Lit in the Time of War: Wright

Hello! I hope you all had a very happy New Year. I’m kicking it off by reviewing the second part of Richard Wright’s autobiography, and including my usual list of places you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. May 2023 be the year there’s finally peace.

Black Boy, Part 2, by Richard Wright,
Read by Peter Francis James

Favorite quotes:

“The artist and the politician stand at opposite poles. The artist enhances life by his prolonged concentration upon it, while the politician emphasizes the impersonal aspects of life by his attempts to fit men into groups. The artist’s enhancement of life may emphasize, at certain times, those aspects that a politician can use, but the politician at other times, eager to do good for man, may sneer at the artist, because the art product cannot be used by them. Hence the two groups of men, driving in the same direction, committed to the same vision, often find themselves locked in a struggle, more desperate than either of them wanted, while their mutual enemies gape at the spectacle in amazement.”

“Somehow man had been sundered from man, and in his search for a new unity, for a new wholeness, for oneness again, he would have to blunder into a million walls to find merely that he could not go in certain directions. No one could tell him. He would have to learn, by marching down history’s bloody road. He would have to purchase his wisdom of life with sacred death. He would have to pay dearly to learn just a little. But perhaps, that is the way it has always been with man.”

“I headed toward home alone, really alone now, telling myself that in all the sprawling immensity of our mighty continent, the least-known factor of living was the human heart. The least-sought goal of being was a way to live a human life. Perhaps, I thought, out of my tortured feelings I could fling a spark into the darkness. I would try, not because I wanted to, but because I felt that I had to, if I were to live at all.”

(First part here).

The second part of Wright’s autobiography tells of his adventures in Chicago, which, while not as brutally racist as the South he’d come from, is still horribly racist. Wright also starts writing stories, and describes writing three stories that would form part of his short story collection, Uncle Tom’s Children. He also joins the Communist Party.

This second part was just as good as the first part, but I was surprised by Wright’s naivety about Russian colonialism. He seemed to think that the Soviets had successfully turned “backwards” people into civilized ones while preserving their culture—little did he know about the atrocities of the Holodomor, forced collectivization, and the Kazakh Famine.

But Wright was smart enough to eventually become disillusioned with the Communist Party, and his reflections on its internal dysfunction were fascinating to read. It seemed to me that Wright was searching for a sense of purpose in life, as were many people during the Great Depression. Some turned to Communism as a utopian ideal, but as Wright showed, Communism became self-destructive. And so Wright had to find a new source of purpose in life, one that wouldn’t become self-destructive. His book left me wondering, when people lose a sense of meaning in life, how do they reclaim it without becoming self-destructive?

Ultimately, his book had terrific insights into humanity, race, politics, and art. Reading it also left me even more impressed by Wright’s powerful determination to stay true to himself in spite of everyone else trying to force him to conform to their standards and ideologies. I would strongly recommend.

A quick note: These next two weeks I’ll be traveling, and so likely won’t be able to post my usual book reviews until the 23rd. However, when I return, I’ll most likely be reviewing another book by Wright and what many claim was one of Dickens’ greatest epic novels, among others. So stay tuned.

And if you have any recommendations for other books I might enjoy throughout the rest of 2023, let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need:

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 into Poland. Donate here: https://wck.org/

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/

Advertisement

Lit in the Time of War: Friel, Rulfo, and Mumcu

Hello! Happy Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and November 1st. I hope you are staying warm, healthy, and safe. I’ve reviewed three books this week, and have included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need.

“Translations,” by Brian Friel

“And it can happen—to use an image you’ll understand—it can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of…fact.”

In this play, English military cartographers Lancey and Yolland have come to the Irish town Baile Beag, to Anglicize the place-names for military purposes. A local man named Owen helps them by serving as a translator (to others’ chagrin). The play goes on to talk about language-based colonialism and its awful effects.

For me, I thought the play was interesting but flawed. There was one character who went on and on about the importance of learning Irish only to have an abrupt change of heart for no real reason. If someone were to have such a deep understanding of Irish’s importance, it would seem to me that he or she would need a strong and clearly-defined reason to change his or her view, but in this play there didn’t seem to be any such reason.

Also, Owen was framed as being the cause of troubles that the town suffered. Though it was absolutely true that his translation played an important role in enabling these troubles to happen, it didn’t directly cause them (there was an unrelated subplot that wound up being the main cause of them). To me, this break in causality seemed to weaken the play’s theme.

If you are interested in learning something about language-based colonialism, I would definitely recommend Translations—it does a very good job of intellectually sketching out this dynamic. However, just know that its characters and plot don’t embody the theme as well as they could have (in my subjective view).

Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo

En español:

“Muchos años antes, cuando ella era una niña, él [su padre] le había dicho: ‘Baja, Susana, y dime lo que ves.’ Estaba colgada de aquella soga que le lastimaba la cintura, que le sangraba sus manos; pero que no quería soltar: era como el único hilo que la sostenía al mundo de afuera. ‘No veo nada, papa.’ [….] La lámpara circulaba y la luz pasaba de largo junto a ella. Y el grito de allá arriba la estremecía [….] ‘Es una calavera de muerto’ [….] ‘Busca algo más, Susana. Dinero. Ruedas redondas de oro. Búscalas, Susana.’”

Este libro es sobre un hombre que viaja a un pueblo llamado Comala para conocer la historia de su padre a quien nunca conoció. Al principio de libro, el pueblo parece desierto, pero luego el protagonista encuentra algunos habitantes. Habla con ellos y descubre que son fantasmas que hablan con los vivos. El libro sigue contando la historia de Pedro Páramo, el padre del protagonista, quien fue un dictador del pueblo que ordenaba la muerte de las personas y buscaba el amor inalcanzable.

Este libro fue muy bien escrito. Se sentía un poco como una obra de teatro, porque se contaba principalmente a través de monólogos y diálogos con muy poca reflexión interna. Aun así, funcionó muy bien. Su diálogo significó que su “pacing” fue excelente. También exploró ideas de la Revolución mexicana, la negación de las emociones, el machísmo, y el perdón (o la falta de perdón). Gabriel García Márquez había dicho que Pedro Páramo le inspiró mucho, y que este libro fue lo que le permitió escribir Cien Años de Soledad. Yo pude ver por qué. Fue un libro muy bueno, y yo definitivamente recomendaría que lo leyeran (¡en español o en inglés!)

In English:

“Many years before, when she was a girl, he [her father] had told her: ‘Go down, Susana, and tell me what you see.’ She was hanging from that rope that hurt her waist, that made her hands bleed; but she didn’t want to let go: it was practically the only thread that connected her to the outside world. ‘I don’t see anything, papa.’ [….] The lamp circled and the light passed by her. And the scream from there shook her up [….] ‘It’s a dead man’s skull’ [….] ‘Look for something else, Susana. Money. Round gold discs. Look for them, Susana.’”

This book is about a guy who goes to a town called Comala to learn the story of his father who he never knew. At first the town seems deserted, but then he finds some inhabitants. He speaks with them only to find out that they are ghosts speaking to the living. He goes on to learn the story of Pedro Páramo, his father, who was a dictator of the town who ordered peoples’ deaths and sought unattainable love.

This book was very well written. It felt a little bit like a play in that it was mostly told through monologues and dialogues with very little internal reflection. Even so, it worked very well. The dialogue-ness of it meant its pace was terrific, and it explored ideas of the Mexican Revolution, denial of emotions, machísmo, and forgiveness (or unforgiveness). Gabriel García Márquez had said that he was very inspired by Pedro Páramo, and that it was what enabled him to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. I could see why. It was a very good book and I would definitely recommend that you read it (either in Spanish or in English!)

The Peace Machine, by Özgür Mumcu,
Translated by Mark David Wyers

“They were human and they didn’t know why they were there. They were human and they would go on destroying each other. Because they didn’t know why they were there, they despised one another. Even if they measured the size of the world with compasses and angle rules, even if they created anthologies of the work of all the poets written in dead languages, even if glaciologists measured the age of ice stalactites, even if oceanographers plumbed the deepest oceans, even if uranium glowed, cogs and gears followed every order, and trees were pruned and trained to fit in the palm of one’s hand, they would go on destroying each other. Though they solved the how, they couldn’t work out the why. And so they despised each other.”

In a world where electricity has just been invented and our protagonist Celal has no choice but to run from authorities and say tongue-twisters that enable him to run (read the book and this will make sense!), a friend of Celal’s father comes up with an idea for a machine that will put an end to all war forever and bring peace to the land. Warmongerers make war machines. Why can’t peacemongerers make peace machines?

Celal gets caught up in these plans. In the process, he sticks his head in a lion’s mouth (literally and metaphorically), travels around the world, and gets embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrow the Serbian monarchs.

The book was very, very funny at points (such as the first chapter), very, very insightful at others (such as the excerpt I quoted), and less funny and insightful at others. It seems to me that the author had some truly terrific ideas, but that this book had a lower density of them than it could have had (if that makes sense). Look at a book like Pedro Páramo, and you see that the ideas are rich all the way through. Look at a book like The Peace Machine and you find a few terrific gems scattered here and there. This isn’t to say that the book isn’t worth reading—it absolutely is. Just that it felt like the author could have done even more with his ideas than he wound up doing in the book.

Still, it’s funny and has very good insights about war and peace, so I would recommend.

If you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

As promised, here is a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you are able:

The International Rescue Committee—Supports Ukrainian families in Poland by giving them food, water, and other vital supplies. Donate here: https://help.rescue.org/donate/ukraine-web

Action Against Hunger—Provides nutritious food, cash, hygiene kits, and mental health support to Ukrainian refugees.
Donate here: https://www.actionagainsthunger.org/donate/ukraine-emergency-response

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

Insight—Provides food, permanent shelter, and medicine/hormones to LGBTQI+ Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://www.insight-ukraine.org/en/join-donate/

Lit in the Time of War: Krasznahorkai and Zola

Stop the War and Read Krasnahorkai and Zola

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe, and that you had a happy Diwali if you celebrate. I’ve read the first parts of two massive novels this week, and have reviewed them below. I’ve also included a list of organizations you could donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, Part 1, by László Krasznahorkai, Translated by Ottilie Mulzet

“…I see in advance what will be, I hear in advance what will be, and it shall be sans joy and sans solace, so that nothing like this will ever come about ever again, so when I step onto the stage with you, musical gentleman, I won’t be happy in the least, if this commission, predicated upon a possibility, comes to fruition—and I now wish to say this to you as a way of bidding farewell: I don’t like music, namely I don’t like at all what we are about to bring together here now, I confess, because I’m the one who is supervising everything here, I am the one—not creating anything—but who is simply present before every sound, because I am the one who, by the truth of God, is simply waiting for all of this to be over.”

This is a book that’s supposed to be about the homecoming of some baron, but this first part is only about a famous professor of mosses who gets visited by the daughter he’d abandoned and goes on to kill people. It also has a lot of run on sentences. The entire 100ish-page section is probably told in 10 huge sentences or less.

While the sentences are meant to be an experiment, I found they made the book harder to read. It was sometimes hard to keep track of what was going on, and when I had to take breaks from reading, I was never sure where to pause because the sentences just flowed so relentlessly. I was also struck by how long winded the author seemed (probably due to the massive sentences).

On the other hand, parts of the book were funny, and he seemed to be building up some kind of metaphor. So maybe he does have something to say that’ll make this book worth reading. I look forward to reading more and finding out (and of course if you’ve read it and have any thoughts, let me know).

Germinal, by Émile Zola, Narrated by Frederick Davidson

“A rebellion was germinating in this little corner.”

This is a book about a bunch of miners who get exploited all day and eventually stage an uprising. They rebel because a new miner named Etienne has arrived to inspire them.

The first part of this book is about Etienne’s arrival into their midst. Etienne comes, falls for a girl named Catherine, and has to make the decision—should he stay or should he go away to look for more work?

I had previously tried reading Zola’s The Masterpiece only to give up because of its lack of realistic-seeming characters. Meanwhile Germinal was surprisingly good. It had very interesting descriptions of the mines that made them seem evil from the start. Its characters were also well-written (Etienne’s penchant for rebellion is established by the fact that he’d gotten fired from his previous job because he’d slapped his exploitative manager). Sure, Etienne kind of objectified Catherine, but it wasn’t so blatant that it took that much away from the book.

Also, it was interesting to compare Zola’s book to Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Read the first chapters of each and you’ll see just how influenced Grossman was by Zola.

Overall, if you’re looking for a massive classic to read this Halloween, I’d recommend Germinal (at least based on the first part—and I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read the rest of it, as well!)

As promised, here’s a list of some organizations supporting Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you are able.

Art of Living Switzerland—Helps Ukrainian refugees evacuate, find shelter, and receive food, transportation, and trauma support. Donate here: https://www.artofliving.org/ch-en/donate-ukraine

International Medical Corps—Expands access to health and medical support to Ukrainians in embattled areas and helps refugees evacuate. Donate here: https://give.internationalmedicalcorps.org/page/99837/donate/1

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

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

Lit in the Time of War: Molnar, Pushkin, and Birmingham

Hello! Happy Rosh Hashanah to those who celebrate. I’ve read three books this week and have reviewed them all for your enjoyment. I’ve also provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

The Paul Street Boys, by Ferenc Molnar,
Translated by Louis Rittenberg

“The only human being in the street at that moment was János Boka—the general. And, as General János Boka gazed about him and realized that he was all alone, his heart was so tightly gripped by a strange feeling that János Boka, general, leaned against the gate-post and burst into genuinely bitter, heartfelt tears.”

This is a book about bunch of kids (the Paul Street boys) who get into fights with a bunch of other kids. Some of the kids from the Paul Street boys seem to be traitors—but are they really? And who will win? Read the book and find out.

 The book was very well written and had a lot of heart. It had very funny parts (the kids telling an adult that they’re part of a putty club which involves them chewing on balls of putty so as not to tell the adult about their other Paul Street boys club), and it had sad parts (which I won’t spoil). It also had interesting subplots about some of the boys which made the book even more enjoyable.

Parts of The Paul Street Boys reminded me of another Hungarian book, György Dragomán’s The White King. That book also involved boys fighting, but in that book the fights were much darker (since the story itself was much darker). In The Paul Street Boys, it was refreshing to see the kids have such strong senses of honor. Sometimes it felt a bit too idealistic (considering that some of the kids may have very well grown up into real military commanders who may or may not have been forced to give up their honor for the sake of victory). Even so, the book steered clear of preaching blind idealism (“Rah, rah, fighting is amazing!”) through its terrific twist-ending (which I won’t spoil).

Overall, if you’re looking for a warm adventuresome book that makes some very good points about war and life and the meaning of fighting, I would recommend The Paul Street Boys.

Ruslan & Ludmila, by Alexander Pushkin,
Translated by D.M. Thomas

“Events described in ancient pages
By some long-perished Russian dreamer.”

This is a story about Ruslan and Ludmila, two lovers who are supposed to get married. Only just before they do, an evil wizard teleports into their midst and kidnaps Ludmila. So the king (Ludmila’s father) decides to make his daughter’s rescue into a contest—whoever rescues her will actually marry her. Ruslan and two other guys set out to rescue her. Along the way, they try to kill each other and try to avoid getting killed themselves by the various magical creatures they meet.

The story was fun and well-told. Pushkin made good observations about nature and got me firmly on Ruslan’s side. Even so, I felt a bit let-down. As someone who’s been studying Russian, I found myself imagining the Russian version of some of the lines I was reading, and found myself realizing how much better the poem likely would have been in Russian (there would likely have been a lot of beautiful assonance that got lost in the English translation, for instance).

This is obviously my own fault for not studying Russian enough to be able to read the book in the original. And in any case, for those of you who don’t know any Russian, Thomas’s translation still did a very good job of capturing whatever poetic rhythm and sound it could, so I would definitely recommend.

However, if you DO know Russian (or are learning it like I am), I’d probably recommend reading it in the original (or getting a bilingual version!)

The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoyevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece, by Kevin Birmingham, Read by Robert Petkoff

“To earn money, he [Dostoyevsky] devised various translation schemes to serve Russia’s interest in western fiction. Mikhail [his brother] translated German texts, and Fyodor translated French. He believed translations were a sure path to fortune. ‘Why is Strugovshchikov already famous?’ he asked Mikhail. All of his calculations had optimistic bottom lines, sometimes several thousand rubles. ‘Just wait and see. They’ll come flying at us in swarms when they see the translations in our hands. There will be plenty of offers from booksellers and publishers. They are dogs.’”

This book is about Dostoyevsky, the writing of his book Crime and Punishment, and the French murderer who inspired it.

The book alternated between telling Dostoyevsky’s story, the story of his book, and the story of Francois Lacenaire, a Frenchman who murdered people out of nihilism. So the book was part-biography, part In Cold Blood, and part literary scholarship. Even though it alternated among these three “plotlines,” the book had a terrific sense of narrative drive (I’d find myself wondering “How will Dostoyevsky get out of this problem?”).

Interestingly, since the author wrote about Dostoyevsky’s life, some parts of his biography read like summarized versions of Dostoyevsky’s books. The author wrote about the exact same details in Dostoyevsky’s Siberian imprisonment that made their way into his book Notes From a Dead House for instance, and it felt like I was reading a miniature version of Dead House nestled within a bigger biography of Dostoyevsky.

The author also explained the origins of various characters in Dostoyevsky’s book—ever wonder where Porfiry Petrovich came from? This book will tell you, along with how Petrovich evolved over the course of Dostoyevsky’s revisions.

At the same time, the author gave very good psychological and philosophical insights into nihilism, its causes, and the brutal lengths some people went for it. He did this by telling Lacenaire’s story and the story of Russia’s unrest as Dostoyevsky was writing Crime and Punishment. Ultimately, these three “plotlines” made the book’s scope bigger than just a literary analysis, and the book was much richer for it.

So if you’re looking for a book about Dostoyevsky that takes a different approach than a standard biography/literary analysis, I’d recommend this book. And I’d especially recommend it in audiobook form, since the narrator was terrific.

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

Jewish National Fund—Helps Ukrainian refugees find shelter while providing them with food, toys, and psychological assistance. Donate here: https://my.jnf.org/donate-ukraine-relief/Donate

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

Global Empowerment Mission—Gives plane tickets to Ukrainian refugees so they can reach friends and family they have in Europe. Donate here: https://www.globalempowermentmission.org/

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

Lit in the Time of War: Kawabata

Hello, and happy August! I have reviewed one book this week that I have been eager to read for a while. I have also provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need.

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata,
Translated by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman

“Even if she was laughed at for her exaggerated carefulness—taking those 10 days to buy something that cost a mere forty sen—Yoshiko would not have been satisfied unless she had done so. She had never occasion to regret having bought something on the spur of the moment. It was not that the seventeen-year-old Yoshiko possessed such meticulous discrimination that she spent several days thinking about and looking at something before arriving at a decision. It was just that she had a vague dread of spending carelessly the silver fifty-sen pieces, which had sunk into her mind as an important treasure.”

This is a book of very short stories—they could actually be called flash fiction—written before flash fiction was even a thing. They’re called “Palm-of-the-Hand” stories because they’re so short they can fit onto your palm. An example of this kind of story by Kawabata is this story that I reviewed earlier (but which is unfortunately not included in this collection).

A lot of these stories had great insights into humanity. Each one felt like a little world. Some of them even encompassed entire generations in two or three pages (such as the two-paged “Faces”), and others felt like epics condensed into super-short forms (“Earth”).

Kawabata wrote these stories throughout his life, so you get to see his artistic development. His development didn’t seem like some authors’ developments, like Chekhov, Hemingway, or London, who started out writing awkward/sometimes-really-bad stories and then gradually got better as they continued writing.

Yes, some of Kawabata’s stories felt too subtle to understand, and a few others felt overly-crafted—they were so meticulously made that Kawabata’s intentional repetition of phrases actually drew attention to the artificialness of the story in question. Even so, there weren’t many like this. Kawabata must have already gotten all of his badly-written stories out before going on to publish his palm-of-the-hand stories.

So, instead of seeing how Kawabata developed from a not-good writer to a great writer, I was able to see how he returned to write new pieces about certain themes, ideas, and characters (he loved writing about old men walking alongside young girls, for instance).

One of the most fascinating stories of the collection was “Gleanings From Snow Country.” Kawabata worked on this story throughout his life and only published it right before he died. “Gleanings” is basically a 10-page version of Kawabata’s novel, Snow Country. Having read that book before this one, I was able to find aspects of the same plot, while also noticing how the two differed in their development. In “Gleanings,” Kawabata couldn’t fit in all the detail of his novel, and so some parts of the plot felt vaguely sketch-like. He still hit all the high-points of his novel (while only hinting at the end). Unfortunately though, while “Snow Country” had one of the best sentences I’ve ever read, “Gleanings” didn’t have room for it.

Overall, I would recommend this book if you have never read anything by Kawabata and want to get a taste of him before reading some of his other works. I would also recommend this collection if you are a fan of flash fiction, and if you’re a fan of terrific fiction in general.

Have you read any of Kawabata’s work? Let me know in the comments below!

Now, as promised, here is a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support people in Ukraine:

Global Giving—Provides basic necessities (food, shelter), psychosocial and health support, and economic assistance to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/ukraine-crisis-relief-fund/

Insight—Provides food, permanent shelter, and medicine/hormones to LGBTQI+ Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://www.insight-ukraine.org/en/join-donate/

Revived Soldiers Ukraine: Provides medical support to soldiers and civilians. Donate here: https://www.rsukraine.org/

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

Lit in the Time of War: Hauptmann, Spragins, and Maupassant

Hello! I hope you are well and that you had a happy 4th of July yesterday if you live in America. I have read three books this week and have reviewed them below for your pleasure. I have also provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support people in Ukraine. Please do so if you are able.

The Weavers,” “Hannele,” and “The Beaver Coat,” by Gerhart Hauptmann, Translated by Horst Frenz and Miles Waggoner

DR. FLEISCHER enters with his five-year-old son. FLEISCHER is 27 years old, wears a hunting suit, has coal black hair, mustache and goatee. His eyes are deep-set, his voice is soft. He continually shows an almost pathetic anxiety for his child.

MRS WOLFF. (Shouting joyfully.) My! Philipp’s come to visit us! […] (She takes hold of the child and pulls off his overcoat.)

FLEISCHER. (Anxiously.)  Mrs. Wolff, there’s a draft. I think there’s a draft.

MRS WOLFF. He ain’t that frail [….]

FLEISCHER. No, no. Be careful. What do you think? The child takes cold in a minute. Move about, Philipp. Keep moving about.

(Philipp refuses to move and screams.)”

This is a collection of plays including “The Weavers” which I have already reviewed and two others which I haven’t.

“Hannele” is about an abused girl who has hallucinations of angels. “The Beaver Coat” is about an upstanding woman who decides to steal a beaver coat from someone else.

“Hannele” had a lot of elements of fantasy in it and not much characterization. Yes, there were some interesting characters at the beginning, but they didn’t play much of a role in the rest of the story.

“The Beaver Coat” had more characterization (see excerpt above), but also had a somewhat anticlimactic (though still good and somewhat surprising) ending. The ending was probably much more surprising back in the late 1800s-early 1900s when this play was written. However, after reading plays like Ibsen’s “The Pillars of the Community,” it wasn’t as surprising to me.

The play that stood out the most to me was “The Weavers.” There were interesting characters who had thought-provoking interactions, and the play’s ending was striking. For me, the ending scene that Hauptmann probably intended to have the most impact felt somewhat less impactful than one line just before it. The ending scene felt a bit too “look at how sad this situation is!” while the line I’m referring to was more subtle but somehow filled with dread and significance.

Overall, I would recommend.

What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self,
Edited by Ellyn Spragins

“What could also ease your stress is a different way of thinking about how we travel through this world. There’s no ladder to success. The rhythm of life runs in cycles. There are times in the darkness and times in the light. The energy of life is like the rainforest in Borneo. Things live, grow, die, fall to the forest floor, rot, and then they are born again.”
(From a letter by Olympia Dukakis)

This is a book of letters written by accomplished women, filled with advice they wished they’d had when they were young.

Authors inside include Madeleine Albright, Nora Roberts, and Maya Angelou. In a way it reminded me of A Hand to Guide Me, which had a similar conceit.

It was interesting to read the editor’s introductions to each woman. They helped me better appreciate each woman’s life and background. However, for some reason the editor kept writing lines like “I was prepared to encounter a shrill, angry woman” only to be surprised when the woman she encountered turned out to be a very nice person. All of the women turned out to be very nice people, and they all had great perspectives on life. Topics in their letters included growing up, making it in life, getting married (or not), and being a mother.

Interestingly, the most famous letter-writers didn’t necessarily give the most insight (similar to what happened in A Hand to Guide Me). Some standout letters from What I Know Now were the ones by Olympia Dukakis (actress), Joyce Tenneson (photographer), and Ingrid Newkirk (founder of PETA).

If you’re looking to be inspired, I would definitely recommend this book.

The Complete Short Stories of Maupassant, Ten Volumes in One, Volume 4, by Guy de Maupassant

Two Quotes:

“And he extended his great rude hand, into which the priest let fell his own, heartily. The smack of this hand-shake ran along under the arches and died away back in the organ pipes.”

“Simon Bombard often found life very bad! He was born with an unbelievable aptitude for doing nothing and with an immoderate desire to follow this vocation.”

(Volumes 1, 2, 3 here)

The more I read Maupassant, the more I figure out his formula: he starts out with a situation, has his characters get into an affair, and then gets the characters into some kind of situation in which they show a surprising side of themselves. At least, that was the way it felt in this volume, where 99% of the stories seemed to include a love affair.

This made for somewhat less interesting reading than usual–how many times can you read about an affair? Even so, it wasn’t that boring, because Maupassant has the ability to make anything interesting, even if he’s written about it so much that it should have become completely uninteresting.

He also tells compassionate stories of the downtrodden (prostitutes, orphans, etc.), which made for good reading (even though in this volume they usually wound up getting into affairs).

In any case, if you have decided to take the plunge and read all ten volumes along with me, I applaud you. If you haven’t yet decided to take that plunge, take it as soon as you can, because it will be much well worth your time. At least read one of his stories, and make that story be “Ball-of-Fat” (Volume One). From there, you won’t be able to stop reading Maupassant, and you’ll wish you had all ten volumes of his short stories in front of you so you could keep reading.

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

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

CNN Public Good: Provides money to organizations working in Ukraine such as Americares, Catholic Relief Services, and Oxfam America. Donate here: http://cnn.com/2022/02/24/us/iyw-how-to-help-ukraine/index.html

USA Ukraine Foundation: Provides grants and on-the-ground humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://usukraine.org/

Mercy Corps: Funds grassroots humanitarian organizations in Ukraine and provides food assistance to countries impacted by the war. Donate here: https://www.mercycorps.org/donate/war-ukraine-has-impacts-around-world-give-now

Lit in the Time of War: Stevenson and Aswany

Hello! I wasn’t able to post my usual book review yesterday, so I’m posting it today instead. I’m also including a list of places you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you are able.

Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson,
Read by Frederick Davidson

“[…] and taking a knife from the table, [Alan] cut me off one of the silver buttons from his coat. ‘I had them,’ says he, ‘for my father’s Duncan Stuart, and now give you one of them to be a keepsake for last night’s work, and wherever you go and show that button, the friends of Alan Breck will come around you.’ He said this as if he had been a Charlemagne and commanded armies, and indeed, much as I admired his courage, I was always in danger of smiling at his vanity.”

This is a book about a plucky kid named David Balfour whose father dies and who goes to live with his mysterious uncle Ebenezer. David is supposed to inherit a lot of money from his father, but Uncle Ebenezer wants the money for himself, so he gets his friends to kidnap David and ship him off to become a slave. However, David isn’t willing to let himself be kidnapped without a fight. He teams up with a Scotsman named Alan Breck to escape back home and get revenge on his uncle.

If Charles Dickens wrote adventure novels, they likely would’ve been very similar to this book. There’s a great deal of warmth in Kidnapped (like in Dickens’s books), along with some interesting character observations (see the passage above).

One of Stevenson’s contemporaries said that he wasn’t that great at psychological insights. While there weren’t any long passages where Stevenson’s characters contemplated their inner psyches, the characters felt surprisingly realistic. They were fleshed out enough to be sympathetic, and most of them were nuanced enough to feel believable. The only exceptions were the female characters—every single one of them wound up sobbing or weeping over the protagonist’s plight.

In any case, if you’re looking for an adventurous and entertaining book, I would recommend Kidnapped.

The Republic of False Truths, by Alaa Al Aswany,
Translated by S.R. Fellowes

“Everything really has changed. The dictator was stifling Egypt. When he was overthrown, all Egyptians were liberated. I’m writing to you from home, having just come back from the school, and I have lots of questions begging for an answer. How could the headmaster’s and Mrs. Manal’s attitude towards me have changed so amazingly? Is the revolution changing people’s natures? Is it giving them back their confidence in themselves and causing them to review their mistakes?”

Note: this book was written by a professor I once had in school.

This book is about the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt. It’s told from multiple points of view, including state generals, media stars, protestors, and sympathetic bystanders. There were enough perspectives to get a broad sense of Egyptian society, but not too many to be confusing.

The book had a lot of important insights about dictatorship and disinformation (there was a character who worked for a state-sponsored news agency running smear campaigns against the Tahrir Square protestors). The book also showed how the protestors tried to combat the disinformation, which was very interesting to read about.

It was also powerfully-written. The author was able to get across dramatic incidents in a sober, non-melodramatic way (which made them more impactful). Also, since the book avoided preaching (“dictatorship is bad!” etc.), it made a much better case against dictatorship than if it had preached.

The characters were rich due to the author’s depiction of their inner lives (especially the antagonists and morally-nuanced characters). Overall, I’d say that the depth of characterization was what ultimately made the book a very good read. I would definitely recommend.

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

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

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

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/

Lit in the Time of War: An Entire Book By Chi, Part 1 of Grossman, and 14 Chapters of Solzhenitsyn

Stop the War!

Hello! I hope you are all as well as can be expected giving the ongoing war in Ukraine. This week, I’ve reviewed three-ish books, and have provided another list of organizations you can donate to that provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

The Membranes, by Chi Ta-Wei,
Translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich

“Safe under the purple sky of a waterproof and earthquake-proof membrane, deep beneath the ocean, people lived out their days like flowers in the greenhouse [….] Although they were physically removed from the realities of war, they were suspended in a state of virtual escape. And it felt real to them.”

This book is crazy (in a good way). It’s known as a classic of queer speculative fiction. In it, a woman named Momo is a dermal care technician in an underwater city called T City. Why’s it underwater? Because the ozone layer was breached and as a result people all suffered from radiation and had to move underwater. Anyway, Momo begins to wonder about her identity, learns about the connections between androids and humans, uses special technology called M-Skin to download the memories of the people she works for…and I can’t give anything away other than that.

The beginning of the book is a little repetitive, but once you get past it, the story becomes very interesting and very recommended. Chi has a lot to say and this book is very good at saying it.

So, if you like mind-blowing literature, I would definitely recommend this book. It’s very short, it’s very well-written, and it’s very worth reading.

Life and Fate, Part One, By Vasily Grossman,
Translated by Robert Chandler

“I realize now that hope almost never goes together with reason. It’s something quite irrational and instinctive. People carry on as though their whole life lies ahead of them. It’s impossible to say whether that’s wise or foolish—it’s just the way people are […..] Our turn will come in a week or two, according to plan. But just imagine—I still go on seeing patients and saying, ‘Now bathe your eye regularly with the lotion and it will be better in two or three weeks’ [….] Meanwhile the Germans burst into people’s houses and steal; sentries amuse themselves by shooting children from behind the barbed wire; and more and more people confirm that any day now our fate will be decided.”

After three years, I’ve finally started it–Life and Fate.

This epic novel is set during the Battle of Stalingrad and revolves around the Shaposhnikov family. It’s been compared to War and Peace, and I can see why in the sense of it being an epic novel during a war that also involves peace. It’s also very good—Grossman, like Tolstoy, makes a lot of great observations about people.

The main downside to this book is its sexism—the female characters are all there to fall in love with the male characters (or to be objectified by them!), which detracts from this book’s power because it makes them less realistic than the male characters. First, I’d read a very good chapter about a male character. Then I’d read another chapter from the perspective of a female character and find myself laughing at how bad it is (“She loved him! She couldn’t live without him! She embraced the coat-hanger upon which his coat had been hung! Waaaah!”)

So far however, I’d still recommend it.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, In the First Circle,
(Chapters 1-14 Where I Gave Up), Translated by Harry T. Willetts

“Simochka’s girlhood had held nothing but unhappiness so far. She was not pretty: Her looks were spoiled by a nose much too long and hair that had refused to grow out, gathered now into a skimpy bun at the back. She was not just small, she was extremely small, and her figure was that of a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl rather than a grown woman. She was, moreover, straitlaced, averse to jokes and frivolity, which made her still less attractive to young men. So it was that in her twenty-third year no one had ever courted her, hugged her, or kissed her.”

I usually don’t review books I don’t like or don’t finish, but I’ll make an exception for Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle. It was very disappointing, I didn’t see anyone else on Goodreads with similar views, and so I wanted to fill this gaping hole in the review-literature.

More seriously, this book is billed as being about gulag prisoners who work on scientific projects in more-privileged conditions than regular gulag prisoners. These prisoners have to decide whether to give a man away for giving nuclear secrets away to the US or not (they’ve been asked to identify his voice from a recording). Circle is supposed to be brilliant and philosophical. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was very good. And, I mean, the author even won a Nobel Prize in Literature!

However, as can be seen from the passage above, Circle is an extremely sexist book. By comparison, Solzhenitsyn somehow makes Grossman seem like a die-hard feminist. Somehow, for instance, Simochka’s been unable to feel any happiness whatsoever because she was too ugly to be attractive to men. Since when could a woman only feel happy if she gets a guy? Whatever happened to Simochka’s friends? Her parents? Was she just shoved into a cardboard box her whole life by Solzhenitsyn so she couldn’t have any happiness? (Okay, that was facetious, but seriously).

The worst thing is that this sexism isn’t just relegated to appearances of female characters—it’s also deeply engrained in Solzhenitsyn’s brilliant philosophical musings (Character A bases his whole philosophical worldview on the fact that, in spite of suffering, men live in the hope that one day they’ll find pretty women who will “give [themselves] to him.”) So even if you come to this book for the philosophy, the book’s sexism even weakens its philosophical power.

So in conclusion, though this book may have a lot of great ideas in it, it also suffers from a near-terminal case of unrealistic female characters (and philosophical contemplation based on axioms which themselves are based on flawed conceptions of women’s place in society). So it’s no wonder that I had to quit this book at Chapter 14. Yes, it may have been a life-changer for some readers, but it definitely wasn’t for me.

In the end, of course, my comments are subjective. Feel free to enjoy the book anyway. But, I hope that if other readers have had similar experiences with this book’s sexism, they’ll find that they’re not alone. And, if the book does happen to get better (AKA less sexist and actually more philosophically-sound/engaging) later on, I’d love to hear about it. Maybe I could even be persuaded to pick it up again.

Now, as promised, here are more places to donate to in order to help Ukraine:

Fight for Right: Works to evacuate Ukrainians with disabilities. Donate here: https://eng.ffr.org.ua/support-in-crisis/eng

Black Women for Black Lives: As you may have read, Black people have been facing discrimination at the Ukrainian border. This group works to help them leave Ukraine. Donate here: https://blackwomenforblacklives.org/

The Association for Legal Intervention: Gives pro-bono legal aid to Ukrainian civilians who have fled to Poland. Donate here: https://interwencjaprawna.pl/en/get-involved/donate/

OutRight International: Helps LGBTQ refugees flee Ukraine. Donate here: https://outrightinternational.org/ukraine

CARE: Works to get food, water, and other urgent supplies to Ukrainian civilians. Donate here: https://www.care.org/

UN Women: Works in Moldova to help female Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://donate.unwomen.org/en/ukraine

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

Uroboros GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

“‘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

All Work And No Play GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

“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

Sky Clouds GIF - Sky Clouds - Discover & Share GIFs | Sky and clouds, Sky  gif, Clouds

“‘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: 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*

Jesus Two GIF - Jesus Two Fish - Discover & Share GIFs

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!