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

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“‘When it comes to controlling human beings, there is no better instrument than lies, because you see, humans live by beliefs, and beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts.’”

This is a book about a kid named Bastian who reads a book called The Neverending Story. In the book, the queen of the realm is sick, and if she dies the realm will die too. A hero is needed to find a cure, and that hero is another kid named Atreyu. As Bastian reads about Atreyu’s quest, he realizes that he may have a part to play in saving the realm, too.

This was a very good book. I enjoyed the self-referential nature of the plot, and how Bastian became a character in the book. I also liked how he was given the power to grant wishes, but whenever he granted a wish, he lost some of his memories of his life in the real world.

Interestingly, the author experienced World War II in Germany, which also seemed to inform some of the things he wrote about in this book (like his thoughts about memory and self-knowledge).

You could be very literary in analyzing this book, but you could also just read it and have fun. It’s good for kids, and it’s even better for adults. I would recommend.

On Writing, by Stephen King

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“At times like that I’m sure all writers feel pretty much the same no matter what their skill and success level. ‘God, if only I were in the right writing environment with the right understanding people, I just know I could be penning my masterpiece!’ In truth, I found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress, and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.”

I read this book in high school and it was fun to reread it now (especially since I was listening to Stephen King himself read it on audio).

Its writerly advice still holds true, but I found I was able to appreciate some of his insights that I had glossed over before, and understand some of what he said better than I had in the past. For instance, his advice about reading and writing a lot, or his discussions about needing to understand his characters well in order to write about them truthfully, or putting his characters in situations and then seeing how they would react to them rather than relying on plot formulas.

One note: when reading the print version, I seem to remember a section where he wrote a passage about some guy called Mr. Ostermeyer, and then demonstrated how he would revise that. This version didn’t include that section.

Instead, it included a conversation between King and his son. In it, they read a scene from The Institute in which the main character tears off his own ear to remove a tracking device. This was interesting because Stephen King himself had experienced a lot of ear-pain in his life (as previously described in On Writing), so it demonstrated how drawing from life could sometimes be the best source for horror.

Anyway, I would recommend reading this book. I’d even recommend re-reading it later on, because your new writerly experiences will make it more insightful and enriching.

The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin

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“‘You can’t go on changing things, trying to run things.’ ‘You speak as if there were some kind of general moral imperative.’ He looked at [George] Orr with his genial reflective smile, stroking his beard. ‘But in fact, isn’t that man’s very purpose on earth? To do things, change things, run things, make a better world?’ ‘No.’ ‘What is his purpose then?’ ‘I don’t know. Things don’t have purposes as if the universe were a machine where every part has a useful function.’”

This book is about a guy named George Orr who does drugs. He does them to suppress his dreams, because his dreams sometimes change reality. For instance, if he dreams he has green eyes instead of blue eyes, he might wake up and have green eyes.

Anyway, he gets caught doing drugs and is sent to a psychiatrist named William Haber, who learns about Orr’s powers and tries to use them to build a better world.

In sum, this book could have been called “Be Careful What You Wish Someone Else to Dream,” or “Enough is Enough,” or “Let It Be.”

It was very thought-provoking from a philosophical point of view. Is it even possible to build a utopia? Obviously not, because you wish for world peace and you get galactic war.

Even so, the terms of your wish are somehow conveniently unspecific, even though you were previously characterized as a very smart and astute character who would likely have foreseen these loopholes. This made the situation feel a bit too easy, because it took the blame off people and put it on their unspecific language. If Character A had wished for peace in all the universe, then these complications wouldn’t have arisen (if we extend LeGuin’s interpretation).

Meanwhile in reality, we have very specifically-worded laws that are still circumvented/interpreted in a way that enables loopholes, and it has nothing to do with their language and everything to do with the people interpreting them.

In any case, this book makes you think, and it’s definitely worth reading for that.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Moore

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

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

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Funniest Excerpts:

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder Lamb was was more than 400 pages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Shanbhag, Kadohata, and Kertész

Hello! Happy Tuesday. It’s the end of the semester here, so I have several papers I’m writing. Somehow, I’ve also read several books. Here they are:

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag,
Translated by Srinath Perur

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“In the middle room of the old house […] [the protagonist’s sister Malati] told me about her college, her classmate Vandana, whose step-mother served her leftovers, and who was in love with a boy they called Koli Ramesh. It was Malati who carried letters between them. In the new house, we were locked in the cells of individual rooms, and there was no opportunity to exchange casual confidences. Lying alone in my room, I sometimes wondered if Malati’s happiness would have been better served had Sona Masala not existed at all.”

This book is about a family in Bangalore who runs a mysterious business called Sona Masala. Before they started the business they were happy but poor. After they start the business they become miserable and greedy.

This book has been compared with Chekhov. I do not see it. Yes, it has good brevity, but Chekhov still gives a lot more meaning in one short story than this author does in his entire book.

There’s also another difference– Chekov actually has warmth, even when he’s describing unsympathetic characters and cynical situations. This book doesn’t, or if there is warmth, it’s not really that warm. For instance, the protagonist’s father is supposed to be the moral compass of the book. However he never really gets a chance to say anything other than paltry things along the lines of, “Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this,” or, “In the old days, people actually respected each other,” which rob him and his role of their weight. He’s never really given a chance to speak and be taken seriously, so he doesn’t really provide as convincing of a counterweight as he seems like he’s there to do.

Any moments of happiness are fleeting and not taken seriously, either. They’re treated like, “Oh, we were only happy then because that was before we moved into the new house, don’t mind that nonsense.” A book absolutely doesn’t have to be unicorns and butterflies, but the lack of real happiness in this book means that any contrasts made between the family’s old life and their new life don’t really work as well as they could have.

Going back to a point I made at the beginning, the book doesn’t really say as much as it could have. The protagonist is complicit in the family’s dysfunction, sure, but I found myself really wondering why he acted that way, and not receiving an answer. For me, it’s not enough just to say and show that characters act differently because they’re in a new house and have new wealth. There needs to be more of a sense of why (even if it’s a very subtle implication). There’s definitely room for this kind of implication, but it’s never really made. Instead, this book seems to treat the characters as if greed just sprang upon them and took them unawares, and as a result, it doesn’t really say as much as it could have.

Contrast this with Chekhov, where even in his less-hopeful stories, he includes a measure of warmth as an effective contrast (which actually winds up heightening the level of cynicism), he says all that he could say within the space (making the most of his characters and their conflicts), and really gets at why the characters are acting the way they do.

I may sound harsh, and I don’t mean to. This book was still good, and I would still recommend it to read. But I would definitely not say that it was Chekhov-level good.

Half a World Away, by Cynthia Kadohata

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“No, the future was not bright for Dimash if he didn’t learn to walk differently. Walking was important. Jaden knelt down in front of him […] Dimash gazed at him intently, his shoulder scrunched, his stance geeky. Jaden pulled the boy’s shoulder up until both sides were even. ‘Here, stand like this. Good! Now watch.’ Jaden walked evenly, with a little bit of swagger. ‘That’s how you walk. Come on, walk to me.’ Dimash pushed his shoulder down and walked to Jaden even geekier than usual. ‘No,’ Jaden said, patiently but firmly. ‘When you walk, you must be cool. Then maybe nobody will bother you.'”

This book is about a boy named Jaden who was adopted from Romania at the age of eight. Angry at having been given up by his birth-mother and unable to form emotional attachments, Jaden grew up stealing, lying, and setting fire to the toys given to him by his adoptive parents. When he’s eleven, his parents take him with them as they adopt someone from Kazakhstan. Jaden thinks they’re adopting again because he’s a bad son. However, once they reach Kazakhstan, he forms connections with a toddler at the orphanage (Dimash) and the man who drives them around (Sam), and eventually realizes he loves his adoptive parents.

This book is interesting because it involves two adoptions (instead of just one), and describes the mindset of someone who was adopted as an older child. It’s also an enjoyable read.

While Jaden’s psychology is well-conveyed, he seems too emotionally-aware considering his circumstances. He grew up in an environment where he never knew love and had to suppress his emotions, so he likely wouldn’t be able to understand his feelings as well as he seems to in this book (“he felt sad” “he felt happy” “he felt angry” etc.).

This discrepancy makes this book read less like the character is actually experiencing life, and more like the author is writing down her guesses about what it would be like to experience life through the character’s perspective.

In any case, this is a good book, and even though it’s for middle-grade readers, it’s still a good read for adults, too.

Dossier K., by Imre Kertész, Translated by Tim Wilkinson

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“[Interviewer:] What would be of more interest to me right now is the difference between fiction and autobiography, as critics and readers alike commonly refer to Fatelessness as an autobiographical novel.

[IK:] Incorrectly, I have to say, because no such genre exists. A book is either autobiography or a novel. If it’s autobiography you evoke the past, you try as scrupulously as possible to stick to your recollections [….] A good autobiography is like a document: A mirror of the age on which people can ‘depend.’ In a novel, by contrast, it’s not the facts that matter, but precisely what you add to the facts.

This book is the autobiography/memoir of Imre Kertész, who won a Nobel Prize. It’s written in an interview format, and talks about his life in Nazi-era Hungary, his experiences in Birkenau as a teenager, his return to Hungary after the war, and the discovery that Hungary has become a dictatorship too.

I have never read any of his books. After having learned about his experiences and his thoughts on life, I want to.

This memoir was also somewhat entertaining because Kertész was pretending to be two people. The “interviewer” would ask some question, and the “interviewee” would answer something along the lines of, “no, you don’t understand, it wasn’t like that at all,” or, “that’s a very interesting observation. I never thought of that myself.” This interplay made the story feel less like a cut-and-dry interview and more like a conversation between two real people. In the end, this didn’t detract from the book’s subject matter but somehow made it more powerful.

In any case I would recommend this book. Now I need to read more by him.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Portis, Miller, and Palahniuk

In Which I Review Charles Portis’s “True Grit,” Arthur Miller’s “Incident at Vichy,” and Chuck Palahniuk’s “Consider This”

Hello! Happy August. I hope you’re vaccinated or are getting vaccinated, and that you’ve been able to read and enjoy the summer some.

If you’re looking for reading material, I’ve reviewed three more books that might give you some ideas…

True Grit, by Charles Portis

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“‘I will inform them myself,’ said I. ‘Who is the best marshal they have?’ The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, ‘I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them [….] The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into this thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.’ I said, ‘Where can I find this Rooster?'”

This book, which inspired the movies, is about a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie who wants to avenge her father’s murder in the Wild West. So she enlists the help of Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed marshal with dubious morals.

What made the book good was the dialogue. All the characters were very witty and could hold their own, and entertain the reader at the same time. Meanwhile, Portis was usually able to get away with this without coming off like he was forcing his characters to be witty for the sake of showing off to the reader. That made the dialogue work, in my opinion.

The plot was interesting, too, but an important part of it felt illogical and sexist (I won’t spoil it, though–you’ll have to see for yourself whether you agree). This didn’t ruin the book, but it did make the story less impactful than it could have been.

Basically, if this book didn’t have any dialogue, it would not be worth reading. Fortunately for us, it does.

“Incident at Vichy,” by Arthur Miller

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“Many times I used to ask my friends– if you love your country why is it necessary to hate other countries? To be a good German why must you despise everything that is not German? Until I realized the answer. They do these things not because they are German but because they are nothing. It is the hallmark of the age– the less you exist the more important it is to make a clear impression.”

This play by Arthur Miller is about a group of people in Vichy France in 1942. They’re prisoners of the Nazi collaborators and they don’t know why. This set-up lets Arthur Miller examine ideas like collective guilt, the psychology of groups and individuals, idealism and nihilism, and so on.

The play was thought-provoking. It reminded me of Sartre’s “The Condemned of Altona,” except Miller’s play was much shorter and asked more questions than it answered. It also seemed to have more psychological depth when examining the nature of guilt.

In contrast to another play (Miller’s tragic “Death of a Salesman”), “Vichy” felt fresher. “Salesman’s” characters had to adhere to Miller’s pre-ordained tragic plot-formula. “Vichy’s” characters didn’t adhere to a formula, which meant that Miller didn’t have to contrive everyone’s actions to fit into it. “Vichy’s” characters were being explored, which gave them more room to act like real humans, whereas if Miller had let “Salesman’s” characters act too human, they wouldn’t have fit well into the play’s tragic formula.

So even though “Salesman” is more lauded than “Vichy” (Pulitzer Prize, etc.), and more emotionally-engaging (personal opinion), I would still argue that “Vichy’s” characters are more realistic than “Salesman’s.”

Anyway, I would recommend it.

Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, by Chuck Palahniuk

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“This is another reason to bother collecting stories. Because our existence is a constant flow of the impossible, the implausible, the coincidental. And what we see on television and in films must always be diluted to make it ‘believable.’ We’re trained to live in constant denial of the miraculous. And it’s only by telling our stories that we get any sense of how extraordinary human existence actually can be.”

This is a book of writing advice. It read a lot like, “remember to use verbs instead of adjectives! And remember to do XYZ!”, and a lot of it felt obvious or were things I already did in my writing. Even so, they were good reminders. Also, it was interesting to read them because Palahniuk brought a new perspective to why these different things were important to do.

Palahniuk also included memoir-like sections about his crazy fans, how he learned to write, and how his experiences shaped his views on the craft. These sections were filled with anecdotes like, “I did XYZ and it worked for me so much in writing Story ABC.” Even if people give you writing techniques, it helps for them to also give you real anecdotes that explain how such techniques worked for them.

Overall, everything wasn’t different after I finished reading this book, but it enriched things a little bit. In terms of substance, Consider This felt more useful than Cortázar’s book on writing, less useful than Stephen King’s book, and equally useful as Vargas Llosa’s.

So I would recommend it.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Ishiguro, Oates, and Agee

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Hello! I hope you’re hanging in there. Here are three more books I’ve read and reviewed for your enjoyment.

My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs: The Nobel Lecture, by Kazuo Ishiguro

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“The next generation will come with all sorts of new, sometimes bewildering ways to tell important and wonderful stories. We must keep our minds open to them, especially regarding genre and form, so that we can nurture and celebrate the best of them. In a time of dangerously increasing division, we must listen. Good writing and good reading will break down barriers. We may even find a new idea, a great humane vision, around which to rally.”

In 2017, when Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he gave this speech.

It’s an interesting speech, telling of all sorts of writerly epiphanies he had in his life—from how he came to write about Japan while living in Britain to how he came to put more emphasis on developing the relationships between characters. In that way, My Twentieth Century Evening feels like a condensed memoir. Ishiguro’s speech is also a chronicle of chronicle of the changing times (from ~1960 to 2017). In that way, it also reads like a condensed history of society.

However you read this condensed book, it’ll probably make you curious to read some of Ishiguro’s other books. It certainly has done that for me.

The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (Second Edition),
Edited by Joyce Carol Oates

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“As Tolstoy said, talent is the capacity to direct concentrated attention upon the subject: ‘the gift of seeing what others have not seen.’ Though it is hardly necessary, I suggest that the reader read this volume as it is assembled, more or less chronologically. A tale will unfold, by way of numerous tales, that is uniquely and wonderfully American.”

Both this book and Ishiguro’s book chronicle time in their own way, but while Ishiguro’s book is short, Oxford is ridiculously long. When measured, its spine reaches almost two inches in thickness. When counted, its pages reach almost a thousand in number.

Is it worth reading the numerous tales within? Somewhat, because it’s interesting to see how American fiction grew and changed throughout history, and how different genres (fantasy and horror) also grew and changed.

The stories themselves vary in quality, though. Some are amazing, while others don’t seem to give a rewarding reading experience or add much new insight into life.

In case you want only the essentials, here are some of the stories I found to be the best:

“The Paradise of Bachelors & The Tartarus of Maids” by Herman Melville, “A Journey” by Edith Wharton, “The Little Regiment” by Stephen Crane, “A Death in the Desert” by Willa Cather, “The Man Who Was Almost A Man” by Richard Wright, “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, “Defender of the Faith” by Philip Roth, “Filthy with Things” by T.C. Boyle, and “Mercy” by Pinckney Benedict.

I thought they were good for several reasons, ranging from their engaging voices (like Stephen Crane and Herman Melville) to their impact (Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Pinckney Benedict). Others were just entertaining to read (Willa Cather, Philip Roth, and T.C. Boyle).

In the end though, I can’t tell anybody what makes writing great or not, since it’s all subjective. For instance, maybe you’ll think Melville’s story is awful while another writer’s story is amazing.

It might be worth reading Oxford to find out. Even if it’s not worth it, you’ll still learn a lot from the experience.

A Death in the Family, by James Agee

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“‘See here, Poll,’ he said. ‘It’s bad enough right now, but it’s going to take a while to sink in. When it really sinks in it’s going to be any amount worse [….] That’s when you’re going to need every ounce of common sense you’ve got,’ he said. ‘Just spunk won’t be enough; you’ve got to have gumption. You’ve got to bear it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice. You’ve got to keep your mind off pitying your own rotten luck and setting up any kind of a howl about it. You’ve got to remember that things as bad as this and a hell of a lot worse have happened to millions of people before and that they’ve come through it and that you will too. You’ll bear it because there isn’t any choice—except to go to pieces.’”

James Agee’s book is about a death in a family living in Tennessee in the early 1900s.

More specifically, Jay Follet is a father who believes his own father is dying, so he drives over to tend to him. His father turns out to be fine, so he drives back home to his family. The problem is, he dies on the way there, and everyone else is left to deal with their grief the best they can.

Half of the book is about life before Jay’s death, and half is about the immediate aftermath. For me, that was a surprising approach. That approach isn’t done for the sake of being surprising, though. It’s done to convey a surprising experience.

Since the book doesn’t talk much about life after the funeral, you don’t get a sense of the grief being resolved. Instead, since the book emphasizes Jay’s life and death, you get a sense of the “birth” of his family’s grief. You get a sense of the family’s denials, guilts, and regrets. You get to see some of them continue on with their normal life as if they hadn’t yet come to understand the full impact of Jay’s death. Then you get to see them feel guilt about it, and regret how they behaved in their denial.

In the stories I’ve read about people dying, I never saw these ideas explored, mainly because many stories about death focused on the long-term aftermath rather than just the immediate aftermath. Also, they didn’t really seem to examine the experience of grief as in-depth as this book did. In other books, I found characters would react to death by being very sad or angry, which is expected. Agee digs beneath this expected-ness to expose grief’s unexpected nuances. There’s tragedy, but also comedy. There’s sadness and anger, but also hope.

At the risk of sounding stuffy, I’ll just finish by saying that even though nothing really happens in the book itself, Agee is great at portraying the various nuances of human experience.

 

I hope you enjoyed my reviews. Let me know if you’ve read any of these books, or plan to. Next week I’ll be reviewing only one book, known to some as the greatest Finnish novel ever written.

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kushner, Mulisch, and Van Gogh

Hello everyone. I hope you’re all healthy and safe. I’ve read three more books. Below are my reviews:

Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner

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“The blood lies on the snow of a formal winter garden, now trampled and muddy. A man lies dead, the snow filling in the hollows of his eyes, while another man is twisted up, grunting, sweating frog-ponds on the frozen earth, waiting for someone to come and help him. The hero of this little tableau has just vaulted the garden wall and is running like mad into the darkness while the darkness lasts.”

Swordspoint is a fantasy book about a swordsman named Richard St. Vier who’s hired by nobles to duel others who the nobles want to die. Richard always wins, so he has a big reputation. Richard also has a lover named Alec, who’s a former university student. Meanwhile there are nobles who want power, and a noble named Michael who wants to become a swordsman himself (even though it goes against custom).

So you have all these pieces and you’re waiting for them to come together, and they do, sort of. Then they kind of fall back apart. Characters who seem like they’re going to be relevant are only relevant for a scene or so, and then disappear into obscurity. Themes that you think will be explored fully are mentioned somewhat, then fade into the darkness. Conflicts that you think will be resolved one way are resolved in another, less-exciting way, and you’re left wondering what happened.

I would say to read it for the middle. That’s where things kind of come together and the book is at its most compelling. Also, the book is notable for its early exploration of LGBTQ themes in fantasy lit—it was published in 1987.

That’s another reason to read it.

 

The Assault, by Harry Mulisch

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“‘Fake,’ said Anton. ‘I understand that you’d want to defend your father. He was, after all, your father. But if your father had been my father, if everything had been turned around, would you then be defending Fake Ploeg? Let’s not kid each other. Your father was killed by the Communists with premeditation because they had decided that it was essential, but my family was senselessly slaughtered by Fascists, of whom your father was one. Isn’t that right?’ Fake turned his back to Anton and remained motionless, bent slightly forward, as he asked, ‘Are you implying it was my father’s fault that your family was murdered?’ […] ‘Why can’t you love your father without trying to white-wash him?’ asked Anton. ‘After all, it doesn’t take much to love a saint. That’s like loving animals. Why don’t you simply say: my father was definitely a collaborator, but he was my father and I love him.’ ‘But dammit, he was not a collaborator, at least, not in the way you’re implying.’ ‘But suppose you knew for certain,’ Anton said to his back, ‘that he had done terrible things… God knows… just name something… wouldn’t you still love him?’”

In this book, a kid named Anton lives in occupied Holland during World War II, and witnesses a traumatic event involving bicycles and Nazis. In this event, his family dies, leaving him as the only survivor. Anton spends the rest of his life trying to forget the incident, only for reminders of it to keep popping up (the book spans from the year 1945 to 1981).

There are an awful lot of coincidences and chance encounters, but the way they’re handled makes up for it. The author could’ve just had Anton react the same way each time (try to avoid his past, etc.). That would’ve made the book boring and monotonous. Instead, Anton has different reactions, so different aspects of his experience are emphasized, and different effects are achieved. It’s this variety of effects that gives the book a sense of development and makes it an interesting and unpredictable read.

The Assault also has a lot of great dramatic moments and psychological insights. None of it is melodramatic, though, probably due to the contrast between dramatic moments and quiet moments. Even so, the quiet moments don’t really seem to go beyond what I had expected. I expected psychological suppression and I got psychological suppression (instead of getting a new insight into Anton, etc). So while the encounters and drama aren’t monotonous, the quiet moments are.

It’s also interesting to see how things evolve as time progresses. We see the end of World War II, the Vietnam War, and the nuclear disarmament movement. We see that Anton, whose life changed in 1945, is kind of trapped in the past as the rest of the world moves on and forgets him and his strife. This is fascinating.

Overall, I’d say this book is better than most I’ve read recently, due to its dramatic sincerity and interesting ideas. And it’s even more interesting if you read about Mulisch’s life…

Van Gogh on Art and Artists: Letters to Emile Bernard

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“Last year you did a picture—according to what Gauguin told me—which I imagine to be somewhat as follows: on the grass, which fills the foreground, lies stretched full length the figure of a girl in a blue or white dress; behind her the edge of a wood of beech trees, the ground covered with red leaves which have fallen, the tree-trunks gray-green giving the effect of vertical stripes [….] So I said to myself what a simple subject, and how well he achieves elegance with nothing.”

These letters are between the painter Vincent Van Gogh and fellow artist Emile Bernard. Van Gogh’s letters are interesting to read but the main thing I got out of them was that you have to go to Africa to become a true artist. So even though Van Gogh gives some insights on others’ work (like the idea of everything expressing its inner nature), I don’t feel that the majority of the letters say anything revolutionary. Even so, it is cool to see Van Gogh’s thoughts on some of the other painters of his time, and I’m sure that, for painters, there’s probably a lot more to be gained from this book than what I did.

Thanks for reading. If you read any of the books I’ve reviewed, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

See you next week.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Hugo, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky

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Hello! I hope you are all well. I have reviewed three great books for today. Beforehand, I tried to read other books (like Moby Dick and The Red and the Black) but I couldn’t get through them, even though I’m sure they are also great books. Meanwhile:

Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo

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“[Javert’s] brow was not visible; it disappeared beneath his hat: his eyes were not visible, since they were lost under his eyebrows: his chin was not visible, for it was plunged in his cravat: his hands were not visible; they were drawn up in his sleeves: and his cane was not visible; he carried it under his coat. But when the occasion presented itself, there was suddenly seen to emerge from all this shadow, as from an ambuscade, a narrow and angular forehead, a baleful glance, a threatening chin, enormous hands, and a monstrous cudgel.”

I saw the musical first, then read the book. The book is better.

It’s also super-long, but somehow it’s still interesting. It’s about the French Revolution and focuses on a criminal named Jean Valjean who strives for redemption while being pursued by an inspector named Javert. It’s also about the lovers, Marius and Cosette, a feisty kid named Gavroche, and many others. It’s also about sewers.

The sewers are a digression. There are a lot of digressions in Les Mis that try to develop the writer’s ideas about the problems in France and how to solve them.

If the book just consisted of digressions, it would have been boring. Fortunately, there’s also a fascinating story with well-written scenes and vivid characters. Hugo wasn’t afraid to explore the highs and the lows of life. That means the reader can become super-involved with the story to the point that he or she doesn’t mind the digressions as much. Maybe that was just my experience, but maybe it will be yours, too.

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

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“We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it. A very foggy night, with great rings round the lamps in the streets! There was an indistinct talk of its being wet. I considered it frosty [….] A man, sitting in a pigeon-hole-place, looked out of the fog, and took money from somebody, inquiring if I was one of the gentlemen paid for, and appearing rather doubtful (as I remember in the glimpse I had of him) whether to take the money for me or not. Shortly afterwards, we were very high up in a very hot theatre, looking down into a large pit, that seemed to me to smoke; the people with whom it was crammed were so indistinct.”

This book is filled with surprises.

For one, I read Dickens when I was younger and found him uninteresting, but maybe I was too young to enjoy it, because this book was surprisingly-good.

David Copperfield is about David Copperfield. That’s it (I’m kidding). David Copperfield is a boy in Victorian England who endures hardships and grows up to become a famous writer. The story starts out detailing Copperfield’s hard upbringing. Later on, the scope widens to include the numerous subplots he becomes involved with. It is here where he meets notorious characters like Mr. Micawber and Uriah Heep.

Dickens tries to tie everything together at the end, and partially succeeds. A lot of the book is truly impactful due to plot twists that work out amazingly. Other parts (including the very end) are super-contrived due to plot twists that don’t work.

Parts of the book made me think Dickens was anticipating the advent of cinema. He included the literary equivalents of jump-cuts and time-lapses, for instance (like in the passage I quoted). This made the book feel surprisingly modern.

Another surprise to me is that, while Dickens is sometimes thought of as a depressing writer, I didn’t find that to be the case. Yes, he occasionally writes about depressing topics, but the story’s outlook on life is much more hopeful than depressing. It’s like the difference between a story that recounts tragedies and is suffused with a sentiment of, “Everything is awful” and a story that recounts tragedies but whose spirit is more, “All is not lost, there can still be hope.” Maybe that is just the way I see it. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this if you have read Dickens.

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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“It’s God that’s worrying me. That’s the only thing that’s worrying me. What if He doesn’t exist? What if Rakitin’s right—that it’s an idea made up by men? Then if He doesn’t exist, man is the chief of the earth, of the universe. Magnificent! Only how is he going to be good without God? That’s the question. I always come back to that. For whom is man going to love then? To whom will he be thankful? To whom will he sing the hymn? Rakitin laughs. Rakitin says that one can love humanity without God. Well, only a sniveling idiot can maintain that.”

I found this book somewhat interesting and somewhat boring.

The idea of the main plot is interesting. A guy named Dmitri Karamazov is accused of murdering his father. His two other brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, are horrified, and chaos ensues.

The rest of the book is somewhat boring. It’s filled with all sorts of philosophical talk that sometimes seem relevant to the characters and sometimes don’t. I found the relevant philosophizing to be interesting, but not the irrelevant philosophizing.

Overall, while Dostoyevsky seemed keen on developing every nuance of every thought, he seemed to do it at the expense of telling an engaging story. Unlike in the case of Les Mis, I didn’t find that the remainder of The Brothers Karamazov could make the digressions worthwhile. In Les Mis, you could take out the digressions and still have a good experience. In Dostoyevsky, if you take out the philosophizing, you’re not left with much that’s actually interesting (other than the idea of the plot).

In Les Mis, the plot is interesting and the characters are interesting, because they have consistent and understandable motivations. In The Brothers Karamazov, the characters are unfathomable and inconsistent. That’s perfectly alright in the emotionally-fraught scenes where the characters themselves probably don’t understand themselves. However, this also happens in less-tense scenes. For instance, a lot of this book consists of the youngest brother, Alyosha, desperately wanting to see one of his other brothers, only for him to conveniently forget about them a second later when Dostoyevsky wants to develop other characters instead. After a scene of developing the character of Mrs. So-and-So, Alyosha would suddenly remember, “Oh yes! I desperately need to visit my brother! I can’t believe I forgot that!”

So in the end, I found that Dostoyevsky’s book has big philosophical digressions and unfathomable characters.

I will say that I found one part of the book interesting. It’s a subplot that stars a bunch of kids who act consistently and also philosophize. The only difference is that their philosophizing is relevant to their characters, and doesn’t bog the story down. If the rest of the book could have been like that, I would have loved it.

As it is, it’s great that Dostoyevsky explored his ideas about the future of Russia, but I was left wondering why he did so in story-form when the story itself doesn’t seem exciting enough to make all the philosophy worth it. Then again, these are just my thoughts in the 21st century. I would imagine that this book would have been very exciting to read when it was originally published. Also, I would imagine that this book is still very exciting for people to read in the 21st century. Maybe you’ll find it more engaging than I did. If you don’t, there’s always the juggling group called the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

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Keep healthy, keep safe, and keep reading!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Lagerkvist

Books in Bloom

Hello! I hope you are all healthy, safe, and happy. Hopefully, you’ve also been able to enjoy the great spring weather.

I should be back to reviewing three books at a time in the next week or so. In the meantime, I’ve read one more book. It’s a very interesting book, too, but it doesn’t really have much to do with spring…

Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist

Barabbas

“Once Sahak asked if he really had not seen [Jesus] at some other time as well. Barabbas did not answer at once. Then he said that he had also been present in the courtyard of the palace when the rabbi was condemned, and described all that had happened. He also mentioned the extraordinary light that he had seen surrounding him on that occasion. And when he noticed how happy it made Sahak to hear about this light, he did not bother to mention that it was only because he had been dazzled by the sun, coming straight out into it from the dungeon. Why should he mention it? It was of no interest to the other—it was of no interest to anyone. By not bothering to give an explanation of the miracle, he made Sahak so happy that he wanted to hear all about it over and over again.”

In the Bible, Jesus died on the cross, but he took someone else’s place to do so. The man who had been saved was named Barabbas.

This book is the story of his life after his escape from crucifixion. While many other people in Barabbas believe in Jesus, Barabbas himself isn’t so sure. He wants to believe in the man who saved him, but he can never quite do so.

For some reason this book reminds me of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s the somewhat detached narration style, or maybe it’s just because Barabbas involves a lot of crime and punishment (like The Stranger does). Maybe it’s because both of these books are short, or because both of their authors won the Nobel Prize in Literature (and got commemorative stamps made in their honor).

In any case, Barabbas is an interesting book to read.

It’s very good at contrasting Barabbas’s doubt with everyone else’s faith, and making you feel his inner conflict about it. At the same time, it doesn’t seem to go that deeply into his thoughts– nothing really unexpected is revealed. He doubts, and angsts about his doubt, but that’s about it.

Even so, the book’s good for another reason, and that reason is the plot. There are some very cool scenes that mirror other scenes that came before, or that make you see old parts of Barabbas in a new way. This makes the incidents in the book feel connected to each other, even though the book’s story spans multiple years. Each part of the book informs the other parts, if that makes sense.

This book has a lot of good sections, but for some reason, the overall effect feels diluted. I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because there is just a little bit too much in between the good parts. Maybe it’s something else.

In any case, Barabbas is a good book to read. Maybe even a good spring read.

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