Lit in the Time of War: Radnóti, Aramaki, Grossman

War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

Hello! I hope you are as well as can be expected. I’ve reviewed three more books, and have provided a list of more charities you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need.

Camp Notebook, by Miklós Radnóti,
Translated by Francis Jones

“I tumbled beside him, his body twisted and then,

like a snapped string, up it sprang again.

Neck shot. ‘This is how you’ll be going too,’

I whispered to myself, ‘just lie easy now.’

Patience is blossoming into death.

‘Der springt noch auf,’ rang out above me. Mud

Dried on my ear, mingled with blood.”

This book is really good. It contains poems written by Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti as he went about life in a Nazi death camp. The poem quoted above was the last one he ever wrote before being shot.

This is some of the best poetry I’ve read in a while.

I don’t know what else to say about this book. Basically that it’s very short, very profound, and that you should definitely read it.

The Sacred Era, by Yoshio Aramaki,
Translated by Baryon Tensor Posadas

“Finally, K understands everything. Human consciousness is akin to the surface of a mirror. The surface does not in itself exist. All the mirror can do, all that defines a mirror, is its capacity to reflect back the object before it [….] Is this what we call God? Is God this cosmic consciousness this totality, this pure consciousness of all the cosmos? If God is the surface of a cosmic mirror, then insofar as God is pure, there can be no awareness of himself as God.”

This book is interesting. It’s about a guy named K (no, not the same K from Kafka’s The Trial). He takes a test called the Sacred Examination, passes it, and is assigned to work on secret research on the planet Bosch (yes, named after Hieronymus).

Interdimensional hijinks ensue. There’s a renegade named Darko Dachilko who’s supposedly been executed hundreds of years ago, but whose ghost (and dismembered limbs) still lurk around, ready to kill unsuspecting people. There’s also intergalactic travel. There’s basically everything.

The only thing that weakens this book is its underdeveloped female characters. Considering that the book basically revolves around the male characters reuniting with female characters, it’s a wasted opportunity for character development when female characters are given no substance other than the fact that they’re there to make out with the male characters.

In any case I would recommend this book.

Life and Fate, Part 2, by Vasily Grossman,
Translated by Robert Chandler

“His train of thought was quite simple, though not so easy for an outsider to follow. Several things had come together: memories of his past; the fate of Tolya and Anna Semyonovna; the war; the fact that, however rich and famous a man may be, he will still grow old, die, and yield his place to the young; that perhaps nothing matters except to live one’s life honestly.”

(See Part 1 Here).

In Part 2 of Life and Fate, Viktor Pavlovich has made a huge scientific breakthrough that makes him eligible for the Stalin Prize, but his rivals don’t like him and they want to win the Stalin Prize themselves, so they start a smear campaign against him. Will he stand up for himself? Or will he give way to lies to preserve his reputation? Read this section to find out.

A lot of other things happen in this section, including better-developed female characters. Granted they still all revolve around men, but at least now they also get to have some philosophical insights, which is more realistic.

One thing that Grossman is really good at is making these surprising, but honest and logical observations about people. He’s like Tolstoy in that way (Character A feels happy to survive XYZ but then feels guilty about feeling happy, or feels angry at himself for being happy, etc.)

Considering the fact that if you read 300 pages of this book a week (a section per week), you can get through it in about three weeks (it’s 900 pages). Considering what you get for your troubles (and considering the increasingly-well developed female characters), I would recommend.

As promised, here’s a list of charities supporting Ukrainians. Please donate if you can.

World Food Program: Gives cash and food to 3 million+ Ukrainians. Donate here: https://www.wfp.org/emergencies/ukraine-emergency

Lifesong for Orphans: Works with Ukrainian orphanages to empower children, encourages adoption efforts. Donate here: https://lifesong.org/ukraine-relief/

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee: Gives food packages, online support to Ukrainians sheltering in place, and transport/accommodation assistance to refugees. Donate here: https://www.jdc.org/

Heart to Heart International: Distributes medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://www.hearttoheart.org/

Americares: Gives medical and food aid to Ukrainian families in Poland and Romania. Donate here: https://www.americares.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: Grossman, Burger, and Gorchakov

Hello! Happy Tuesday, and I hope you had a good MLK day.

Here are three books I’ve read. All of them (for some reason) let you live vicariously…

An Armenian Sketchbook, by Vasily Grossman,
Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler

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“Here we have Hemingway’s world. And here—Gleb Uspenksy’s. It goes without saying that these worlds are different. Hemingway describes people who adore bullfights and hunting for big game; he writes Spanish dynamiters in the Civil War and fishermen off the coast of Cuba. Uspensky, on the other hand, describes drunken craftsmen in Tula, junior policemen, provincial bourgeoisie, and peasant women. But these two very different worlds are not created in the image of a Russian peasant woman or a handsome and dangerous toreador. These worlds are created in the image and likeness of Uspensky and Hemingway. And even if Hemingway were to populate his world with Russian policemen and drunken Tula locksmiths, it would still be the same world, Hemingway’s.”

This book was very interesting. It was written after Grossman’s masterpiece Life and Fate was “arrested” by the Soviet authorities. Now he’s traveling through Armenia so he can translate someone else’s book.

Funnily enough, my favorite part was when he described how badly he had to relieve himself without embarrassing himself. I hope that gives you the sense that this book isn’t all about the meaning of life (because it isn’t).

On a more serious note, the book was good and very thoughtful. It just felt as if Grossman was trying too hard to contrive everybody into fitting his super idealistic idea of humanity’s wonderfulness. It felt like he was shouting, “LIFE LIFE LIFE! LOOK AT HOW WONDERFUL IT IS!” and then shoving life into my face and insisting, “Look at how WONDERFUL it is! It absolutely is wonderful can’t you see that?” And because of how fervently he insisted on his wonderfulness, I found myself doubting it. if it really was that wonderful, why did he have to be so zealous about it?

Yes, there were parts that were wonderful, especially near the end, but not everything in the book was that wonderful. I guess it’s not enough to be able to look at the world through a hopeful lens—you also have to observe enough wonderfulness for it to really be convincing.

In any case, this was a good book. If you want to read about cool ideas, read this book. If you want to read about the literary giant Vasily Grossman needing to relieve himself, definitely read this book (it happens twice, very dramatically). But if you want to read about the wonderfulness of life, maybe don’t read this book, because he tried too hard to make it seem wonderful.

Witness: Lessons From Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, by Ariel Burger, Read by Jason Culp

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“As I sit in the sun by [Wiesel’s] grave, a sense of peace comes over me. I decide that it’s time to renounce heroics. I want to be a human being, tasked with the slow work of becoming a little bit better, a little more sensitive, a little more open each day.”

This wise book is by Ariel Burger, who became Elie Wiesel’s teaching assistant at Boston. It consists of a mix of memoir-sections and lecture-sections. You learn about Burger’s story of how he tries to bridge the different beliefs he got from his more secular father and his more religious mother. You also learn about Elie Wiesel’s classes and how Wiesel impacts his students. Finally, you see how Wiesel impacts Burger.

The memoir sections were interesting, even though they weren’t about Wiesel. Burger was very thoughtful, and his sections of the book kind of reminded me of Tolstoy’s Confessions, in how he was seeking for spiritual enlightenment and burnt himself out in the process.

These sections were also very well-written. In some nonfiction books I’ve read about an author reminiscing about another person’s life, the author only wants to use the other person’s story as an excuse to talk about the author. The other person never really gets his or her dues, and the book suffers from the author’s narcissism.

In Burger’s case, this story was clearly a Wiesel-centered story, and any parts of it that were about Burger were clearly there to emphasize the huge impact Wiesel made on his life. So in the end, even these parts were really about Wiesel.

In the Wiesel-focused lecture sections, I felt like I was taking a Zoom class with Wiesel and listening to him talk from my phone (I listened to it on audiobook). He was very wise and inspiring, and if this review doesn’t talk as much about Wiesel as it does about Burger, it’s only because you can’t really understand how impactful Wiesel is unless you read the book itself.

I’d highly recommend.

Stanislavsky Directs, by Nikolai Gorchakov,
Translated by Miriam Goldina

8 Important Acting Techniques (in GIFs) | Backstage

“Never betray the theater as the most sacred conception in your life. Then you will not have the desire to dress it up in velvet and brocade.”

This book also felt like another class I was taking, only this time I was living vicariously in Stanislavsky’s acting studio. Later in his life, the Russian director wanted to assemble a group of younger actors and pass on his method to them so that they could go on and further the craft.

In any case, this book was very good. In particular, the ending was interesting. Stanislavski was producing one of Mikhail Bulgakov’s plays, but he wanted Bulgakov to change some things in it, and Bulgakov didn’t want to (even though he seemed to agree that the changes would make it a better play).

It’s up to Gorchakov, the writer of this book, to convince Bulgakov to make the changes. Did he do it? Did he not do it? Read the book and find out!

But seriously, read this book for its acting insights, and insights into life in general.

Until next week!