Category Archives: * Book Related Musings

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.

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?

A Study of Contrast

I am currently reading two of the greats: The (somewhat agreed upon) greatest work of fiction of all time and greatest non-fiction work of the twentieth-century (according to Time magazine). These two titles are À la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). The first was written in France by an aristocrat. Proust strikes me as a man whom, for lack of the labor and distraction that a more robust individual might have undertaken, had plenty of time to read literature and study people. He had the ability to interpret small gestures, subtle inflections of voice and social motives with a level of skill recognized and admired to this day. Solzhenitsyn was a decorated captain in the Soviet Army during WWII. After the rise of Stalin, he suffered both imprisonment in the Russian gulag and exile for privately sharing his disfavor of The Red Tsar. He risked his life to tell a detailed truth about what was going on in Russia under Stalin’s rule, and was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize.

There is definitely no confusing one text for the other. I can listen to Proust while driving or doing chores about the farm. At my current place in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the main character is currently discussing how social rank is evidenced by whose drawing rooms one has visited for tea. A few pages back, Saint-Loup was summarily ignored by hostess Mme. de Villeparisis upon his departure from her residence for having committed some unintentional faux pas. (I can’t say that I even noticed what it was he did; only her response and his attempt to save face.) Tragic? I paused in The Gulag Archipelago at the phrase “Do what you want without me; I want no part of it” in describing the feelings of university students who were being coaxed into NKVD school. (NKVD was the Soviet secret police in 1943, an acronym for the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs. Eg: Gulag interrogators) Apparently it was generally suspected among Russians of the day, if not officially known in detail, that pursuit of this particular career path would lead to a tangle of shady ethics. When I read The Gulag Archipelago, it is with a notebook, pen, and Google.

So why pursue these titles simultaneously? Primarily, I have nearly four months to finish reading six books to hit my 100 book goal for 2021. I have been clocking 5-14 titles a month, so I have time to embark on novels that are going to slow me down. Also, one of the best things about Proust so far is the confidence that nothing altogether bad is going to happen. (At least, by my personal thermostat. If someone pretended to fall asleep while I was in the room to avoid the nicety of saying goodbye to me? I wouldn’t care. I was never in the popular crowd.) In The Gulag Archipelago, there is constant incidence of despair, injustice and pain. In a way, they balance each other out.

There is a greater aspect to this though. I started thinking about Les Miserables by Victor Hugo during Within a Budding Grove (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu part two.) In Les Miserables, Hugo goes into what seems like a realistic description of how the French peasantry lived due to the economic factors that led to the June rebellion of 1832. (Let’s just say that there was quite a bit of dirt and cholera involved.) A major theme at the culmination of the novel is the relationship between the bourgeoisie and peasantry. Proust was born about forty years after the June revolution, but with each pretty new dress, tidy plate of cookies, or servant bell tinkle he mentions, I was envisioning the urchin Gavroche from Les Miserables was somewhere down the street starving. I started to wonder how askew the French imbalance of resources were in Marcel’s day. Should I feel entertained by Proust, or disturbed by the aristocracy?

In The Gulag Archipelago, the preamble to the novel itself describes that any effort to distribute resources equally amidst a population is doomed to failure. It describes that France was in serious consideration of moving to communism up until Gulag was released. I wondered: Why is equality considered to be so impossible while history has proven that extreme stratification is also unsustainable? What is it about the utopia ideal that is inherently fallible?

Is revolution inevitable?

Even in the extreme dissimilarity between these two novels, there is at least one ubiquitous theme: The lies. Though “I could not see you for dinner because I went to visit my sick grandma” is not the same quality of falsehood as sentencing a thief further charges for “subversion of the camp system” because they tried to run away, it is nevertheless equivalent that self-serving misrepresentations of truth are present in each society. I wonder, if it were simple to directly admit “I do not want to introduce you to my grandmother” instead of “She is boring, you wouldn’t like her” (Proust), maybe the truth of “We’re eradicating most of our population” (Solzhenitsyn) would be easier to say. It’s a thought.

Then again, we are creatures of our circumstances. I can’t imagine Marcel Proust as capable of surviving what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did. As Virginia Woolf once posited though, a woman would not have been able to write War and Peace because at the time, women were not soldiers. Solzhenitsyn admits that the lifestyle he enjoyed as a military official was far removed from that of basic training, and that he derived a rather perverse satisfaction in the use of his power after he had earned his stars. As his circumstances changed, so did he. Who is to say that Proust would not have made it through a soviet gulag, that Solzhenitsyn might have snubbed a plate of fluffy cookies to irritate a contemporary, or if Virginia Woolf would have made a great war captain? It’s just not how things turned out.

I suppose the aim from here will be to decide whether or not I can appreciate Proust for all the dilettantes, snobbishness and pretense while deciding whether Solzhenitsyn was right. If it prevents the whole lot of them from getting shot or sent into exile, is it then okay for the upper crust to dine while cholera washes away the rest? I’m going to let the dichotomy play out for now.

Time Enough

Someone told me yesterday that I was going though my reading list at such a pace that it wouldn’t be long before I had read everything worth reading. To be fair, I make pretty good time between Audible listens and a constantly refreshed stack of paperbacks. I will achieve my goal to read 100 books in 2021. There are but 17 books left before I have accomplished this and I’ll probably check off Life of Pi by Yann Martel or I Always Find You by John Ajvide Lindqvist in the next three days. Considering that I started Life of Pi yesterday morning, this is much to the chagrin of some of my friends. I started I Always Find You seven days ago and have yet to hit page 100, so I actually feel like I’m slacking.

I do not keep notes. I do research authors and their backgrounds. I have watched documentaries and listened to lectures on certain titles. I read blogs by other readers and watch YouTube book reviews. I use sparknotes and Stanford and read the novels that other novels reference.

When I started reading again in 2019, it was with The Greatest Books list of the best 100 novels of all time. I decided that I was going to read everything on that list. There are 29 books that I still have not read, one of which I am 30% the way through. (In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust is one of the longest works ever written, so it is going to take a bit longer than a few afternoons.) My friends were reading modern fiction and telling me about novels that were not on my list, and I got to worrying.

When was I ever going to make it to books from this millennium? Last years’ novels? This year, even? What about all the award winners? The Booker Prizes, Pulitzer Prizes, National, Newbury, and Hugo Award winners? I started a small journal in which I was writing down the top 100 from BBC Culture, The Times, Penguin and Modern Library. I assure you reader, the titles included from these different sources are not the same. My to-read list was multiplying like rabbits in Australia, and it was sparking the same kind of dread.

My current approach is this: If I’ve put something down then it is time to pick something else up. If I need a moment to absorb what I just read, then I take it. I take it and then move on. If I sit bewildered at the goals I’m setting, then I consider it time wasted. I’m happy with what I have achieved so far and would not want to risk triggering myself into thinking there will never be time enough. When I feel overwhelmed, I delete practically everything off of my to-read list figuring that if I really need to read a particular title, then it will find its’ way back to me.

Part of the journey has been a discovery of who I am. I’m not a big Jane Austen fan though I enjoy Charles Dickens. I was sad to discover that the end of Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is lost to history. I’ve learned how to put a book down if I think its bad. I’ve found that it is interesting to accept recommendations from other people’s favorite books lists in order to get to know them better. I believe there is something about a beloved book that speaks to the character of those whom love it. I think it is important to read the books that maybe nobody loves, if the message is sound.

Yet the questioning remains: Should I read everything by my favorite authors, or at least a little from every author that seems interesting? How do I make time for the best in all of the genres I like? Who decides which ones are the best? Do I agree with them? Should I make a plan and follow it, knowing that the time it will take to finish that plan will leave those books written in the meanwhile untouched? I have no real answers. Part of me wants to consult my fortune to get an idea of how many years I have left so that I can decide how to schedule for it.

I want to finish Proust and the Culture series by Iain M. Banks before I die. I want to read The Walking Dead graphic novels since I love the show so much, and more Nabokov. I’ve considered deciding to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners. (I have only 5 of the novels that have won since 1970 under my belt, though several more are on my to-read list even if I don’t get to them all.) I’d like to be able to recognize all the authors that charm and inspire my friends and family, and have a feel for what sort of stories those storytellers create. It’s a pretty glorious thing considering there was a time when I struggled to have excitement for anything.

Thank you Twilight Zone, for him.

It is going to take decades and that’s okay. I will leave time for the new authors and take time for the classics I have yet to get to. (Jane Austen’s’ Mansfield Park, Charles Dicken’s Bleak House, and Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy to name a few.) For those of you who in a similar position, I wish you time enough as well.