Ostap Bender, the “smooth operator” (or “великий комбинатор” in the Russian original) and his guileless acquaintance Ippolit Matveyevich, who’s much less smooth of an operator. Ippolit Matveyevich has just gotten an inheritance of 12 chairs from his mom, and one of the chairs contains a fortune sewn within it. The only problem is that Ippolit Matveyevich does not have the chairs—they have started to be dispersed around Russia. When Ostap Bender learns about this, he insists on getting into the chair-hunting business. Thus begins an epic and funny chase around Russia.

This book reminded me a lot of Gogol’s Dead Souls in that there are different episodes that the characters go through to swindle others of their money, and each episode is pretty funny. While not as funny as Ivan Chonkin by Voinovich, it’s still very funny (and some episodes are absolutely hilarious). Not to mention that this book has a very surprising and exciting twist ending that somehow gets cancelled out in the second book of the series which you should also lie in wait for (like Gavrila with the doe that he intends to wing).

In any case, I would recommend.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose, by Eugene Yelchin,
Illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, Read by Mark Turetsky

“‘Why is “The Nose” still so important to us?’ No hands go up, and I’m not surprised. He’s talking about a crazy old story they always make us read called “The Nose.” It’s really stupid. Some guy’s nose is dressed up in uniform, imagine that, and it starts putting on airs as though it’s an important government official. It takes place way before Stalin was our leader and teacher, of course. Could something like this happen now? No way. So why should Soviet children read such lies? I don’t know. I’m in no hurry, so I keep listening. ‘What “The Nose” so vividly demonstrates to us today,’ says Lushko, ‘is that when we blindly believe in someone else’s idea of what is right or wrong for us as individuals, sooner or later, our refusal to make our own choices could lead to the collapse of the entire political system. An entire country. The world, even.’”

This book is about a kid named Sasha Zaichik whose father is an official in Stalin’s government. Sasha is a model Soviet student, and he wants to become a Young Pioneer (the Soviet equivalent of Boy Scouts) at an upcoming ceremony at his school. The only problem is that his father is arrested by the Soviet government, and now Sasha has to go to school and hope that his father comes back in time for the ceremony (spoiler alert: he doesn’t).

Along the way, he meets friendly enemies of the people (classmates whose parents had also been arrested), breaks the nose off a bust of Stalin (which could get him arrested), and is lectured to by a life-sized version of Stalin’s nose smoking a pipe (see drawing above).

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Who cares that it’s for kids? the author is terrific at dramatic irony (Sasha remains in denial about his dad’s arrest, but we know too well what’s probably happened to him), and at drawing through-lines through the story (Character A does something mysterious, we wonder about it for a while and then forget about it, only for it to pop back up again at the end of the book).

The author is also great at humanizing the characters. I found myself sympathizing with even the least sympathetic of them (Sasha’s classmates). It also goes without saying that Sasha himself is also very sympathetic.

The book is also apparently illustrated. I didn’t get to see that, as I read the audiobook version, but the illustrations look pretty good based on what I could find online…

In any case, I definitely recommend this book. Who cares if you’re an adult? Read it anyway. You won’t regret it.

As promised, here are some places you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need:

The American Jewish Distribution Committee: Supports those in Ukraine, those fleeing Ukraine, and Ukrainians residing in Hungary, Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.jdc.org/

Muslim Hands: UK-based organization supporting Ukrainian refugees in Poland (can choose to donate in dollars). Donate here: https://muslimhands.org.uk/donate/ukraine-refugee-crisis/ukraine-refugee-crisis

Jeremiah’s Hope: Christian organization that provides evacuation assistance, relief, and long-term rebuilding support. Specifically focuses on helping orphans. Donate here: https://www.jeremiahshope.org/

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