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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Spent a rainy day reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

I don’t know exactly what I expected going into it, perhaps a whole lot more doom and gloom. I think I expected something more along the lines of the Nazi death camps. Everything I’d read about prison camps, up until this book, had been about the Nazi camps, which were, pretty much, set up for the sole purpose of extermination. Russian camps, on the other hand, were more along the line of slave labor camps, and while the reasons for incarceration and conditions and treatment of prisoners were still inhumane and terrible, when compared to a Nazi extermination camp, it’s terrible and weird to say, they seem relatively humane.

I think I was also expecting more of an exposΓ© of the ideology behind the Communist/Stalinist regime, something more along the lines of what I imagine (since I haven’t read it yet) Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is. I guess I hadn’t really taken into consideration the fact that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was personally given the stamp of approval for publication by Nikita Khrushchev. I should have realised, for that reason alone, it wouldn’t be a blatant and searing indictment against Communism and the ideologies that led to the prison camps (though I can definitely see it being the beginning of a crack in the armour).

Instead, what I found was, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is exactly what it’s title professes it to be: one ordinary day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, a prisoner, in a freezing Soviet labor camp. From the moment reveille sounds to the moment he goes to sleep, we follow him and get a close-up look at his life and thoughts and interactions with his fellow human beings. It’s a story of humanity and hope; a tribute to the dignity, strength and survival of the human spirit in the bleakest of circumstances.

There is a lingering theme through the book, put both at the beginning and end, first as a question and then as a statement:

AGNH6214rs“How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold?”

A man who is warm can’t understand a man who’s freezing.”

Yet, despite the impossibility, in this little novella, without any chapters, Solzhenitsyn, somehow, makes us feel and understand. He also opens our eyes to the gift of life and the treasures and wonders we have all around us, from moment to moment, and in the tiniest of things.

I have a lot more to say about this book, but, alas, time fails me. So, for now, I’ll just say, I highly recommend it. This is also one of those books that you really have to read until the last paragraph, to fully appreciate, but it’s a quick read (my book is 142 pages) and could easily be read from start to finish in a day.

I haven’t done much research into translations, but from the little I have done, I’d recommend the Ralph Parker translation (which is the one I have) over the Max Hayward/Ronald Hingley, translation which seems to be rather poorly translated with some blatant errors.

If you decide to read this book or if you already have, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about it. πŸ™‚

Adventures at the Fountain Valley Friends of the Library Bookstore

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At the end of last month/beginning of this month, I visited my brother and his family in California. During one of my last days there, my sister-in-law took me to her favorite place to to look for books: the Fountain Valley Friends of the Library Bookstore; a tiny, little, room of a, gem of a bookstore run by book-loving, friendly, volunteer staff. πŸ™‚

For some reason, I’d always imagined library bookstores to be full of old, worn library books, that no one was reading any more, with ugly library card pockets glued to the front of the book and stamped all over with an ugly “WITHDRAWN” stamp–overall, a pretty drab and aesthetically unappealing collection. I figured if I were to ever visit a library bookstore it would be for the sole purpose of a book’s contents (e.g. to look for some scholarly, obscure book that I couldn’t afford to buy at the regular, new or used price), never for aesthetics. I’d never been to a library bookstore, so I had my doubts when I walked in, but about five minutes later, I was sure that if I lived even remotely near there, I’d likely be a very strong contender for the label of “most frequent customer”. πŸ™‚ It turned out that all the books there were, as far as I could tell, donated by readers. I found a few ex-libris books, but I didn’t find a single ex-library book.

It was such a pleasant surprise to discover a vast and quality selection of books, in excellent condition, in such a tiny place. Best of all, their prices. were. incredible. Most books were 1 dollar; the most expensive books were 2-4 dollars; and romance novels…well, they were on sale! πŸ™‚

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Unfortunately, romance novels aren’t my thing, but I imagined for a moment how lucky I’d be if they were: 100 romance novels for 10 dollars! (Oh, the joy! πŸ˜€ )

We only had about thirty minutes there, because closing time was at 5:00 pm, but it was a small enough of a store that I felt I was able survey all the essentials, and yet it still left me with more to explore. As it was, I had a hard enough time cutting down the stack of books that I’d collected, in about 20 minutes, to a size and weight I was sure would be manageable in my luggage on my flight home.

In the end, I settled on the nine awesome and beautiful books you see at the top of this post, for the incredible price of $11! They are all in excellent condition and the Kafka and Isben books look as if they’ve never been read before! I walked away feeling like a treasure hunter who’d stumbled on to some local secret. πŸ™‚

It’s funny because, prior to my trip, I thought I’d have a lot of extra time and imagined that I’d use it to visit plenty of bookstores. Things turned out differently and I ended up without much time to spare, but that was okay, because thirty minutes at the Friends of the Library Bookstore was really all I needed. πŸ™‚

If you’re someone who loves to own a physical copy of the books you read and you’re lucky enough to have a Friends of the Library or any library bookstore in your vicinity, I can’t recommend them enough. They are lovely and fantastic places to explore; the gems you can discover and prices you can purchase them for are a book lover’s best-kept secret.

A Wrinkle in Time

It’s very rare that I come across something I truly wish I’d read when I was a kid or an adolescent, but that was one of the strongest feelings I had when I finished reading this beautiful little gem of a story last week.

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It was almost a feeling of regret and frustration at the injustice that I was not even aware of this book’s existence, at that age, because I know that my adolescent self would have truly appreciated and found a kindred spirit and guide in it. I even share the same name as the protagonist πŸ™‚ (a first for me; although, we don’t share the same derivative) and I could see a lot of myself, especially, a much younger me in this Meg. I think this book could have given me wisdom and helped to fortify and guide me through a lot of the issues I faced growing up.

But I don’t really mind, that it took me this long to finally read it, because I found it surprisingly relevant to my life right now. It still seemed like the perfect timing to read it. πŸ™‚

I may do a more in depth review on the book at some point, but to try to sum it up in one paragraph: A Wrinkle in Time is a story that explores deep truths about what it means to be truly human. It’s a book that looks at darkness and evil and uncertainty with the eyes ofΒ  faith, hope and love. It’s a book that gives the imagination worlds to explore and wings to fly, without bogging it down with too many details. It’s a story that explores difficult ideas and concepts–such as: equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome; conformity vs. individuality; confronting and resisting ideologies and the herd mentality; how freedom and true joy requires responsibility and the risk of pain, mistakes and unhappiness; how life isn’t simple and often there are no easy solutions or quick fixes and we can only respond to life by being responsible; how we don’t have to be afraid of being afraid, or of life or of who we are (imperfections, vulnerabilities and weaknesses included); how weaknesses can also be our strengths (and vice versa); how often times, the only way out is through facing our fears (taking an honest look at who we are and the things we are most afraid of or least want to do), but if we are brave we’ll find we are strong enough to and that good can come of it–all in a relatively simple and uplifting way, that even a child could understand and synthesise.

Simply put, A Wrinkle in Time is a gift and a story for all ages. I love it and I would recommend it to just about anyone.

That said, I can imagine that there may be people this book may not appeal to. There’s this little gem of a quote I came across, for the first time, yesterday, at the end of C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. It pretty much sums up how I feel about recommending this book:

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“You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that.”
C. S. Lewis,
The Problem of Pain

There’s so much of that secret thread–that binds books that I really love (and ideas that capture me) together–running through this book; it’s brimming with it. I’d say if you’ve read and loved, at least, two or three of the following titles: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series (as well as his Space Trilogy), Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Antoine de Saint-ExupΓ©ry’s The Little Prince, or George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin books (or his other fairy tales and stories), and maybe even Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows or Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, or even, Edwin A. Abbot’s Flatland and the Bible then you may be someone who as an inkling of that secret thread and you may enjoy this book too. πŸ™‚

Actually, I’d still say to just about anyone: give this book a read. It isn’t a long book (a little over 200 pages) and a very easy read (I read it in a day). And, if you do read it, let me know what you think. πŸ™‚

This was my first time to read anything by Madeleine L’Engle and it definitely won’t be my last. I’m sure this is a book I will revisit too. It’s on my list of favorites and I’m already looking forward to reading it again. πŸ™‚

If you, dear reader, have already read this book, do you have any thoughts (positive or negative) on it? If so, I’d love to know what you think. πŸ™‚

Reading The Brothers Karamazov #1

Brothers Karamazov, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky, Dostoevsky

About two months ago, a friend was going to have a month off. So he told me to give him a big reading project, which we could then discuss the next time we met. Fyodor Dostoevky’s The Brothers Karamazov had been sitting on my shelf and at the top of my priority reading list for years, but I’d been waiting till I could cut out a chunk of time to tackle it. This looked like the perfect opportunity. So I suggested The Brothers Karamazov (along with a disclaimer that, realistically, I probably wouldn’t be able to finish it in a month, but it was worth a start).

Two months later and, I haven’t finished, I’m about 2/5 into the book. But I’m not worried about taking my time. This isn’t a book I want to rush through.

One of the last books I read was Kurt Vonnegut’s SlaughterHouse-Five. In it, one of the characters says…

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“Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. ‘But that isn’t enough any more,’ said Rosewater.”
Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five

Is everything there is to know about life really in this book? Maybe. Is it really not enough any more? I don’t know. πŸ™‚

What I do know is, Dostoevsky was a master at understanding, expressing and exploring human nature and the human experience. And this–his last book–is him at his finest. Every chapter is in some way an exploration of, or insight into, some form of psychology, philosophy, or theology. And many chapters are brimming with food for thought.

In light of that, and because The Brothers Karamazov is such a long book, I thought it would be interesting to try something different. So I’m going to try to blog about my reading experience, as I read, instead of waiting until I’ve finished reading all 800 pages. After all, “A short pencil is better than a long memory.” I’m hoping this will be a good way to note and journal my thoughts, so that I won’t forget them. I’m not exactly sure how I’ll go about it, but I have a few ideas. πŸ™‚

Four Quartets

IMG_4295This arrived in the mail today. I’d been wanting to read it for so long; I sat down and read it in one sitting. It’s pretty much perfect.

More on it later. At the moment, I’m just happy to know I have the rest of my life to meditate on and explore this collection of poems. πŸ™‚

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets: “Little Gidding”

Hank Green–Ranting about Books

This video, of Hank Green ranting about book publishing problems, never fails to give me a good laugh. I heartily agree with pretty much everything he says.

0:20 When he starts talking about spoilers in the blurbs and spoilers because of poor layout choices… my copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four did this to me. Some book designer thought it would be a good idea to put the last three sentences of the story opposite the Appendix: The Principles of Newspeak. To top it off, my book is a second hand copy and the previous owner liked the last sentence so much he, or she, decided to underline it (!).

So, I’m seven pages into the book, and I come across a footnote that tells me to “see Appendix”. I obey and turn to the back of the book. There, the first thing my eyes can’t help but see, is not the Appendix, but the last sentence–four unforgettable words, underlined in dark pen! It might as well have written like this: SP SPOIL SPO SPOILER!!!Β  Needless to say, I hold a permanent grudge against both the the designer and the unknown previous owner of my book. 😦

2:10 Books that look like Twilight covers. words to live byI have to say, I was rather horrified and surprised, when I came across Words to Live By (a selection of C. S. Lewis’s writing), a few years ago, in an online bookstore. I still cringe, every time I come across it. As much as I like C. S. Lewis, I would never consider buying this book because of it’s cover. Actually, I take that back. I just realised I would buy it, in one case, only–if I wanted to give a C. S. Lewis book to someone who was also a fan of Twilight! I have yet to meet someone like that.

If we want to talk about design choices and symbolism, I’m really not quite sure what the cover designer was going for here. Surely their target audience wasn’t Twilight fans. I’m thinking that maybe they want to insinuate food for the soul? But more often than not, in Christian symbolism, an apple in a hand means one of three things: temptation, sin, forbidden fruit. The more I think about it the more bizarre this cover choice seems. Why, oh why?!

It also bothers me when two books use the exact same picture as a cover. What’s worse is when you unknowingly buy both of them.

Case in point, my copy of The Diary of an Old Soul by George MacDonald and The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 by Paul Johnson. I bought both of these off an online bookstore,Β secondhand, and the cover photo was not available for either when I made my order. Imagine my surprise when I ended up with the versions that both use The Wanderer over the Sea of Clouds by Casper David Friedrich. The Wanderer Over the Sea of Clouds by Casper David FriedrichIn this case, I really wish the cover designer of The Diary of an Old Soul had a gone with a different cover. Sigh.

2:15Β  I have a few old books with deckle edges (i e. 80 to 100-year-old; from an era when deckle edges were still a part of the book making process) and I think the deckle edge adds a bit of antique charm to the books. But, I agree, it is annoying (and this is probably more along the lines of what Hank is talking about) when it’s a conscious design choice in modern books, just to make the books seem fancier. Deckle edges tend to get soiled and worn faster than trimmed edges, so I think it’s a pretty dumb design decision and it also looks gimmicky.

How about you, dear reader? Do you have any publishing peeves? (Tom?? I’m guessing you do. πŸ™‚ )Β  If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comment section below. πŸ™‚