Lit in the Time of War: Zweig

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I have read one book this week (and part of another book which will be partly-reviewed in the coming weeks). I’ve also finished my last essays ever at Princeton, and am about to graduate. Yay!

In this post, I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

The Royal Game and Other Stories, by Stefan Zweig,
Translated by Jill Sutcliffe

“Edgar learned much in that single hour he had been alone. He began to see many things from that narrow compartment with its windows to the outside world. And gradually something began to blossom out of his dark despair. It wasn’t exactly happiness, but rather astonishment at the diversity of life. He had run away because he had been a frightened coward for those few moments, but after all, he had acted on his own initiative, experienced something of the real world that hitherto had passed him by. Perhaps he had become a mystery to his parents now, too, as the world had been to him for a long time.”

This is a collection of short stories by Stefan Zweig. One’s about chess, one’s about colonialism, a third’s about youth, another’s about fear, and a fifth’s about unrequited love. They are all terrific.

Zweig has a way of giving his situations a lot of specificity, so that what should be a boring story about affairs becomes a fascinating look into the fear that a criminal faces before having confessed to wrongdoing. There’s also a lot of the psychological in these stories, and no wonder (Zweig has referenced Freud’s influence on his fiction a lot of times).

However, unlike Freud, Zweig is working in fiction, meaning that he’s able to keep the reader reading. Seriously. I sometimes started reading a story, telling myself “just ONE page,” only to read through the whole thing. This combination of psychological depth, situational specificity, and compelling writing is formidable, and makes Zweig an underrated classic worth reading.

Have you read Zweig? Let me know in the comments below!

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

Revived Soldiers Ukraine—Provides medical support to soldiers and civilians. Donate here:

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

Amnesty International—Investigates human rights violations in Ukraine to hold those responsible accountable, defends journalists and other people at risk. Donate here:

Voices of Children—Provides psychological counseling for children and helps refugee evacuations. Donate here:


Lit in the Time of War: Aswany

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I’ve read another book, and have reviewed it below for your enjoyment. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help refugees fleeing the war in South Sudan. Please do so if you are able.

Chicago, by Alaa Al Aswany, Translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab

“‘I haven’t told this story to anyone, but you should know it because yesterday you accused me of fleeing from Egypt.’ ‘I apologize again.’ He bowed his head and said in a soft voice, as if talking to himself, ‘Please stop apologizing. I just want you to know me as I really am. For the last thirty years that I’ve lived in America, I haven’t forgotten Egypt for a single day.’ ‘Aren’t you happy with your life here?’ He looked at me as if trying to find the right words, and then he smiled and said, ‘Have you had any American fruits?’ ‘Not yet.’ ‘Here they use genetic engineering to make the fruit much larger and yet it doesn’t taste so good. Life in America, Nagi, is like American fruit: shiny and appetizing on the outside, but tasteless.’”

(NOTE: I know the author of this book, but have reviewed it solely based on its merits)

This is a book set in Chicago, at the University of Illinois, in its histology department, after 9/11. It follows the lives of Egyptian and American students and professors. Some have their sense of tradition shaken, others face persecution, and others plan conspiracies against the soon-to-visit Egyptian president. What will happen? Read the book to find out.

It’s a very good read, too. The author is very observant of people, and a lot of his details are wonderful to read. It’s easier to write sharp-eyed details than it is to actually make the reader feel emotions, but the author manages to do both. There’s a lot of sadness in the book, but also moments of comedy, and the occasional moment of joy. The reader feels it all.

As promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support people fleeing Sudan:

Save the Children: Helps reunify children with their families, provides educational support, and basic needs like food and water. Donate here:

CARE: Helps people restore their livelihoods while providing them food, water, and shelter. Donate here:

UNHCR: Provides shelter, access to healthcare facilities, and waterproofing abilities for Sudanese refugees. Donate here:

Islamic Relief Fund: Provides humanitarian aid for refugees and orphans, helps people access healthcare, and increase families’ income. Donate here:

Lit in the Time of War: Dillon

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I’ve read one book this week and have reviewed it below. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

Suppose a Sentence, by Brian Dillon

“What did I think I was seeing in these other sentences? Or hearing, or hoping to emulate? With the first three, it’s obvious: an epigrammatic snap, some truth at odds with received wisdom, a relevance to writing, a degree of portability: as a critic, I can imagine insinuating any one of them into an essay or review. Maybe not without a little pomp and satisfaction. But the others? How to say, because this must be the word, what I love there?”

This is a book recommended to me by a professor. It’s about sentences. Namely, it surveys different sentences across time, from Shakespeare to Anne Carson, and comments on them. The author seems keen to get at what makes the sentences work for him, which is interesting to read about. It’s also cool to see the evolution of the sentence throughout time, and how what makes such sentences good throughout time change.

That’s what I got in terms of content. What my professor really wanted me to pay particular attention to was how the author used sentences himself to effectively convey his scholarly argument. It was fascinating to see this, given that he started out the entire book with a super long sentence, included fragments throughout, and seemed more like he was having a conversation about a very interesting topic than he was trying to stiffly contrive his words into an academic-ish mold. There’s room for playfulness, in other words, and that’s inspiring.

Overall, if you like style, sentences, or are looking for a way to give your academic writing more panache (like myself), this book is a terrific and valuable read, and I’d definitely recommend.

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:

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

Revived Soldiers Ukraine—Provides medical support to soldiers and civilians. Donate here:

United Help Ukraine—Provides medical supplies to soldiers, and ships goods to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here:

World Central Kitchen—Feeds Ukrainian refugees as they cross into Poland. Donate here:

Lit in the Time of War: Kertész, Konstantin, and Dostoyevsky

Hello. I hope you are all healthy and safe and that you are enjoying whatever books you are reading. I’ve read three books this week and have reviewed them below in case you wanted any inspiration for your summer reading. I’ve also included a list of organizations to donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

Fatelessness, by Imre Kertész, Translated by Tim Wilkinson

“’Would you care to give an account of your experiences, young fellow?’ I was somewhat dumbfounded, and replied that there was not a whole lot I could tell to him that would be of much interest. He smiled a little and said, ‘Not me—the whole world.’ Even more amazed, I asked, ‘But what about?’ ‘The hell of the camps,’ he replied, to which I remarked that I had nothing at all to say about that as I was not acquainted with hell and couldn’t even imagine what that was like. He assured me, however, that it was just a matter of speaking: ‘Can we imagine the concentration camp as anything but a hell?’ he asked, and I replied, as I scratched a few circles with my heel in the dust under my feet, that everyone could think what they liked about it, but as far as I was concerned I could only imagine a concentration camp, since I was somewhat acquainted with what that was, but not hell.”

This is a book about fourteen year-old Georg who is taken to Auschwitz. Georg goes on to recount his experiences of starvation, torture and sickness with a kind of intellectualized detachment. His attempts to rationalize his experiences made for fascinating and horrifying reading.

I don’t know what else to say about this book other than that you have to read it yourself to understand what I mean. I would recommend.

A Red Boyhood: Growing Up Under Stalin,
by Anatole Konstantin

”As I discovered many years later, there actually was no need for us to go hungry. The desert was literally crawling with food: desert turtles and snakes were there just for the taking. The fact that people starved to death rather than eat them is another proof that materialism, dialectical or of any other kind, does not prevail in real life and that ideas and taboos are more powerful than even the instinct to survive.”

This is a memoir written by the Ukrainian Anatole Konstantin about his boyhood in the USSR. It begins with the arrest of his father, describes his life as a son of an enemy of the people, goes on to tell about his family’s experience during World War II (where they had to go work on a collective farm in Kazakhstan), described their return home, their journey through Poland, and ultimately, their emigration to America.

It was fascinating to read, especially since in my experience, history is usually depicted in somewhat-separated sections: Stalin’s purges are depicted as being separate from World War II, which is then shown as being separate from the Cold War. This is the way I learned about history in school at any rate. While dividing history into chapters/units may help students learn, this division destroys the sense of continuity that actually existed in reality. A Red Boyhood put all these sections of history together into one coherent whole, which enabled me to better see the causes and effects of various events.

The author apparently wrote this book “without any literary pretensions,” and in some places he makes subtle grammar errors/awkward word-choices which shows that English was not his native language. These did not really detract from his memoir. In any case, he more than compensated with the amount of rich detail he provided about his experiences. I was in awe of his memory. It felt like he was able to give very detailed descriptions of small events throughout his life, people he met once or twice, and even rooms in which he stayed in for like a night. His memory reminded me of the richness of detail in Maxim Gorky’s memoirs.

Anatole also had an excellent way of observing people. There would be several times where he would tell his mom not to trust Mr. So-and-So, and his mom would ignore him, only for Mr. So-and-So to wind up trying to steal their grain. This was very interesting to read about, and these nuances of their family relationship really brought history to life in a way that history textbooks never do.

In school, I remember a teacher giving me a bunch of memoirs to read written by historical figures in order to bring the dry-seeming facts we were learning to life. It seems to me that history can’t be taught effectively without humanizing the people involved—even if we do learn the dry facts in our textbooks to try and prevent history from repeating, history may repeat itself anyway unless we care enough about those who suffered before us to want to stop it from repeating. A Red Boyhood did a terrific job of making me care.

I would definitely recommend.

The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoyevsky,
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Translated by David Magarshack

“And so when I got off the bunk and looked round, I suddenly felt I remember, that I could look at these unhappy creatures with quite different eyes, and that suddenly by some miracle all hatred and anger had vanished from my heart. I walked round the prison peering into the faces I came across. That rascal of a peasant with his shaven head and branded face, yelling his horse drunken song at the top of his voice—why, he, too, might be the same sort of peasant as [the kindly] Marey: I cannot possibly look into his heart, can I?”

This book contains stories by Dostoyevsky written in his youth and in his old age. It’s interesting to track his writerly development across them. It starts out with “White Nights,” and goes on to other stories including “Notes from the Underground” and “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”

In the beginning, it seemed to me that Dostoyevsky was drawing mostly from the books he had read as a kid, because in “White Nights” the protagonist really just seems to want to assume a role similar to those of the literary heroes he worships, to the point of deluding himself about a romantic encounter. Not much more nuance exists to the story other than that.

As the book continues, there is more and more nuance to the stories. A rich man becomes jealous of a peasant boy who seems to have caught the eye of a rich girl who he eventually wants to marry for himself. Later on in Dostoyevsky’s writings, another man wants to feel so much in control of his reputation that he drives his wife to suicide.

As these dynamics become more nuanced, so does his observations related to them. While in the earlier stories, you could pretty quickly understand where characters were coming from all along (the rich man just wants the rich girl’s money! That’s it!), later stories had more unexpected revelations. At the same time, it didn’t feel like Dostoyevsky was doing any psychological acrobatics or contriving anything, which was exciting to see.

Finally, it’s interesting to compare Dostoyevsky’s first-person writings to his third-person ones. This book is entirely made up of his first-person writings, which all seem to be very rich, intriguing, and entertaining. Also, his characters all made sense, even when they got seemingly hysterical or irrational.

Meanwhile, whenever I read his third-person works (The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, or The Idiot), there were still rich psychological nuances and really good moments, but it seemed to me that his stories were less interesting, more convoluted, and that some of his characters suddenly acted very strangely and unrealistically. Now, you could apply the inner thought process of the Underground Man to Dmitri Karamazov, for instance, and his hysterical outbursts would make perfect sense. However, just reading about them in third person made them somehow seem unrealistic.

In any case this was just an observation I had. I would be interested to know if you had any thoughts about it.

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

Revived Soldiers Ukraine—Provides medical support to soldiers and civilians. Donate here:

United Help Ukraine—Provides medical supplies to soldiers, and ships goods to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here:

Doctors Without Borders—Ships emergency supplies to Ukrainian hospitals. Donate here: 

United Way Ukraine—Provides food, water, and other emergency support for Ukrainian refugees and their children. Donate here:

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Giono, Morris, and O’Neill (and Something More Inspiring)

Hello and happy Tuesday. We’re almost at the end of 2020, thankfully. I hope we have a better 2021. In the meantime, here are the last 3 books I’ve read this year. I wouldn’t recommend them as a hopeful way to cap off 2020, though, unless your idea of hopefully capping off a year somehow consists of reading a bunch of very sad books.

A King Alone, by Jean Giono

via GIPHY | Dark forest, Fantasy forest, Forest

“We stayed like that for a short time, face-to-face across fifty meters. Then Langlois moved toward the man, step by step, until he was three steps away. Then, once again, they seemed to come to an unspoken agreement. And then, truly, at the moment we could no longer bear to be there, when we were about to shout, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ there was a loud detonation. The man fell. Langlois had shot him, twice, in the stomach; a gun in each hand, at the same time. ‘It was an accident,’ he said. When Langlois got back to our town, he’d found the resignation letter he’d begun to write; he added: ‘Regrettable lack of sangfroid on the job…worn down pistol triggers, which should have been detected by a careful examination of the weapons, occasioned this terrible accident for which I have no excuse.'”

I don’t even know what A King Alone was about. It was set in the French countryside and seemed to be about a murderer on the loose, but then it got to telling about a wolf-hunt, and then about how one character wanted to get married. The ending was really good, though, and it reminded me a bit of Thomas Bernhard.

Let me talk a bit about what this book had to offer. It was well-written in terms of its sober but subtly-moving style, and its characters were interesting and sometimes funny. There are parts of the book where you don’t know what’s going on (why is Character X suddenly trying to get married when the book is supposed to be about a murderer?) but for some reason it all worked in the end. I don’t really know what else to say about this book. Sometimes it felt a bit drawn-out because of all the description of things. I’m not sure why it was called “A King Alone,” either. Somehow it feels like there was a big meaning to this book I never figured out.

Maybe read it yourself and figure out that meaning for yourself.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris

i care for you still and i will, forever — masterlist angst [a] smut [s]  fluff [f] one-shots ...

“Lale thinks about the date, April 4, 1944. When he’d seen it on his work sheets that week, ‘April’ had jarred with him. April, what was it about April? Then he realized. In three weeks’ time, he will have been here for two years. Two years. How has he done it? How is he still breathing, when so many aren’t? He thinks back to the vow he made at the beginning. To survive and see those responsible pay. Maybe, just maybe, those in the plane had understood what was going on, and rescue was on the way. It would be too late for those who died today, but maybe their deaths would not be entirely in vain. Hold that thought. Use it to get out of bed tomorrow morning, and the next morning, and the next.

This book is about a tattooist in Auschwitz, named Lale, who falls in love with a fellow prisoner, named Gita. He promises her he will marry her after they leave Auschwitz, but first they have to survive Auschwitz.

What’s most interesting about this book is that it’s based on a true story. A man named Lale who’d survived the Holocaust went to the author Heather Morris and told her his story for it to be remembered, and she went on to write a book about it.

This background is interesting because it seems to have informed how the story was told. Some parts of it felt like Morris was reporting/paraphrasing things Lale had probably told her– “Lale was born in X town on Y date, and he worked at job Z before the Nazi invasion,” or “Lale tried to deal with his troubles by thinking ABC, because he knew that QRS would happen which would mean LMNOP.” Then there were other parts where it felt like Morris was trying to guess what it was like to be in Lale’s situation, but for some reason that guessing mostly involved peoples’ hearts beating in their throats, peoples’ knees going weak, and other such clichés. They made me feel less like I was reading something based on a true story and more like I was reading someone’s idea of what it might have been like to be in a situation like Lale’s.

I don’t mean to sound harsh. There were several very good and surprising parts of the book. These parts felt like the author was able to get at something real and meaningful rather than trying to paraphrase thoughts or go for uninteresting descriptions. This happened more in the middle to end of the book instead of at the beginning. This variation gave the book an uneven quality. One minute I felt like I was reading an engrossing story. The next I felt like I was reading a soap opera, and the minute after that I felt like I was reading a piece of journalism.

I would say that if you’re interested in history and the Holocaust that this is a good book to read. Another book that I would recommend more strongly is Livia-Bitton Jackson’s I Have Lived a Thousand Years. That book stayed with me, and continues to haunt me to this day.

In the end though, everyone is different. You might enjoy the Tattooist of Auschwitz more than I did, and it does tell an important story.

Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill,
Edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer

wehadfacesthen | Comedians, Marx brothers, Funny people

“There’s nothing like having a real good ailment. It’s one thing that never bores you, or leaves you at a loss for a word. I’m sure if one of the Knitting Women had called to Louis XVI as he ascended the guillotine, ‘Well, Capet, how’re the old kidneys lately?’, he would have waved the headsman aside and begun a serious conversation as follows: ‘Well, not so good, Sister [….] I never get a wink of sleep any more. I don’t know how I stand it.’ At this point the headsman would have interrupted with a little anecdote about his arthritis, and all the veins, flatulence, flat feet and what not. Danton would have muscled in with a long harangue on the horrible hangover he had yesterday morning. Robespierre would have addressed the mob for two hours on the new pills he was taking to get rid of his pimples. The Revolution would have been forgotten. Louis would have become the Well Beloved again–a Royal Pal. The Bourbon dynasty would have been saved.”

This book contains a bunch of letters written by Eugene O’Neill from his youth to his old age. It’s interesting to see how he develops over time, and what he thinks about his plays and other people. In the end, the letters are very sad because O’Neill spent his whole life seemingly searching for the meaning of life without having found it. In the end, he does seem to have found something, though–friendship, writing, and love, but it’s never clear if he ever found solace from that. Also, by the time he realized the value of these things to him, his friends were dying, Parkinson’s had robbed him of the ability to write, and his beloved wife was going insane. That’s a horrible way to go, and so the end of the letter collection had me crying some.

Still, there was lots of wisdom in the letters. The wisdom came in two flavors: writerly wisdom and life wisdom. Writerly wisdom consisted of things along the lines of “set your manuscript aside for a few months if you’re not sure yet what you’re trying to say with it” and “experimental works usually fail because they’re done just for the sake of experimentation instead of for the sake of having something to say,” and the life wisdom had things like “stop relying on others to figure out your life, figure it out yourself.” I was surprised by how wise O’Neill turned out to be (though he also seemed to be somewhat racist and sexist, which is absolutely not wise).

Basically, if you’re interested in O’Neill’s plays, these letters are insightful, but they are also likely to be sadder than his super-sad and super-tragic play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Read at your own risk.

Now, because I don’t want to end the year with such a pessimistic note, I want to end by recommending a more inspirational poem, and that is William Ernest Henley’s Invictus:

Invictus by William Ernest Henley - I just want to share my favorite poem -  Imgur

Wishing you all a terrific 2021.