Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book Review: Chinghiz Aitmatiov’s "The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years"

Chinghiz Aitmatiov’s The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years is a timeless novel occurring at a very specific location and time – Kazakhstan in the late-to-mid period of the Soviet Union – and tells it in such a way that it speaks to everyone.

Aitmatov introduces us to Yedigei Burriani, a Kazakh worker on a Soviet railroad, who aims to bury his best friend in a historic Muslim graveyard. It’s hallowed ground because of Naiman-Ana, a long-suffering mother whose son was gruesomely transformed into a mankurt – an old Kazakh myth used here as a brilliant metaphor. In fact, as with any good Soviet novel, ambivalent metaphors abound: there’s even a science fictional subplot about our first contact with alien races that can be read as a prejudice of the unknown, as a critique of the Cold War, or even just as the impossibility of true communication between two sentient beings. And all of this occurs without feeling academic in the least – on the contrary, Aitmatov’s prose (translated by John French) is naturally beautiful, effortlessly flowing along from one story to another, always circling back to Burriani and his continual questioning about his purpose, and the conflict of the past with the modern. For example, the characters in the book honor the traditional Kazakh ways of living, (although Aitmatov doesn't whitewash out the harshness of this lifestyle) but also do not deny themselves the benefits of modern technology. On the contrary, Aitmatov seems genuinely excited about the possibilities of modernity – mainly the ability to quickly travel long distances and benefits of communications with other cultures that this engenders, but also smaller things. For instance, one great set piece involves Burriani’s famously powerful camel raging about in heat (powerfully symbolizing primal human emotions) but when it comes time to actually perform the burial, the hard work is done with a backhoe.

Overall, this may have been the most entertaining book I read in 2013. It came from an honest, true place and spoke to me on many levels. It was also a fascinating glimpse into a part of the world I know nothing about – just looking at some of the pictures of the Kazakh steppe quickly reveal how truly foreign this land is to me. Luckily we have fantastic books like The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years to give us a sense of what it's like.

Cross Posted at Reading, Running and Red Sox.
Related Post: First Lines of The Day Lasts More than a Thousand Years

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Fertility of his Imagination

"The doctor had been a very stubborn prisoner, and, as a natural consequence of that “bad disposition” (so Father Beron called it), his subjugation had been very crushing and very complete.  That is why the limp in his walk, the twist of his shoulders, the scars on his cheeks were so pronounced. His confessions, when they came at last, were very complete, too. Sometimes on the nights when he walked the floor, he wondered, grinding his teeth with shame and rage, at the fertility of his imagination when stimulated by a sort of pain that makes truth, honour, self-respect, and life itself matters of little moment."

Joseph Conrad, Nostromo, page 268

Best known for the incredible Heart of Darkness, Conrad also wrote a larger number of novels. This little gem of a book is one that I picked up when I was living in New Mexico. I can't say I remember all of it but what I do remember was a powerful picture of a Latin American town under the grip of the interests controlling a silver mine outside of town. I also remember being impressed with its political honestly, and lucid prose. If anyone out there recommends any other Conrad, i'm open to reading another of his books.

Monday, January 27, 2014

First Lines of Haruki Murakami's "A Wild Sheep Chase"

“It was a short one-paragraph item in the morning edition. A friend rang me up and read it to me. Nothing special. Something a rookie reporter fresh out of college might’ve written for practice.
The date, a street corner, a person driving a truck, a pedestrian, a casualty, an investigation of possible negligence.
Sounded like one of those poems on the inner flap of a magazine.
“Where’s the funeral?” I asked.
“You got me,” he said. “Did she even have family?”
- Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase, page 1.

Cleaning up my bookshelves, I picked up A Wild Sheep Chase and was immediately hooked again. It's an incredible book; each of the first 11 chapters is a fantastic short story in its own right. My memory of this book was clouded by what I remember as a dissatisfying ending and its disappointing sequel Dance Dance Dance, so it's a joy to discover it again, even if it means that i'm losing more sleep than I can afford.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Expansive Moods over the Wines of Several Countries

"He came to know [his children] much better than Nicole did, and in expansive moods over the wines of several countries he talked and played with them at length. They had that wistful charm, almost sadness, peculiar to children who have learned early not to cry or laugh with abandon; they were apparently moved to no extremes of emotion, but content with a simple regimentation and the simple pleasures allowed them. They lived on the even tenor found advisable in the experience of old families of the Western world, brought up rather than brought out. Dick thought, for example, that nothing was more conductive to the development of observation than compulsory silence."

- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Nightpages 254-5

I read TitN in college for a Hemingway and Fitzgerald class. It's a beautifully written book containing very astute observations about trivial people I just didn't care about - perfect for quoting!

Generally, I'm in the process of paring down my bookshelves in preparation for a move, so you'll probably see a lot more of these random quotes over the next month or so.

Monday, January 13, 2014

First Lines of Bob Johansen's "Leaders Make the Future"

"Listening for the future is hard work. Leaders must learn how to listen through the noise of a VUCA World of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.
But leaders can make a better future. We need not and should not passively accept any future as a given. Disciplined use of foresight can help leaders make better decisions today. There is short-term value in long-term thinking."

- Bob Johansen, from Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World.

I'm reading this one for a development program at work. While I've always been fascinated with prognostication, this book goes beyond the speculation (and specifics) of SciFi and impressively details the specific trends underlying its predictions as well as the way it uses these predictions to recommend tactics for dealing with this future.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Life is a Daring Adventure

"Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."

- Helen Keller

Monday, January 6, 2014

First Lines of Stephen King's "Doctor Sleep"

"On the second day of December in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado's great resort hotels burned to the ground. The Overlook was declared a total loss."

- Stephen King, from Doctor Sleep.

I didn't want to be reading another SK book, but I flipped through the first few pages of this sequel to The Shining, depicting Danny as a middle-aged alcoholic whose shining has come back with a vengeance, and was (of course) hooked. Damn him. More when I come up for air - most likely after a sleepless night spent plowing through the last 150 pages.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

First Lines of Alan Moore's "The Saga of the Swamp Thing"

"It's raining in Washington tonight. Plump, warm summer rain that covers the sidewalks with leopard spots. Downtown, elderly ladies carry their houseplants out to set them on the fire escapes, as if they were infirm relatives or boy kings."
- Alan Moore, The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21.

Big Alan Moore fan here, but for some reason i've never read his classic run on Swamp Thing. I rectified some of that by plowing through The Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1 yesterday. Great stuff. I'll be posting my thoughts on it and some of the other graphic novels I read in late 2013 shortly.