Cancer Ward

I've read a lot of Russian writers. Some of the deepest stories, most critical psychology and simple, good writing come out of that country. I thought I'd already read the best, but it's always a nice surprise to be blown away by a book you just ran into in a used bookstore, but had never heard of before.

I'd heard of the author, though, and read his most famous book. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich made Alexander Solzhenitszn famous and was the only book of his that was permitted to be published in the Soviet Union in his lifetime. It's a great book, a life changer. But Cancer Ward is better.

Just as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was based on Solzhenitszn's experiences in a Siberian concentration camp whereas Cancer Ward is based on his experiences battling cancer in a state run hospital. In it we meet and hear the stories of the patients, the doctors and their families. And a much larger story is told by the stories of each character all together, that of a society and system of government in crisis. 

The lack of freedom in the Soviet Union touches all the characters: the doctors bound by the state controlled health system, the patients by the jobs they are forced into but con no longer perform due to their disease. Most of all, the characters in one way or another, are affected by the labor camps. Many were prisoners or exiles or had denounced someone, either by choice or out of malice.

So the doctors struggle through their busy schedules while the patients lay around the ward suffering and arguing with each other. That alone makes a good story, but on every page, Solzhenitszn gives us some amazing insight into the human condition. Read Cancer Ward to see for yourself.

Journey to the End of the Night

Have you ever enjoyed a book while being thoroughly disgusted by the protagonist? Would you like to?

One of my all time favorite books, ever, is Journey to the End of the Night by French author Celine. This is the author who inspired Bukowski, one of the few authors for whom Bukowski had any respect. If you’ve never read Charles Bukowski, search the internet for just one short story or poem NOW. Later you can read his masterpiece Ham on Rye. Basically Bukowski made a career out of what Celine accomplished in just one book.

Journey to the End of the Night was also a big influence on Jim Morrison, and the Doors recorded a song with the same title.

Celine wrote what could best be called nihilistic, confessional fiction. He had his own style that used ellipses extensively. It’s a stream of consciousness narrative written by a doctor that really just doesn’t care about anything, especially not his patients. He writes about them as if they were pieces of meat, and he were a butcher.

The character drifts though life abusing those close to him, hating everything, but not summoning up enough emotion to be passionate about it. And somehow Celine pulls it off and creates an entertaining masterpiece.

Celine was something of a scoundrel in real life too. He was a Nazi sympathizer during World War 2, while living in occupied Paris! However there’s no doubt that the man was a master stylist.

Journey to the End of the Night gets all the fame, but his follow-up may be even better. Called Death on the Installment Plan (one of the best titles ever?), it is a prequel, following the quite disturbing childhood of the same protagonist. I highly recommend them both.


Machiavelli's The Prince

A guide to managing power

What are the most influential books of all time? I’m sure that the Bible, the Koran, and other religious tomes would top out the list. A case could be made for the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engles, Darwin’s Origin of the Species, and more prosaic texts like How to Win Friends and Influence People.

But what about a book that has influenced heads of state, Mafia bosses, even Tupac Shakur? Tupac read it while he was in prison, and the book so moved him that he used the alias Machiavelli for what turned out to be his last album, The Don Killuminati.

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli was published in 1532, but it was originally written as a gift for an aspiring ruler of Florence. It is a guide for managing and maximizing power. The focus here is on the individual, the ruler himself, not what is best for the state or the population at large.

At 113 pages (at least in my edition), it’s a quick read, a mix of short lessons about power and historical examples of the successes and failures of rulers.

Because of The Prince’s realistic outlook, which embraces deceit and treachery as practical methods available to rulers, the term Machiavellian has come to describe anything that is deceptive, crafty, or unethical. Among other assertions, Machiavelli gives his reasons why it is better to be feared than loved and why a wise ruler must be careful with his generosity. Honesty must be doled out with care, along with compassion. His logic is sound, if amoral. It rightly deserves to be considered a classic and is full of good advice for anyone in a position of authority.

One of the exploited millions

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Journalist Aravind Adiga wanted to discover why India doesn't have the violence that plagues much of the developing world, such as Latin America or Africa. Rapid development and the disparity between wealth and poverty seems to go along with a breakdown of law and order, but India lacks the rampant crime of other developing nations.

His book The White Tiger explains the reasons for this far better than any academic paper could. The story is given through a series of letters written to the Chinese Premier before an upcoming trip to India. Balram writes his story because he wants Wen Jiabao to understand the real India.

Balram is born in a small town in the “darkness” of rural India. The first part of the book is his journey into the “light” – to Dehli, the big city, where he works as a servant for India’s growing class of men made wealthy by globalization.

Here in the city, though he has escaped the slavery of poverty in the village, his freedom is no greater, and he learns the answer to the main question of the book. The poor are kept servile and relatively honest by their family commitments. Any chance of a servant’s escape by betraying his masters is prevented by the threat of murder to his entire family.

Balram does escape; therefore he calls himself the White Tiger. He was different; one in a million. Through his letters he invites the Chinese Premier to understand the untapped power of India and its similarities to China. He predicts that “twenty years’ time, it will just be us brown and yellow men at the top of the pyramid, and we'll rule the whole world.”

Besides poverty and exploitation, the book touches on themes of culture, religion, prejudice, adventure and crime. Balram’s struggle becomes the struggle of a whole class of people stuck between poverty and development. It’s a fast, engaging read that teaches a lot about globalization, economics and the future of the developing world.

Dr. Zhivago

Life under Communism

If you read my last post for the Foreign Book Club, then you know that I love Dostoevsky. There is a psychology, a raw-realness, and an unflinchingly penetrative analysis of the human condition in his writing that really appeals to me.

This can be said for a lot of the Russian greats. Why? I really don’t know, although I’m sure that countless university essays have been written that try to answer this. Personally I wouldn’t mind traveling to Russia and finding out for myself.

One of the (relatively) more modern classics of Russian literature is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. It was made into a movie. Maybe, like me, you have always heard the name but didn’t have any idea what it was about. I think I had a strange image of a James Bond type story.

Doctor Zhivago is anything but that. It’s a love story, an adventure, and a psychological analysis, like much of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and all the other Russian greats. But what I think is even more interesting is the description of what happened to Russian society after the revolution. We all grow up hearing about communism, but I think many of us don’t really know what it means. I’m sorry to say that, at the risk of unfairly generalizing, I have to include most US and Canadian student communists in this assumption.

First of all, private economic transactions are outlawed. That means no money, no stores, and no restaurants. So, how do you buy food? Interesting question. Obviously being corrupt and having powerful corrupt friends is a pretty effective way.

I have to say that the ending of the book, which I won’t ruin for you, uses one of the most beautiful metaphors I have ever read in literature. It will lose its impact if I describe to you now, if you haven’t read the book yet, but it was Zhivago looking out the window of a tram at an elderly woman walking down the street with her cane. If you’ve read this book, please tell me what you thought of those stunning final pages.

The Systematic Destruction of Society

The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Dostoyevsky is my favorite author. His books can be a little heavy and confusing at times, but this isn’t the case with The Possessed, also known as Demons or The Devils, depending on who translated it. The Possessed is a fast paced, entertaining novel that explores the darkest facets of human experience.

Dostoyevsky takes you from the highest, wealthiest levels of society down to the lowest criminals and scumbags. Indeed, along with the narrator himself, the two main characters move between these very different societies. Both were born into money and privilege but choose to associate with the criminal underground of pre-revolutionary Russia.

These two young men are nihilists and seek to destroy society, but with very different methods and motivations. They act on the horrible impulses all people irrationally feel from time to time, but usually restrain. Because of this, though the book can be shocking (especially a chapter that was censored from the original version), but also perversely satisfying.

A lot of what makes The Possessed great is the narrator. He is an inquisitive observer who is in the center of all the action but doesn’t contribute to it. It’s strange that he seems to be everywhere and see all, but he mostly keeps his sympathies to himself. He would be somewhat of an unreliable narrator, but all the other characters unconditionally trust him and come to him to confess their sins and ask for advice. He is a masterful character – and because of Dostoevsky’s genius you hardly even notice he is there.

Dostoevsky gets a lot of credit for his three most famous novels: Crime and Punishment, the Karamazov Brothers, and the Idiot. All of them are great, as well as many of his other books, like Notes from the Underground. But to me, The Possessed is unquestionably the best of them all.


"Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World"


    Tamerlane, Sword of Islam Conqueror of the World, presents a unique and well written, well researched, and traveled presentation of the life, the times, the conquest, the legacy of power politics, and the driven personality behind the title of "Conqueror of The World".  Justin Marozzi a traveling, writing journalist provides a fascinating view of a portion of the world and a character not typically addressed in Western Civilization. The volume includes a tasteful weaving of historical narrative and direct first person experience while traveling in the footsteps of the "Sword of Islam".

    The first impression given is one of the sheer monstrosity of war and the methods of conquests used to bring territory and dominion. Timur's story is one of rapid rise through the ranks, a very fortunate marriage and consummate strategy application throughout his lifelong career. There is the definite sense that methods notwithstanding, Timur ranks as one of the "Three Great Conquerors", along side Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan. Mr. Marozzi's deft use of historical narrative and a more contemporary travel narrative, brings new horizons to understanding Timur the man, as well as the legacy Timur left and how it has faired in the world.


     It is of particular value to have the contemporary viewpoint and experience of Mr. Marozzi in understanding how people in Uzbekistan and other countries respond to the name of Timur. The maps and other helps draw out further ideas about Timur, his accomplishments, his crimes and his place in history.  An impressive book, that was very interesting to read.  

A Review of "Configurations" by Octavio Paz

Bilingual Spanish/English Poetry


Octavio Paz a distinguished philosopher, anthropologist, critic, and poet. A native of Mexico, Mr. Paz insisted that poetry be its own voice, not the voice of ideology. For him poetry was not the voice of history or an anti-history, it was not the voice of propaganda and it was not the servile voice of something else. Poetry for Octavio Paz, was poetry and had a voice that was distinct throughout all of history and did not serve history.

     Configurations constitutes the first major publication of Octavio Paz's poetry into English. Numerous translators, in addition to the author, worked on this particular volume of poetry.  Translator variety ensures that the translations match as closely as possible the spirit and art of the original. Mr. Paz himself also performed some of the translations making the bilingual edition of Configurations one of the most interesting poetry books of the past century.

      Mr. Paz's poetry in this bilingual edition is flawless art. The images used are evocative, earthy, and at the same time surreal.  It is from the surreal that Mr. Paz seems to pull what is distinct and truly important about something.  He does this with great ease, and every poem is an expression of the overall artistic motive behind the poetry. The emotional content of his words echoes in the turn of phrase, especially in the later poetry in the volume.

      The Configurations of Ocatvio Paz ranks highly in the art of both Spanish and English poetry. Though it has been said that the powerful and erotic poetry is the expression of the rage and desires of a generation, it could be said that it is the expression of many generations. What generation does not rage? What generation does not have desires? All generations have these things, perhaps what Octavio Paz has done is the very great service of writing that rage and those desires down in understandable language and preserve it for future generations.

Arrian's "Campaigns of Alexander"

Classical History on A Classic Figure



Arrian or, properly Flavius Arrianus Xenophon, was a Greek who rose rapidly in the Roman Empire in the second century of the current era. He eventually reached the status of consul and embarked on several exploratory campaigns. He marked the beginning of his career with a Manual on Epictetus, the stoic philosopher, and added perhaps one of the most reliable accounts of one of literature and history's most interesting and enigmatic personalities--Alexander of Macedonia.


      In The Campaigns of Alexander, Arrian achieved a lasting fame that has somewhat slipped over recent years as scholarship and readers are presented with an increasing number of accounts from which to choose. Arrian's presentation of facts and narrative along with his own personal analysis makes this particular book a valuable item saved and transmitted during the Renaissance. As a historian, he is more reliable than most from his time, and as a biographer he traveled and verified as many of his findings as he could while still meeting the demands of public life before his retirement.


      Arrian's style is marked with bold use of language that finds its heights in his rendering of the personalities and events around Alexander. The battles, intrigue, love affairs, and far-reaching conquests all find their way into Arrian's account and move quickly thanks to the translation by Aubrey De Sélincourt. Concerning Alexander himself, Arrian presents as objective a view as possible noting his failures, his wishes, his hopes, his dreams, and his triumphs. The literary portrait finds Alexander in a very human light and explains how some of the myths around him were already developing at that time. Arrian provides a startling and clear glimpse of how Greeks themselves were already contemplating and exploiting the legacy of Alexander of Macedonia. I have read this one a couple of times.



The Lotus Sutra

A Review

       The Lotus Sutra is perhaps one of the most respected, loved, cherished sutras throughout much of the world.  It has through its numerous translations been able to survive for an incredibly long period of time in a variety of formats.  The inclusion of two additional sutras in the The Threefold Lotus Sutra tends to be the majority way of presenting the text.  Three translators and three additional editors worked on this particular translation volume.

       The essential messages of the sutras are: compassion, steadfastness, meditation, awareness, liberation, and enlightenment.  The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings opens the volume and provides a brief outline of some of the philosophical ideas of Buddhism.  This is amid a great deal of philosophy a great deal of poetry and adeptly used poetic imagery. The glossary at the end of the volume is not very extensive amounting to only some twelve to fourteen pages, and without having additional volumes with glossaries or indexes, some of the essence in the material is difficult to grasp. 


      The overall message of The Sutra of The Lotus Flower of The Wonderful Law (it's full translated title), is the timeless message of wisdom, compassion, liberation and enlightenment.  The Mahayana scriptures tend to also lay great stress on "the Greater Vehicle" or the path of the Bodhisattva.  This particular text stands as one of the most sacred scriptures of Buddhist tradition that was copiously translated throughout China and Japan as major examples.  As is found very often in these sorts of texts there are numerous listings of all sorts of different people, animals, beings, and mythical beings.


      The volume concludes with the Sutra of Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. This final sutra of the trilogy lays further stress on the Mahayana school/tradition of Buddhism.  There are times in this as well as in the earlier texts when there are direct attacks on other schools.  These attacks or intellectual sparring seems contradictory to the spirit and message of Gautama Buddha as presented in the traditional Pali texts of the Nikayas.  However, it should be remembered that these texts as with many others were received as transmissions from the past and so are liable to error through multiple translations, or the overemphasis or misuse of words by the translator. The final result however is the traditional message and essence of Buddhism presented in a readable way with excellent poetic and prose use.