Doc Reviews “We” by Yevgeniy Zamyatin

cdIt’s not often that you can grab a book free (legally so) from the Information Superhighway that is famous for having influenced Aldous Huxley, Ayn Rand, Ursula K. LeGuin, George Orwell, Vladimir Nabokov, and Kurt Vonnegut. But you can – the magnificent “We” by Yevgeniy Zamyatin, an early 20th century dystopian novel that seems to spell out the road to post-Soviet Russia. It’s a pretty great read.

The book differs greatly from “1984” and “Brave New World” because it addresses its topics with a rather wry sense of humor. I hope Zamyatin had a good time writing this novel and inserting his inside jokes and nodding winks to the readers in the know, because the novel very well may have led to his ruin. It certainly was the impetus for his downfall in Russian literary society and his subsequent deracination to Paris, with the gentle assistance of Maksim Gorky.

“We” takes place in a world ruled by OneState, a thousand years after that body conquered every country on the entire planet. Everyone is assigned an alphanumeric designator, rather than a name, and our narrator, D-503, matter-of-factly points out the differences between his world and what we have come to know as our own. He brings up his world’s history and its unique style of government not because he is writing for an audience in the past (us), but because he is providing his account for the future readers – his journal will accompany the spaceship Integral (which D-503 is helping to develop) to other planets, which OneState plans to conquer.

D-503’s girlfriend (for lack of a better term), O-90, has been assigned to him by OneState to serve as his lover. Sex nights are pre-assigned affairs, largely passionless events which are viewed for the most part as a citizen’s duty. D-503 shares O-90 with another OneState citizen, R-13, who is a poet. R-13 performs his verse at public executions. A charming trio, these three.

ccEnter the mysterious I-330. I-330 is a female who appears to work very hard at flirting with D-503. She also engages in illegal activities – smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and possibly worst of all, invading D-503’s dreams (dreams are viewed as a sign of mental inferiority, so for obvious reasons, D-503 is mum on that account). We soon learn that I-330 is actually recruiting, as she is part of a revolutionary group hoping to overthrow OneState and re-introduce passion and humanity to OneState’s citizens. She leads D-503 to a city outside the Green Wall, which surrounds OneState, and introduces him to her organization, the Mephi.

Things become hectic in the final act, with O-90’s desire to become pregnant with D-503’s baby (another illegal activity, as O-90 is deemed too short and, therefore, unfit to carry a new OneState citizen) is fulfilled. A frantic effort to remove O-90 to the Mephi is undertaken, with D-503 at odds with his conscience, which tells him that the protection of OneState is the single constant in his life that he can rely on. Does he turn his back on O-90 and I-330? Does he rat the Mephi out to OneState? I’m not going to spoil the fun by revealing that – it’s worth picking up the book yourself and giving it a go.

ceZamyatin seemed to be itching for a fight by writing this book. One would suppose that he felt the brand new Soviet Union’s leaders had a fanatic edge to them, hoping that they too could overthrow the rest of the world with their vision of a Metropolis-like worker state, but without the other side of Metropolis, the elite that are authorized access to the outside world. I enjoyed this book for a lot of reasons; in spite of its age, it seemed fresh (certainly, there are some rather clumsy translations out there that will sound awkward to the 21st century reader’s ear, but at times that can be part of the book’s charm).

Since Doc’s a translator himself, he would be remiss in not mentioning the translation of this work.  I read a recent translation (2011) by Grover Gardner, who does just an excellent job turning the dialogue and gritty descriptions in this book into something fresh and fun.  He explains in his preface that there are some serious differences between his choices of words and those of his predecessors who translated the book before him.  Of note is his decision to name the Big Brother-like government OneState, rather than what had been used up to this point – United State.  He felt that this was too close to United States (in fact, he rightly pointed out that, in reading the older versions, the mind fills in the last missing “s”), something that Gardner feels is not in keeping with the spirit of Zamyatin’s original text.  Mistaking the Big Brother for the United States, rather than the intended Soviet Union, would be a disservice to his memory.  There may be truth to this; all I know is that the book was translated with a level of grace and elegance that the book demanded.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a filthy diaper in a rest-stop parking lot, and 10 being a diamond tiara, Doc gives this awesome read a solid A-.

Here’s a link where you can grab your own free pdf of this book today.  It’s an older translation, but still an excellent read.

Snow? Opportunity.

Doc’s trapped (well, allowing himself to be trapped) in another blizzard in northern Virginia.  Stumbled upon this nice little graphic that speaks to Doc’s heart.  Not sure if I can actually accomplish the goal, but I’m willing to give it the old college effort.

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Good luck with your own version of The Blizzard of ’16, even if you’re tucked away in warmer climes.  We can get through this.  Keep the faith.

Doc’ll be back tomorrow, if the power stays on, with a new review.  See ya then.

Doc Reviews “Bridge of Spies” by Giles Whittell

ccPretty good book. Doc hasn’t seen the moving picture of the same name, with that Tom Hanks fella from “Big” and a handful of other pictures, but when I cracked this book open, I was expecting the Hanks character to have a hell of a bigger role, assuming the movie previews were any indication. Man, was I wrong. And that don’t matter a lick, I just thought it was worth tossing out there.

Bridge of Spies” is an excellent read about the events leading up to the first event that’s come to be known as “spy-swaps” between the US and the Soviet Union. Drawing heavily on the author’s personal interviews with some of the main players 50 years ago, as well as letters and memoirs of those no longer with us, the book walks us step-by-step through the circumstances that found the three men accused of espionage to begin with and who would become part of this swap meet. The Hanks character, James Donovan, doesn’t really make much of an appearance until the final chapter.

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Francis Gary Powers

The character we already know the most about, probably because of the amount of chatter he created this side of the Iron Curtain at the time of his capture, was Frances Gary Powers. Powers was a former Air Force pilot who signed on with the CIA to fly the Lockheed’s new U-2 high altitude photo reconnaissance plane under the aegis of collecting weather data. The only weather he was collecting was “weather” or not (heh heh) the Soviets had the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles Khrushchev was trying to frighten the West with at the time. Our analysts at the time surmised that, based on the Soviet leader’s statements and other information deduced, the Reds had probably targeted the US with anywhere from 200 to 400 missiles capable of flying that far to deliver destruction. Hindsight being a funny little thing, as it turns out, Khrushchev only had 4 such missiles. But it’s for purposes of collecting that ground truth that our U-2 pilots were asked to penetrate Soviet airspace and put their lives at risk.

Powers did just that, and for a number of reasons or as the result of curious circumstances, his U-2 was brought down in pieces. Whittell provides an outstanding retelling of Powers’s struggle to free himself from the U-2, which without its wings turned out to be as aerodynamic as a dumpster. Eventually he does free himself, where he is shortly met by friendly Russians whose eyes must have popped when they discover he’s an American. Shortly after his recovery, and being relieved of his handgun, he is whisked away by the Soviet authorities. In short order, Khrushchev uses him deftly as a pawn in his chess match with Eisenhower, who shortly after Powers was shot down, believes (along with almost everyone else in Washington) that the pilot had died in the crash. No pilot (so the line of thought went) could survive a fall from 70,000+ feet. Even so, had the pilot survived, the unwritten rule was that he would make use of the pin dipped in a deadly amount of curare, thus avoiding pesky interrogations and ungainly torture. And of course, to preclude any embarrassment to the US. Funny thing about unwritten rules, though – if they ain’t written down, they’re tough to know about, and even tougher to enforce.

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Rudolph Abel

Another player traveled through the book with about twelve names, the most famous of which was Rudolph Abel. Abel, born Willie Fisher, was a Soviet intelligence officer who, by all accounts (and it goes without saying, very much so in Whittell’s eyes), was as sloppy a spy as they come. Tom Hanks, who operates under the name James Donovan, elects to be Abel’s lawyer when he is arrested and charged with conspiracy. Donovan is an insurance lawyer at this point, but it would appear that he’s got some serious Washington DC connections. He’s not the greatest lawyer, but it can be argued that he kept Abel’s neck out of a noose when his espionage activities started to come to light. Because he was working for the USSR, and because this book is written primarily in English, Abel is the least sympathetic character in the book, just ahead of Ike.

 

The third of our choirboys is actually the least likely to have been an actual spy. Frederic Pryor had the poor fortune to be in Berlin when the first barbed wire genesis of the Berlin Wall appeared; stopped at the border, his car was found to be loaded with his economics notes – surely, as damning a block of evidence as you can find. As Whittell explains in the book, it’s not so much that Pryor was spying, as reading books (and taking notes from them) that he wasn’t given permission to access. He wasn’t prevented from it – they were simply available on a bookshelf that he wasn’t told he could use. As a result, he found himself a guest of the Stasi (East Germany’s State Security) in a cell where he began wasting away, wondering what the hell just happened.

Of all the people in this Cold War cocktail, it’s actually Powers’s cantankerous father, Oliver, who came up with the idea of swapping Abel for Powers – in fact, he wrote directly to Abel, asking what he would think of such an arrangement. The CIA felt peeved that Abel was being contacted out of the blue by the parent of a high-profile prisoner in the Soviet Union, and possibly a little out of sorts that they hadn’t thought of it first. Donovan, meanwhile, as Abel’s lawyer, caught wind of the letter, and tried to move things in that direction – not so much because he felt that what had happened to Powers was a travesty of justice, but (according to Whittell) had political aspirations, and felt this might be his foot in the door.

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Tom Hanks

In two shakes of a year and a half, the exchange is happening. Pryor was fortunate enough to be thrown in, since it would be considered a valuable and easy way to show that the US views East Germany as a legitimate government by negotiating with them at this level. Still, as an also-ran, Pryor suffered the indignity of being moved through Checkpoint Charlie, and not on Berlin’s Glienecke Bridge. Pity for him, because he never got to meet Tom Hanks.

Doc’s one of them folks who likes facts to be facts in his non-fiction.  Something happens in real life, and it’s being documented in a book that purports to be non-fiction, you’d sort of expect it to either be left out if it ain’t all that important, or to be rendered with some level of accuracy if it’s deemed worthy of inclusion.  In his Epilogue, Whittell talks about what happened to each of the main characters in this tale. I came to a screeching halt when I read that Powers died in a helicopter accident in 1975 – he actually died in 1977. How can such a rudimentary fact be erroneously written down? Wish I knew. And stuff like that tends to call other details into question. But I’m going to give Whittell the benefit of the doubt. He deftly juggles three storylines and a broad cast of characters not seen since the likes of ‘War and Peace’. I’ll spot him this one. But if I find out that Powers never actually did get released, Whittell’s going to have some serious damned explaining to do.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the dog’s breakfast and 10 being dinner at the Ritz, Doc gives this gripping read a solid B+.

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Doc Reviews “The Boy in the Suitcase” by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnette Friis

cdDoc’s never reviewed a book by someone with an ø in their name. Excuse me while I just soak that in for a minute.

Doc’s been a fan of Scandinavian thrillers for close to 15 years now. The first Nesbø I picked up knocked me for a loop (but never reviewed, hence the opening paragraph.  Good try, dear reader). Mankell? Same story. There’s something dark, downright brooding about these novels; you find yourself soaking in the protagonist’s angst, and there’s always something in their personal lives that creep into the picture and make them a little more reflective than anything I’ve read from Lee Child, for example. Don’t fret, though, Lee – I still love your work.

“The Boy in the Suitcase” starts off like any other novel. Secretary to a wealthy son of a bitch jumps at his beck and call, fetches a suitcase full of naked drugged boy from a luggage locker in a Copenhagen train depot. Yawn. Nothing original here. Seriously, though, the action begins right on the first page, and never EVER lets up. Secretary freaks right on out, stuffs the suitcase back in the locker, and calls on our main protagonist, Nina Borg, to handle the situation. Nina is a Red Cross nurse and, by all appearances, can’t seem to let go of a mystery – she sees this through to the end, in spite of a lot of potential damage to herself, the boy, and her relationship with her children and husband.

The plot is simple – the three-year-old boy has been found, drugged, in a suitcase that had been planned for pickup by a wealthy cad in exchange for a large sum of money. When the exchange goes wrong (that is, when no money is left behind), the Lithuanian ogre who provided said child is less than pleased. Meanwhile, in addition to Nina, we’re also introduced to the mother of the child, who finds herself in a hospital, being tut-tutted by the staff for having obviously gone on a hell of a bender (blood alcohol level of 0.2+) in spite of the fact that she’s not a drinker, and hadn’t been drinking at all, and by the way, where’s her 3 year old son?

You and I know, dear reader, don’t we?

Through flashbacks, we slowly realize that there’s more than meets the eye to this case, and certainly something far more interesting than a simple episode of human trafficking. There’s a good deal of formulaic plot devices going on here, but there’s enough clever writing and twists to keep most of us wondering just what’s coming next. There are also nice touches of sympathetic communication with Denmark’s younger immigrant community forced into prostitution, which could easily have been foisted upon us as an unsavory touch of deus ex machina. Happily, everything fits snugly (but logically) into place as we proceed along toward a satisfying conclusion.

The book is not without its faults; there are simply some grossly illogical steps taken by a number of the actors, not least of which is our Red Cross nurse, Nina (who goes on to appear in at least two additional books after this one). For starters, we appreciate that one might not want to call the police to have the missing child whisked away back to a cold-blooded Russian or Ukrainian orphanage, but the child hasn’t been proven to be an orphan when this decision is made, nor has it shown to be from Russia or Ukraine (why these two countries were selected as the hotbed of child bartering is beyond me). When Nina finds her former friend bludgeoned to death because of her unfortunate proximity to the deal gone wrong, Nina just buckles down. No reason is offered, she just grits her teeth and says “Let’s do this.” Don’t let’s. It’s not realistic.

Then again, had she trotted off to the police, the book would not have been nearly as interesting, so we are to accept and appreciate Nina for all her flaws, as her beleaguered husband has by the end of the novel. A nicely wrapped present, with some crimps in the bow. We’ve read far worse.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a dumpster burger and 10 being filet mignon, Doc rates this chippy little thriller a solid “B”.

Watch Like Doc: Doc Reviews “The Revenant”

cdJust got back from a fascinating moving picture called “The Revenant” with a fella named Leonardo DiCaprio and a host of other folks play-acting in a real fancy manner.

DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a sort of scout-trapper with a party of other trappers in what is described as the uncharted American wilderness of the early 1800s. Along with Glass is his son, Hawk, who is half-Pawnee, half-Glass (see what I just did there?), himself appearing to be in his late teens. The basic plot will appear to contain spoilers, but I’m not letting you in on anything that’s not already in the trailer, so stop breathing that way. Glass and his kid (wish they’d named him Tumbler) are out hunting for vittles when they are met by a couple of bear cubs; Glass is pretty smart, and recognizes that, unless things are really out of control, there’s probably a mother bear nearby. There is; she gets to whaling on Glass, and before mama bear is killed, she has a pretty good opportunity to get some severe chewing and tearing action on Hugh. He’s all but dead, and the rest of the trappers do their level best to stitch him up – but it’s obvious that his tap-dancing days are mostly done, at least for the foreseeable future.

The trappers, led by Captain Andrew Henry (played splendidly by British thespian Domhnall Gleason, who apparently took the role because it has two first names, neither of which is as confusing a monicker as Domhnall), are being chased by a band of angry Native Americans looking for one of their women folk, and they feel the need to get away kinda pronto. Only thing is, Glass. He’s a bundle strapped to a couple of sticks (a makeshift stretcher), and when it comes to getting him up snowy cliffs, it’s just not happening. He’s left in the care of his son, along with a couple of other Brit actors – Will Poulter and Tom Hardy, who both can act the flies off a carcass; they’re good… The character played by Hardy (who is an actor, and not the author who died over a hundred years ago) sees that snuffing Glass is pretty much the only way he’s getting out of his situation. He and Poulter’s character leave Glass for dead after convincing Glass’s son to stop breathing.

This is a long movie, but the time goes by…well, pretty slowly. Thank goodness for the cinematographer (who deserves an Academy Award) and the scenery (ditto); the tracking shots are Tarkovsky-slow and hypnotizing. Doc’s wife averted her eyes during the more gruesome scenes (there’s an easy handful) by admiring the beautiful trees, snow, mountains, and whatnot. The soundtrack is understated but perfect, capturing the mood of the wilderness both surrounding the characters and within their hearts; it was composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose work I first admired with the arrival of “Merry Christmas, Mister Lawrence” (featuring a magical bit of acting by David Bowie). It’s stunning.

Doc was particularly struck by the American accents these British fellas pulled off. Gleason’s Captain Henry was, as the most educated of the men, fairly Midwestern and sounded like the real deal. Poulter did a remarkable job as well, but most of his dialogue was amidst no small amount of sobbing and whining (sorry, Will, you’re still okay in Doc’s book). But Tom freaking Hardy knocked it out of the park (that’s an American idiom, Tom, you can look it up if’n you’re reading this) with his very southern drawl. It’s easy enough to pull off the exaggerated hillbilly cetwang without too much effort, even if you’re Lithuanian, but what Hardy does with his uneducated mountain man from the south, not quite hillbilly but not quite Jay Gatsby, is amazing. I’d think this came after months of training, but who knows? I do know that I had no idea that was Tom Hardy until more than halfway through the picture. Start carving his name on that Best Supporting Actor statuette, ladies.

Doc could go on and on about the computer graphics (which Doc understands to be high-falutin’ ultra-realistic fancy cartoon work), but I’ll just offer this – sometimes the uncanny valley extends beyond trying to capture human faces and movement; that was the case with the bear during the attack on Glass. It wasn’t laughably obvious, just sorta not right. There’s some bodacious bow-and-arrow work that the CGI folks got just right, but that’s real fast and out of your sight almost immediately after the strike.

cdSpeaking of the bow-and-arrow scenes. Let me tell you, it must have been terrific fun to choreograph; there’s CGI to pull all the bits of the scene together, and make the seams smooth and invisible, but there’s about a 90 second scene towards the beginning of the opening fight scene where the camera plays “pass the parcel” with the characters – it will track character A’s action up until character A throws a knife at character B, who is struck immediately after releasing an arrow at character C, who falls into the water and is almost kicked by character D, who jumps on a horse to knock character E to the ground. It’s dizzying, and it’s almost like ballet, but with a ton more blood than you’d expect to see from anything Twyla Tharp ever put on the stage.

A great movie from start to finish. DiCaprio’s been the subject of a lot of Oscar talk; not sure he doesn’t deserve it, but then again, there’s not a bad acting job in the whole flick. Take the time to see it on the big screen, if you get the chance. Doc and the missus had a blast. My only complaint was that not a single person in Hollywood had the good sense to include a scene where the trappers are arguing over Hugh Glass’s prostrate form after the bear attack, trying to decide if he’s more dead or alive. Coulda been a sweet opportunity to have one side over the other arguing whether Glass is half-empty or half-full.

On a scale of A through F, with A being awesome and F being shabbier than an Adam Sandler drama, Doc gives this one a solid 92.

Doc Reviews “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup

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Let’s jump to the chase: This is an excellent, important book. It is the memoir of Solomon Northup, the son of a freed slave, and a landowner in Hebron, New York, who spent his time as husband and father, farmer and professional violin player. In 1841, at the age of 34, was offered an opportunity as a professional traveling musician with a circus; seizing the opportunity to make what would amount to relatively easy money, he traveled to Washington DC with his new associates. Shortly after arriving in Washington, he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. Along with a large group of other slaves marketed with him in Washington, he was shipped on a steamer to Louisiana and sold to a plantation owner.

The book is Northup’s recounting of his entire frightening journey, from his decision to take the job with the circus as a violinist, through the unsettling feeling of something not quite right upon his arrival in Washington, to his awakening from a drugged stupor to find himself in shackles, his journey to Louisiana, and the subsequent twelve years at the hands of various owners at varying levels of humanity. Northup’s descriptions of life as a slave on the plantation are mixed with the various elements of running a plantation that are fascinating, to say the least. But his accounts of the torture at the hands of unscrupulous and inhumane owners go beyond fascinating – they are written without dipping the quill into what could easily (and understandably) be an emotion-filled retelling; rather, they are clinically narrated in such a way that makes the horrors that much stronger. One can consider that a whipping of one hundred lashes can be a horrifying experience; Northup seemingly walks you through every lash, refusing to hold your hand for comfort.

At one point, Northup is able to bring us down a cozy path where he tells of a late summer party-like atmosphere of singing and dancing among the slaves, well into the early hours of the morning, and for a change the reader relaxes with that image, until Northup reminds us that the slaves are dancing and singing and making music at the demands of a drunken master, and rather than feeling the any of the joy they were expressing, they were only too well aware of the late hour, as it fell shortly after they had returned from the fields and had enough time to have their very sparse meals – and that after the music is finally allowed to finish, they will only be two or three hours before having to take to the fields again, for another 18 hours of non-stop grueling work. It is not a party, but a nightmare.

Northup’s eventual rescue with the help of an abolitionist from Canada (who happened to be passing through) is long in its arrival, but like the bird in the oven on Thanksgiving, the fact that the reader knows it’s coming makes it all the more delicious. The description of the efforts to bring the initial kidnappers to justice is agonizing in its racial unfairness, but not all that unexpected. Northup’s final scene of being reunited with his family is written in such a way that the heart fairly swoons.

It’s interesting to do a little reading on what Northup did for the rest of his life; I highly recommend giving the Wikipedia entry on Northup’s life a read. By now, the basic details of his story are already pretty well known (you get the entire gist of the book through the title itself), but it’s also well worth your while to grab the book and devour it as well. The good news is that it’s in the public domain, and can be downloaded, courtesy of the good folks at the Gutenberg Project, by clicking on this couple of words here. Hell, that’s almost like magic, isn’t it?

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being little more than toilet paper and 10 being the best thing since sliced bread, Doc gives this book a solid “A”. Don’t forget to grab your free digital copy today.