Tag Archives: readinglist

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.

The Gulag Archipelago: Volume One

I have not picked up a nonfiction so dense as The Gulag Archipelago since my genetics textbook. After two days of dedicated reading, I have made it 164 pages into volume one. (If this were Steven King, I’d have shelved over a thousand pages to my done pile, happily, and with an itch to replace the two books I read with new ones.) Much scarier than King though is this retelling of soviet life in the mid 1900s. Not that I don’t believe in things like cryptids and telekinesis mind you, but because the prevalence of terror and abuse in Russia was staggering.

I’ll avoid the details. Those of you whom would rather not shy away from it are more than welcome to pick up a copy and see it in Solzhenitsyn’s own words. After all, it was by the details that this author so severely undermined Stalin and the fascist regime of his home country. (Isn’t it weird how humans have to be shocked into paying attention?) If you are shy, but nonetheless curious, you can also try One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This short story was tame enough to make it passed the government censors, and was also written by Solzhenitsyn.

So why is it that someone who will consume a book like hot dogs at an eating challenge suddenly takes it slow? First off, I never realized how many different forms of secret police existed in Russia. I challenge you to Google “soviet secret police agencies”. It all started with the Cheka, or Vecheka, also known as the All-Russian Extraordinary Committee to Combat Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. Five years later the Cheka evolved into the GPU (State Political Directorate) which was part of the NKVD (People’s Commiserate for Internal Affairs). One year after that, the GPU became the OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate), and then the GUGB (Main Directorate for State Security). The GUGB of the NKVD is separated out to the NKGB (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). The NKGB was merged back into the NKVD, then separated out, then merged, separated, merged, separated… from 1941 to 1946. There was the MGB, KI, MVD, and finally the KGB. I started a notebook and under “Secret Police”, jotted out a whole bunch of letter soup.

Second, there are terms used freely that had meanings I wasn’t familiar with: Organs and insects, for example. Organs were individuals employed by the secret police, as though it was a biological entity that was effecting its’ will throughout the populace by forming new growths. Insects were individuals whose alleged purpose was to subvert the government. This infestation of insects was the basis upon which many citizens were exterminated under Stalin’s rule. I had to learn that “wrecking” was an actual offense in the Soviet Union criminal code. “Wrecking” has been translated in English to mean sabotage, but also, inflicting damage, harm, and undermining. Plainly stated, it was a way to imprison anyone guilty of, suspected of, or even innocent of not embodying Stalin’s ideal.

“Things were said innocently, but they weren’t listened to innocently”

-The Gulag Archipelago

Learning new terms that were heretofore completely unfamiliar with was my third challenge.

Extrajudicial Reprisal: The same body is in charge of investigation, arrest, interrogation, prosecution, trial, and execution of the verdict.

Social Prophylaxis: Removal of the intelligentsia, or educated persons amidst the populace. (We don’t want anyone thinking that what the government is doing is wrong.)

Kulak: A term originally coined to mean a “miserly, dishonest, rural trader” which was manipulated to refer to all those whom hired workers (e.g. had some standing in society), and then further adulterated to mean “all strong peasants” in general. This has been one of my favorite terms, because I think it examples how tradition can be used to manipulate a population into conferring historical prejudice against a convenient new target. (Chinua Achebe addresses this concept in Things Fall Apart, in explaining how religious missionaries utilized tribal beliefs to convert the natives.)

Tenner: Ten years imprisonment.

Article 58: The RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) criminal code under which arrests were made.

Section 10: The section of Article 58 under which could be creatively applied to most any individual or circumstance, and referred to crimes regarding counterrevolutionary propaganda or agitation.

Unless you are an anti-government citizen, then it’s a tenner under Section 10 for you.

What I have found most intriguing about The Gulag Archipelago thus far are the euphemisms and the explanations of how this exposition of cruelty was allowed to commence. For instance, the verdict of “ten years without the right to correspond” meant that the accused was already dead. It would have been implacable to admit that an organ had shot a suspected insect whom was actually someone’s family member, so they found a different way to phrase why no letters would be forthcoming. Much of the beginning of Volume 1 is about uncertainty. After a tenner, maybe the accused didn’t write because they died in the gulag. Maybe they were exiled. Maybe they were set free, only to be sent to a different gulag. Nobody knew what tomorrow would bring. Solzhenitsyn describes it as a game of Solitaire where there are three piles in which to place any card: Arrest, Release, and Exile. To maintain imbalance, any given person could be randomly placed in any pile, at any time.

I couldn’t imagine living that way, though I believe that is Solzhenitsyn’s point.

A map of the Russian gulag system – There really were this many.

I will soon embark on chapter four (Yup, I’m only on four.) and learn more about the guards (or Bluecaps) of the gulag system. I’ll suspect that I will learn about how they were people too, placed in an impossible situation and struggling to find some way in which to survive the regime. I imagine their positions of authority will lead to further shady dealings. Solzhenitsyn states early on that he felt the time to cry out against injustice was at the very beginning. And yet, those whom did, died. Those who did not were carried away in a swift, deadly current of fate and circumstance. How much choice did any given individual have? What made the difference between a University student invited to NKVD school, and intelligentsia? How did anyone manage, when the constant stress and terror of being abducted in the middle of the night was not only plausible, but commonplace?

These are some of the questions I hope to gain answers to. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was exiled from Russia for his work, but also awarded the Nobel Prize because of it, I plan to work at it for as long as it takes.

À la recherche du temps perdu (Parts 1-4)

I would have thought that after over a hundred hours listening to In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust that starting a post about it would be easier. I seem to be most focused on how much closer I am to finishing. (For those keeping track along with me, I have 33 hours left and then book seven to read in paperback. I am currently paused before starting book five, The Captive.) If you include that I first listened to Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove last Winter, that’s slightly over 150 hours of Proust I’ve heard within the last year. It is not entirely about reaching the end. I am attempting to digest it all.

Paris, France

I can say that Swann’s Way made much more of an impact the second time around. Once I had a better idea of whom Marcel was growing up to be, revisiting his childhood made more of an impression. It almost seems worth it to read Time Regained (part VII) and then backtrack to V and VI. Is that some kind of heresy? Maybe not. I imagine that Proust had a fairly good idea on how his story was going to end before he got started, given his protagonist was loosely based upon himself. It may bring me closer to the sense of nostalgia that drove him to start writing in the first place.

I feel like I am currently paused at the silliest point in the protagonists’ life. For me, Marcel is not a very likeable as a young man. He’s obsessive, duplicitous, manipulative, and selfish. I am hoping that he will grow up and become more tolerable soon. For example, there is a moment where Marcel is traveling with his girlfriend Albertine. Also present in the scene are two male friends of his. One friend is asking him to step away from Albertine to greet his dying father, while the other is near enough that Albertine may be drawn into conversation with him while Marcel is away. Marcel does not trust either his friend or Albertine, so he declines the request. Marcel knows that refusing his friend will be hurtful. He knows that how the situation looks will cause the other man insult. However, Marcel snubs his friend with the aim of controlling his girlfriend, and decides it is better to let the friendship die than to find a way to explain his reticence.

To me, this means they were never actually friends as Marcel purports. It means that Marcel ought not be attached to Albertine, or the friend he trusts so little with her. These superficial relationships appear to be largely underscored by Marcel’s lack of confidence which he tries to shroud with indifference and pretense. What I await is for Marcel to apply his keen gift for insight upon himself. Why, when he feels certain that Albertine is at least bisexual, is he maddened with jealousy but also seriously considering leaving her for her friend Andrée? Why does he hop from clinging to his mother, his servant Françoise, his grandmother, to Gilberte, Bloch, Albertine, etc? Marcel will claim that he does just fine on his own once he’s been left to his own devices. However, he very clearly yearns to be fawned over, looked after, and admired.

What else is an aristocratic Frenchman to in the early 1900s to do?

I do like that Marcel’s insights into high society can be biting. After all, this scathing adroitness is why many people like reading Jonathan Swift. I’ve been enjoying Neville Jason as narrator. I’ve been saddened that this allegedly gay man (Marcel, protagonist) apparently felt the need to repress his true self in favor of the flippant dalliances society expected of him. I have been agitated twice now (part III and IV) that the pacing of these novels seems to malinger until the very end. (Swann’s Way, part one, is thus far the best paced of the first four parts in my opinion.)

Even so, there are countless moments that I have laughed aloud, smirked at shrewd remarks, and have even shared instances of particular amusement with others as I’ve listened along. Sometimes it is a matter of minutes between a chuckle and snort; Sometimes hours. I do feel as though it has been worth my time, even despite my reservations.

It has been quite the journey, reading À la recherche du temps perdu. I’d like to hope that maybe the experience has helped me to read people better. I imagine that when I approach the last three parts of this novel, it will be with this goal in mind. For now, I’m going to let parts one through four settle in my mind. (When “taking a breather” before the next part involves short stories by Dostoevsky, then its probably time to step back for a bit.)

V for Vendetta

“Remember remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”

I picked up a copy of the graphic novel V for Vendetta by Alan Moore (& David Lloyd) partly because I was so satisfied with Watchmen (Moore), and partly because a key moment in the 2005 film confused me. As it is so often the case, I figured the text would offer more explanation about what was going on. It did, though sixteen years of life experience might have played a hand in that as well.

What was most surprising for me about V for Vendetta was the numerous references to art and literature. Most of the books illustrated in this graphic novel had titles on them, and so I researched these whenever I failed to recognize one. I am a huge fan of reading referenced literature. I imagine the author must have been so impressed upon by what they read that they wanted to include those titles in their own creations. If there’s some aspect of that reference that is going to help me understand the material in more depth, then all the better. (For instance, I can’t imagine having read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt without having seen an image of the painting by Carel Fabritius to which it refers.)

The Goldfinch

Faust, Arabian Nights, Hard Times, Don Quixote, Essays of Elia, Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Golden Bough, Shakespeare, Ivanhoe, Divine Comedy, I Am Legend, and To Russia with Love are all titles that appear on V’s bookshelf. On another bookshelf appears Mein Kampf, Utopia, and Capital. V is actively reading V. by Thomas Pynchon at one point in the novel. He reads The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton to Evey in part one, while Mr Finch is reading The Roots of Coincidence by Arthur Koestler at the end of part two.

I felt that these references tell us about who the characters are and what the current climate of the setting is. I’ve yet to read V., The Magic Faraway Tree, or The Roots of Coincidence, but I can point out that Evey’s character was remarkably immature when V read to her from The Magic Faraway Tree. (And, after she grew up, he started calling her Eve.) I’ve read some of Gravity’s Rainbow (Pynchon) and all of Darkness at Noon (Koestler), but I probably ought to give these other two a go.

There are several movie bill posters and paintings that appear in the Shadow Gallery; Shakespearean quotes littered throughout; a reference to Evita and the image of Cosette from Les Miserables that appears later on. I was only able to root out The Three Graces by Raphael among the artwork so apparently my art history days are further behind me than I realized. Nevertheless, it was clear that V reveled in having a well curated gallery of art and literature from pre-fascist England. “Art washes away from the soul the dust of every day life,” as Picasso once said.

It was in trying to catch all the references that the insidiousness of the politics in V for Vendetta struck home. I have the luxury of Google to at least try and research painters from nearly every century. I have the freedom to hop on Amazon and buy myself a copy of Faust. (Or George by Alex Gino, the most censored book of 2020 according to the American Library Association.) At least I have read some Dickens, Cervantes, Shelley, Alighieri and Matheson. I could write my own book, or paint my own painting, independent of any party line.

It was not being able to differentiate between anarchy and chaos that caused me to stumble in my understanding of V for Vendetta before. Something else Picasso said puts it more succinctly:

Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.”

Now I think I get it. For Eve, it was about forgetting how powerless young waifs were supposed to be in her society. In her expectation to live a mediocre life of degradation despite her fears, she was trapped. Schooling ourselves means breaking down the walls of who we think we are and what we think we’re supposed to be. In destroying these expectations, we have the room to decide whom we want to be without constraint.

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.