All posts by unabridgedreader

Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

I received this book as a gift in 2021 for jólabókaflóð, which is Norse for Christmas book flood. In this tradition, people gift books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spend the rest of the night reading. It is an enduring practice despite our age of rampant technology.

I was excited to receive Illusions because my wife had recently been talking to me about it as something I might enjoy putting on my reading list. This novel was first published in 1977, while my 1989 copy fits in my back jeans pocket. If I were the kind of person who could tolerate dings and creases in my books, I could see packing it around. Though small, this is an incredibly thought-provoking work whose brevity is nevertheless meaningful.

Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah was written by Richard Bach. If his name is not entirely familiar to you, you may recognize the novels One, or Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Bach was a national best seller in the 1970s. Seagull was made into a Golden Globe award-winning movie starring Grammy winning singer-songwriter Neil Diamond just three years after it was published. I was pretty young when I first watched it, so I don’t remember much beyond Jonathan the seagull and many scenes at the beach. Nevertheless, I like the beach, so there is that too.

Illusions is deceptive in that it is an easy read, while the meat of it resides in philosophy and existentialism. The story is simple to follow – just two guys flying their biplanes and giving rides to random people across the mid-West, $3.oo for 10 minutes of air. The majority of the novel is comprised of discussions between these two men, Richard and Donald. Richard is looking for answers and Donald spends his time trying to convince Richard that all he needs to do is look within himself to find the truth he seeks.

I am over-simplifying. Involved in Richards’ revelations are floating nine-sixteenths wrenches, squashed bugs on propellers that come back to life, a Travel Air that flies without gasoline, and a motif of remembering ones’ past lives. There is a little girl whom loses her fear of heights, a man whom manages to walk after being wheelchair bound, and a mysterious book that explains how to effect miracles which the reader is given excerpts from throughout the course of the novel.

Richard struggles to understand how Donald can be so wise about life, and so fluent in managing difficulty. As they fly together from field to field, Richard learns and becomes adept at seeing life for what it is, and grows in his own ability to affect reality. There is a certain timelessness to this story, as it implies that any one of us could be Richard or Donald.

This novel resonated with me. I kept a few quotes aside, having written them down for future reference. My plan is to let all the ideas from these 192 pages sit in my subconscious for awhile and then read it again. If you would like a good explanation for the sometimes strange things that happen in your life, the useful coincidences, the unbelievable strokes of luck, and why it feels like you know some people deeply upon first sight – Read this novel.

I chuckled aloud when I came across the quote above in the latter part of Illusions. My favorite quote, however is as follows:

“We are game-playing, fun-loving creatures, we are the otters of the universe. We cannot die, we cannot hurt ourselves any more than the illusions on the [movie] screen can be hurt. But we can believe we’re hurt, in whatever agonizing detail we want. We can believe we’re victims, killed and killing, shuddered around by good luck and bad luck.”

I won’t quote the entire book, though there are several more shorter excerpts that I could add to try and convince you to give this a read.

I will say this, however, I would have avoided this book on the title alone if not having been told about it first. I am not a religious person, and I would have assumed this was a religious book. It is not. It is a spiritual book. Messiah is used as a term meaning a soul that has remembered enough about how to perceive life that their immunization against difficulty leads others to flock around them. I suppose one could see it as a Jesus story, but it certainly does not have to be taken that way.

I didn’t.

Instead, I’ve come to envision our spirits as otters dancing around stars like joyful comets, chirping amidst nebulae and the planets with unbridled mirth. It may not make sense now, and even if this book doesn’t resonate with you completely, the concepts it offers are worthwhile. I would recommend it to anyone.

A Few Loose Ends

Here it is again, that feeling of nausea that is pursuant realization of a recently uncovered, but deeply held truth. I don’t know why realization makes me nauseous. It’s a pretty significant indicator for me though. This is a little adjacent my typical focus. However, since that seemed to go over well enough in sprinkling in some astrology amidst my thoughts on literature, I’m rolling with it. Consider this in part astrology, in part spirituality follow-up to the Hesse novels, and in part why I do not anticipate finishing my review of The Gulag Archipelago. If you like frankly honest posts on personal insights and  karma – here we go.

I recently had an experience with a cluster of emotional triggers that completely upended me. These had wholly to do with my current life, but also, created an internal atmosphere where it was simpler to realize a few other details. First off, I’ll lay some ground work: I believe in past lives. I believe in karma. I believe, based on my astrological natal chart and my experiences thus far, that this time around I am here to resolve a few lifetimes worth of unresolved karma. Apparently this is supposed to happen in my twelfth house – the one related to the subconscious. So when things sneak up on me internally and I end up overwhelmed? Apparently I had it coming. I’m not going to get into the triggers. I will say though that I finally realized why I was so intrigued by Gulag. For me, it’s related to a past life. I’m not saying I was there, but I do remember freezing to death someplace. It’s like some part of me needed to know how the world could be so ugly that someone could be taken prisoner, starved, and then left to die by cold. (With typing that comes another wave of nausea.)

So here is the interesting thing about books… They say a reader lives a thousand lives. It’s one of my favorite quotes. A reader. Not just a reader though. I wonder if it is more accurate to say that a reader remembers a thousand lives. What draws me to Russian literature vs. Jane Austen? Where does that deeper draw come from? I think I know.

Now that it’s cold outside and beginning to drop below freezing at night, do I really see myself curling up with Archipelago? Do I want to resonate with that energy, now that I know why I just had to pick up those volumes on pain and anguish? Nope. Because now it makes sense and I don’t need to climb that entire three volume mountain. I needed that novel to help me remember what had been buried so that it could be acknowledged. It was horrible, but now it’s over.

Just like the things that triggered me earlier. It was horrible, but now it’s over.

I was thinking on my way to work, as I have many times before today, what is the point really to uncovering past lives and remembering karma? Well I think it is a lot like remembering things that happened in your childhood. If they happen and you bury them, then they affect you when you get older. You get triggered on the job, or watching television, or whenever someone forgets the cheese on your burger. It seems silly when you think about it, and yet feels so visceral when incidents spring up. Everyone has something that sets them off. Everyone has something that happened to them, that they excused somehow, or failed to acknowledge to themselves how they felt about it. So it festers, this deep pitting of the soul that so many of us just look away from so that we aren’t reminded of what hurt us. It rots.

I’ll say that all that rot can make a person irascible. The buildup of tension, anger, frustration, sadness and fear can be quite intolerable. And then, it seeps out from the pores and into words, into body language, and into the heart. It blackens. I’ve been a pretty irascible person. I’ve let things rot and then lashed out because of the pain. I think remembering serves the purpose of acknowledging that there is a wound so the hurt can be cleansed. As we heal, we become better people. That’s the point. Learning how to take better care of ourselves and by that art, other people. That’s the point, too. We don’t have to live with pain. We don’t have to be horrible.

The Gulag Archipelago is an excellent book. It served its’ purpose for Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn as he was able to express his own rot. It served its’ purpose for the Soviet Union, as it helped to air out the disease of communism under Stalin, thus preventing further rot of that kind. It served its’ purpose for me, even though I’m stopping at page 342 of volume one. I’ve acknowledged what I remember, and so I can be free. I highly suggest it to whomever feels drawn to reading it. I strongly support Solzhenitsyn for having written it. It is incredibly informative and blunt. At times, it is also quite nauseating. If you are ever interested in how circumstances can turn people (sometimes the same people) into monsters and victims, it’s an excellent read. Those with an interest in sociology might be especially intrigued.

For Hesse, I would hope that by sharing my revelation, readers may seek to acknowledge their own hidden truths. Sometimes the truth will follow us like the foe of a horror novel we thought was dead when we turned our backs. It’s important to validate ourselves. You don’t have to believe in reincarnation to embrace that. It’s important to give ourselves the credit we deserve. When we acknowledge the hurt, it does subside after a while, and isn’t that better than letting it turn you into something grotesque?

I hope so.

Demian

If Siddartha was a turning point in literature for me, then Demian is a lynch pin. I was originally drawn to Hermann Hesse for Steppenwolf, and in waiting to pick up my physical copy of that, ended up with Siddartha because it was free on Audible for members. That compelling tale of spirituality completely changed my perception of Hesse, even though I didn’t know much about him before. I started Demian with a thirst for more of Hesse’s views and philosophy. For a bit of background, he was raised in a Swabian Pietist household. Apparently, Pietists value deep thought, and so arrange their lifestyles to prioritize it. Hesse’s grandparents served at a mission in India, where his mother was born. His grandfather had an extensive library, from which young Hermann was invited to learn. This Nobel Prize winning German author valued authenticity, self-appraisal, and spiritual growth.

Essentially, he’s right up my alley.

I’ve been thinking of my pursuit of spiritual enlightenment as separate from my love of books until Hesse. Of course someone was bound to walk this path before me, I’m just glad I found this particular author. Akin to when I discovered Phillip Pullman late last year, it is reassuring to find a like mind. In this case too, it is fitting that this realization comes with Demian. A significant theme in this novel is mentoring and learning from those whom started down your path ahead of you.

Demian is the story of a boy. As the story begins, he is what society would expect, until the magnetic personality of a mysteriously enlightened young man opens his eyes to another way of viewing existence. The boy, Emil Sinclair, experiences the opening of his third-eye over the course of the story. With guidance from the young man, Max Demian, Sinclair explores what this means. They speak of a very non-Christian idea of accepting both extremes of light and dark within the self. They talk of a God that supports thoughts of servitude and rebellion, politeness and irreverence, good and evil. From what I gleaned of this, the concept is perfect balance.

So here is partially where my own adjacent journey came into play. I have been studying astrology for several months now. I went from knowing my sun sign, to developing a more complex understanding of the intricacies of planetary alignments, zodiacs in houses, and the incredibly detailed relationships of celestial bodies related to every single human being. This concept of balance characterizes the sign of Libra (which lies on the cusp of my first house of self). For me, this element of Demian resonates beautifully.

Coincidentally, Hermann Hesse had Libra on the cusp of his ninth house, the part of his astrological natal chart that corresponds to philosophy and spirituality. He had Sagittarius (the zodiac related spirituality) in his twelfth house of the subconscious… our link to the deep and difficult to access truths of life and the way the world works. Hesse’s moon was in Pisces, which relates to mysticism, empathy, and an intrinsically acute intuition. He and I differ practically everywhere in our charts, though my moon is in Pisces too.

I can’t quite say that Demian is an exceptional work of literature. The pacing is a little hit and miss, though my perception of this may have something to do with only getting to listen to it a few minutes a day. It is rather short, so someone able to dedicate a more sustained approach may experience it differently. The prose is fair and the plot sound. I’ll even venture to say that the characters are a bit one-dimensional and repetitive. However, if you approach this novel for its’ ideas, individuals looking for new patterns of thought may enjoy this deeply nonetheless.

For my own part, I am going to pursue Nietzsche next. Hesse was in part inspired by this German philosopher, critic, composer, writer, and philologist. There are quotes by Nietzsche that I already know I like. In this, I hope to delve deeper into these concepts of balancing the dark macabre and lightness of spirit. Demian is a welcome change amidst the ideas I’ve thus far read. Even though it doesn’t make my favorites list for the sum of its’ parts, I do believe it transcends this.

Siddhartha

Siddhartha has been on my radar for about a year now. It has been showing up on various reading lists and recommendations often enough that my curiosity was piqued. Of classical literature, this is one of the shorter pieces. It was written in 1922 by Herman Hesse; German short story author, poet, essayist, music-lover and painter.

Other works that Hesse penned include Steppenwolf, Demian, and the Glass Bead Game. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1946. Siddhartha is the first book of his that I have read, though I have a copy of Steppenwolf waiting for me on my bookshelf. I am even more excited to pick it up now than I was before, while there is a strong chance I’ll end up with a copy of the Glass Bead Game, too. Hesse wrote about spirituality and authenticity. He was well-studied in the theological writings of Goethe, Lessing, Schiller, Nietzche, and the Greek mythologies.

Siddhartha follows the lifetime of a young Indian boy in his path to be coming and old wise man. It is insightful, enlightening, and even comforting. By the end, I had the sense that regardless of what happens in life, there was cause to be at peace with every moment. I would recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in self discovery and existentialism.

What is the true path to becoming one with the universe? Through pursuit of gurus and guides? Service? Long journeys? Communing with nature? Just letting go and radically accepting whatever happens to you? Siddhartha explores these pathways and offers some insight into each. My favorite part involved speaking to a river, and the idea that for as long as you are decided upon searching for something… you’ll never find it.

Candide & Zadig

Candide was required reading for me during High School. I can honestly say that of all the novels I was required to read, this was my least favorite. Now it is now over twenty years later. I was questioning whether I would see Voltaire differently now than I did then, so I have spent the last couple days listening to Candide and Zadig to find out. In a way, the activity was an act of curiosity. It was a challenge in another. I try to glean at least something from every book I read, even if I didn’t like it. Voltaire had also been referenced in several novels I’ve read over the past couple years, so it seemed apropos to revisit him.

François-Marie Arouet, aka. Voltaire (1694 -1778)

I ought to like the guy. Voltaire was a prolific writer. He is known for many thousands of published works. He penned plays, poems, novels, essays, and even scientific papers. He was a notorious political figure that believed in the freedoms of religion and speech, and was a strong proponent for the separation of church and state. Voltaire was (and still is) renown for his satiric wit. He loathed intolerance and religious dogma while risking censorship from the French monarchy. This wasn’t an individual whom kept his opinions silent. In fact, his part in the Enlightenment movement is considered foundational to the French Revolution.

Voltaire was a forward-thinking author of great independence and will – what’s not to like?

I like this portrait of Voltaire. Doesn’t he look amused?

This seems to be a case of the man vs. his art for me. From the little I know about Voltaire, I agree with him. I actually relish a good satire. There is something about Candide and Zadig though that left me cold. It did when I first read him and it still does now. My hypothesis? The culture of his day is so different from the culture of now that his novels have lost their relevance. That isn’t to say his message is out-dated — These topics are some of those which we as a species still debate upon today. I think that it is the way in which he wrote about these things that is failing the test of time.

In Candide, there are countless references to women being owned, traded, used and abused. True, that is still something humanity struggles with. The passive way in which Voltaire references it seems more aligned with those whom would support inequality than to point out a need for further change. There is no outrage. There is no taking offense. There is only near-mute acceptance of horrific treatments and victimization as though it were simply a matter of course. Too often even today, various forms of maltreatment against women is a matter of course. I beg to ask where the satire is? Candide reads to me as incredibly misogynistic, and I fail to see how that has anything to do with great wit.

This excessive theme of the denigration of women is so distracting that his curt warning against excessive optimism nearly passed my notice. The concept that there is negativity in the world, regardless of whether we believe it is “for a reason” or “in God’s plan” or perpetually “out to get us”… etc? That’s relevant. I am a person who likes the idea of attaining balance in life. I would argue that excessive optimism is as unhealthy as excessive pessimism. But do Voltaire’s characters learn from their horrible experiences? They don’t seem to. Instead, it is left to the reader to decide how ridiculous their outlooks are. To me, Candide implied that it is acceptable to never grow as a person or strive for wisdom. (How is that Enlightenment?)

It almost seems like Voltaire wrote with a cheekiness of purporting that his work is a satire while intending it to be otherwise. (That would be a great inside joke to smirk at, right?)

Can one have too many puppies and rainbows?

It could be argued that this irritation at ineptitude was Voltaire’s point. Few things get people I know stirred up more than having to deal with someone they consider to be “stupid”. Voltaire wants his reader to be smarter and more insightful than his characters. He wants the reader to see the shortcomings of logic that these fictitious persons make and absorb the bigger picture of their folly. Maybe by using these people as an example of what not to do in life, he invites people to make improved choices. I find this type of character to be intolerable though. I expect more. I’d rather share in the struggle of a protagonists’ downfall as they realize universal truths than to see them simply avoid growth.

Maybe that’s just me. I’m fully aware that there are plenty of people out there that still love to read him. From my own vantage point, I see his works as a creature of over two centuries ago. (And, as someone who revels in dusty old books clear back to Socrates and Virgil, I’ll venture that’s saying something.)

Astrology and Game of Thrones

I am going to side-step my usual format here and try a little something different this time. This stems from a conversation I was having with my lovely wife R’Chel a few days ago. Recently, I picked up an interest in astrology. We have been listening to Game of Thrones on audiobook, and that day, the two interests coincided.

First though, a little background. I noticed that there are several outlets for looking up the signs of some of these characters online. They mostly deal with the sun sign of each of these identities. (Your sun sign is the most referenced sign that people generally know about.) Even so, there is a widespread practice that observes which zodiac signs that every celestial body is in at the time of birth. This means that everyone also has a Moon sign, a Mercury sign, Venus sign… etc.

Each celestial body represents different energies. Most simply stated, the sun represents your identity. The moon represents your emotions. One also has a rising sign, which coincides with whatever zodiac constellation was coming over the horizon at the moment of birth. In general terms, your rising sign is how other people see you. If that seems confusing, don’t worry, it will probably make more sense as we go on.

First up was Varys. I figured him to be a Gemini Sun, Capricorn Moon, and Virgo Rising. Gemini has associations with communication, logical thought and cleverness. To me, this is the heart of whom Vary is. His network of “little birds” has him well-connected to the whispers and motives of Westeros, while keeping apprised of how this litany of knowledge interrelates must take some wit. Even so, Varys is not known for his displays of emotion. Regardless of what is going on, he remains even and grounded. He is calm, steady, and structured: All Capricorn traits. Virgos are characteristically fastidious and are best suited to some line of service, while this led me to chose this as his rising sign. With a shaved head, tidy hygiene, and having outright stated he was in service to Westeros itself, I think Varys presents himself clearly as aligned with this sign.

I got to thinking about Littlefinger next. I want to call him a Libra Sun, Cancer Moon, and Gemini Rising. Petyr Baelish surrounds himself with beauty at every available opportunity and never shies away from acquiring whatever attractive thing is available to him. As treasurer of the realm, he is considered capable of finding monies enough for any grand feast or cause. Though he is incredibly shifty as a character, he is nevertheless intent on peaceful, diplomatic relationships. He tells Ned outright not to trust him, in a pleasant tone and friendly voice… like don’t get upset about the fact that I despise you. I think this outlook is also aligned with a Cancer Moon, though in its less gracious format. (We are talking about someone who lost the love of their life and so has become bitter and manipulative.) He seems to be choking on suppressed emotion, while coming off to others as the clever wit that Varys exudes from his core.

Arya was presented as the challenge to our astrology game. For her, I figured Scorpio Sun, Scorpio Moon, and Sagittarius Rising. I believe that it would take a Scorpio to embody all the changes that Arya goes through over the course of her character arc. Like a Scorpio, she is unflinching in the face of facts, whether that involves suffering loss, deciding upon vengeance, or establishing the miraculous malleability that she develops. She is secret with her emotions. Alternatively, Sagittarius has alignments with adventure, philosophy and religion. Arya embarks upon her journey outside of the Stark homeland for the sake of her secret pact with herself rather than for new experience, and uses the tools of her religious study for her personal vendetta rather than as a true follower. I think this is why Sagittarius fits as her rising sign, but not as her core identity.

I thought that Stannis Baratheon would make a great Capricorn Sun, Aries Moon, and Capricorn Rising. He is (and is seen as) structured, unrelenting, and strict. The largest obstacle between his assuming the title of King is his utter lack of charm and charisma. He is also demanding, reactive, and easily drawn into the machinations of others who are capable of manipulating his anger and indignation. Aries is a highly energized sign that is strongly motivated to act, and act is precisely what Stannis does.

Robert Baratheon? I figure he is a Taurus Sun through and through. He loves the things that give him pleasure of every sort, and preferred to have these things to excess. I thought that he needed a dose of fire to gain a kingdom and keep it. I choose Leo as his Moon sign. Robert was enlivened by adoration, while he was also brave enough to be vulnerable with his friends and council when discussing his fear of Daenerys. I think Robert is also a Sagittarius Rising. Though building his kingdom is well aligned with long-distance travel and adventure, it also seemed to be his habit to create a comfortable place to drink up and chow down wherever he went, so I think his Sagittarius side was not his core self.

I suppose then it would be right to go for Renly next. Renly was a little more refined and appreciative of the finer things, which inclines me to think of a Libra Sun. He was open with his emotions, needed encouragement to follow his desires, and well-liked by just about everyone. I want to say that he is a Cancer Moon, in the non-embittered and supportive of others sense. (So in contrast to Petyr!) Renly was seen by others to be a bit peculiar and aligned with unconventionality. I think he’d fit in as an Aquarius Rising. Renly’s ideas may not be incredibly inventive to our current culture – but they were to his.

Theon? Here’s a character that tried desperately to be loyal: To the Starks, to the Greyjoys. He thought himself a good diplomat, but wasn’t really. He is always subject to the needs and drives of others, despite his wont to be self-important. I think he fits as a Virgo Sun. Because of his apparent sensitivity and desire to understand the mechanisms of his world, I would place him as a Pisces Moon. Theon put on pomp and circumstance as a way to open doors or gain admiration, so I suspect him to be Leo Rising. (It also took quite a bit of bravery for him to aide Sansa.)

Personalities are complex and there is quite a bit of astrology that I’m not considering here. This isn’t taking houses or planets into consideration. It’s all meant in practice of characterizing fictitious people and fun! Anyone else you want added to my list?

Mansfield Park

I will have to start this post with a few words about Jane Austen. First, I think her prose is worth mention. I believe her to have been a well-read woman who took time with her words insofar as expertly arranging interestingly descriptive sentences. I like that she has realistic characters in believable settings whereby the dialogue and motives of those characters are both diverse and concise. I have a wellspring of respect for her as a woman writing timeless novels in a society that did not value female writers. That being said, (with the caveat that I have only read Pride and Prejudice apart from Mansfield Park) Jane Austen is not my favorite author.

Perhaps that is unfair, given that I loved watching Downton Abbey, so I’ll include that tidbit here as well. Sorry Jane Austen, but also, thank you for inspiring generations to celebrate British literature, culture, and storytelling in a way that started out as being uniquely your own. I do celebrate you.

Mansfield Park is allegedly the darkest of Jane Austen’s novels. I picked it up because of this, and because Vladimir Nabokov referred to it with some acclaim in his lectures. (I am a Nabokov fan, due to his wickedly intelligent sense of wit and vocabulary.) I wanted to know what made Mansfield Park different from the frivolous drama of finding a suitable husband that I would otherwise have expected. I wanted to know, how does Mansfield Park break the stereotype?

Primarily, the main character Fanny Price is not the vapid girl in a frilly dress that predominates these kinds of stories. She’s a Cinderella archetype with sense and gravity, though I did feel this conferred a slow pace to the novel. It is almost as though Fanny has a magnetism that affects the reader and draws them deeper into her story. Her quiet verisimilitude is attractive, compelling, and pleasantly calm.

Though her contemporaries in the novel are somewhat disposed of the mania more frequent in Dostoevsky, Fanny is the wallflower that everyone is aware of, but few heed. She faces ridicule because she’s an easy target (she doesn’t fight back), but also because others are jealous of her more refined qualities (she’s pretty, intelligent, and not at all brazen about it). I think Jane Austen excels here in understating Fanny in a way that the reader realizes that there is more to her than anyone in the novel is actually capable of stating.

Unfortunately, that was as far as my compulsion to be interested in this novel went. I could summarize the whole thing by saying that some things happened to a group of people I mostly cared nothing about and then it was over. My curiosity about Fanny faded about halfway through. It took me a week to finish the last hour and sixteen minutes of the novel simply because I got bored. My main complaint? I did not see a single character become anything more than what they were at the beginning.

I like to see characters grow and feel this makes them more interesting.

There are no great character arcs here, like Kitty in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. There is no apparent point to the relationships between characters like in the Brother’s Karamazov by Dostoevsky. I saw no real insights, message, or tone. It didn’t seem as though Austen knew what she wanted to accomplish. The sense I got was when the story failed to pan out, she ended it.

With the concern that maybe I missed something along the way, I took a trip over to the Spark notes page for this novel. Usually, there are entries for themes, motifs, and symbolism. There are entries for chapter summaries available and some quizzes there, but nothing else. (Maybe it is not just me!) If you’ve read this novel and feel otherwise, maybe you could clue me in to what I missed?

The Gulag Archipelago: Volume One (ch 4-6)

For those of you following along with me in The Gulag Archipelago, here is my next installment. I am about a chapter away from halfway through the first volume. I no longer need my notebook to scribble down pertinent facts to keep track of where I am at. The whole GPU, OGPU, NKVD, SMERSH issue is behind me. Essentially, whatever they called the Russian secret police at the time of the protagonists’ arrest, he’s imprisoned now and the letters mean little.

Now the alphabet comes in the form of V– or Y–, in the sense that secrecy was so extreme in the prison system that when the guards came to collect a prisoner for interrogation, they only did so by offering up the first letter of the name of the prisoner they were after. If they asked whether Volov was present in a particular cell, and he wasn’t, then the officials have admitted to prisoners in a non-related cell that Volov had been captured. As such, they inquired instead, “Is there anyone V– here?”

Volov? Victor? Vladimir? Captain of State Security Yezepov? Was there anyone with a Y–? As prisoners were being shifted about from cell-to-cell, prison-to-prison, and freedom-to-exile, the number two past time (the first being ignoring how hungry you are) was to glean whatever information you could from your fellow prisoners – especially when they were new to your cell. (If all I had to do all day was stare at a brick wall, shiver, and maybe get a book to read during the hours they allowed me my glasses, I’d probably get excited about someone new coming in the door as well.) However, it is also noted that the interrogators were given an allowance of cigarettes to give out in reward for confessions and information offered up from nasedka (stool pigeons). Someone was always listening. Even in prison, the pressures of interrogation and further punishment did not relent.

What I suspected of the bluecaps and being decent people overall though pressurized to immoral behavior by prevailing circumstances was mostly accurate. Apparently, low totals in the collection of new prisoners was not an option, for “Stalin could never be convinced that in any district, or city, or military unit, he might suddenly cease to have enemies.” If enemies could not be found in high enough numbers, then confessions enough to generate an appropriate number had to be concocted and claimed. If not, then interrogators whom did not meet their quotas could be arrested under Section 10 as subversive to the state.

One interesting point in chapter four was learning that works by authors such as Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Panteleimon Romanov, whose works were banned by the state, were available as reading material in prison.

The phrase “Ivan plen nicht” also stood out. It means “Ivan no prisoner” and was apparently used by German soldiers in reference to Russian POWs. Solzhenitsyn states that “There is war, there is death, but there is no surrender.” He explains this to mean that there was a sentiment in Russia that it was acceptable for soldiers to go to war and die in the service of their country. The country itself would remain. However, if those soldiers were to escape death and face captivity, then their only hope of returning home would be to face a conviction.

Why? Because it is impossible for anyone to disprove that they were colluding with the enemy while in a foreign cell.

As it was, prisoners at home were responsible for proving that they were not guilty. “As always, the interrogation began with the hypothesis that you were obviously guilty,” Solzhenitsyn states, about a hundred pages from noting that “it was clear to the interrogators at least that the cases were fabricated.” Accused, without the capability of leaving prison, could only gather witnesses among themselves by mail as a resource for proving their innocence. Apparently there was quite the campaign of inquiries and responses shuttling from institution to institution.

This segment of The Gulag Archipelago is getting a little convoluted. (The rationalizations within the text have always been, so I refer to the act of reading it here.) There are a few places were Solzhenitsyn’s running personal commentary in the form of footnotes takes up over three-quarters of the page. So if you’re wondering why I’m reaching for half-way, it is because of super teeny-tiny footnote text.

Regardless, the protagonist has made a couple “friends”, and it is oddly more comfortable spending time with him in his cell despite the living conditions. Chapter five is titled “First Cell, First Love”, insinuating that every cell a prisoner spends time in is always judged in comparison to their first. I find that I am getting a feel for the differences between incarcerations as well. The tone of the novel has side-stepped outrage a time or two, and is now seeming more informative. It is clear that for all of the neglect for human rights and needs this novel retells, that the individuals involved are treated as complex, multifaceted people even though the political philosophy of the time did not want to allow for that.

Surely with the lionshare of this work still to go, moral outrage has plenty of room to resurface.

The Plot Against America

As someone who was enthralled by the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (1933-2018) seemed like something I ought to put on my reading list. American Pastoral was exceptional, so I was willing to spend some more time this year with Roth before moving on to someone else. I picked up a copy of The Communist Manifesto on Audible before getting started, spent a couple hours with Karl Marx, and then started in to this alternative history “what-if” novel.

I’ll start by saying that, although I’m glad to have crossed off the Communist Manifesto from my to-read list, it was completely unnecessary for me to have read for The Plot Against America. For those of you whom do not recognize this title, here is what it is about: Famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh is elected president of the United States of America in 1940 after his world-famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Though he does not outwardly support the Hitler’s regime in Germany, Lindbergh is a suspected Nazi. His anti-Semite views as a man in supreme political authority drive the themes and plot of The Plot Against America in contrast to a fractured Jewish family.

What’s real: Lindbergh was an outspoken racist. He was against the United States involvement in World War II. He did fly to Germany to receive a medal in person from the commander of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, on behalf of Hitler. Charles was skyrocketed to fame when news of his successful flight hit the media, after which that admiration turned to robust sympathy in 1931 when his 20-month old son was nabbed from the Lindbergh family home and subsequently found murdered.

Everyone knew who Charles A. Lindbergh was, and from a standpoint of extreme popularity, I daresay it was possible that he could have won the presidency over Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, that’s the not real part.

The Plot Against America is about fear. The Lindbergh in the novel never speaks outright against the Jews. As they are announced to the populace, changes that are effected by his presidency are meant for the good of America as a whole though they are ridiculed by the elders of the Jewish faith. The younger individuals of the family believe in Lindbergh (to various degrees) and are at odds with their parents. What develops is the looming question of whether the reader is justified in suspecting conspiracy theories and unspoken motives.

I finished this novel a week ago and have been sitting with the idea of whether to write about it or not. I felt that the plot was oversimplified and lacked any real depth. It briefly brought to mind when George W. Bush became president in 2001, supported by the claim that politics is a religious vocation. I remember the fallout expressed by those religions that did not coincide with his, but also a certain kind of terror to think that the lines of church and state would be further blurred. Roth was afraid that the acceptance of Jews in the United States was conditional and precarious. Is that not true of any non-Christian faith?

To me, The Plot Against America (2004) lacked the insidiousness that was so beautiful (meaning so remarkably creepy and enthusiastically well done) in American Pastoral (1997). I noticed while doing some research though that HBO picked The Plot Against America up and made it into a series featuring John Turturro. Season one aired in 2020 and maybe the expertise of those behind it gave it the meat I felt was missing.

What more did I want, you might wonder?

Let’s jump authors for a moment and consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Here you have a cringe worthy protagonist that does not shy away from the thoughts and rationalizations that (for me) provoked a visceral reaction. I knew what Humbert was thinking and in knowing how his thoughts seemed perfectly normal to him, my emotional response to him had real weight. In The Plot Against America, Lindbergh wasn’t scary. He more of a placeholder than a person, and so it was difficult to attribute feelings towards him at all. The situation was disagreeable, but did not strike me as tragic. I started to care when a particular character died over halfway into the story and then it seemed like the novel lost momentum again.

If you haven’t read Philip Roth before, I wouldn’t judge him off of this book. I still have The Human Stain on my reading list, though it is the last of Roth I have in mind for now. Maybe it is because I’m reading Solzhenitsyn’s non-fiction work The Gulag Archipelago at the same time that the severity of experiences in The Plot Against America seems so trite. Or, maybe I shouldn’t start out with the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by an author if I intend to read more than just one of their repertoire.

The Culture Series

Up until this point, I’ve made mention of about thirty different authors whose works comprise a portion of the literature you may have read in school. Those who spend enough time with me will know that my reading habits slant towards the Russian, British, and American classics. I will also take up with a Steven King novel, especially after having finished something particularly long.

(I gave it a look: Of the last 100 titles I’ve read, 8 were by King; 7 by J.K. Rowling; 3 each by Leo Tolstoy, Phillip Pullman, Suzanne Collins, and Iain M. Banks; and 2 each by Dostoevsky, Alice Hoffman, Alan Moore, Ray Bradbury, Ernest Cline, and Don DeLillo. A little over 60% of my reading list was comprised of single works by non-repeat authors.)

One may conclude that I like Steven King. I think it is equally as telling when I read more than one book by the same person. If you were to remove the series (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and His Dark Materials) from that list, that leaves Leo Tolstoy and Iain M. Banks as my second-most read authors. I’ll venture you’ve heard of the first, but have you heard of the latter?

Iain M. Banks (1954-2013)

Iain M. Banks was a science fiction writer born in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland in 1954. From 1987 to 2013, he published a collection of ten books known as the Culture Series. However, it is not a series in the traditional sense. Even though the characters all exist in the same world, the stories are not successive. A reader can pick up any given Culture Series book and be at the beginning. I happened to read book one, first. This was before Google was a company let alone a verb, so I wasn’t aware at the time that Banks had ever written anything else. Apparently, he’d written an entire space opera.

The Culture Series is a collection of stand-alone novels set in the same world.

Here’s the premise: In space there are many different planets, ships, orbitals, types of aliens and peoples both humanoid and not. A number of these aliens and peoples belong to an organization called the Culture. The Culture is largely supported by artificial intelligence, which also come in various shapes, sizes, and capabilities. Drones, ships and minds (high IQ AI) are all seen as individuals with personal rights within the Culture, where there are shared society resources geared toward personal freedoms and individual choice. It can be characterized as a hedonist society, utopia, and sanctum for intrigue.

This series is wildly creative. Each society has it’s own religions, politics, and characteristics. The stories are character driven, with detailed personal histories and quirks that make it a pleasure to read how they interact, whether those characters are alien or AI. In fact, some of my favorite characters are ships. I love their names. For a quick amusement, take a look at the cheeky-good-fun list of Culture ship names for yourself.

Just Read the Instructions is a general contact unit (GCU) whose purpose is to learn from and interact with non-Culture societies, as is Funny… It Worked Last Time and Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill. Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints and A Fine Disregard for Awkward Facts amuses me every time. Each ship decides what to call itself, while each name is indicative of what sort of personality the AI has. Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, for instance, is a demilitarized warship that only lies about being decommissioned.

It upset me that my favorite character from Consider Phlebas died, but that did not keep me from re-reading it three more times. It is a goal of mine to finish reading the series. I just started Use of Weapons, and have read Player of Games, Surface Detail, and Hydrogen Sonata as well. Each of these are available on Audible with narrator Peter Kenny, whom is excellent. Matter is also available on Audible, though I have not listened to Toby Longworth yet. Books 4-7 seem only available in paperback.

There has been some talk about Amazon picking up the series for television, though I wouldn’t wait if this sounds like something that may interest you. These books offer drama, adventure, and a level of realism that might surprise some readers given the Culture technologies available and capabilities of some aliens. The Culture series is sometimes gritty, often funny, and always remarkably imaginative.