This Month in Reading - February 2015

I was able to do a good amount of reading this month, which marks the end of my almost full year of funemployment. A period that included about five months spent exploring Europe, three months visiting family and friends and celebrating the great holidays of Thanksgiving and Festivus, plus two months looking for a job when not indulging hobbies. Sadly, this, my first post, may be my longest. I only got the idea to reflect on my reading now that I won't have as much time to do so.

This month I read The Death of Ivan Illych and Other Stores. Barnes and Noble's slim little paperback collection of Tolstoy stories. It begins with Family Happiness, one of Tolstoy's earlier works written in 1859, and then jumps to the eponymous Death of Ivan Illych and The Kreutzer Sonata, both written in the 1880s, before finishing Hadji Murad, Tolstoy's final story written in 1912. It's remarkable how different the later stories are from Family Happiness. All display Tolstoy's unique genius for perfectly capturing the looping, paradoxical nature of human thought and feeling. But, Family Happiness feels more true, more honest than the later works. It was written before Tolstoy's spiritual awakening of the 1870's, before he became deeply devoted to an ascetic, pacifistic way of life. While there is much to be admired about these beliefs, indeed they were an inspiration to Gandhi and MLK among others, it seems to me they had a negative impact on his fiction. The later stories are notably more moralistic, more obviously pushing forward a set of beliefs, and also notably more fatalistic. Ivan Illych seems to take the positive attitude toward the transformative power of death that only the faithful can identify with, and The Kreutzer Sonata is a penetrating analysis of the pain and suffering that's bound with love and lust but presents abstinence as the solution to this. It's surprising that Tolstoy, with his genius for understanding human nature, would preach such impossibilities.
But, to circle back just a little, I have nothing but praise for Family Happiness. A beautiful meditation on the stages of life and the elusive nature of happiness, and simply one of the greatest pieces of fiction ever written. I recommend it to everyone.

Also this month was The Roald Dahl Omnibus. While most remembered now for his children's fiction this collection brings together a few of his many short stories written for adult audiences. It shows the same wild inventiveness as his younger oriented stuff, but also his mastery of tension. His best, such as Lamb to the SlaughterSkin, Neck, and The Ratcatcher, are like finely calibrated pieces of clockwork. Inevitably ticking away toward some crushing defeat or humiliation, but how and for whom is kept hidden until the instant they strike home.

I read some science fiction of the golden age variety with The Voyage of the Space Beagle and Slan by A.E. von Voigt. Voigt seems to me almost the epitome of Golden Age science fiction. His prose is simple and barebones and his characters wooden and fond of directly announcing their feelings. But, you find yourself enthralled regardless because Voigt, like the best of those of the golden age authors, isn't afraid to dream big. Genetically engineered, vampiric super-cats; galaxy suffocating, sentient nebulae; secret, labyrinthine Martian colonies built by telepathic supermen bent on world domination. This is the stuff that keeps people reading this dull prose more than seven decades later. But, what truly makes Voigt the epitome of that particular brand of scifi that flourished in the 30s and 40s isn't his wild ideas. It's his preponderance of opinions. Every big idea is built around these opinions, transparently constructed so as to showcase Voigt's beliefs. This guy has got some opinions and you are going to hear about them.
The most upfront of these opinions is the belief that a new science would, nay must, emerge that would be the synthesizing of all other sciences. 'Jack of all trades' elevated to a rigorous discipline. This belief takes center stage in Voyage of the Space Beagle. Written in 1939, and remarkably presaging both Star Trek and Alien, Space Beagle recounts the adventures of the titular spacecraft and it's crew of scientists as they explore the unknown. It also features some improbably hilarious outdated jargon: all crew members are armed with 'vibration guns,' commonly referred to as 'vibrators.' The main character, Dr. Grosvenor, is the ships sole devotee of the new syncretist science, here named 'Nexalism', and the plot exclusively revolves around him solving problems that the rest of the crew, made up of close minded specialists, cannot. Conveniently, with each crises the need for solutions that only Nexalism can provide grows and grows, until in the end Grosvenor is forced to use the godlike knowledge Nexalism provides to brainwash the rest of the crew into giving up their foolish resistance to his brilliance. This segways nicely into Voigt's other big belief: that the masses cannot rule themselves and monarchy is the solution. This is the belief that takes center stage in Slan, a novel about a young Slan boy named Jommy and his lifelong quest to free other Slans from persecution. What is a Slan? They are a race of telepathic superhumans cruelly oppressed by the tyranny of the mediocre masses. How does Jommy go about this quest? Largely by educating himself in all fields of science, and especially by inventing mind controlling crystals with which he can control the pliant minds of ordinary folk.
You'll notice here that Voigt is by no means advocating that the world be run by the politicking kings of the past. No, the world should be run by a man of science. One who is not a specialist, but a more broadly learned aficionado of all sciences. Ya know, someone like A.E. von Voigt.

I received The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer as a most wonderful gift. It is gripping. I ended up reading it in one night, and let me tell you, this book is dark. It does not shy away from the abuse that is so central to the main mystery of Twin Peaks but which could only be alluded to on network television. It could be quite hard to read.
Sadly, it only presents a handful of new facets to the surreal mythology of Twin Peaks. It was written between the show's two seasons and as such it stays devoted to the original driving mystery of the show: who killed Laura Palmer. and has little of the more expansive mythology that the show developed, likely out of desperation to keep viewers, after that mystery was resolved in the second season. In a lot of ways this made me appreciate that much maligned second season in a way I hadn't before. While it's correctly criticized as slow and meandering without the driving force of Laura's murder behind it, in retrospect it's really where a lot of the experimental world building took place. The introduction of dueling 'Lodges', the government conspiracy of Project Blue Book, the bizarre philosophizing of Windom Earle. Much of what most sticks in my memory and I most love about the show was only made after the best was over.

Also this month was Southern Mail, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's first novel. Saint-Exupéry is one of my favorite writers so it's no surprise I loved this. The writing is beautiful as always, though, not surprisingly, this one doesn't quite hit the same depths of feeling and thought as Wind, Sand, and Stars or The Little Prince.

I continue to slowly work my through The Bible. This month was the Books of Kings. Naturally enough it recounts the Kings of Isreal, picking up where the Books of Samuel left off with the death of David and the ascendency of Solomon. While the book briefly glosses over many kings that follow, Solomon is the only one who really stands out, though I was disappointed that he doesn't do much of anything besides the famous 'split that kid in two' incident. That and get a bunch of wives and a bunch of Gods. More Gods than he's allowed to have. Which is one. You can only have one God if you're the King of Isreal. Because of this Isreal gets split in two and no one who succeeds him, on either side, is any good. Probably because of this the book shifts gears and brings its focus back to the prophets, who get the thankless job of telling the kings how bad they are and how they oughta be running things.
We get in Kings one of the Bible's best passages I've yet encountered. When the Prophet Elijah goes to the mountain in despair and God visits him in a distinctly God way: "And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice." What a beautiful description of omnipotence! This is the Old Testament at its best.
Then, on the other hand, we also get some of the Old Testament at its worst. Elisha, the inheritor of Elijahs prophetic powers, is walking out of a city and "as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them." That's it. All there is to the encounter. Nothing before it, nothing after it. Just some kids making fun of God's prophet so two bears are summoned up to murder them.

Also, a side note, this month I began watching both House of Cards and The Wire. While not readings as such, there is some damn fine writing in here. Watching both together also has the added bonus of making me acutely feel my East Coast roots. Being familiar with the look of both cities really does make both feel more real. Though, of the two The Wire feels far more real, far less stylized. It is also the better show. House of Cards sits in the lofty company of Game of Thrones, supremely watchable entertainment derived from watching a cast of diverse, well rounded character compete in a Darwinian struggle, but The Wire ranks along with Breaking Bad in the very topmost echelon of television. Shows that are not just slick and watchable but also about things. Good and evil, crime and punishment, justice and freedom. From The Wire's very first scene we get a crash course in the themes that will play out. It shows the crime scene set up around a murdered man we learn consistently stole from every illegal game of craps he entered. Why did they let him keep playing when he always ran off with the cash? "Because this is America." Right from the beginning, the whole show in microcosm. How much crime do we tolerate because we're committed to the ideals of freedom?

Lastly, I want to take a second to talk about Kurosawa's High and Low. I don't think I've ever seen a better celebration of the power of dignity and decency. The character of Mr. Gondo, played by the always perfect Toshiro Mifune, stands with Atticus Finch as one of fiction's greatest embodiments of all that is good. Importantly, Mr. Gondo is not materially rewarded for his goodness, which is a change Kurosawa made from the novel upon which the film is based. Instead, we are shown that the reward for being decent is simply being decent. "Why should you and I hate each other?" Gondo says to the man who ruined him financially, but not morally. Kurosawa shows us that the reward is more than enough.

3 responses
Have you read any of Tolstoy's novels? He's still on my list of future authors to read. Also, re: job search. Not sure what you're looking for, but my company is hiring people who can code and people who can't. If that's your jam then email me, yeah? Then I can nerd out about books at work.
I haven't yet, but I hope to read Anna Karenina sometime this year. I actually just started working at a consulting firm called i4DM, but thanks! You should give Family Happiness a try, should be available online somewhere.
I'll check it out, thanks.