I think about reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin last year, and I sense the power it had at the time the sense of timelessness evaded Stowe. And, yet, even as I think about reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin last year, and I sense the power it had at the time the sense of timelessness evaded Stowe. And, yet, even as the message about slavery and morality is no less true now than then, as a message to a generation that no longer struggles with justifications for human bondage it is a perhaps with less impact. This isn’t to mention either that the intervening century and a half plus have seen writing styles and forms adjust.
Another is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsen’s fictionalized memoir about life in the Soviet gulag. Like legal mass human slavery in the American south, the Soviet gulag has passed into infamy and history; and yet, there’s something about how Solzhenitzen humanizes it that retains its resonance today. The tale is every bit as fascinating and gripping, alive and vibrant as if I was there, the gulag still open and functioning on the frozen tundra of Siberia. The tale is, to me, timeless.
Ursula Le Guin writes with this kind of timeless power. While squarely in the science fiction genre, Le Guin never lets it get in the way of beautiful writing, nor does she let overly ornate language get in the way of a story that is as strange as it is familiar. And yet, it was not a simple or easy read. Where so many novels in the genre rely on heavy action and fast pacing for a quick hit, Le Guin's novel is, in many respects, a slow but steady burn.
The Left Hand of Darkness takes place on the planet Gethen, populated by descendants of human colonists so far in the past that the colonization has been forgotten. Gethen's inhabitants' most distinctive feature is a sequential hermaphroditism. In other words, no one is permanently male or female, but changes--biologically--during certain stages of the cycle and based on the role needed for reproduction. Le Guin uses this to examine gender in ways that are just as provocative as when Left Hand was released in 1968. Gently Ai is an emissary of the Ekamai, an intergalactic alliance of humanity's planets, and he has come to Gethen to invite them to join the network of worlds. In the process, he first tries the Karhide, making friends with the king's advisory, Estraven, and finally obtains an audience with the king, only to find Estraven accused of treachery and his mission a failure.
Hoping for a better opportunity elsewhere, Ai crosses frozen mountains (Gethen is nearly perpetually frozen, with only short periods of warmth, and even that it is only relative) to Orgoreyn. Unlike the chilly reception he had received in Karhide (no pun intended), the Orgoreyns wine and dine him, and Ai believes he will find the success that eluded him in Karhide. At this moment, he encounters the now exiled Estraven, who warns him of imminent betrayal. Ai spurns the warning, foolishly as he soon finds out. For the first time in generations--if not ever, the Orgoreyn and Karhide nations will go to war, and Ai is seen by the Orgoreyn as a potential spy, or worse. He is picked up by the secret police, and he is soon in a prison camp that Sozhenitsen might recognize without too much difficulty.
As hope turns to despair, Estraven appears again, and together they decide to cross a frozen glacier land in one last attempt to return to Karhide and convince them to join the Ekamai. Le Guin's taste for interweaving topography, culture, language, and the shear danger presented by the elements is dynamically manifest, and it's a scene I love as the stage that has been set for so long comes together.
Again, while the gender aspect plays an enormous role, Le Guin seems more apt to ask the questions about gender than to propose or impose answers, but never does it interfere with her story of aliens navigating each other's culture to find a place where they can drag their respective people into a better future. Too often it seems like modern sci-fi--especially if inclined towards social justice--wants to drop a heavy-handed message in the middle of an unsuspecting plot, leaving a reader either distasteful turned off (and if you're not turned off, one has to question if you're enjoying the book only because of a bias-confirmation inclination that is satisfied by the message). Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness is neither heavy-handed nor lacking in commentary primarily because it never condescends or preaches. Rather, her power is in a plot fraught with tension and alienness, in a place that is distinctly "not Earth" and, yet, entirely like Earth. Her answers are questions, and her questions are what have allowed The Left Hand to continue to resonate nearly fifty years later.
(Which The Left Hand of Darkness is part of the Hainish Cycle, one need not read others in the Cycle to enjoy it.)...more
I suppose it's a bit ironic that I finished One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in in the midst of one of last weeks winter storm, snow falling andI suppose it's a bit ironic that I finished One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in in the midst of one of last weeks winter storm, snow falling and wind blowing and the temperature dropping as low as 2 degrees Fahrenheit. And yet, Utah’s snow is just as quick to melt as it is to accumulate, nothing like the frozen tundra where the Russian gulag imprisoned millions of victims of Stalin's purges. As far as that world may be from this one, both in time and space, Solzhenitsyn's tale is no less relevant, and not just for its historical significance in blowing a hole in the secrets of the Russian gulag.
The classic is a description of a day in the life of a prisoner of the Russian gulag in the mid-1950s, and it’s every bit as readable now as it was when it came out in 1962. As a prisoner of the gulag himself, Solzhenitsyn well knew the daily trials and travails, and in One Day… he describes the hard life of a prisoner with a descriptive accuracy that colors the image but doesn’t slow the story. Indeed, it reads like an autobiography–which it is–but carries all the literary force of a work of fiction.
A beautifully written work of fiction.
After I read Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History last year I found myself completely mesmerized, if grotesquely so, with the bizarre world of the Russian gulag (is it redundant to call it that?). Applebaum referenced Solzhenitsyn’s One Day… and subsequent works so often that I felt I had to read it. And I'm glad I did. The gulag was a place where the rules of justice didn't apply, where all the distortions of a byzantine bureaucratic system are magnified, and where there is not so much a distinction between good and evil as there is scarcity and more scarcity. Even the guards who man the watch towers are prisoners of the Twilight Zone-like gulag, if only in command and a step or two above the prisoners.
In this weird and oppressive world, the only sanity seems to come from a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Pleasure is found in warm–and watery–soup. A market is black, providing not necessities, but the few luxuries that get smuggled in, like tobacco, or maybe the piece of serrated metal that can serve as a make-shift tool. Interspersed with effortless description Solzhenitzen inserts insights that bring the labor camp to life: the escape that physical labor provides, the struggle to keep a mentality of survival, competition between work gangs for what amounts to just a bit more than nothing, the daily fight to stay warm, and, always, oppression–and the survival–of the human body and spirit.
Here he is, at the end of his day, considering with almost grateful serenity the fortune of the day: “they hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent his squad to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he’d earned a favor from Tsezar that evening; he’d bought that tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill. He got over it.”
Describing hunger: “The belly is a demon. It doesn’t remember how well you treated it yesterday; it’ll cry out for more tomorrow.” And “That bowl of soup—it was dearer than freedom, dearer than life itself, past, present, and future.”
The delusional power of the government on the laws of nature: “Since then it’s been decreed that the sun is highest at one o’clock.” “Who decreed that?” “The Soviet government.”
And finally, the resignation of time in the gulag, a seemingly never-ending stretch: “The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one. Just one of the 3,653 days of his sentence, from bell to bell. The extra three were for leap years.”
If you’ve never read about the gulag, or even if you have only a passing knowledge of it, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a must-read, a beautiful and power piece of literature that not only describes history but made it. As such, it deserves its place among the classics of 20th-century literature....more
I'm one of the few people I know that has not watched Francis Ford Coppola's film classic The Godfather. When a co-worker promised that "The movie wasI'm one of the few people I know that has not watched Francis Ford Coppola's film classic The Godfather. When a co-worker promised that "The movie was good, but the book was better," I decided to test the thesis.
And, indeed, I wonder if I'll ever need to even try the movie after reading The Godfather. As written by Mario Puzo, The Godfather is something that pulls you in, grasps you, and demands you pay attention. Pay attention as the Godfather builds his empire, plots against his rivals, and establishes plausible deniability, all set on a foundation of Sicilian honor, omerta, and business. Pay attention to a world where the highest value is loyalty and where blood is thicker than love, a chauvinistic world where men rule over their women and where women refrain from asking too many questions.
It's almost medieval. And yet, there are statements here, commentary by author Mario Puzo about the environment in which the Sicilian mafia like that of the Corleone family rose. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.
The Godfather opens right in the middle of things. We are at the wedding of Don Corleone's daughter Connie to Carlo Rizzo. The whole family has gathered at "the mall" to celebrate. Here are the Don's sons: Sonny, who is mean, dangerous, and carnal; Fredo, the middle child destined for mediocrity; and Michael, the one most like his father, but straight-laced and, almost scandalously, a war hero in love with a non-Italian girl from New Hampshire. Also present is the rest of the cast of The Godfather: the caporegimes Clemenza and Tessio, the assassin/bodyguard Luca Brasi, and the consigliere, or advisor, to the Don, Tom Hagen, himself an oddity as the only non-Sicilian of the lot. Each is given a story in his or her own time, a backstory that makes the fabric of the tale colorful, sturdy and vibrant.
It is a highpoint for the Family. Favors are sought from the Don, and the Don is beneficent and gracious as he dispenses his largesse. And yet, peril threatens. The Family's power and wealth come from its control of the vices of gambling, prostitution, and alcohol in various boroughs of New York and a new vice is arriving that will force the Corleone's to consider the future: illicit drugs. When the Don decides he does not want to leverage the Family's control of politicians, police, and judges to participate in the drug trade, a bloody war between the Sicilian mafia families begins that guides the narrative for the rest of the book. The war, and the Corleone's reach, will extend from New York to Hollywood and will track the rise of Las Vegas from the desert to become the gambling and entertainment destination that it is today. Here we will see scenes and read lines famous even to those who have not seen the movie: "go to the mattresses," "make an offer he cannot refuse," and find a when a horse head is a threat that cannot be ignored, among others.
It many ways, the story is sordid, as are its characters. And yet, Puzo gives reason to sympathize with the Don, with Michael, with Kay, and others. These characters are, before all else, humans and Puzo emphasizes the familial bonds that tie them. They are a group of individuals that will go to war for each other and that can trust each other with their lives. Even as Puzo manages to engage is characters in almost every vile and disgusting vice under the sun, he never loses track of the thread that keeps these individuals tied to each other and creates sympathy for characters that are as honest and true to what they claim to be as if they were modeled after real world individuals.
(Indeed, as I did a little reading about the history of the novel, I stumbled across claims that the character Johnney Fontane was allegedly modeled on Frank Sinatra, who himself was said to have close ties to the mafia. The story goes when Mario Puzo was introduced to Sinatra, the crooner refused to look at him or acknowledge him, standing only to yell at the author as he left. Whether true or not, it sure makes for interesting reading, and it's had to read certain sections of The Godfather and not see similarities in Johnney Fontane to Frank Sinatra.)
All this leads back to a question that arose as I arrived at about the halfway point in the book. By then I found my sense of disgust at the lack of moral compunction of many of the characters begin to overwhelm Puzo's gripping narrative. Here were characters that would betray or beat their wives on their wedding night, greedily fueded and kill to establish and strengthen "business" holdings--really just control of gambling "books," prostitution, and smuggling rackets--and did not bat an eyelash as pornography, pedophilia, adultery (and its unmarried companion fornication), abortion, public corruption, alcoholism, sex operations, assassinations, and more. With heroes like these, who needs antagonists? And, indeed, why keep reading? Where is the redeemable protagonist? I began to realize that at the center of The Godfather we find the morally upright Michael, the man who will not be part of the family business, but who will go his own way, become a war hero, and become, perhaps, something better and more honest.
Or will he? As the story unfolds and Puzo takes opportunities to spin side tales of woe and wickedness, the Corleone's saga becomes increasingly Michael's, and it is not a story of redemption, but of tragic fall, for a tragedy it is. In the end, The Godfather is a story of moral decline even as the Corleone's climb to new heights. The reality of the seduction of power, in both Puzo's and Lord Acton's estimation, is that it corrupts.
If Puzo tells us nothing else, it is that the price of loyalty is that one must sometimes give up other virtues for the security and strength that comes with imposing your visions and reality on the world. But this isn't all that Puzo has to say. In here also is an examination
But this isn't all. In The Godfather is also is an examination of the time and place that gave rise to the mafia, the influx of migrants in pre-Great Depression America, the corrupt and unpoliced police, and the powerful doing what they will while the weak did what they could. Into this chaotic milieu come individuals like Vito Corleone, fleeing decaying "Old World" Sicily, find opportunity and find themselves at odds with the law as they begin by defending the weak only to become the strong man they once opposed. In a time where the rule of law and increased transparency has made public and police corruption much more the exception than the rule, it is perhaps hard to imagine that there was ever a time when it was different; and yet, in the pages of Puzo's bestseller lies a world that is entirely credible and, perhaps, just as likely as it seems.
As literature goes, Puzo's style is heavily expository, but not in a way that fails to recognize when dialogue and action should replace description and exposition. Puzo is telling a story, and it feels like a story is being told. It is a story that is unforgettable, as much for its cautionary lessons as for the sordid world that The Godfather seems to insist existed--exists?--in some version of 1940s and 1950s America. It is a tale that could belong in the past of any great family that has clawed its way to power by criminal means, only to begin the next generation clean and in respectability. It is a very American story, if not the one that fits the modern mythology. ...more
Tonight is the Manly Book Club, a neighborhood book club I started for an excuse to hangout and talk ideas with the guys in my neck of the woods. We'rTonight is the Manly Book Club, a neighborhood book club I started for an excuse to hangout and talk ideas with the guys in my neck of the woods. We're talking about Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth." While it's not the most interesting book we've read, reading it has certainly been an interesting look through a keyhole at how the world, and fiction, has changed over the last one hundred and fifty years.
Published in 1864, it's the third of fifty-four (!) in Verne's series of "extraordinary voyages," which includes "Around the World in Eighty Days" and "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea." Today's reader might find it slow, arduous, and painfully melodramatic at points...which, to be honest, is probably how the journey was. Since, writing styles have changed, but this was the 1860s, and Verne was at that time the apex of scifi.
Slow and arduous though the Journey seems sometimes (it takes half of the book just to get to the volcano down into the Earth), it's still a creative and enjoyable foray of imagination and speculative science. Verne does make stuff up, but his characters weld math and science (as understood then) as much as they do the ropes and lamps they carry on their subterranean adventure. It's an interesting contrast to a lot of today's novels, weighted as much towards social justice as the fantastic, if not more, and not one that suffers in the contrast.
(It does seem odd that the main character is affianced to his cousin, though...what's with that?)...more
I can't remember how many years it's been since I read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin, nor do I recall what it was that I read. So when Le Guin appeareI can't remember how many years it's been since I read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin, nor do I recall what it was that I read. So when Le Guin appeared in an article recently, it was a good excuse to reacquaint myself with one of her classics, A Wizard of Earthsea.
Sparrowhawk is young when a wizard sees his talent and takes him as an apprentice, but a hunger for power leads him to unloose on the world a dark and evil magic. As he grows and increases in ability, he finds himself facing the temptation to use the power he has unleashed. However, power does not come without a cost, and Sparrowhawk soon understands that he must face the evil he has unleashed, or it will undo him and the world.
Though A Wizard of Earthsea is the first of the Earthsea novels, Le Guin wrote two short stories in the Earthsea world several years before. Several of the novels have won awards, including the Newberry and a Nebula. I've not read them, but I enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea enough that I plan to collect and read the series.
That said, reading A Wizard of Earthsea was a flash back to an age of fantasy writing that is long gone, where the explanation for magic is less important than thematic development and handwavium hocus pocus. Where Brandon Sanderson might use a magic system that is highly scientific, with rules for operations, Le Guin's style of magic owes more to Tolkien and is more reminiscent of something that might be familiar to readers of folk tales and stories centered on Medieval Europe. Power is in knowing the name of something, its true name, and a few select individuals are able to draw on that power to manipulate the world around them in ways beyond the understanding of the average person. These are wizards.
Le Guin weaves into Sparrowhawk's story a theme centering on the allure and danger of power, not only in the wrong hands, but also in the right ones. Even the good and decent can be corrupted by power, and short of discipline, agency, and self-sacrifice power will destroy those who wield it. One could imagine that Le Guin's story, published in 1968 at the height of the Cold War and the space race, was not without reflection in the real world....more
There are few political leaders that have captured my imagination like Winston Churchill does. William Manchester not only tells the story of what isThere are few political leaders that have captured my imagination like Winston Churchill does. William Manchester not only tells the story of what is perhaps Britain's greatest prime minister, he does it in fantastic detail. I've read complaints that Manchester uses perhaps too much detail, but I could not have enjoyed it more.
Manchester paints a picture of life at the end of one era--the Victorian--and beginning of the next, the Edwardian. Churchill's life straddled change in eras, and Manchester doesn't just write Churchill's biography, but a history of the time that is full and vibrant. Churchill isn't just a great leader, but a product of both the past and the future. His lived as colorfully and dangerously as any writer could have imagined, in spite of a beginning that was marked by comfort and wealth.
Born to a wealthy aristocratic family, Winston was raised by a nanny while his father and mother (an American) were off gallivanting with the nobles of England. Along the way, Winston proved to be a poor student and got himself kicked out of several schools. Never close to his father--if at all--Winston would write pleading letters to his mother to come visit him during the years he would spend at prep school. His father died young after being marginalized from a career that put him on the threshold of England's prime minister-ship.
The family's wealth mostly squandered, Winston was required to find a career, unique from his aristocratic peers who were used to living off of their families' wealth. He had always had an interest in the military, and he pursued a career that combined writing and military action, utilizing his mother's influence in the aristocracy to go where the action was. He saw action in Afghanistan and Sudan, and he sent home breathtaking accounts to the newspapers that catapulted him into the nation's consciousness. When he was taken as a POW in the Boer War, and escaped, he became a celebrity.
And it only gets better. Winston would feed himself by his pen for the rest of his life, writing articles, stories, books, and even publishing an entire newspaper during a nationwide general strike. He served as First Lord of the Admiralty at a time when Britain ruled the waives and the British Navy was unrivaled on the seas. Though later blamed for the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, Winston would be a remain force to reckoned with in the House of Commons through out his life. Winston would levy powerful rhetoric in defense of his allies and against his enemies, giving "impromptu" speeches after hours of preparation the night before.
This first volume of the biography covers the first fifty eight years of Churchill's life, up to a time when many politicians would be entering the twilight of their careers. Faced with setbacks and defeats, Churchill himself switched parties twice over the course of his career. With yet, his greatest hour, and Britain's, would come later with World War II.
I look forward reading the next volume in Manchester's trilogy. ...more
Let's be completely honest: we all pick up books for various reasons. A recommendation from a trusted friend. It was up front iLife is just too short.
Let's be completely honest: we all pick up books for various reasons. A recommendation from a trusted friend. It was up front in the airport bookshop. Written by a favorite author. A great cover.
I picked up Psychoshop because it was written by Alfred Bester. I was at Powell's in Portland, and it seemed like a good find. A classic author, a previously unread title, and a giant bookstore.
A win, right?
Perhaps for some. For me, time is too precious and life is too short.
Psychoshop was left unfinished by Bester on his death and was finished by Roger Zelazny, another classic science fiction writer. Comparing the work to a jazz duet, Greg Bear says in an introduction that the book is "Brisk, fast, memorable, a rare improvisational duet from two of our best[,]" but to be honest, I just couldn't get through it. As creative as it is, and it is, I just found it schizophrenic and undefined, a story looking for a conflict to be resolved. ...more
Even if you've never read it, almost every reader know the story of Moby-Dick. Opening with "Call me Ishmael[,]" Hermann Melville's novel is the taleEven if you've never read it, almost every reader know the story of Moby-Dick. Opening with "Call me Ishmael[,]" Hermann Melville's novel is the tale of the white whale and obsessed Captain Ahab's quest to kill it, a hunt that does not end well for anyone. Only Ishmael, the narrator, survives to put the story down, drifting on the coffin of his bunkmate, Queequeg.
And that's where Philip José Farmer begins The Wind Whales of Ishmael. As he floats adrift, Ishmael finds himself falling out of our time and into the future, the far future, landing adrift in a future Earth dramatically different from our own. The oceans have nearly evaporated, life has evolved to the air, and man survives in air balloons hunting the leviathans of the air.
The Wind Whales of Ishmael is an intregeuing and fun story, if a bit dated. I recently read Edgar Rice Burrough's A Princess of Mars, and I couldn't help but see echoes of John Carter in the Farmer's Ishmael. He arrives in a strange and foreign world, is saved, and saves, a beautiful princess, and soon rises to prominence using his specialized knowledge and skills. The tale is short and exciting, the plot creative and the setting strange and exotic. Ishmael is an every man, a hero that survives and thrive a hundred thousand years in the future.
First published in 1971, Titan Books has put out a new edition of The Wind Whales of Ishmael with a foreword by Michael Croteau and an afterword by Danny Adams....more
Ironically, Dick lived his live in near poverty. As an homage to his influence, the Library of America included Dick in their "quasi-official national canon" in 2007, the first science-fiction writer to be included.
I was introduced to Dick through his movies and later picked up the novels and short stories they were based on. In contrast to much of what is classified as science-fiction, Dick's stories and novels focus on human nature and the effect of technology and science on our character and relationships.
The Crack in Space, written in 1966, tackles parallel universes, time travel, gaps in the time-space continuum, and, to make things interesting, racism.
Compared to some of his other novels, The Crack in Space is not the most exciting tale in the Philip K. Dick canon. In addition to a parallel universe, it weaves in the candidacy of a America's first black presidency. That's not so controversial now, but writing in the 1960s, during the civil rights movement, Dick was predicting what was then almost impossible to conceive. Other issues addressed include population growth and control, scarce resources, and the morality of sexual promiscuity. The story is interesting, if a bit dated. It''s a worthy, if not gripping, read for a quiet weekend....more