Lit in the Time of War: Lehane

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

Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane, Read by Tom Stechshulte

“Teddy gave him another shrug. ‘In a pinch, if it came down to it and he started giving orders, you’d hop to.’ ‘I’d what?’ ‘Hop to, like a bunny.’ Trey ran a hand along his jaw, considered Teddy with a hard grin of disbelief. ‘I don’t mean any offense,’ Teddy said. ‘Oh, no, no.’ ‘It’s just I’ve noticed that people on this island have a way of creating their own truth. Figure they say it so enough times, then it must be so.’”

This is a book about Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal, who’s sent with his partner Chuck to investigate the disappearance of a patient from Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, on Shutter Island. In the process of gathering clues, he discovers big conspiracies afoot that will take all his skills and knowledge to unravel. Also, as is said in many a cliché book-blurb, all is not as it seems.

This book is the poster-child of a “well-crafted book.” There’s a lot of narrative techniques and craft decisions made that really help heighten the effectiveness of the story. I used to read a lot of those Writer’s Digest books about how to write a good story, and can easily imagine someone like Donald Maass going, “Now let’s look at Shutter Island for an example of this concept in action…”

Going into the book, I thought it would have been very, very dark. It was, but it also had an unexpected amount of comic relief that made it not as dark as I’d expected. The characters were also sympathetic and had a terrific amount of psychological depth. The book also had something to say (which I won’t spoil). It does make you think a lot though (and gives off some vaguely-Dostoyevskian vibes), which is very good for a book to do, though it does objectify its female characters…

With that in mind, I would recommend.

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

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

Art of Living Switzerland: Helps Ukrainian refugees evacuate, find shelter, and receive food, transportation, and trauma support. Donate here:

Direct Relief: Provides trauma kits, insulin, and other important medical supplies to Ukrainians. Donate here:

WithUkraine: The official fundraising effort by the Embassy of Ukraine to the UK. Provides food and medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here:


Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Smith, Abe, and Lukyanenko

Hello! I hope you are healthy and safe. I’ve read three more books this week:

Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, Read by Henry Strozier

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“Arkady [a prisoner of Pribluda] got to his feet and stretched. ‘Want to get back to your seeds, Major?’ […] ‘you know I do.’ ‘Say you’re human.’ ‘What?’ ‘We’ll go back,’ Arkady said. ‘All you have to do is say you’re human.’ ‘I don’t have to do anything. What kind of game is this? You’re so crazy Renko it makes me sick.’ ‘It shouldn’t be so hard to say you’re human.’ Pribluda walked in a tight circle as if screwing himself into the ground. ‘You know I am.’ ‘Say it.’ ‘I’ll kill you for this! For this alone,’ Pribluda promised. ‘To get it over with,’ his voice fell to a monotone. ‘I’m human.’ ‘Very good. Now we can go.’ Arkady started toward the house.”

Gorky Park is about Moscow’s Chief Inspector, a guy named Arkady Renko. He’s called in to investigate the death of three people in a Moscow park. Along the way, he gets embroiled in international intrigue, falls in love, and almost dies. Will he actually survive? Will he sell himself out to corruption?  Read the book and find out.

This book was very entertaining. Arkady Renko was a very astute inspector who always came up with these precise theories. I was always left wondering how he figured them out. Not that it was illogical, just that it was impressive. There was good action, there was good adventure, there was good (slow-burning) romance, and there were a lot of twists that sometimes felt like they came out of nowhere (How did Arkady figure them out again?)

What was also impressive was that Arkady became a three-dimensional character. He started out very two-dimensional (“Gotta solve the mystery! Oh no, my wife’s cheating on me! But gotta solve the mystery!”) He spent about half the book being two-dimensional, but then in the second half he developed.

The narrator was also very good (though he kept mispronouncing Arkady’s name which, as a Russian learner, was hilarious). Still, he brought a lot of emotion and life to this story, so kudos to him.

Overall, I would recommend this book if you were looking for something entertaining to read. It doesn’t really have philosophical depth, but it’s interesting anyway.

The Woman in the Dunes, by Kobo Abe,
Translated by E. Dale Saunders

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“Someday he would tell her the story of the guard who protected the imaginary castle. There was a castle. No. It wasn’t necessarily a castle, it could be anything: a factory, a bank, a gambling house [….] Now the guard, always prepared for the enemy attack, never failed in his vigilance. One day the long-expected enemy finally came. This was the moment, and he rang the alarm signal. Strangely enough, however, there was no response from the troops. Needless to say, the enemy easily overpowered the guard in one fell swoop [….] No, it was the castle, not the enemy, that was really like the wind. The single guard, like a withered tree in the wilderness, had stud guarding an illusion.”

In this book, a man goes missing. He basically gets captured and put into a hole where he has to dig sand with a woman, because for some reason if he and the woman stop digging sand, the village above them will get crushed by the sand. That makes absolutely no sense, but let’s just pretend it does.

Moving on, we get a philosophical exploration of sand, water, escape, imprisonment, meaning, and delusion.

It’s entertaining and I’m sure it will provoke thought. However, I found it wasn’t really that interesting–I felt like I knew what was going to happen at the end before it actually did happen, so when the end came, it wasn’t as surprising as the author seemed to want it to be. Maybe it’s because I’ve read a lot of books. Maybe it’s because it felt like the author was just trying to manipulate his characters to achieve this outcome without it organically coming from the characters themselves. Maybe it’s just me.

This book is one of the most celebrated books in Japan, so I’d still recommend reading it. I’m just not sure if it’ll be the best book you will ever read (though I could be wrong, since lit is very subjective!)

Night Watch, by Sergei Lukyanenko,
Translated by Andrew Bromfield

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“I’ve seen all of you. Road sweepers and presidents, robbers and cops. Seen mothers killing their children [….] Seen sons throwing their mothers out of the house and daughters putting arsenic in their fathers’ food. Seen a husband smiling as he sees the guest out and closes the door, then punches his pregnant wife in the face. Seen a smiling wife send her drunken husband out for another bottle and turn to his best friend for a passionate embrace. It’s very simple to see all this. All you have to do is look. That’s why they teach us not to look before they teach us to look through the Twilight. But we still look anyway.”

This book is about a guy named Anton Gorodetsky. He’s a member of the Night Watch, a group of people assigned to preserve good in the world. Fortunately it’s more complicated than that. Night Watch members can’t go around doing good indiscriminately, because they have a treaty with the Day Watch (the powers of evil), that if they start doing good, the Day Watch can start doing evil back. This treaty leads to morally-questionable acts by Night Watch members in the name of good. Are you actually good just because you call yourself good? Do the ends justify the means? Do the means justify the ends?

And here we have Anton, who is questioning the ethics of the Night Watch while trying to avoid getting killed, while trying to find out about a powerful woman who could save them all. It makes for good reading.

The back cover describes it as being, “Like Tolkien getting mugged in a Moscow back alley by John Le Carré,” but I’d describe it as, “like Tolkien getting mugged in a Moscow back alley by John Le Carré and Dostoyevsky’s ghost.”

Because, unlike Gorky Park, Night Watch incorporated philosophy. It was also well-paced philosophy (unlike Dostoyevsky). And unlike in The Woman in the Dunes, the philosophy and the story felt fresh.

So if you’re looking for something that is both entertaining and philosophical, I’d recommend Night Watch.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Three (?) Thrillers by Thomas Harris

Hello! Happy Lunar New Year! I hope you’re all healthy, safe, and reading your hearts out. I’ve read three thrillers, all by Thomas Harris—well actually… it’s complicated. Read on to see what I mean.

The Silence of the Lambs: Abridged, by Thomas Harris,
Read by Katy Bates

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“‘Goodbye officer Starling.’ ‘And the study?’ ‘A census-taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big amarone. Go back to school, little Starling.’”

In last week’s reading, Stephen King explicitly said, “Don’t listen to abridged audiobooks.” This week, the first book I read turned out to be an abridged audiobook, but I only learned that fact after listening to the whole thing. Funny how things turn out, right?

In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarise Starling is a student at the FBI academy who is assigned the task of interviewing Hannibal Lecter for a psychological survey. Hannibal is a genius cannibal who drives people insane and then eats them. Clarise forms some kind of bond with him, and with his (not-so-reliable?) guidance, tries to solve the murders committed by a guy called Buffalo Bill.

The abridged version was interesting for its cinematic cuts. Its scenes flowed very nicely, and it was only 3 hours long. Even so, it felt very well put together. Other than that I don’t have much to say about it—it’s abridged, after all, so I don’t recommend.

The Silence of the Lambs: Unabridged, by Thomas Harris,
Read by Frank Muller

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Warning: Profanity

“She didn’t let the room affect her. Starling walked up and down gesturing to the air. ‘Hold on girl,’ she said aloud. She said it to Catherine Martin, and she said it to herself. ‘We’re better than this room, we’re better than this fucking place,’ she said aloud. ‘We are better than wherever he’s got you. Help me, help me, help me.’ She thought for an instant of her late parents. She wondered if they would be ashamed of her now, just that question, not its pertinence, no qualifications, the way we always ask it. The answer was no, they would not be ashamed of her.”

So after listening to the abridged version I had no choice but to not listen to the whole thing again in the unabridged version.

The unabridged enchilada is about 11 hours long. What did they cut out in the abridged version? They missed moments of great characterization, like the one above. They didn’t explain things well enough in certain moments, which only became clear when listening to the unabridged version’s explanation. They also cut out entire subplots—Jack Crawford, senior investigator, has a wife who’s dying, for instance.

Overall, the original unabridged version is much better than the abridged version. It has great twists, great characters, and exciting subplots that actually add to the story. The only thing I will say is that Hannibal Lecter doesn’t actually seem that dangerous in it. He literally just asks Clarise questions about her life. There are moments when he does become dangerous, but it’s never towards her. That made me wonder why the author made that choice.

In any case, I would highly recommend the unabridged version, and not the abridged version.

Red Dragon: Unabridged, by Thomas Harris, Read by Alan Sklar

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“He sat in the jury box to read his letter. He wanted some relief. The letter was from Dr. Hannibal Lecter. ‘Dear Will, a brief note of congratulations for the job you did on Mr. Lounds [….] You know Will, you worry too much. You’d be so much more comfortable if you relaxed with yourself. We don’t invent our natures, Will, they’re issued to us, along with our lungs and pancreas and everything else. Why fight it? I want to help you Will, and I’d like to start by asking you this: When you were so depressed after you shot Mr. Garret Jacob Hobbs to death, it wasn’t the act that got you down, was it? Really, didn’t you feel so bad because killing him felt so good?’”

Red Dragon is another book by Thomas Harris. I read the unabridged 12-hour version.

It’s about an FBI member called Will Graham who is in retirement because he got Hannibal Lecter in jail, but in the process Hannibal attacked him. Now he’s brought out of retirement to find the Tooth Fairy, the legendary creature that leaves money under childrens’ beds when they lose a tooth a murderer who would rather be called “The Red Dragon.”

This book was interesting because Will Graham is much less heroic than Clarise Starling. As you can see from the excerpt, he even killed a man.

Will’s anti-heroism is complemented by Hannibal Lecter’s more villainous side. He actually tries to hurt Will (unlike with Clarise), which made this book more interesting.

However, most of Red Dragon was spent giving the backstory of the villain, which was really cool, but left me wondering about Will, because his conflict was never fully explored. At the end, there was just this convenient-seeming wrap-up of him philosophizing. He never actually dealt with his problems, which I felt was a wasted opportunity. Maybe Harris could have made the book a little longer to compensate, or cut the villain’s part down a bit to make space for Will, if that wasn’t possible.

In any case, this book was still good—not as good as The Silence of the Lambs, but still good, and I would recommend it if you are looking for a good thriller.

As for me, I’m on a thriller kick, so if you have any recommendations or thoughts, let me know in the comments below!