Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Obama and the Promised Land

Hello! I hope you’re all staying warm. This is my last post before resuming school so I thought I would review something special.

A Promised Land, by Barack Obama

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“Except now I found myself asking whether those impulses—of violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others—were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain. For they seemed to lie in wait everywhere, ready to resurface whenever growth rates stalled or demographics changed or a charismatic leader chose to ride the wave of people’s fears and resentments. And as much as I might have wished otherwise, there was no Mahatma Gandhi around to tell me what I might do to hold such impulses back.”

A Promised Land is about Obama’s youth, his journey to the presidency, and his first few years in office (up to Bin Laden’s death in 2011).

The book itself is 700 pages long with 7 parts, which means you could finish the book in a week if you read one part a day (which was what I did). In terms of his presidency, Obama talks about how he handled the financial crisis of 2008, global politics, healthcare, climate, and terrorism.

A Promised Land felt like a cross between a history textbook, a human-interest story, and a memoir. Obama made it very clear up front that he wanted to give a lot of context for his decisions, which meant almost burying the reader in piles of details. This was probably what caused the book to feel somewhat like a textbook.

The good news was that Obama also wove in personal anecdotes from people he worked with and helped out. This made the book more accessible and interesting. Instead of just talking about how he got laws X Y and Z passed with the help of Mr. Such-and-Such, Obama made a point of first describing how a person he knew about had been suffering because such a law hadn’t been passed yet. This helped humanize the book a lot, especially when it came to intricate financial policies.

A Promised Land also gave some insight into what Obama was feeling and thinking during his presidency. This was probably the most interesting part of the book since it helped to demystify the presidency. Yes, it had its benefits, but it also had unexpected drawbacks. For instance, Obama talked about how he couldn’t go on spontaneous road-trips with his daughters without getting the Secret Service involved, which meant that they missed out on some aspects of normal life that could otherwise have been taken for granted.

After reading the book, I came away with two main insights. First, I realized how hard it was to be president. You have to manage a large group of people to deal with massive problems and unexpected developments while also trying to ensure cooperation across the aisle and among countries. That summary may not sound so difficult but reading about it in-depth made me realize that yes, it was very difficult.

The second insight I had was this: Obama wrote that he went into national politics because he thought he could make a bigger difference in peoples’ lives than he could have made at a more local level. However, he came to realize that even though he was president, he couldn’t solve as many problems as he would have liked. One reason was that in certain cases, local-level politicians were in a position that made them better able to solve the problem than Obama. The fact that a local-level politician could sometimes have more power than a national-level politician in a certain area was very interesting. It also made me wonder. If Obama had known this beforehand, would it have changed anything he did as president?

In the end, I would definitely recommend A Promised Land. It’s long and sometimes very textbook-y, but its insights also make it a very rewarding read.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Faqiri

Hi everyone, I’m going to write very briefly today because of school. However, I did want to tell you some great news and to introduce you to a great writer.

First the great news: I wrote a novelette about a year ago that has just been accepted for publication. It’s the first time I’m being paid for my fiction. I’m very excited to share more details with you when the story comes out in September 2021.

Now, here’s the great writer:

“The Doleful Village”, by Amin Faqiri, Translated by Iraj Bashiri

“It was at dusk when Dadkhoda and his son entered my room. I was lighting the lantern. Dadkhoda sat down. His son, too, sprawled himself on the floor beside the father. I put more air in the lantern. It caused the kerosene to overflow and the lantern to be set aflame. Dadkhoda said, ‘You should have given the lantern more time to warm up.'”

I read this story about two days ago and still can’t stop thinking about it. The plot doesn’t matter as much as the way the events are arranged and juxtaposed to make an impact. To get that aspect across I’d need to spoil the story. I won’t do that.

I’ll tell you some things about it though. It’s about a man who tells another man about his family. The family has a bull that dies, and the village believes that the man’s wife put a jinx on the bull for it to die. In the present, the family’s young kid wants to go to school.

See? Nothing’s interesting about it, but there are connections between the events that make them all gain in meaning. At the end, it has a huge impact.

The best thing you can do is to read the story. It’s free. Here it is.

I tried to find more stories by this writer on Amazon but I can’t seem to find any, which is unfortunate. I’d love to hear if anybody knows where they might be available.

That’s all for now. Stay healthy and hopeful!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kafka

Hello! I haven’t had time to read a book for this week due to all my midterms, but I did read a short story.

“A Report to an Academy” by Franz Kafka

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“Esteemed Gentlemen of the Academy! You show me the honour of calling upon me to submit a report to the Academy concerning my previous life as an ape.”

This story’s told from the perspective of an ape who has learned to read and talk and write, and who basically acts enough like a human being that humans have accepted him as one of their own. In the story, the ape’s writing a report to some academy about how he came to act like a human.

One interesting thing about the story is how it downplays human mistreatment of animals, but at the same time you get the sense that the story’s actually criticizing it: Sure, the humans used to stick blazingly-hot and agony-inducing cigars into the ape’s fur when he was a captive on a ship, but overall the humans were nice sorts.

Maybe the ape is criticizing humans, but he’s writing a report to a human-run academy, and he wouldn’t get anywhere by outright criticism. That might explain the subtle criticisms. Eventually, the ape even tries to downplay the importance of his report by going on about how it’s just a report. That may also be an attempt to sneak his subtle criticisms past the humans.

At the end, the question I was left with was how much of the report reflected what the ape really felt about how he’d been treated by humans.

In analyzing the story, I guess you could say that it’s a depiction of what it’s like to live under a totalitarian regime where you have to censor your thoughts and so on. You could also say it’s an animal rights type of story, or an animal rights story and a totalitarian critique at the same time.

In the end, though, it seems to me that what makes the story interesting is that it’s just a story about an ape who’s writing a report to an academy, but that Kafka lets you give that report any kind of meaning you want.

(If you want to read the story online, here’s a link.)

Happy Tuesday. Stay healthy and safe.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov

Hello. I hope you are all healthy and safe, and doing your best to stay that way. I’m in the middle of midterms week at school, but I’ve managed to read a great book. I wanted to share it with you:

The Place of the Skull, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“If only I could write something, something that would get a reaction from thousands and thousands of people, people who would treat it as something of intimate concern to them personally, as a fire in their own house, a misfortune affecting their own children, only then could the Word, caught up by thousands of people, none of them indifferent, overcome the power of profit and triumph over vice!”

Basically, if you have a chance to read Chingiz Aitmatov, get your hands on everything you can by him. He’s criminally-underrated. (I’ve reviewed another one of his masterpieces here).

The Place of the Skull is another modern-ish classic. It’s a bunch of stories woven into one. It’s the story of a family of wolves living on the Kazakh steppe, an absurdly-idealistic Russian who’s expelled from a seminary, Jesus Christ, and a farmer. The wolves just trot along through the story and make you feel a bit like you’re reading Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. The idealistic Russian wants to infiltrate the drug trade to see what makes people sink to depravity (he also wants to reform some of the depraved people, which is fascinating to see). Jesus Christ gets crucified. The farmer (named Boston for some reason) has to deal with Soviet collectivization (where the USSR forced Kazakhs to work on a big farm instead of working on their own individual farms), and with the wolves that trot their way into his plotline. It’s all very exciting in actuality.

One thing I will mention. It… has… a… lot… of… ellipses. But once you get over that…

…the book’s a joy to read.

It’s fresh with ideas and heart. Its plot is well-done, too. You have a bunch of stories but they work well together, and the overall story wouldn’t have the same impact it does have if it weren’t to have all of those stories within it. Its grand scope also enables it to talk about environmentalism, the meaning of life, wolves, and morality.

Another thing I’ll mention. This book has all this philosophy in it, but for some reason it’s able to make it entertaining to read (unlike some Russian novels I’ve read–my opinion only).

The philosophy in Aitmatov’s novel asks questions that are actually interesting to contemplate: What makes people sink to immorality, how is the environment related to humanity, what gives people the power to be good, can humanity ever redeem itself, etc. So instead of having some boring guy droning on about a philosophical parable, Aitmatov’s book has characters who are actually struggling with topics that are super-relevant to their existence, and for some reason, you feel a sense of urgency when you read it. Maybe it’s because you get the sense that the author cares a lot about what he’s writing about, or he makes it so you understand why the characters care about it, and why you should care about it, too. At some points I thought he could’ve taken his ideas farther than he did, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment.

Basically, read it for yourself.