Lit in the Time of War: Yong and Suk-Young

Hello! Happy Banned Books Week! I’ve read one book this week and gave up on two others. The one I read was very good. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you’re able.

Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor, By Kim Yong and Kim Suk-Young

“[After seeing loyalists being taken to his camp for stealing food]: I shook with pain and anger at what I had witnessed that day. Loyalists to the state were rotting in this hellish place where death would be far more desirable. I thought of how utterly deceived the newly arrived from Songrim had been. In fact, everyone in this country was deceived, made to believe the false promise of a better life. and when a person simply wished to survive, they had to pay with their life. That night I lay straight on the floor, clenched my teeth, and felt warm sweat moistening my tight fists as I thought, I will survive. I have to survive. I will, I will, I will, I will! I will!!! Survive and tell the world about what I have witnessed. Otherwise, this insurmountable tragedy will be forgotten, never known to the rest of the world. I will survive to tell it myself. I will.”

This memoir is by Kim Yong, a survivor and escapee of a North Korean prison camp. He starts life as an orphan who’s fiercely loyal to North Korea’s then-leader, Kim Il-Sung. Then he gets adopted by wealthy parents, wonders about his birth-parents, grows up, learns harrowing secrets about his birth-parents, and gets arrested. The rest of the book is about his experiences suffering in North Korea’s camps (being separated from his wife and children, starving, being tortured, witnessing several executions), his escape, and his life afterwards.

The book was striking for Yong’s resilience. He spent years in Camp #14, one of North Korea’s most brutal camps. According to Yong, Camp #14 was where people went to die, since there was no hope of release and the conditions were so deadly. Yet while people around him were dying, Yong resolved not to.

Yong conveyed both peoples’ suffering and their nuances. He himself went from feeling extremely loyal to the North Korean government to feeling disillusioned and betrayed by them. At the same time, he observed that while many of his captors treated him inhumanely, not all of them did. He also described fellow prisoners assisting him in his escape, and the immense guilt and gratitude he felt as a result. At one point during his escape, he stayed with a woman in South Korea. A part of him worried that she’d betray him, but another part of him believed in her, since he observed her genuinely trying to assist him at various times.

At the end, Yong says that his story has no real ending. He has escaped, yes, but he still misses his family. And even though it’s unreachable to him now, he still misses his home-country because of the memories it holds of the people he loves.

Overall, this book is terrific. It’s short, but very well-written and human. It gives insight into North Korean society (from its orphanages to its inner-circles), its camps, and the inner life of an escapee. I would strongly recommend.

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

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

Amnesty International—Investigates human rights violations in Ukraine to hold those responsible accountable, defends journalists and other people at risk. Donate here: https://www.amnestyusa.org/

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

Red Cross—Provides first aid, food, medicine, and evacuation help to Ukrainians. Donate here: https://www.redcross.org/donate/cm/abc.html/?subcode=abc-pub

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Lit in the Time of War: Kawabata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lit in the Time of War: Walls

Hello! I hope you are all staying healthy and cool. Today is my birthday, and I am celebrating by reviewing one book and providing a list of organizations you could donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need. If you would like to celebrate along with me and are able to donate, please do so.

The Glass Castle: A Memoir, by Jeannette Walls

“One day I was walking down Broadway with another student named Carol when I gave some change to a young homeless guy. ‘You shouldn’t do that,’ Carol said. ‘Why?’ ‘It only encourages them. They’re all scam artists.’ What do you know? I wanted to ask. I felt like telling Carol that my parents were out there, too, that she had no idea what it was like to be down on your luck, with nowhere to go and nothing to eat. But that would have meant explaining who I really was, and I wasn’t about to do that. So at the next street corner, I went my way without saying a thing.”

Jeannette Walls’s memoir is about her time as a young girl roving around the country with her Picasso-loving mother and her gold-seeking father, in pursuit of dreams that will never come true. Her family was very poor, very proud, and apparently in denial about their situation. When they fled from tax collectors, Walls’s mother claimed that they were on an adventure, while her father claimed that they were fleeing from a criminal ring. When they weren’t fleeing this criminal ring, Wall’s mother tried to ditch her teaching job to paint pictures, and her father worked on plans for a solar-powered glass castle that they would eventually live in, while investigating the criminal ring by going to bars and drinking. In other words, this is a memoir about a dysfunctional family.

What really stood out in this book was Walls’s empathy. She could have easily turned this memoir into a story of “I didn’t realize how messed up my parents were until I got older and then I left them forever because they’re completely horrible people.” However, this approach would have likely been less convincing (and less powerful) than also including the dysfunctional family’s moments of humanity.

 Fortunately for readers, Walls used the more powerful approach. She described her family’s dysfunction (like when they tried sabotaging her attempts to move out), and she also described their moments of love (like when they cheated at gambling and won enough money to fund her last year at Barnard). In this way, I got to see both the good and the bad sides of her family, and was able to come up with my own conclusions about them.

So if you’re interested in reading a memoir about a girl’s coming-of-age in the midst of dysfunction, I would definitely recommend this book.

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

United Help Ukraine—Provides medical supplies to soldiers, and ships goods to Ukrainian refugees.
Donate here: https://unitedhelpukraine.org/

World Vision Ukraine—Provides psychological support, food, and shelter to Ukrainian refugees.
Donate here: https://donate.worldvision.org/give/ukraine-crisis-fund

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

Voices of Children—Provides psychological support and evacuation assistance to Ukrainian children and their families.
Donate here: https://voices.org.ua/en/

Lit in the Time of War: Goethe, Butler, and Maupassant

Hello! I hope you are all well, (and not overheated!) I’ve read three books this week, about death, life, and France (Note: The first book review mentions suicide). I have also included list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do if you are able.

The Sorrows of Young Werther and Novella,
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,
Translated by Elizabeth Mayer, Louise Bogan, and W.H. Auden

“‘They are loaded.—The clock strikes twelve. —So be it! Lotte! Lotte! Farewell! Farewell!’ A neighbor saw the flash of the powder and heard the shot; but as everything remained quiet, he did not pay further attention to it.”

This is a book about a man named Werther who falls in love with a woman named Lotte, gets rejected by her, and kills himself. It’s also basically a Hamlet rip-off (Werther is Hamlet, Lotte is Ophelia, and Wilhelm, who Werther writes long and emotional letters to, is Horatio).

This book was said to have plunged a lot of people into existential angst. I was curious to see what would happen upon reading it.

Instead of being plunged into existential angst, I was distracted by all the unresolved plot-lines. For one thing this translation didn’t make it clear what happened to Lotte (it just had a mysterious sentence that “[her] life was in danger,” which could be interpreted however you want it to be, but didn’t really give concrete resolution).

Then there was the matter of Werther’s friend Wilhelm. Werther had been writing these long angsty letters to Wilhelm, and at first Wilhelm had seemed to just nod along sympathetically (Goethe didn’t include his responses but based on Werther’s letters we could assume this). Then, when Werther started despairing of life, Wilhelm apparently planned to come see him and reassure him. This was very intriguing, and I was expecting to read something about Wilhelm arriving, finding out about Werther’s death, and grieving. However, the book didn’t mention Wilhelm reacting at all. It would be as if Hamlet spent the entire play confiding in Horatio only for Horatio to suddenly disappear when Hamlet died (instead of giving a sad and cathartic eulogy like he actually did). This felt like a huge cliffhanger, and it ultimately left me feeling disappointed.

At the same time, I could see that this book was very influential in literature. It referenced paper lanterns and delusions, for instance, which made me think of Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” for instance. So if you’re looking to see how books influence each other, Werther would be a good book to read.

The characterization was also interesting. At the beginning, Werther made a big speech about how people were totally rational and able to control their emotions, and that anyone who gave in to emotions was weak. Then, when he succumbed to emotions, he made a big speech about how others were telling him to just be rational, and that they obviously couldn’t understand him. This piece of characterization was well-done. At the same time, there were some melodramatic moments that felt unintentionally funny (“Oh, this void, this terrifying void I feel in my breast!” for instance).

Overall, this book was interesting, but ultimately felt like a let-down due to its unresolved characters.

The novella was interesting, too. It’s about a princess who goes on a walk and encounters a lion. Now, only some kid with a pipe might be able to save her from certain death. Will she survive? Read the novella and find out.

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

“The wordless message was the same for both child and woman: In spite of your loss and pain, you aren’t alone. You still have people who care about you and want you to be all right. You still have family.

This is a book (written in the 1990s) about a girl named Lauren who is living in California in the early 2020s. Climate change is causing crises and societal instability, people are trying to rob her walled-in neighborhood, and she has hyperempathy, which causes her to experience others’ pain—if someone is shot, she collapses as if she’s shot. She’s also trying to start a new religion called Earthseed.

This book had very interesting ideas about change, adaptation, and hope in the face of crises. It also had a powerful/ominous/important vision of the future (a country destroyed by climate-change). The Earthseed religion, which involved restarting civilization in space, was interesting, too. Also, in spite of the grim situations they were in, the characters had strong moments of humanity and compassion. This made for terrific reading.

At the same time, I felt that Butler could have added more nuance. First, the characters felt like they were all being over-explained/overly-defined by Lauren’s perception of them—one character would say something, and then Lauren would think something like, “[the other character] was too bright to take anything but the most superficial comfort from her denial.”

This explanation (“she’s in denial”) seems to me to reduce the other character’s complexity, since it never lets the readers figure out for themselves that this character was in denial/the specific nuances of this denial. It also seems to judge the other character—the reader gets that this character is in denial because of “X, Y, and Z,” and that there’s nothing more worth understanding beyond this intellectualized explanation. While people can never be fully explained, this kind of explanation seems to artificially boil them down into a completely understandable formula/dynamic, which is not true in reality—there’s more to humanity than rationality.

Also, I feel like Butler could have gone deeper into Earthseed. Why should it be guaranteed that once they go into space, people will be super moral and not corrupt this new system as they’ve always corrupted everything throughout history? There is a character who vaguely brings up a similar point, but the author never really engages with this argument. However, this was probably because Sower is the first book in a series. If so, I hope that this point gets developed in the next book.

Overall Parable of the Sower was very thought-provoking. I would definitely recommend it for its terrific ideas and emotional impact.

The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant, Volume 5, by Guy de Maupassant

“Monsieur Savel, who was called in Mantes ‘Father Savel,’ had just risen from bed. He wept. It was a dull autumn day; the leaves were falling. They fell slowly in the rain, resembling another rain, but heavier and slower.”

(Reviews of Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4)

In this volume, Maupassant continues to write amazing stories. He starts off with some sketch-like stories, and then goes on to write more developed pieces. A lot of them have to do with affairs again, but others have to do with graveyard hijinks, and some have to do with deathbed confessions. Almost all of them involve one character telling a story to another character. Two stories that were particularly good were “Regret,” and “Two Little Soldiers.”

Maupassant has great opening lines that are very exciting to read. There are characters who fall madly in love with other characters right away, there are characters who give in to the sin of love for the first time, and there are people who are drunk. Basically, Maupassant’s openings never disappoint.

Also, while he sometimes explains characters’ dynamics (sometimes intellectualizedly), he then goes on to let the reader see them happening for themselves without framing them in such a way that insists that there is nothing important left to Character XYZ but Maupassant’s explanations about him/her. I guess this is what I meant earlier by someone who doesn’t judge or overexplain their characters. The characters just are, and even if they’re wrong, the author lets the reader figure this out for themselves, and arrive at unexpected insights that might very well have been lost had the author tried to explain the characters himself.

I would recommend. Also, if you’ve read any of these books yourself, I would love to hear your thoughts!

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

The American Jewish Distribution Committee: Supports those in Ukraine, those fleeing Ukraine, and those residing in Hungary, Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.jdc.org/

Save The Children: Gives emergency aid to children in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.savethechildren.org/us/where-we-work/ukraine

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

World Health Organization: Helps treat injured Ukrainians and provides life-saving medicines. Donate here: https://www.ukraine.who.foundation/

Lit in the Time of War: Saroyan, Gogol, and Nabokov

Hello! I hope you are well. I’ve read three books this week. Below are my (sometimes controversial) reviews of them. Also below is a list of places you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need. Please do if you are able.

The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze
and Other Stories
, by William Saroyan

“Horizontally wakeful amid universal widths, practising laughter and mirth, satire, the end of all, of Rome and yes of Babylon, clenched teeth, remembrance, much warmth volcanic, the streets of Paris, the plains of Jericho, much gliding as of reptile in abstraction, a gallery of watercolors, the sea and the fish with eyes, symphony, a table in the corner of the Eiffel Tower, jazz at the opera house, alarm clock and the tap-dancing of doom, conversation with a tree, the river Nile, Cadillac coupe to Kansas, the roar of Dostoyevsky, and the dark sun.”

This book has a bunch of short stories in it by the writer William Saroyan.

It had me of two minds. There were some stories in it I loved, like “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “Seventy Thousand Assyrians,” “Aspirin is a Member of the N.R.A”, “Seventeen,” “Laughter,” “Harry,” and “War.” Then there were some that I thought were trying too hard to be poetic or weren’t really saying anything meaningful, and I found myself getting annoyed with them (a very subjective response).

In any case this author reminded me of a cross between Thomas Wolfe (for the streams of consciousness) and Isaac Babel (for some of the very concise writing). Interestingly, someone said that Saroyan was one of the first minimalists. I wouldn’t call him a minimalist (considering his streams of consciousness) but I would call him a very good writer in any case that would be interesting to read.

The Overcoat and Other Tales of Good and Evil,
by Nikolai Gogol, Translated by David Magarshack

“On entering the hall, he saw his valet Ivan lying on his back on the dirty leather sofa and spitting on the ceiling and rather successfully aiming at the same spot. Such an indifference on the part of his servant maddened him; he hit him on the forehead with his hat, saying: ‘You pig, you’re always doing something stupid!’”

I previously reviewed Gogol’s “The Overcoat” here. Now I’m reviewing more of his stories.

This collection in particular is a very interesting book because it shows Gogol going from writing semi-cliché (and very sexist) stories of revenge to writing more original and funny stories like “The Overcoat” and “The Nose.”

Another good story in this collection was “Nevsky Avenue,” which had very funny parts to it as well, even if it lacked the depth and insight that made “The Overcoat” and “The Nose” such masterpieces. Finally, there was a story called “The Portrait” which gave a great summarization of Gogol’s artistic values (it’s about painters).

Overall, if you’re looking to journey along with a great writer as he develops, this would be a very good book to read.

Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov

“‘I have always had the impression that his entomology was merely a pose.’  ‘Oh no,’ said Chateau. ‘You will lose it some day,’ he added, pointing to the Greek Catholic cross on a golden chainlet that Pnin had removed from his neck and hung on a twig. Its glint perplexed a cruising dragonfly.”

This book is about a professor from Russia who teaches Russian at an American university. His name is Pnin. I don’t know what else to say about this book because nothing much else really happens.

My thoughts about this book are controversial. I did not enjoy it, unlike everyone else I know who read it. I guess for me it was the fact that Pnin had previously risked his life fleeing from Soviet Russia to America, but then in America the most that he risks is potentially losing his tenure. Considering how the stakes went from super-high to nonexistent, I didn’t feel that engaged with the story.

I know that Nabokov isn’t known for gripping and suspenseful plot-driven works but is known for his style. Even so, I didn’t really care that much about his style (other than the first chapter which was hilarious). For some reason I found the book got less funny as it went on. At certain points his style felt like he was trying too hard to be witty, to the point where I stopped really caring about his attempts.

Even so, I saw that Nabokov was a good writer. His language was good, some of his observations were interesting, and so on. I just didn’t feel that Pnin was as fulfilling (or as funny) as other books I’ve read.

In the end, I know this is a very subjective opinion. I wouldn’t let my judgement of it turn you off from reading it. I’d recommend you read it and see what you think. Maybe we’ll wind up agreeing, but maybe we won’t and you’ll find yourself a new favorite author.

Now, as promised, a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need:

UN Ukraine Humanitarian Fund: Helps give money to humanitarian non-governmental organizations who give food to Ukrainians. Donate here: https://crisisrelief.un.org/t/ukraine

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

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

Rescue.org: Gives food, medical care, and emergency support services to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://help.rescue.org/donate/ukraine-web

Lit in the Time of War: Hillenbrand, Maupassant, and Gladwell

Hello. I hope you are well. I’ve read three books this week. Here they are, along with a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help people in Ukraine.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, Read by Edward Hermann

“For these men [POWs] the central struggle of post-war life was to restore their dignity and find a way to see the world as something other than menacing blackness. There was no one right way to peace. Every man had to find his own path, according to his own history. Some succeeded. For others, the war would never really end.”

This is a nonfiction account of a man named Louis Zamperini, who was a troublemaker in his childhood, an Olympic track-star in his youth, a WWII pilot-turned-prisoner of war in his manhood, and a PTSD-battling survivor in his older age. You may have seen the Angelina Jolie movie about him. This is the book it was based on.

The book was very good. It had a great blend of wisdom, humanity, warmth, tragedy, suffering, and (tasteful) comic relief. What stood out most was this blend, along with the author’s keen insights into the sources of resilience (of the prisoners) and malice (of their captors).

I would definitely recommend.

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

“Then he went on a few steps, and stopped again to look about him, and the utter misery of his existence seemed to be brought out into full relief by the intense light which inundated the country. He saw his twenty years of café-life, dull, monotonous, heart-breaking. He might have traveled like others did, have gone among foreigners, to unknown countries beyond the sea, have interested himself somewhat in everything which other men are passionately devoted to, in arts and sciences, he might have enjoyed life in a thousand forms, that mysterious life which is either charming or painful, constantly changing, always inexplicable and strange. Now, however, it was too late.”

(Volumes 2, 3, 4 here)

It’s so gooood. Unlike Chekhov, Maupassant was able to write female characters without being so sexist about it (so far, anyway). This made for a terrifically refreshing read.

Along with that, he was able to get at the humanity of everyone in his stories, even as they commit foul deeds (deceiving their spouse, etc.) I would say that there was one story that I felt that could have had a greater contrast to strengthen its effect.

Even so, if you’re looking for a short story writer who’s BETTER than Chekhov, I would recommend Maupassant without hesitation.

Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon,
by Malcom Gladwell, Read by Malcom Gladwell

“[Paul Simon:] In order for a problem to be something that you want to solve, it means it has to be interesting, which means you don’t know the answer to the problem. That’s why you’re interested, and you wonder, What’s the answer to that? What does that mean? How do you get there? How do you make yourself feel that chemical high that you feel when you make something that you like? [….] It’s the mystery of why that happens, but when that [chemical high] does occur to you the reward is so great you want that for your whole life.

This is a series of interviews with Paul Simon (of Simon & Garfunkel), interlaced with insights from other musicians about Paul Simon’s music, and excerpts from the music itself. It was very interesting to listen to.

What made it more interesting, in my subjective opinion, was to see the contrast between Paul Simon and Malcom Gladwell (whose comments framed everything Simon said). Paul Simon is a musician who doesn’t think too much about what’s going on in his music in terms of the source of his genius. Malcom Gladwell is a man who seems keen to create theories about everything. He seems to want the formula for genius, and he seems like he wants to dissect Paul Simon to get at that formula. As a result, the interview could sometimes read like Paul Simon talking about whatever he wants and Malcom Gladwell trying to shove him into a box labeled “Malcom Gladwell’s Theory of Musical Genius.”

In other words, it felt like Malcom Gladwell was less interested in Paul Simon as a person, and more interested in him as a specimen of genius. This made the book less enjoyable than it could have been, but it also gave interesting, semi-enjoyable insights (due to the contrast between Gladwell and Simon’s approaches to life and music and genius).

This book also had good music (obviously, it’s Paul Simon), it had good insights into his music by other musicians, and it even had good insights into him by Malcom Gladwell (though sometimes Gladwell would just go off on random theories that had no real basis in the reality that Paul Simon was trying to tell him).

So overall, I’d recommend, but I’d keep in mind the interesting dynamics underpinning this book.

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

Corus World Health: Gives needed medicines to Ukrainians, and supports the work of health care workers in Ukraine. Donate here: https://donate.corusworldhealth.org/

Voices of Children: Gives emergency psychological support to children in need, along with evacuation assistance. Donate here: https://voices.org.ua/en/

Humanity and Inclusion: Gives support to disabled people in Ukraine, including at-home rehabilitation, mine risk education, and emergency health services. Donate here: https://www.hi-us.org/ukraine

International Medical Corps: Expands access to medical and mental health services in Ukraine, and helps refugees. Donate here: https://give.internationalmedicalcorps.org/page/99837/donate/

Lit in the Time of War: Dragomán, Mussorgsky, and Half of Pasternak

Hello! I hope you are all well. I’ve read three-ish books this week (one I’ve only read half of thanks to final exams). I’ll be back to reading three books next week. At the end of this post, I’ve also given a list of places you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need. Please do.

The White King, by György Dragomán,
Translated by Paul Olchváry

“By then we’ve been without Father for more than half a year, though he was supposed to have gone away for only a week, to a research station by the sea, on some urgent business, and when he said goodbye to me he said how sorry he was that he couldn’t take me with him, because at that time of year, in late autumn, the sea is a truly unforgettable sight, a lot fiercer than in summer, stirring up huge yellow waves and white foam as far as the eye can see; but no matter, he said, and he promised that once he got home he’d take me, too, so I could have a look for myself. He just couldn’t understand how it could be that I was already past ten years old and still had never seen the sea, but that’s OK, he said, we’d make up for that along with everything else we’d make up for, no sense rushing things, there would be plenty of time and more for everything, because we had a whole life ahead of us. This was one of Father’s favorite sayings, and although I never did quite get it, when he didn’t come home, after all, I thought about it a lot, and that farewell came to my mind a lot, too, how it was when I saw Father for the last time, when his colleagues came to get him with a grey van.”

This book is about Djata, an eleven-year-old boy who’s waiting for his disappeared father to return home. The problem is that his father has been arrested by the totalitarian state. Meanwhile Djata deals with the regime, his grief, and other kids.

This book takes the form of a bunch of loosely-connected short stories, but unlike some books of loosely-connected short stories, this one works very well. There’s a main through-line (Djata’s father) that ties it all together. It’s actually so unified that it sometimes feels more like a novel than a bunch of short stories.

The book itself is very good and very moving (it may make you cry a lot). The good news is that while it can be very sad, it also has hilarious parts, which makes for a good balance, and its ending is very satisfying (from a craft-based point of view).

The book’s style is interesting (but I didn’t realize until late into it). The author uses a lot of run-on sentences, and he doesn’t include quotation marks around dialogue. The good news is that this stylistic stuff doesn’t get in the way of the story’s substance. It actually augments the narrative, since it makes Djata out to be a super-talkative kid (who may even be trying to cover up his grief by being super-talkative).

So if you want to be emotionally devastated by a book, I recommend The White King.

Boris Godunov, by Modest Mussorgsky,
Based on the Play by Alexander Pushkin

“GRIGORI: Boris, Boris—you make the country tremble,
and no one ever dares remember
the fate you meted out to the Tsarevich.
Yet in this quiet cell
a monk recorded all that he knew
of this most heinous murder.
You will be called before your earthly judges,
nor can you flee
the judgment of the Lord.”

This is an opera libretto based on a historical play by Alexander Pushkin. In it, the Macbeth-like Boris Godunov murders his way to tsardom and then guilts about it while other people try to stir up rebellion against him. I’d previously seen Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera, and so was curious to read Mussorgsky’s libretto.

Interestingly, there are different versions of the opera—Mussorgsky originally wrote a version about Boris, with a few scenes focusing on some other character called Dmitri the Pretender. Later, Mussorgsky was told that the opera couldn’t be performed unless he included a more prominent female character in the opera. So he created a second version (which I read for today) which included a love-interest for Dmitri.

The version I saw at the Met didn’t include this love-interest. In that version, the plot flowed better. In the version that I read, the love-interest seemed to be there for no real reason other than to be there (she didn’t even really contribute to the plot). However, the version that I read had a good scene in it that was cut from the Met. You just can’t win.

Overall, I wouldn’t really recommend this libretto. It’s not that good (though there are some good parts), but it has made me very interested in reading the actual play by Pushkin.

An Essay in Autobiography, by Boris Pasternak,
Translated by Manya Harari

“It was only later, when an attempt was made to establish a resemblance between Mayakovsky and myself, that I was credited with a gift for tonal and rhetorical effects. This is quite untrue—I have no more of this gift than anyone who uses words. On the contrary, my concern has always been for meaning, and my dream [is] that every poem should have content in itself—a new thought or a new image.”

This book contains both Pasternak’s autobiographical essay and his poems. I’ve only read his essay so far. The poems are written in both Russian and English, and I’ve been spending more time than I should comparing the Russian to the English, which has taken up more time than allows for in my week. So I’ll probably review the poems next week. For now, I’ll review the essay.

This essay is basically about Pasternak’s youth and the people he met who inspired the approach he developed towards writing. Among others, he talks about Marina Tsvetaeva, Rainer Marie Rilke, Alexander Scriabin, and Paolo Yashvili.

If you’re looking for a definitive autobiography of Pasternak (something like Gorky’s 3-volume autobiography), it doesn’t exist. There’s only this essay and another essay he wrote earlier on. He thinks this essay is better and less pretentious than his earlier one. I haven’t read the other essay, so I can’t say for sure, but I agree that this essay is not pretentious. Pasternak has a lot of sensible ideas about art, and is very grounded in what he says (he cares for meaning over rhetorical flourishes, for instance).

Also, a fun fact about Pasternak: he wanted to be a composer when he was a boy because Alexander Scriabin was his neighbor and Pasternak once walked through the woods between their houses, heard Scriabin play, and got obsessed. Pasternak even became a good composer, but stopped, because though he was able to compose sophisticated and rich music, “I played wretchedly and I read music like a child learning to spell” and, “The discrepancy between my musical themes, new and difficult in themselves, and my lack of practical skill turned the natural gift which should have been a joy to me into a torment, and in the end I found it unendurable.”

What was also interesting was that as a youth, Pasternak didn’t see the need for hard work. He thought genius would just flow out of him like carbon dioxide flows out of someone’s nostrils. He obviously got wiser afterwards (see the rest of his autobiographical essay), but it’s interesting to get a sense of what he used to believe (art is the result of effortless genius) and what he went on to realize (art is the result of a lot of hard work).

Overall, if you’re looking for very insightful portrait of someone’s artistic development, I would definitely recommend this essay. It’s wise without being condescending, and thought-provoking without being pretentious.

Now, as promised, here’s a list of places you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need:

Save The Children: Gives emergency aid to children in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.savethechildren.org/us/where-we-work/ukraine

Urgent Action Fund Ukraine: Supports evacuation efforts, provides disaster survival training, provides access to alternate communication methods for Ukrainians and more. Donate here: https://urgentactionfund.org/

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

World Health Organization: Helps treat injured Ukrainians and provides life-saving medicines. Donate here: https://www.ukraine.who.foundation/

Lit in the Time of War: Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky

In which I review books by Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky.

Hello! I hope you are well. Today at Princeton is officially Dean’s Date—when all essays are due. As a result, I’ll keep my reviews shorter than usual. Also, there’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need.

Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir, by Shahrnush Parsipur, Translated by Sara Khalili

“Although this madness [PTSD from prison] was my own, I wonder if society can be struck by a similar sort of collective insanity when pressure mounts beyond the peoples’ tolerance. Do they abandon all beliefs and begin to exist in an illusory world of their own creation? In that state, will they believe everything they are told?”

This book is about an Iranian writer who gets imprisoned. She experiences traumatic events in Evin Prison along with in other prisons. She gets released, then re-arrested, then released, then re-arrested again. Through it all, we see her remarkable character (she is very resilient and spirited), and learn about the horrors of incarceration.

I would recommend.

The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin,
Read by Eugene Yelchin

“‘‘Turn that thing [the radio] off, Yevgeny.’ ‘I can’t, Grandma,’ I said. ‘I’m in attitude.’ I was trying to balance on one leg in attitude, which Vaganova described as a pose on one leg with the other lifted at an angle of ninety degrees and carried back, bent at the knee. ‘You hurt your leg, Yevgeny?’ ‘No, Grandma. It’s…nothing.’ ‘He stands on one leg for nothing. You a stork?’ ‘I’m practicing ballet.’ ‘With a bad leg?’”

This book is a memoir about Yelchin’s experiences growing up during the Cold War. His mom’s obsessed with the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, his dad’s obsessed with poetry, and his brother’s obsessed with his newfound talent for ice-skating. Yelchin’s parents say he needs a talent, too—talent gets you a luxurious apartment and other such privileges. Yelchin’s brother is all set, but no matter what he does, Yelchin turns out to have no talent at anything. The only enjoyment he gets is from the drawings he makes at night under the table.

This book is funny, heartwarming, and extremely well-crafted. I would recommend.

Selected Poems, by Joseph Brodsky,
Translated by George L. Kline

“People and things crowd in.
Eyes can be bruised and hurt
by people as well as things.
Better to live in the dark.”

This is a book of poems by Brodsky translated into English and with a foreword by W.H. Auden, who says that Brodsky is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. This is also back when Brodsky was an unknown (1973, before his 1987 Nobel Prize).

In any case, I found the poems to be good but not as good as I’d hoped (I’d read some poems by Brodsky here and they were terrific).

Even so, there were some very good poems in this collection, and I’d recommend it. Also, while I never mention footnotes, I do have to say that Brodsky’s book has great footnotes about untranslatable nuances of the Russian original which were very helpful and insightful. I’d recommend.

As promised, a list of places to donate and help Ukrainians in need:

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

Nova Ukraine: Supports Ukrainians by evacuating refugees, serving meals, and providing aid packages. Also the first volunteer group to enter Bucha and provide food and reconstruction assistance there. Donate here: https://novaukraine.org/

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

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

Lit in the Time of War: Brady, Blok, and Yelchin

Study for exams! Read books! Stop the war!

Hello! I hope you are as well as can be hoped for during these awful times. I have reviewed three books this week, and have included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukraine:

Profile of a Prodigy: The Life and Games of Bobby Fischer,
by Frank Brady

“Psychologically, he seems trapped by his own temperament, unable to realize that a sensitivity to the rights and interests of others is a condition of social being. He has backed himself into such a small cultural corner that his ideational mobility suffers every time it is tried, as is shown by the almost pathetic lack of sophistication in his statements since Curaçao. Indeed, he is scarcely able to communicate with the world of larger interests except through the medium of the chessboard. Mikhail Tal one said in an interview that Bobby should read more outside of chess or else his game would eventually  suffer from the thinness of his education. Bobby replied by slighting his critic’s chess ability and adding a series of sneers at intellectual pretensions on the part of certain chess masters.”

This book is about the famous chess player Bobby Fischer, who was a prodigy as a kid and who went on to become the world champion of chess.

What makes this book more interesting is that the author knew Fischer personally. Also, this book was written and published in the 1960s, when Fischer was on hiatus from chess and before he returned to win his famous matches in the 1970s. So here we only have a partial profile of a prodigy rather than the whole story (which is what most standard biographies would give you). So think of this book as being more of a snapshot than a comprehensive biography.

The book was good. It was interesting to learn about the world of chess. Fischer was a very good chess player at a very young age, but he was also very immature. At the time this book was written, his immaturity was limiting him by causing him to decline to participate in chess. He had wanted to compete in the world championship, for instance, but, after convincing himself that the game was rigged against him in favor of his Soviet rivals (which he only complained about when they beat him), he also convinced himself to take a hiatus from the game.

 The book also contains annotated diagrams of Fischer’s greatest games (up to the 1960s). Though it was mildly interesting to flip through these (“14 RxB!!”), it was more interesting to read the biography portion of the book. What made it stand out the most to me was its chapter trying to dissect Fischer’s psychology. He apparently tied his sense of self-worth to chess to the point where he wound up sabotaging his chances at the world title in the 1960s to preserve his sense of superiority over other players.

So, if you’re interested in a psychological portrait of a (sometimes comically-whiny) prodigy, I’d recommend this book.

Poems by Alexander Blok, Translated by Yevgeny Bonver

“Years that burned everything to ashes!
Do you bring madness or grace?
The war’s and freedom’s fire flashes
Left bloody light on every face.”

After reading Pasternak’s poems on a website and reviewing them on this blog, I have found another website with a lot of poems by Alexander Blok.

The poems were good. They made me think about the world in a different way. Some were particularly striking, like “All perished, All!” and “He, who was born…” All in all, it was a very good compilation.

The only thing I would say about these poems is that the English translation loses out on nuances in the original. For instance, in “Night, Streets, the Lantern…” the original’s last line has to do with ice flowing (or something that shows that in spite of the frozenness of ice, it still contains a glimmer of motion). This nuance was completely lost in the translation, which mentioned something about a swelling canal in the night. Obviously not all translations can be perfect, but it has made me wonder how much nuance has been lost in the other poems translated here.

In any case, I would recommend just to get exposure to Blok. If you can read the originals, I would recommend them even more.

The Haunting of Falcon House, by Eugene Yelchin,
Read by Michael Bakkensen and George Guidall

“I hesitated, deciding which book to open first. Not that it mattered. It shouldn’t be too hard for me to pass what was required. French I didn’t need to study. I already knew it. Of course, en garde, prêts, allez were the only words I knew, but they were the most important words in French. You couldn’t start fencing without saying them. I didn’t have to bother with the Russian grammar, either. Russian is my mother tongue, and besides, I write in cursive neatly. Well, almost neatly. As for arithmetic…true, numbers had always troubled me a little, but I could draw them well. Zeros in particular.”

This book is about a prince, Lev Lvovich, who is sent to live with his aunt Olga in a house called Falcon House, which just so happens to be haunted. As he tries to live up to his grandfather’s legacy (his grandfather was apparently a fancy general in the Russian army), he meets a mysterious boy named Vanyusha who has mysterious secrets, studies half-heartedly for admittance into a fancy Russian military academy, and finds himself drawing pictures better than he ever had drawn them before.

The book started slow but gets really good at the end. Was it worthwhile? I found it to be so. It was fun to read, with humor, action, and heart. I felt like some aspects could have been developed more (we learn about the protagonist’s grandfather but not so much about his father, for instance), but there was enough to keep the read entertaining.

So, if you’re looking for a book with some humor and a terrific ending, read this. And if you just so happen to be cramming for final exams and writing essays for final assignments, I’d recommend this book even more for its inspirational take on academics (see excerpt above!)

As promised, here’s a list of Ukrainian organizations to donate to. In case you missed out on previous lists, some entries are repeated here:

UN Refugees: Supports Ukrainian refugees by giving them supplies and assistance. Gifts are being matched up to 1 million dollars. Donate here: https://www.unrefugees.org/

World Central Kitchen: Provides food to displaced Ukrainian refugees and to civilians still in Ukrainian cities. Donate here: https://wck.org/

Razom for Ukraine: Provides medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

Plan USA: Gives resources and psychological support to girls and women in Ukraine. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/

Lit in the Time of War: Sergey, Marina, Ilf, Petrov, and Yelchin

Hello! I hope you had a happy Easter/Passover/Ramadan. This week I’ve reviewed three books, and, as usual, provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukraine during this awful war.

The Scar, by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko,
Translated by Elinor Huntington

“The world is preserved by the mother of all roads. She looks after the faithful traveler, relieving his solitude. The dust of the road covers the hem of a cloak, the dust of the constellations covers the curtain of the night sky, and the wind blows both the clouds toward first light and sheets hung up the dry with the same eagerness. It is no misfortune if the soul is scorched by the sun; it is far more disastrous if a raging fire devastates the soul. It is no misfortune if you do not know where you are going; it is far worse when there is no longer anywhere to go. He who stands on the path of experience cannot step away from it, even when it has come to its end. For the path is without end.”

This is a book about a guy named Egert who starts out being a self-absorbed jerk and a member of the royal guard. He’s very brave, but he bullies his friends, chases after other men’s loved ones, and so on. But one time, he winds up killing a woman’s fiancé in a duel, and gets cursed by a mysterious man called the Wanderer. The curse rids Egert of his bravery and sets him fleeing from everything. Now he needs to figure out how to break the curse before it’s too late.

This was a fun read. The protagonist was initially very unsympathetic, but wound up becoming more sympathetic as the book went on and he learned how to be compassionate towards others instead of just thinking about himself. What also made this book good is that even though nothing seems to happen and there are no real big battles or anything (except at the beginning and the end) it still feels as though a lot is happening (even though the characters just walking around living life). I guess that’s a testament to their authors’ skills with characterization.

It’s also a compelling read—I found myself prioritizing this book over my schoolwork. So if you’re in the throes of studying for final exams, etc, be warned.

In any case, I’d recommend this book.

The Twelve Chairs, by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov,
Translated by John Richardson

(So funny I had to include 2 excerpts)

Excerpt 1:

“The same old story of Gavrila was begun again [by Nikifor Lapis], but this time with a hunting twist to it. The work went under the title of ‘The Poacher’s Prayer.’

‘Gavrila lay in wait for rabbits.
Gavrila shot and winged a doe…’

‘Very good,’ said the kindly Napernikov. ‘You have surpassed Entich himself in this poem, Trubetskoi. Only there are one or two things to be changed. The first thing is to get rid of the word “prayer.” ‘And “rabbit,”’ said the rival. ‘Why rabbit?’ asked Nikifor [Lapis] in surprise. ‘It’s the wrong season.’”

Excerpt 2 (Also about Lapis):

“‘Well, how have you been making out?’ asked Persidsky. ‘I’ve written a marvelous poem!’ ‘About Gavrila? Something peasanty? “Gavrila ploughed the fields early. Gavrila just adored his plough?”’ ‘Not about Gavrila. That’s a pot-boiler,’ said Lapis defensively. ‘I’ve written about the Caucasus.’ ‘Have you ever been to the Caucasus?’ ‘I’m going in two weeks.’ ‘Aren’t you afraid, Lapis? There are jackals there.’ ‘Takes more than that to frighten me. Anyway, the ones in the Caucasus aren’t poisonous.’ They all pricked up their ears at this reply. ‘Tell me, Lapis,’ said Persidsky, ‘What do you think jackals are?’ ‘I know what they are. Leave me alone.’ ‘All right, tell us then if you know.’ ‘Well, they’re sort of… like… snakes.’”

This is a very funny book. it stars con-man Ostap Bender, the “smooth operator” (or “великий комбинатор” in the Russian original) and his guileless acquaintance Ippolit Matveyevich, who’s much less smooth of an operator. Ippolit Matveyevich has just gotten an inheritance of 12 chairs from his mom, and one of the chairs contains a fortune sewn within it. The only problem is that Ippolit Matveyevich does not have the chairs—they have started to be dispersed around Russia. When Ostap Bender learns about this, he insists on getting into the chair-hunting business. Thus begins an epic and funny chase around Russia.

This book reminded me a lot of Gogol’s Dead Souls in that there are different episodes that the characters go through to swindle others of their money, and each episode is pretty funny. While not as funny as Ivan Chonkin by Voinovich, it’s still very funny (and some episodes are absolutely hilarious). Not to mention that this book has a very surprising and exciting twist ending that somehow gets cancelled out in the second book of the series which you should also lie in wait for (like Gavrila with the doe that he intends to wing).

In any case, I would recommend.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose, by Eugene Yelchin,
Illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, Read by Mark Turetsky

“‘Why is “The Nose” still so important to us?’ No hands go up, and I’m not surprised. He’s talking about a crazy old story they always make us read called “The Nose.” It’s really stupid. Some guy’s nose is dressed up in uniform, imagine that, and it starts putting on airs as though it’s an important government official. It takes place way before Stalin was our leader and teacher, of course. Could something like this happen now? No way. So why should Soviet children read such lies? I don’t know. I’m in no hurry, so I keep listening. ‘What “The Nose” so vividly demonstrates to us today,’ says Lushko, ‘is that when we blindly believe in someone else’s idea of what is right or wrong for us as individuals, sooner or later, our refusal to make our own choices could lead to the collapse of the entire political system. An entire country. The world, even.’”

This book is about a kid named Sasha Zaichik whose father is an official in Stalin’s government. Sasha is a model Soviet student, and he wants to become a Young Pioneer (the Soviet equivalent of Boy Scouts) at an upcoming ceremony at his school. The only problem is that his father is arrested by the Soviet government, and now Sasha has to go to school and hope that his father comes back in time for the ceremony (spoiler alert: he doesn’t).

Along the way, he meets friendly enemies of the people (classmates whose parents had also been arrested), breaks the nose off a bust of Stalin (which could get him arrested), and is lectured to by a life-sized version of Stalin’s nose smoking a pipe (see drawing above).

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Who cares that it’s for kids? the author is terrific at dramatic irony (Sasha remains in denial about his dad’s arrest, but we know too well what’s probably happened to him), and at drawing through-lines through the story (Character A does something mysterious, we wonder about it for a while and then forget about it, only for it to pop back up again at the end of the book).

The author is also great at humanizing the characters. I found myself sympathizing with even the least sympathetic of them (Sasha’s classmates). It also goes without saying that Sasha himself is also very sympathetic.

The book is also apparently illustrated. I didn’t get to see that, as I read the audiobook version, but the illustrations look pretty good based on what I could find online…

In any case, I definitely recommend this book. Who cares if you’re an adult? Read it anyway. You won’t regret it.

As promised, here are some places you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need:

The American Jewish Distribution Committee: Supports those in Ukraine, those fleeing Ukraine, and Ukrainians residing in Hungary, Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.jdc.org/

Muslim Hands: UK-based organization supporting Ukrainian refugees in Poland (can choose to donate in dollars). Donate here: https://muslimhands.org.uk/donate/ukraine-refugee-crisis/ukraine-refugee-crisis

Jeremiah’s Hope: Christian organization that provides evacuation assistance, relief, and long-term rebuilding support. Specifically focuses on helping orphans. Donate here: https://www.jeremiahshope.org/

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