Tag Archives: literature


The last complete novel written by Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection is a tale of redemption that clocks just over 500 pages. It was written in 1899, and like many classic novels, covers timeless themes related to what it is to be human. I read Redemption not long after finishing Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky), but also a portion of The Gulag Archipelago (Solzhenitsyn). I suspect this gives me a bit of a bias when focusing on particular themes. Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed this novel and am very likely to read it again. I put Resurrection on my list because it was Tolstoy. I was not disappointed.

Synopses claim that Resurrection is about a prince, Dmitry Nekhlydov. His actions have led to the downfall of his childhood love, Katerina Maslova. The majority of the novel follows Nekhlydov in his attempt to find repentance. This of course is the driving action of the plot, though I would say the piece is actually about responsibility, fairness, and ethics. In Crime and Punishment, it is presented that it is the nature of society which prescribes what acts are considered criminal. In Resurrection, the reader is asked to consider whom is responsible when crimes are committed. The main example is Maslova herself. Nekhyldov impregnates her. The resources available to her as a maiden are rescinded the moment she is discovered to be pregnant, yet this situation is not by her choice. Resurrection asks: Is Maslova responsible for what becomes of her, or is Nekhlydov?

I enjoyed the way that Tolstoy portrayed the ways that we affect each other. The prince makes his selfish, irresponsible choice and it is Maslova that suffers. Maslova no longer has access to her original support structure, and so must make concessions to adapt in order to survive. She ends up becoming a prostitute. This affects the people around her, which affects the people around them, which in turn affects society. Here is one of my favorite quotes from the entire novel, which may better illustrate this idea of one person creating ripples in the life of another:

“People are like rivers: the water in all of them is the same and everywhere identical, but each river has its narrows and rapids, its broad stretches and gentle currents, sections that are clear or cold, others that are muddy or warm. So it is with people. Each person carries within him the germ of all human qualities, showing some of them one moment, others the next, and sometimes acting right out of character, while always remaining the same.”

This idea that we are rivers is poignant in that we can not change or alter where we have come from. When we make mistakes, these felled branches, boulders, and sudden drops in the way of our waters characterize who we become. There is a sense of finality in that to move forward, we must accept that where we have been is an irremovable aspect to ourselves. I felt that Nekhlydov failed to understand this. His character continually tried to get back to the people he and Katerina were before the rape. Only once their paths divert does he see some other future for himself.

I also thought that Nekhlydov was continually making the error of defining himself by the expectations of others. In the beginning of the novel, he is awaiting a message from his mistress on whether or not she’ll release him from their affair. He wears the clothes he feels is befit a prince, surrounded by the servants and property he thinks is owed his station. He looks down upon others and feels socially justified for his behavior. Even as the novel progresses and he begins to use his position to assist others of lesser fortunes, Nekhlydov continues to make excuses for himself. He advantages his privilege as a noble on several occasions. The prevailing thought is more akin to “I’m a good person if I do good things,” vs. “I should do good things because they are good.” It was my feeling that he never deviated from narcissism. I thought that he wanted less to do for other people than to feel good about himself.

In this way, the path Resurrection takes was a little surprising for me. I anticipated when I was introduced to Nekhlydov that he would reinvent himself by the end of the story. I figured there would be a direct path from the realization of wrongdoing to becoming a better person for this prince. Instead, the peripheral characters better express the core theme. Katerina, or Katusha as the prince refers to her, becomes the heroine. (Herein we see another example of how Nekhlydov is trying to move backwards. He constantly uses Katerina’s diminutive -aka family pet name- insinuating that he has a closer relationship to her adult self than he actually does.) Katerina’s path seems pretty straightforward at first, but then turns into something new and rather inspired. She’s one-of-a-kind insofar as all the classics I’ve read.

This is not to say that following along with Nekhlydov through his efforts is altogether uneventful. One part that was particularly memorable to me was when the prince was trying to explain to the serfs whom worked his properties that he wanted to turn his land over to them. The difficulty they had in conceptualizing this significant change in their fortune expressed just how difficult it is for some of us to see how our lives can be different. Once a particular way of life is established, it can be quite difficult to see other opportunities. How does one break out of normal habit? Are the traditions we keep worth maintaining? Even positive change requires effort and disruption, while some will cling to what they’re used to no matter how painful it is.

Beyond this, the accompanied discussion of how to create equality when disseminating resources was interesting as well. No one person is entirely equal to another when considering physical ability, mental ability, heart, experience, or aptitude. How then do we decide what is fair? Is it possible for a group of people come to a singular agreement? Where does the balance lie between creating possibilities for the weak without inviting corruption among the strong? Though there are clear overtures to godliness and providing for the meek, I felt that it was realistic of Tolstoy to acknowledge that real people are not perfectly charitable.

What I enjoyed best about this novel was whom Katusha became. While continuing to hold relationships with other people, she grew into someone who was wholly herself despite the influences that the actions, thoughts, and motivations of others attempted upon her. I liked how she seemed to find herself.

Usually at this point I make recommendations on who would benefit from this novel, even these 123 years later. I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure how to approach this one. For as much as Nekhlydov thought he’d changed, I didn’t agree. I didn’t expect to see much from Maslova, and then she became my favorite character. I did have to compare what a character was claiming vs. their actual actions. I had to evaluate behaviors and choices (among the possible options) it seemed that any given character actually had. Resurrection took quite a bit of thought and consideration to mull over as I read through, while I doubt I caught all of Tolstoy’s cheekiness on the first read. He was quite the sociologist.

I’d say that if you have any interest in this novel, to give it a try. It does go slow in parts. You will get a feel for Russian culture along the way, through not to the same degree as War and Peace or even Anna Karenina. I think Resurrection is entirely fitting as the last complete novel of a deeply venerated author with decades of studying people and who they think they are.

Notes from Underground

First published in 1864 by Feodor Dostoevsky, this novel is approximately 130 pages long. Though short and simple insofar as the story revolves around the innermost thoughts of but one major character, it is also dense. I was constantly trying to figure out what kind of person the narrator was. I was distracted by his outlook and opinions, while I was evaluating whether I believed him to be right, while considering my own thoughts about his thoughts, as I was busy relating (or failing to relate) to what he was saying based on my own experiences. If this is something you intend on reading yourself, then be forewarned: Notes from Underground may provide you with several veritable rabbit holes for deep distracted thought.

The narrator in this novel is unnamed. At first, my impression was that I should imagine the voice to be of Dostoevsky himself. I am familiar with several of his characters from reading other novels, and it seems he was quite adept at developing personalities for his books whose mental and emotional states were often quite extreme. I thought that, maybe, the author was in crisis one day and had to “get it all out”. There is another way to look at it though. Perhaps Dostoevsky left the narrator unnamed not to absolve himself of the beliefs an opinions shared, but to imply that humans in general are routinely preoccupied by thoughts that are simply filtered before we share them with society. Interestingly, even though the novel exists, the narrator claims that he has no intended audience in mind.

So what is Notes from Underground about? It is a bit of a rant. The narrator references narcissism, self-hatred, jealousy, anger, paranoia, and inequalities of class structure. There are themes of superiority vs. inferiority, intelligence vs. stupidity, and camaraderie vs. isolation. The text is rife with contradictions, though it is presented in a way that is paradoxical and realistic. For instance, there is one scene where the protagonist is at a lunch table eating with friends, but his mind is so distant from being present with them that he is only arguably part of the group.

The narrator refers to feeling invisible, “like a fly.” It seems a simple metaphor until the thought is repeated. “They must despise me,” he thinks, “[I] did not expect [my friends] despising me.” The reader has no reason to think that the narrators’ friends do despise him. After all, they have invited him to the lunch and are having quite a time chatting and laughing all around him. Meanwhile, the narrator calls himself an “insect” and grows irritated that they are not annoyed at his insulting them. It is all impervious fun to them, whom apparently do not realize he’s being serious. (But maybe he’s a ‘sensitive soul’, and his friends are a raunchy collective of men who seek humor by demeaning their brothers all in ‘good fun’? Maybe he has a right to be annoyed.)

I was initially inclined to think of the narrator as quite normal. Awhile into the novel, I changed my mind and decided that he was disturbed. Certain details seemed to imply this. For instance, in the beginning of the novel, he talks of a man he passed in the street whom he stepped aside for. (The narrator’s choices were to step aside, collide into the man, or expect the other man to step aside.) The narrator’s choice to move was internalized as an act of self-deprecation, which he then obsesses about. To him, it matters that it was he whom got “out of the way”. The narrator works himself up to give it another go, crosses paths with the same man in the same way, and then he suffers grievously after having stepped aside yet again. This then festers in him for over a decade. ‘Why should it matter whom stepped aside’ I figured, ‘He must be irrational’. (Then again, I remember things that happened to me over twenty years ago which occasionally resurface, and certainly many people seek therapy for similar things.)

I believe that it is too simple to say that the narrator’s mind is diseased. Perhaps he is depressed. Schizophrenic? Just brutally honest with himself? There seems to be a disconnect between the thoughts he has and his ability to question whether his perceptions are true. And, with each negative thought he has, it appears to push him further towards a capacity for malignant behavior. Even when his girlfriend tries to reason with him and explain that he is “upsetting [himself] about nothing”, he struggles to hear her through his own tirade of thoughts. (Though, we know nothing of his girlfriend outside the narrator’s perceptions of her. We know he feels drawn to her, but does he have actual reasons to mistrust her? What has their relationship been beyond that one shared discussion?)

In Notes from Underground, the reader is there to follow along as the narrator spirals downward. (Or does he?) We are witness to each unabashed thought he has along the way, while I found it to be interesting and a bit terrifying. It is charged with emotion and uncertainty. I thought I had the narrator pegged, but now I’m unsure. Maybe what has happened to him started out as a small thing, and then developed into an illness the more isolated he felt. Maybe he is like many of us, terrorized by thoughts we never dare to share with others. Maybe he’s normal. Maybe normal is abnormal.

I didn’t necessarily enjoy Notes from Underground, though I would call it quintessential Dostoevsky. It may seem disconnected and erratic for someone whom has not read his works before. (It may seem disconnected and erratic for someone who has…) What I liked best about it is also what I found the most frustrating: I’m not really sure what I read, even though I’ve thought quite a bit about it.

Crime and Punishment

First published on 1 January 1866 by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment is one of the most pivotal pieces of classic Russian literature. There are few titles that are more well known in this genre, perhaps save War and Peace or Anna Karenina. If you are like me though, you heard the name Dostoevsky before you were able to name anything he had written.

I read Crime and Punishment for the first time about two years ago. I finished it for the second time just last month. Currently there are 28 people on Goodreads who claim to be reading it, and 350 who intend on picking it up. Compare this to the currently re-popularized Dune with 115K readers, or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time book Eye of the World (which was made into a television series whose first season just finished airing on Amazon Prime) with 38.6K readers. Crime and Punishment is grossly unloved.

Surely this is not because the themes and material is no longer relevant. Instead, I would propose it has more to do with the fact that this approximately 670 page romp through psychopathy and ethics is somewhat imposing to those who would see it as belonging only to lovers of classic lit. I would challenge this inclination. Given our peculiar intrigue with sociopaths and criminal drama, the antics of protagonist Raskolnikov would probably interest a larger populace than the average reader may think.

It begins with a thought. Raskolnikov wonders what it would feel like to have killed somebody. There is no other motive. It does not matter who. He even has little concern for how, though he’d prefer not to get caught. This crucial lack of planning creates a dynamic situation where the most astonishing thing is that Raskolnikov manages to not only perform his crime, but escapes the scene. It’s all a bit of macabre luck which leads to a tumult of thoughts that then oscillates between rationalizations and doubt. Could it be that his community is “better off” without the murdered individual? Should he turn himself in? Maybe he was meant to get away, and that is why happenstance allowed him to flee.

As the novel progresses, the depth of thought regarding acts outside of the social norm begs a more serious question: what is crime? Who decides what is construed as criminal? From the moment Raskolnikov committed his ‘experiment’, he is plagued by worries of being found out and the desire to confess. Was he ever again a free man, or merely a prisoner of his own mind?

Posing questions like these is one thing that I think Dostoevsky does very well. Characters throughout his novels exhibit extremes in emotion that is at some times manic, but always drives the plot. For instance, Raskolnikov falls ill to his anxiety at one point in Crime and Punishment, and the reader is paused to consider whether to feel bad for him. Okay, if we cannot feel sympathy towards him, then what about his well-meaning friend? His sister? His mother? Raskolnikov is still capable of offering a positive impact upon people around him not much later in the novel. Is he redeemable? Do we excuse his foray as a sociopath, if otherwise innocent individuals can benefit from his remaining in society?

Where exactly do we draw the line between behavior that is preferable, from that which is acceptable, vs. dubiously excusable? How much do the ties of family, friendship, and love bias us? Are the monikers of good and evil appropriate labels for certain people, or simply their actions? And, should we fall prey to our impulses, how should retributions and restorations be defined?

The Dostoevsky Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

The rabbit hole of considerations dives deep, though not too swiftly. Kindly enough, Fyodor starts his reader out with contemplation of simpler vices. The very first example we’re given is of a man who has exchanged the money his family needed for food in favor of drink. While inebriated, he laments of his own shortcomings and wails of how unfortunate it is that his obsession with vodka is ruining their lives. Another vignette demonstrates the folly of over-inflated expectations and the cruelty that can ensue from blindly following the crowd.

For those less inclined to self-medicate or are particularly gifted with willpower, there are questions still. How much effort should we put towards salvaging people from the situations they create for themselves? Is it right for the noble among us to suffer on behalf of the selfish and depraved? Even if it isn’t right, does the act of shouldering those impositions not somehow define the “goodness” of those types of people?

I will easily admit that Crime and Punishment is not a simple novel, nor a pretty one. There are a few scenes that I’d say are somewhat grotesque. I’ll say that I doubt our dear Dostoevsky was a very stable man, but also, that his works comprise about 30% of the Russian literature on my radar. The Idiot, The Double, and Notes from Underground are still on my ‘to read’ list, while I’ve been through Brothers Karamazov, The Gambler, and White Nights at least once.

Crime and Punishment is insightful and thought-provoking. Though it may not be considered very light reading, it is nevertheless a worthwhile novel whose reflections of the human soul elicit truths that are often depressing, sometimes maddening, and even a bit horrific. I would recommend it to anyone not shy of looking deep within, and asking themselves who they would be if not for the constraints of the society in which they live.

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.


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 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.