Month: July 2012

Despair

Despair

Despair by V. Nabokov; Vintage International

Despair was first published (in Russian) in 1936, Nabokov edited and revised it for the English translation in 1965.  This is the second Nabokov novel that I have read, the first was Lolita; although, I do own Pale Fire and Invitation to a Beheading.  I absolutely despise Lolita and am not sure that Despair is any better of a novel.  I do want to read The Defense.  I do not honestly know how much more Nabokov I can take – if The Defense is no good, I swear off of the author forever.

I know that by saying anything against Nabokov, it is almost as if I am making myself into some sort of literature-pariah and that I chance no one taking seriously anything that I further say.  Make no mistake, I understand Nabokov’s literature – I understand his writing, the allegories, themes, color, lyricism, etc.  I just do not like it.  I find his writing to be tedious, interruptive, stupid, and immoral.  Without a doubt, the feeling I get from reading Nabokov’s writing is that he is unbearably arrogant and obnoxious.

I have read Russians – the classic group of them (no need to list them) – and I think they are the greatest of writers. Nabokov does not deserve, in my opinion, to be counted among them.  I never can see what readers find in his work. I am beginning to suspect that actually no one really likes his work, they just feel it is their duty to nod their heads and agree with everyone else.  I cannot be one of those people – I dislike Nabokov’s writing and reserve the right to do so in the future.

Reading Despair was a chore. It was a bore – I hated the narrator-character immensely.  Actually, there wasn’t a single character I liked at all. The writing (supposedly that of the main character) was wretched and all over the place (presumably to designate his state of mind or WHATEVER…) but through it all, once again, seeped Nabokov’s wretched arrogance.

So, why did the main character plot and carry out his own murder? Was it for the insurance money? The thrill of it all? Because he fancied himself part of the great mystery-drama that he was writing?  Frankly, I just don’t care.  I am sure in stuffy classrooms across the globe students attempt to plum possible responses to these questions for their mid-term papers.  However, I just don’t care why the character did it.

Maybe there was no actual murder and such. Maybe it was all part of the story-within-a-story. Again, I really don’t give a rip.  Just like the idea that the main character has a double who looks like him – but only to him. Everyone else fails to see the resemblance. Was there a resemblance or wasn’t there? And just why does the main character think there is one? And, most important, does anyone care? Not I, surely.

I was uninterested in the tribulations of a self-congratulatory author (main character), the arrogance of Nabokov’s writing, the attempts at vaguely replaying Crime & Punishment, the pseudo-mental anguish of the main character.  Nabokov, you waste my time – I despair of reading any more of your works.

2 stars

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by A. Solzhenitsyn; Signet

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and was first published in 1962.  The novel takes place in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s, describing a single day of prisoner Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.  The author, Solzhenitsyn was himself imprisoned in the Gulag camps between 1945 and 1953.  The edition I read is the Signet Classics 2008 and it is this cover that is my favorite among all the editions.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a prisoner in the Gulag labor camp.  He is a member of the twenty-four man squad called the 104th.  Formerly, he was a farmer and soldier who was arrested falsely on the charge of being a spy.  On the day the novel takes place, Shukhov is already a veteran of these labor camps and is in the process of serving a ten-year sentence.

The story begins at 5:00am when the prisoners are awoken for a long day of hard labor.  The reader learns about the process of the labor camp through the thoughts and actions of Shukhov.  When this book was first published, it was a shocking revelation of the corruption and abuses in the Soviet system. However, reading it in 2012, it’s pretty much exactly what one would expect from the book.  The book ends somewhere close to 11:00pm, with Shukhov fallen asleep in his barracks bunk.

In the book, we learn about the society within a society that forms in prison.  The reader is given to understand the level of corruption that occurs from the highest level, to the lowest level in the penal system.  The prisoners are constantly harassed and monitored, so that they have no free time, no rest, and no escape.  The guards who run the prison are corrupt and harsh, but they are, in essence, stuck in their own prison – since they have no real desire to work at the Gulag in the cold, either.

Daily, after being frisked, corralled, and searched, the squads march to a new location in the freezing bitter cold where they begin their day of work.  The work is designed to be inefficient and tedious.  The materials and tools needed to accomplish any sort of productive work are lacking.  Food is dolled out in scarce, weak portions.  None of the prisoners have proper garments, nutrition, or equipment.

This particular day is a relatively good one for Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.  He falls asleep at the end of the day fairly content with the events of his day.  Throughout the day, we follow his efforts to survive in the subculture that is his squad and the larger culture that is the entire prison.  The devil is in the details for his survival – how many ounces of bread is he allotted? How can he best ration his bread, clothing, tobacco, and rags?  Who can be barter with?  Who can be trusted and who is hazardous for his survival?   Basically, the day is a good one because Shukhov is able to stay warmer than others by a few degrees, get a few extra ounces of bread, and have an extra cigarette or two.  These, for him, are major wins, though looking from the outside in, they do not seem that important.  In the Gulag, it is all about daily survival – and most of that means being smart and careful.  Arrogance, stubborness, and foolishness are all pitfalls that usually spell the end of prisoners before their term is up.  However, in order to gain such little bonuses, it requires great cunning and effort on the prisoners’ part – is it worth it?

Toward the end of the book, another prisoner puts a question to Shukhov – has Shukhov so adapted to prison life that he actually does not wish to be free anymore? Was hoping for his release to freedom anything but a boring hindrance? Is it better to focus on daily survival?  Shukhov’s contented sleep at the end seems to almost signify that he has been truly broken, since it seems that his complete acceptance of the prison life means that he would not escape or choose to be released even if he was given that option.  That, it seems, is the real terror of the labor camps – not the physical strains and struggles.

4 stars

We

WeZamyatin finished this novel, in Russian, in 1921.  It was suppressed in Russia for a long time, only being published there in 1988.  Meanwhile, it was published in English in 1924.  I read this Penguin Classics edition with the really awesome cover.  The cover is from Painting of Futuristic Buildings and City by Anton Brzezinski.   There is another edition from Penguin Classics that’s cover is Georgii Petrusov’s Caricature of Aleksander Rodchenko, but I find that artwork icky and disturbing and I love the colors and vision of the copy I have.

We takes place in the 26th Century – which is largely why it is considered a science fiction novel, I think.  To be honest, I feel like most people place dystopian novels in science fiction because they just do not know where else to put them.  While this takes place in the future, it does not contain any truly science fiction elements.  I read this novel for two reasons: (1.) I am plodding through a stack of Russian literature; (2.) I am reading all the dystopian literature available.

This book is not for everyone – I can see how any variety of readers would become frustrated or bored by the novel. Also, if you had no fun reading Brave New World or 1984, then you will probably dislike We as well.  However, it should be noted that We was actually published prior to either of those novels.  Orwell openly admits that he was “inspired” by We, Vonnegut admits stealing some of the ideas in it, and Huxley (Brave New World) has been accused of plagiarism from many novels including We.

The narrative is written in the form of diary entries by D-503, there are 40 entries in total.  Through the character’s diary, we learn much about the form of society in the 26th Century.   D-503 lives in a place called OneState.  OneState is the totalitarian society governed by the Benefactor and his Guardians.  The entire urban society is constructed out of a type of clear glass – which allows the Guardians to police and spy on all of the citizens, even in their private apartments.  The structure of society is regulated by the Table of Hours, which details what activity each citizen should be doing at what specific time.  Naturally, throughout the book we see that citizens work for the sake of OneState because it is their duty and responsibility – they do not work for personal accomplishment or personal finance.  Work tends to be the focus around which the lives of the citizens are built.

Except for Sex Day.  We are told that after the 200-Years War, society split into factions.  OneState developed while hunger was being eradicated and after that, the Lex sexualis was promulgated.  In OneState, any citizen has the right of access to any other citizen as a sexual product.  This plays somewhat of a large role in the book because on Sex Day, for an hour the couple is allowed to drop blinds in their apartment, thus being able to hide from the authorities for the time.  I find it vaguely significant that in all of the major dystopian novels, sex plays such an important role.  One might think it would be food, education, technology, etc. But it’s usually sex.  Anyway, this control of sex in dystopian novels has the effect of removing crime and disorder from the society (no more jealousy or rape) and it also micro-manages the births and generations of new citizens.

All the citizens of OneState are given a letter-hyphen-number as their “name.”  They are not called “citizens,” but rather are referred to as Numbers.

D-503 is a mathematician and a philosopher of mathematics.  He understands numbers and formulae quickly and on a deeper level than most of his fellows.  He has been put in charge of building OneState’s latest project:  the INTEGRAL.  This machine is something like a spacecraft, it’s purpose is to spread the values and commands of OneState to all other nations/planets.  Of course, at the start of the novel, D-503 is pleased with this work and spends his day dutifully carrying out his assigned task.  D-503 encounters the revolutionary and disobedient I-303.  He falls in love with this woman.  D-503 begins to have dreams, he loses his focus on purely rational thinking and logical explanations, and he begins to be an accomplice to her deviations.

I-303 takes D-503 out from OneState.  OneState is surrounded by the Green Wall, which separates OneState from the remainder of the planet.  There, D-503 realizes that there are humans living outside of the boundaries and forces of OneState and that there are many Numbers who wish to rebel against OneState and rejoin the rest of humanity.  D-503 blames his law-breaking on the fact that he is ill.  Having dreams and ruminating on love and drinking alcohol are all symptoms of his having developed a soul.  Throughout the novel, D-503 grapples with what this means.   Late in the novel, OneState makes its citizens undergo the Operation (something like a lobotomy) which removes people’s imaginations.  By doing this, the effort is to squash any notions of revolution or hope.

There are two main questions that move throughout the novel in order to answer the ultimate problematic presented here.  The first is what it means to be We or I.  Some of this shows through in terms of the “we” between D-503 and I-303 versus the “we” between D-503 and the whole revolutionary group.  D-503 frequently latches on to the concept of “we” and wonders how his allegiances have shifted and what it is that constitutes the “we” anyway.  The second main question deals with the concept of revolution.  Some of this is historically relevant to the Russian Revolution, but the point is the same:  one must think that either there can be a last/final revolution, or there is no limit to revolutions possible.  By forming another revolution, I-303 shows D-503 that it is always possible to overcome the authority of the State.  The State tends to dupe its citizens into thinking that the revolution that brought it into existence is the last/final revolution, so that it can secure itself from any uprisings.

The overarching problematic of the novel is the comparison and contrast of the idea that happiness = freedom or the exact opposite.

I am giving this novel four stars because it is the genesis of 1984, Brave New World, etc.  I like the themes and concepts that Zamyatin plays with here and I think it is definitely a book one should read and then re-read.  However, I withhold a star because some of the writing itself is tedious.  The character D-503 tends to be a bit whiny and babbles a bit more than he should.  There are some sections where I lost track of the story and what D-503 was even trying to get across.  The novel uses plenty of the technique of not finishing sentences except for a series of ellipses.  This is okay, but after awhile, a little grating on the nerves.  Anyway, I recommend this one for the smart people, the fans of Russia, and the dystopian-lovers.

4 stars

Uncanny X-Men #1 (2012)

UncannyXMen2012

Uncanny X-Men #1 (2012) Marvel Comics

Marvel’s efforts to reorganize (let’s use that euphemism) their X-titles worked for me.   I had no history in reading X-titles, and so I felt out-of-the-loop, as they say, regarding any of the characters and storylines.  While the Marvel Universe is generally run as an organic whole, everything related to the X-Men has always seemed to run parallel to and almost separately from the rest of the Marvel Universe.  This isn’t true, but the X-titles do tend to make up their own microcosm as opposed to how the Avengers correlate to the Marvel Universe.  Uncanny X-Men was a title that Marvel ran from 1963 – 2011 with over 550 issues (including annuals).  Therefore, jumping into the complex X-Men world was basically impossible from my point of view.

In 2010-2012, Marvel restarted, renumbered, and reorganized most of the X-Men titles – without destroying any of their past historical events.  My favorite Marvel writer, Jason Aaron, was given the Wolverine title and the Wolverine & The X-Men titles.  A title just called X-Men was started and in 2012, Marvel restarted Uncanny X-Men at issue #1. If ever readers were going to get involved in X-titles – this was definitely the best opportunity.

The events of Uncanny X-Men #1 are directly related to the events that take place in the mini-event X-Men Schism and are connected to both the Wolverine and X-Men titles.  Could a reader successfully read this issue without having read those I just mentioned? Of course; however, I can say that it really is the best option to have at least read the X-Men Schism mini-event. The writer for Uncanny X-Men #1 is Kieron Gillen and it’s obvious his first order of business is to explain something of what’s going on in the X-Men world without making things too messy.  His second task is to put forth an engaging storyline that should propel this particular title forward from issue #1.   I think that he succeeds in doing both, although the issue does not turn out to be anything fantastic.

Right away the reader is given the roster of those X-Men who are on the island Utopia.  The reader is also directly given the new and improved purpose and goal of these X-Men.  From the brain and mouth of Cyclops the reader learns, alongside the new organization of X-Men, what this team’s mission will be.  Welcome to the concept of Extinction Team.  This is a basic storyline. However, I cannot say that it’s entirely new in the X-Men world, little of it that I know.

“That is our primary aim, anything else is just survival.  It’s something we’ve tried before, but never on a big enough scale.  If this team saves humanity from extinction enough, people will realize how badly they need us.  In short, we’ve always been earth’s mightiest heroes.  Extinction team will prove it.” – Cyclops

That quote is from only two frames in the issue and I feel most readers who read without care might miss what was said there.  Like I said above, this is not exactly a new directive for X-Men – Cyclops readily admits that in this quote.  The difference is that it is now going to be attempted on a larger scale.  Well, I am sure that X-Men fans can argue the point of whether or not this has been done before.  But notice the last part of the quote:  Cyclops calls the X-Men “earth’s mightiest heroes” – which is actually the longtime tagline and monicker of none other than the Avengers.  Clearly, this presages the upcoming 2012 Marvel yearly event “Avengers vs. X-Men.”   Who are earth’s mightiest heroes?

A villain, Mr. Sinister, is introduced quickly – on first meeting him, he seems like a rather cool villain to me.  I mean, he’s ruthless, unhesitating, and “classy.”  But the part I did not like is this oddball goofy usage of the weird robot/alien Celestial.  And then Mr. Sinister controls and flies off in the thing’s head. Yeah, this seemed really goofy and silly.  However, I did get a kick out of what Mr. Sinister did when he lands the head at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts!  This villain and what’s he’s done there is the most interesting aspect of the issue.  (Also, Namor is his pompous-cocky self, even if it’s just a frame or two.)

3 stars

The Devil’s Nebula

Devil's NebulaIn 1991, Rebellion Developments was started in England.  The company focused on video games and comic books. In 2006, it acquired a publishing group:  Abaddon Books.  In 2009, Rebellion also published the imprint of Solaris Books.   The Devil’s Nebula is published under the Abaddon Books imprint title.  Abaddon books has, at least, six “shared worlds” in its library.  A shared world is a pretty neat concept – similar to the Warhammer 40k franchise.  Authors work together to develop and also create novels that all take place within the shared universe.  The Devil’s Nebula  is the first novel in the “Weird Space” shared universe that was largely developed by Eric Brown.  Brown is also the author of the second novel in the Weird Space shared universe.

The Devil’s Nebula was published in 2012 with cover art done by Adam Tredowski.  Overall, the universe Brown creates is similar to most of the “standard-fare” science fiction universes.  The human civilization, spanning thousands of worlds, is referred to as the Expansion.  Although, beyond that, is the Void and Vetch space – alien to humans and outside of the Expansion.  I think that Brown did a good job drawing the baseline for the shared universe – he presents a decent structure and leaves a lot open for future authors to grab onto and run with.  That being said, because it’s the first novel in a shared universe, I think Brown was not able to reach the depth of writing that he normally would.

The novel begins by introducing us to a handful of characters who are outlaws from the Expansion – not because they are vicious criminals, but because they disagree with the Expansion authority.  Basically, the crew of The Paradoxical Poet interprets Expanisionist authority as fascist, militaristic, and rigid in method and procedures.  The crew has traveled together for a long time under the owner of the ship, Ed Carew.  The characters here are stereotypical, basic, and expected.  They react and interact just as one expects them to – and just as they would in every standard science fiction story. This is good and bad.  It’s good because the reader knows what to expect and is familiar with these archtypes.  It’s bad because we have all read about these characters (just with different names in different settings) before.

The crew gets “drafted” by the Expansion for a special mission out into Weird Space.  There, the group (under the watchful eye of Expansion militia) discovers a world inhabited by human colonists, living in a primitive culture.  The planet is called World and the people there are divided into two opposing groups.  One groups is in the thrall of the Weird – hive-mind nasty aliens.  We are also introduced to several characters native to World who are interesting.  The storyline revolves around how these human colonists react to the Weird as either servants or enemies.  This ties into the overall plot of how the Weird intend to advance and encroach upon Expansion space.  The story involves jungle combat, telepathy, and lasers.

Some of the things in Weird Space are definitely “weird.”  But taken as a fun, pulpy science fiction novel, everything works. If the reader takes any of this too seriously, then it becomes less comical.  Phar, for one thing, is at once a hideous thing and a hilarious device. Most of the time, Brown seems like he’s having fun with the reader using elements that make one cringe or giggle.

There’s this little annoying “pseudo-romance” subplot that runs through the book that involves the character Lania. I found most of this pretty crappy writing – but, honestly, it’s really typical for pulp. If I ignore that and I accept the novel as what it is – this is a solid three-star book.  The next book has even more potential, I think, because the reader would have already been introduced to Weird Space.  Though the characters are so obvious, I cannot help but say I do want to know what happens next.

3 stars

The Investigation

The InvestigationThe Investigation by Stanislaw Lem was first published (in Polish) in 1959. It was translated in this edition in 1976 by Adele Milch.  This is the second novel by Lem that I have read.  I do not think that this novel fits the standard idea of science fiction found in the new and shiny bookstores.  Honestly, I am okay with this. However, it does fit the idea of “science fiction” in a classic literal sense. This novel is fiction and the entire thing is about science – or, rather, scientific inquiry.

This is one of the most creepy and eerie books I’ve read.  I was reading this book late at night (after midnight) and I had to put it down and read a few pages of something else.  It doesn’t really have much gore or violence at all, but the thing is still eerie to the maximum! I do not find many truly “disturbing” books, most are shock-factor gore or comical horror. This is a science fiction novel that will make your skin crawl.  Now, I do want to include a small disclaimer:  you have to be an intelligent reader in order to experience the thrill.  If you do not have patience for a little bit of philosophy/psychology/statistics, well, you probably will experience something other than creepy-eerie.

A Scotland Yard lieutenant is charged to investigate the mysterious disappearance of corpses from London morgues. The only “explanation” is a statistical theory that correlates the body-snatching with local cancer rates. The detective from the very beginning suspects the statistician being the perpetrator. Reality, however, proves less mundane and certainly less comprehensible than he had hoped. In The Investigation the classic procedural police mystery is turned into a metaphysical puzzle, in which Kafkaesque themes are present. Philosophical questions are presented under the simple surface of the plot:  what is the role of scientific inquiry? What does the existence of competing explanations mean for that goal?

This novel will leave you with unanswered questions – if you do not like books that do not sew up perfect resolutions on every conflict/problem, then you probably will not like this novel.  To be fair, unlike a lot of novels that leave things unresolved just because the author thinks that is a fun literary technique, that’s not what Lem does in this novel.  The whole point of this novel is the concept of scientific inquiry, the boundaries of rational detective work, and the possibility of answers that are beyond the intellect.

Late in the novel, toward the end of chapter 6, the statistician named Sciss tells detective Gregory about a problem that resulted in Sciss losing the command of Operations.  The theory that Sciss shares is interesting  – and as frightening as the bodies moving from the morgues. I quote a part here, since it does not really have any gigantic bearing on the whole plot…………………………or does it?

“The nuclear race was just beginning.  Once the race starts it can’t stop. It has to go on. If one side invents a big gun, the other side retaliates with a bigger one.  The sequence concludes when there is a confrontation; that is, war.  In this situation, however, confrontation would mean the end of the world; therefore the race must be kept going. Once they begin to escalate their efforts, both sides are trapped in an arms race. There must be more and more improvements in weaponry, but after a certain point weapons reach their limit.  What can be improved next?  Brains.  The brains that issue the commands.  It isn’t possible to make the human brain perfect, so the only alternative is a transition to mechanization.  The next stage will be a fully automated headquarters equipped with electronic strategy machines.” –  pg 159, chapter 6

Definitely at least a four-star rating for this book. I guess an argument could be made to give it all five stars.  What I do know is that after having read this Lem book, I’ve read two by the author and really enjoyed both.  Lem is an excellent writer, a master of novels and ideas and originality.  Certainly, I want to read all the Lem stuff I can get my paws on.

4 stars

Leviathan

Leviathan

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld; Simon Pulse 2009

It has seemed like this book has been everywhere since it was released in 2009.  I avoided it for as long as I could, and then borrowed it from the library. After reading more than halfway through, I found a copy at a book store, new, for $3.  So I bought it, returned the library copy, and finished reading the novel. I also bought the next in the series, Behemoth, for $4.  I expect I’ll be liking that book, too.

I have never read anything by Scott Westerfeld, but I know he writes mainly young adult novels.  I read the dust jacket on the cover of Leviathan and decided it was worth a read.  I don’t read a lot of young adult novels – I really do not like the “coming-of-age” or “teenage-angst” nonsense. I also do not like teenaged vampires, werewolves, or zombies.  But this novel looked like steampunk and alternate history – two categories I enjoy.

After the first two-hundred pages, I was really impressed with the book.  I am not sure what I expected; probably a very kiddie  “kid’s book” or maybe a boring story of kids dealing with the world that they find themselves in.  Instead, the story is told from the perspective of the two main characters, young teens named Alek and Dylan. The two kids come from different countries and, therefore, different worldviews.  Europe is on the cusp of the War and the war machines from the various sides include the Darwinist “genetically enhanced” machines (which are really animals) and the Clankers and their heavy-industrial machinery. The two main characters are active and involved in matters – they are not just ignorant youth who live in an adult world.

I wish this book was around when I was a young child, I would have really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it now, though, so I am not going to complain.  I do think that it’s target reading age is probably about 12-14, depending on the reader’s abilities.

Some reviewers have not found this book to their liking.  They talk about “tropes.”  Frankly, you just gotta read the book and enjoy the story. Get in the book and read it.  Stop worrying about whether or not it’s literature, truthful to history, or if it uses common themes found in novels.

The pages turn quickly in this novel, though there are over 400.  This is really fun because there are a whole pile of really cool illustrations (by Keith Thompson) throughout.  This is an action book – full of fun, madcap action and adventure.  And the quick-turning pages, the awesome illustrations, and the interesting storyline put the reader right in the action itself.  This is a fun book! Good entertainment and good adventure.

For the record, the Clanker Stormwalker is a very cool piece of machinery that made me think of Warhammer 40k.  Anyway, I want a life-size, working Stormwalker now.  So, maybe the book isn’t the greatest literature and maybe it is written in a style directed at young teenagers.  So what? This is fun and that’s something very important when reading any novel.  I’m giving it five stars because there isn’t anything I would change about it. The characters are interesting, the storyline is involved, the pacing is excellent, and the illustrations are great. Guilty pleasure for adults, perfect fun read for young teens.

5 stars